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The Christmas experience

The celebration of the Christmas Liturgy dates back to the primitive church. And this cannot be otherwise as the devotion at this site goes back to the first Christians. The first liturgical documents (the Diary of the Spanish pilgrim Egeria and the Armenian Lectionary of Jerusalem - both IV-Vth century) give us a description of the Liturgy of Epiphany..
Epiphany opened the liturgical year with a celebration on the 5th of January towards 4 pm at the site of the Shepherds, not too far from Bethlehem. The celebration started with singing of the psalms which exalted the figure of the shepherd (Psalms 22; 79) culminating with the proclamation of the Gospel of Luke (2,8-20). After the gospel there followed twelve readings from the Old Testament which were followed by the celebration of the Eucharist during which the canticle from Daniel (3,52a-90) and the Gospel of Matthew (2,1-12) were read. This gospel recounted the arrival of the Wise Men from the East. This liturgy was celebrated by the Christian community of Jerusalem and that of Bethlehem gathered together after which the bishop of Jerusalem and his faithful returned to the Holy City while the clergy and faithful of Bethlehem went up to the Nativity Church singing hymns and praise to continue the vigil till sunrise. The celebrations went on for a whole week during which period the Christian communities were united in the Joy of the Lord and for which even the edifices used to be adorned with drapes and torches to illuminate the darkness of night to hail the Lord of Light, the Sun of the East who revealed himself to all the world as the joyous herald of the Morning.
In those days the feast of Epiphany used to commemorate both the birth of Jesus and his revelation (Epiphany) as the Saviour of mankind. But during the fifth century, at the time of bishop Jiovenal (421-452) the church of Jerusalem started to celebrate Christmas on the 25th of December as the Church of Rome, a day in which the Church of Jerusalem used to celebrate the feast of Jacob and David. The Georgian Lectionary of Jerusalem ( VI-VIII century) witnesses this feast of Christmas on the 25th of December. According to this liturgical document, at the sixth hour (noon) of the 24th December, the Christian community of Jerusalem, overcoming the winter cold and the weariness of the voyage used to walk to the Sheepfold or Shepherds' field where they used to read the Gospel of Luke (2,8-20) and then hurry across the plane up to the town of Bethlehem and into the Nativity Grotto where Vespers were celebrated and the readings about the Birth of Jesus (Mt 1,18-25). At midnight a vigil with Psalms, biblical readings and canticles culminated with the reading of the Gospel of Luke (2,1-7). Towards the morning the Divine Liturgy or the Eucharist were celebrated and sunrise used to be greeted with the proclamation of the Gospel of the Revelation (Epiphany) of Matthew (2,1-23). The same Gregorian Lectionary places the feast of Epiphany on the 6th of January..
St. Sofronius, patriarch of Jerusalem (634-638) speaks of the sites in relation to the gospel accounts as celebrated in the liturgy: the Basilica which comprises the Nativity Grotto, the "perfumed" slab (where today there is the silver star), the Manger and the tombs of the Innocents. To these later on where added the cell and tomb of St. Jerome.
The Franciscans inherited this long tradition of the primitive Church and notwithstanding the difficulties maintained alive the "Christmas" spirit of these sites. Today in Bethlehem the Franciscans take care of the Catholic Community and perform all their liturgies in St. Catherine's Church but they still share the space of the Nativity grotto with the Orthodox Clergy. The Franciscans hold a daily procession, at noon, from St. Catherine's to the Grotto of the Nativity and to the subterranean chapels.
The Christmas experience today starts on Christmas Eve with the solemn entry of the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem welcomed on the main square by the Franciscan Friars and the beating of the drums of the Scouts of Palestine. The celebration of the Liturgy is carried out in St. Catherine's Church while in the evening the central Square of the town is full of pilgrims in a lullaby of Christmas Carols. Midnight Christmas Mass is held in a packed Church. A procession with the Infant Jesus to the Holy Grotto follows with the reading of the Gospel of Luke and the singing of Christmas Carols. On January 6th, feast of Epiphany in Bethlehem there is another solemn celebration this time led by the Franciscan Custos of the Holy Land.

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Created / Updated Wednesday, December 19, 2001 at 18:14:43 by John Abela ofm
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