Fr. Kevin Stephens, O.P., a friar of the Province of St. Albert the Great and Doctoral Candidate at the world renowned Dominican Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem shares his unique perspective on Christmas in the Holy Land.
Christmas in the Holy Land is of course incredibly special — for all the right reasons. Around here, there is little of the commercialization of Christmas found back in the States. Since Jerusalem is a Jewish, Muslim, and Christian city, the visible Christmas decorations are very muted in comparison to the U.S. Christian churches and stores will display some lights and decorations, but you do not have the constant barrage of Christmas carols and advertisements. The lack of commercial distractions allows you focus on the significance and historical fact of the birth of Christ.
I have celebrated Midnight Mass in Bethlehem several times. Bethlehem is a mixed Christian and Muslim city. Many people do not realize that many Arabs are Christians and have been since time immemorial. One of the most moving things I have experienced during my years here in the Holy Land is meeting Arab Christians and hearing the Lord’s Prayer sung in Arabic. Bethlehem was at one time a majority Christian city, but the Christian population of Bethlehem has been declining over the decades due to emigration, to the point that now Christians are now the minority. Nevertheless, when coming to Bethlehem for Christmas, you will see a mixture of foreign tourists and proud native Bethlehem Arab Christian residents.
Just before Midnight Mass in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the Roman Martyrology is sung as it is throughout the world. Everywhere else, at a certain point, you hear the phrase “…Jesus Christ, eternal God and Son of the eternal Father, desiring to sanctify the world by his merciful coming, being conceived by the Holy Spirit, and nine months having passed since his conception, was born in Bethlehem of Judea of the Virgin Mary. Today is the nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ according to the flesh.” But in Bethlehem, the words are just a little bit different: “…was born here in Bethlehem of Judea….” That one word, “here,” makes all the difference. Not just here, but right here, in the grotto over which the church is built. After mass, everyone processes solemnly to the Grotto of the Nativity. It is quite stunning to be standing in the place where Jesus was born on the night we commemorate his birth.
Christmas in Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and the Holy Land brings home the historical reality of our faith in a way not possible anywhere else. Christianity is not primarily about a book and theories, and it has never been about a far-off god. Our faith is about a person, Jesus the Christ, Emmanuel, God-With-Us — and there is no better time and place to experience this truth than in the middle of the night on Christmas in Bethlehem in the Grotto of the Nativity where God came to be with us.