Sunday, December 18, 2011

Christmas at the Dormition Abbey in Jerusalem

Fr. Elias is the Benedictine Monk responsible for the Church at the Dormition Abbey on Mount Zion.  On the first Saturday of Advent, he shared his thoughts about how his community is preparing for the coming feast of the Nativity of Christ.

“During Advent, we light four candles on the Advent crown, symbolizing the four weeks before Christmas.  Every week, we light one more candle.  We have special songs, special prayers, and special readings, especially from the prophet Isaiah because he expresses a message of comfort and hope.”

Fr. Elias explains that the Benedictine community cherishes a particular German tradition: a special liturgy, every Friday evening of Advent, when they use no electric lights but only candle light to experience the darkness characteristic of the longing for the Messiah.

“Advent is not Christmas” says the Benedictine monk, “it’s a time of longing, of hope, of expectation, of desire.”  For this reason, the community doesn’t sing Christmas songs until Christmas itself.  Before that, only Advent songs are sung.”

“Then, on Christmas Eve, we have a party with all our volunteers and all our guests.  At midnight we have our solemn liturgy with Christmas decorations and typical German songs such as “Silent Night, Holy Night.”

After the liturgy, at about 2:30am, the whole community, including the volunteers and students, walk to Bethlehem.

“So I guess you don’t sleep much that night?” I ask him.

Fr. Elias smiles: “We sleep in the morning.  We go to the grotto in Bethlehem to pray there, then we go home, sleep a bit, and then we have the solemn Mass at 11 am on Christmas day.”

The Dormition Abbey is known to attract hundreds of curious Israeli visitors every year on Christmas Eve, so I asked Fr. Elias about them.  His first comment was that they have so many visitors that they really need a bigger church on that evening, as space is very limited.

But why so many Israeli guests, especially considering that the liturgy is celebrated in German? Why is it so attractive to them?

Fr. Elias shrugs with a smile:

“Don’t ask me. It’s the same thing in the Lutheran church.  We have the same liturgy in this form every day throughout the year, but this night is really a particular night because we sing the typical Christmas songs that everyone knows and loves.  People like our style of liturgy, and we have an organ, a choir, singers.  We also speak a bit in Hebrew, but the people really want to see and experience how we celebrate a German Christmas.”

The Benedictine monk then underlines the universal attraction of Christmas:

“Also in Germany the Masses are full, because there is a special atmosphere during this period.  Christmas time is touching: it’s a time of longing, a time for the family, with deep, universal symbols that everyone can understand.  The story of Mary and Joseph finding no room at the inn, giving birth to a baby in poverty… this is a touching story that speaks to everyone.

Fr. Elias has been 13 years in the Holy Land.  Has he seen any change in the celebration of Christmas over the years?

“It’s more or less the same.  In the last years it has become more commercial.  People have started to come with red and white caps, but this is not German: it comes from the United States and from Coca Cola.  We try to preserve the Christmas traditions and focus on the real story of the Bible, and not what is done with Santa Claus, or in advertizing and commercials. People here in Israel have some ideas of Christmas that they get from TV, but it’s not the true picture of Christmas.”

I asked Fr. Elias whether Israelis might be more open to the Gospel on Christmas or whether they just come out of curiosity.

“It’s mostly curiosity,” he replies.  “We also, our volunteers and students, are also interested in how Jews celebrate.  Sometimes we go to the synagogue, we pray the psalms every day, and we try to understand their customs.  We welcome the people, but we know that they are not Christians, and some things in our liturgy are only for Christians.  We don’t have papers where they can apply for baptism, and they are free to come and go without any obligations.”

Because of the wide cultural differences between Jewish and Christian forms of worship, between the Synagogue and the Church, the Benedictines need to instruct their Israeli guests on the basics of church etiquette:

“At the beginning of the celebration, we have to explain to them how to behave, because many people don’t know what to do in this setting.  And so we have to tell them: ‘please do this, and do this…’ Usually it works.  We have a different style of prayer, yet our liturgy is very close to the Jewish liturgy.”

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Advent: Preparing for Christmas in Bethlehem and Jerusalem

Advent is upon us!  Even though the days are getting shorter, the atmosphere is becoming more festive in Jerusalem as both Jews and Christians get ready to celebrate their respective festival of lights.  This year, Hanukkah and Christmas coincide, with the celebration of the birth of Christ falling right in the middle of the week of the Jewish holiday.

Soon Jews will be lighting their hanukkiah while recalling God's Providence and faithfulness (then as now!) at a time of great need in the history of the Jewish nation.  At the same time, Christians will commemorate and celebrate the moment when "the true Light which gives light to every man" came into the world (John 1:9).

If Advent is a non-event in Jewish Western Jerusalem, it is unmistakable in the Old City, where shops of Christmas decorations and artifacts have opened and are already in full swing. Every day, coming out of my home in the Christian Quarter, I am “greeted” by several life-sized Santa Clauses, including a large inflatable one standing alongside another one playing Christmas carols on the saxophone.

Beyond the inevitable Christmas commercialism, the Christian communities are also in full gear in preparing the various Christmas events and celebrations.

As always, the world’s focus of attention will be on Bethlehem.  On Christmas Eve, at 2:30 pm, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, His Beatitude Fouad Twal, will arrive at Manger Square and make his solemn entry into the Basilica of the Nativity.  There will be effervescence and excitement throughout the afternoon and evening in anticipation of the festive Midnight Mass that will take place in St. Catherine’s Church (the Catholic part of the Basilica).

At the same time, low Masses in various languages will take place throughout the night in the tiny Manger Grotto, believed to be the actual spot where Jesus was born.

Pilgrims are advised that access to these events will not be easy: tickets are required and there will be tight security (Midnight Mass is usually attended by top Palestinian dignitaries and politicians).

For those looking for a more accessible, somewhat calmer and more charming alternative to the frenzy in Bethlehem, celebrating the night of Christmas at Shepherd’s Field in nearby Beit Sahour is highly recommended.  This site is believed to be the place where, according to the Gospel of Luke (2:8-15), the angel appeared to the shepherds and announced to them the birth of the Savior in the City of David.

Holy Masses will be celebrated there in all languages throughout the night, in the various grottoes and chapels lying under the same open sky from which the angel appeared to the shepherds more than 2,000 years ago.

Those staying in Jerusalem will also have plenty of options as to where to go – though for many their choice will be determined by the language they speak.

For English speakers, the Notre Dame Center, located just outside of the Old City’s New Gate, is a popular destination.  As is the tradition, Midnight Mass will be preceded by a half hour of Christmas carols (beginning at 11:30), sung by various groups and choirs from their community.  The event will take place in their conference auditorium because the regular chapel is not large enough to accommodate all the pilgrims, local Christians, and many Israeli visitors who will also want to share in a taste of the Christmas celebrations.

Another popular destination is the Dormition Abbey, rising majestically on Mount Zion on the southwestern corner of the Old City.  The fact that the Midnight Mass there is always packed with curious Israelis is particularly remarkable considering the fact that the liturgy is almost entirely celebrated in German.  The Benedictine Monks have gotten so used to their faithful Israeli visitors that they now integrate into the evening a good number of explanations in Hebrew for them.

On the northern side of the Old City, near Damascus Gate, St. Stephen’s Basilica (on the premises of the École Biblique) is the rallying point for the French Speakers.  Here, Christmas Eve Mass is anticipated at 9:30 pm, celebrated with great dignity and beauty by the French Dominicans.

On the Protestant side, at Christ Church, near Jaffa Gate, visitors can look forward to warm hospitality beginning already at 6 pm in the courtyard with coffee, refreshments and biscuits, along with some carol singing and time for fellowship and discussion.  This will last until the Christmas service at 10:30 in the church, expected to last until well after midnight.

These options are only a small sample of the many celebrations that will take place on Christmas Eve in Bethlehem and Jerusalem (click here for the full schedule of events).  With Masses, services and celebrations occurring at all times throughout the evening and night, those armed with enough strength and courage to face the crowds might want to try some “Christmas Service hopping,” going from place to place to experience as many facets as possible of Christmas in the Holy Land.

Merry Christmas!

Christmas 2011: Main Catholic Celebrations in Bethlehem
Christmas 2011: Full Schedule of Catholic Celebrations in Bethlehem and Jerusalem