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.”