Joyful and Triumphant: Christmas in Bethlehem

“O come all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant
O come ye, o come ye to Bethlehem
Come and behold him, born the king of angels
O come let us adore him, o come let us adore him,
O come let us adore him: Christ the Lord.”
–Christmas carol

Christmas in Bethlehem was not at all like I imagined it. We stood in the freezing rain for hours; my canvas shoes were so soaked that my feet squished when I walked. And yet, we were happy…

Because we were among the faithful who came, joyful and triumphant, to Bethlehem to celebrate the birth of our savior.

Rewind to about a week before Christmas. We were crestfallen to learn that our application for tickets to the midnight mass at the Church of St. Catherine (the Catholic next-door neighbor of the much-storied Greek Orthodox Basilica of the Nativity) had been denied by the Pilgrims Office. Nothing personal; it’s just that thousands and thousands of pilgrims from all over the world come to visit the Holy Land at Christmas, and there is only room for around two thousand (or slightly fewer) pilgrims in the midnight mass.

But, through my volunteer work at the office of the Most Rev. Fouad Twal, the Latin Patriarch (who is like the archbishop of Israel, Palestine, Jordan and Cyprus), we had been blessed with a very important friend; a Jordanian priest, a wonderful man with a gentle, unassuming manner that stands in stark contrast to his imposing physique, and the ability to pull strings for us. When we received the tickets from him, tucked in a lovely Christmas card with “Gloria in Excelsis Deo” written in Latin and Arabic on the front, the serial numbers were in the low two hundreds, out of nearly two thousand tickets.

We arrived by bus late in the afternoon of Christmas Eve, and as night fell, the weather changed from quaintly chilly to a freezing deluge. There had apparently been no contingency plan for rain, because the weather put a serious damper on the party in Manger Square. The lights and then the sound amplification of the grandstand were shut down, until finally the performers gave up and the show was over. But luckily the huge Christmas tree in the square remained lit…

So we spent several hours in the square, wandering the streets, ducking into shops and listening to the impromptu music of streetside coffee merchants clicking their metal cups together in rhythm like castanets. When it was finally 9 p.m., the doors-open time promised on the tickets, we gathered outside the church in the freezing downpour with hundreds of other pilgrims, to no avail. Our tickets were finally checked, and we were ushered into the courtyard, where we then stood for more than an hour under the raining open sky until we, and everyone else, were completely soaked. We sang Christmas carols to pass the time, and the German, Swedish, French and American families huddled around us each sang in their own language.

When they finally allowed us inside, we were wet and freezing, and the mass was standing room only. But it was beautiful.

Around 11:15pm there was an office of readings, and then at promptly two minutes to midnight, Palestinean President Mahmoud Abbas arrived, with much fanfare. At midnight the blaring sound of the organ signified the start of Mass.

The entire Mass was in Latin, but luckily, upon entering, we had been given books to follow along to. It was amazing to hear that the traditional prayers, which are said at every midnight Christmas mass and contain phrases like “there in Bethlehem,” “in that place,” and “there, where Jesus Christ was born,” had all been changed. “HERE in Bethlehem. “In THIS place.” “HERE, where Jesus Christ was born.”

During the Homily, the Patriarch collectively greeted several of the pilgrims in their own languages: Arabic, Italian, English, French, Spanish, German. The message he delivered in Arabic spoke of the Prince of Peace; may He bring peace to a hurting world and this wounded land. The prayers of the faithful were offered in Latin, Arabic, Italian, English, French, German, Spanish and Hebrew.

But then, when we began to sing “Silent Night” during Communion, in spite of having the Latin words available in the book, each pilgrim sang it in their own language. The words were all mixed together, in a single, unintelligible human sound, a song of hope and worship rising to the rafters and to the heavens above. It was chillingly beautiful and I will never forget it.

At the end of the Mass, they take a little wooden baby, like the kind you see in centuries-old Latin American churches, and lay it in the manger in the grotto in honor of the Christ child’s birth. Here is the patriarch as he processes out with the baby.

When the mass was ended, we waited in the dank and drafty Greek Orthodox basilica, where the actual Grotto of the Nativity is located, for what seemed like forever before we were permitted to go and touch the star. This was it; the place where it all began, more than two millenia after it happened.

Here is a photo of us in the grotto from our 2010 pilgrimage, so you can see what it looks like. It’s an underground cave located beneath the altar in the Greek Orthodox basilica. The icons, the red rococo silks and the hanging red lamps are all typical of Greek Orthodox churches in the Holy Land. The fourteen-pointed silver star on the floor marks the place where the Christ child was laid.

We caught a shared taxi-van home, and were completely astounded to discover that one of the ladies we were sharing the taxi with was one of Rodolfo’s woodwinds teachers from the conservatory in Ecuador! As the saying in Spanish goes, “The world is just a handkerchief,” small enough to fold and hide in your pocket the way that Mary hid those beautiful secret things in her heart. (Luke 2:19)

We videochatted with our families and friends, sending Christmas wishes across thousands of miles, and finally poured ourselves into bed around 5 a.m. I don’t think there will ever be another Christmas like this one.

Sleep in heavenly peace, my friends.

Sleep in heavenly peace.


Filed under Catholic Life, Holidays, O Little Town of Bethlehem, Playing Tourist

2 responses to “Joyful and Triumphant: Christmas in Bethlehem

  1. Rachel Gardner

    Jessa, this is absolutely amazing! Thank you for sharing it with us, for taking us with your on our Bethlehem journey! Praying with you and for you always, Rach

    • Jessa

      Thank you, Rachel! We prayed for you and all our loved ones back home at the Mass! And, of course, for the namesake shrine!🙂

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