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from issue no. 12 - 2004

My Christmas in Bethlehem

I would like to reach from this place all mankind, in particular those whose prayers I led for twenty three years in the cathedral of Milan. I would like the message that is born from this bare cave to reach all of them: even in the smallest things of our day, even in those most hidden or seemingly trivial…

by Carlo Maria Martini

Carlo Maria Martini

Carlo Maria Martini

Although in Jerusalem Christmas day is, in the civic calendar, a day like any other (this year it falls on shabbat, that is, on the Jewish day of weekly rest, but without reference to our feast), many people notice that this is a day of great rejoicing for Christians and are quick to offer their good wishes when they meet me. They say: «Hag sameah», which is the usual expression of good will on Jewish feasts and can be translated: May your feast be glad, may it bring you joy! Also some lights in the streets, devised for the tourists (in these cases a little consumerism can help), serve to remind people that for Christians there is something special to these days. The number of pilgrims increases (even if not in the way one would expect) and from Christmas Eve all the Catholics (the Orthodox will celebrate Christmas when we celebrate the Epiphany) make their way toward Bethlehem. All these signs, even if discreet, indicate that here, too, Christmas is a day on which one expects something fine and great: a gift from on high, a sudden joy, a small breathing-space for peace after so much suffering. In this way many non-Christians also catch the meaning of this feast, which is not so much the celebration of an anniversary (about 2004 years after the birth of Jesus) but the feast of hope, of what is desired and awaited, that is the last and definitive manifestation of the kingdom of God, for us of the Lord Jesus, that will dry every tear and close the season of painful mourning. On Christmas night many Catholics attend the mass of the Latin patriarch in Bethlehem. At midnight he comes out of the sacristy of the church adjacent to the Basilica of the Nativity (where the Orthodox Greek officiate) with the effigy of the Child Jesus in his hands and lays it in the center of the altar. We introduced this ceremony in Milan some years ago, as a reminder of precisely what happens in Jerusalem on the holy night. But for some years now I haven’t attended this mass, when the church is packed full of people and where it’s not easy to find a moment or a place for meditation. I prefer to celebrate on the morning of Christmas, with some young students from the Pontifical Biblical Institute of Rome who are frequenting the Jewish University of Jerusalem. We say the mass in what is known as the cave of Saint Jerome. This underground space is adjacent to the cave of the Nativity, where there is also a great coming and going of people down the steps so as to pause in front of the star that indicates the traditional place of the birth of Jesus. We instead come together in the small dark room a few meters from the traditional cave. It recalls the thirty-year stay of Saint Jerome here in Bethlehem, close to the birthplace of Jesus. I am attracted and moved by the figure of Saint Jerome. This intelligent and tenacious scholar, tired of the ambitions and gossip of Rome, decided to withdraw to Bethlehem to pray and study intensely the Jewish and Christian scriptures, devoting himself above all to the work of translation into Latin from the original tongues. Toilsome work at a time when few knew Hebrew and aids such as dictionaries and grammars were lacking. We owe to him the translation of the Latin Bible called the “Vulgate” that has come down to us and that was declared by the Council of Trent, in the sixteenth century, to be the authentic text of the Latin Church. Here, in the shadow of the cave of Bethlehem, Jerome passed his nights studying the Scriptures and sometimes, as he himself recorded, he fell asleep with his head nodding over the text in front of him. This example of fidelity to Jesus in his humility at Bethlehem and of fidelity to the Sacred Scriptures of the first and second Testament inspires me deeply. Like Saint Jerome, even if very far from his holiness, and from his ascetic and scholarly rigor, I also feel myself here in Jerusalem to adore the Lord born for us and to study the Scriptures of the Jewish people and those of the early Christian community. I would like thus to get to know more deeply something of the mystery of God and man, that I have met so often in my office as bishop. Thus the days of Christmas days don’t reserve even here particularly “mystical” experiences. It is in some way an anniversary like others, but in which we hold in mind the small happening in Bethlehem two thousand years ago that changed the history of the world. That history still seems to proceed along the old lines, but we, who have opened our eyes with the grace of the baptism, see that already working in it, in the fabric of everyday history, even in this country, is that faith, that joy, that capacity for receptivity and of reconciliation and that peace that the angels sang above the cave of Bethlehem. I would like to reach from this place all mankind, in particular those whose prayers I led for twenty-three years in the cathedral of Milan. I would like the message that is born from this bare cave to reach all of them: even in the smallest things of our day, even in those most hidden or seemingly trivial, even in those that make us suffer, the mystery of God who turns to us with love is present. I return as each year from this mass next to the cave with eyes a little new. Even the vision of the city of Bethlehem, with its desolation and its abandonment for want of pilgrims, gives us occasion to hope that one day all this will give way to joy, to well-being and to peace.

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