Hic et nunc: Liturgical Tradition
The liturgy in all of the Holy Places, including Bethlehem, is the daily remembering of the events of the life of Jesus Christ, which are lived and evoked in the exact places given to us by tradition as the Holy Places touched by the divine passage of the Son of God.
This helps us to understand how the liturgy in the holy place is not a simple practice of solemnity, but represents a continuous manner of commemorating that hic et nunc (“here and now”) with which, in the case of Bethlehem, the Savior became flesh and came to dwell among us.
We have evidence of this ritual since ancient times. Two of the most important documents are the Itinerarium of Egeria and the Armenian Lectionary of Jerusalem which describe liturgical practices in the Holy Places during the 4th and 5th centuries. These documents provide us with information on the celebrations of Christmas and the Epiphany, and on the pilgrimages made to the various places of worship that were closely linked to the Gospel accounts of the Savior’s birth.
It is clear that the celebration of the Solemnity of Christmas has a fundamental importance in the life of the local church and for the pilgrims who arrive from all over the world to the Church of the Nativity. The initial functions opening the liturgical year are those of the first Sunday of Advent, which is celebrated with the solemn entry of the Custos of the Holy Land into the Church of the Nativity and the prayer of first Vespers.
The entire Advent period revolves around the preparation of the Christmas celebrations: the Christmas Eve Vigil and the dawn and morning Masses which since the nineteenth century have been presided by the Patriarch of Jerusalem, before that time having been presided by the Custos of the Holy Land.
These celebrations conclude with the Epiphany, in which the manifestation of Jesus to the Magi is celebrated. Regarding the Christmas festivities, what we might consider secondary holidays, but still linked to New Testament events, are also celebrated, notably: the Holy Innocents (28 December), commemorating the Massacre of the Innocents ordered by King Herod, and the Theotokos (1 January), the feast of Mary Mother of God which exalts the figure of the Virgin Mary, after whom the Church of the Nativity is named. Along with these, other holidays and commemorations are also celebrated, for the most part linked to the participation of the local community.
Among the most important of these we should mention that of St. Catherine (24 November), the titular saint of the conventual church, which for centuries was the feast day inaugurating the festivities, and that of St. Jerome (30 September), saint and Doctor of the Church who lived in the Holy Places of Christ’s birth.
Along with these celebrations the memory of St. Joseph is also commemorated in the chapel bearing his name, as well as Corpus Christi, a feast day that draws attention to the importance of Bethlehem as the cradle of the coming of the Bread of Life.
In addition we should note the pilgrimages to the sanctuary of Shepherds’ Fields (25 December) and to the Milk Grotto, in memory of the New Testament events that are remembered there.