What is that ‘little town of Bethlehem’ really like?
Since 1986, Deacon Tom and Mary Jane Fox have taken pilgrim groups to the Holy Land. This week, they share their first-hand experiences about modern-day Bethlehem. Also joining us is Sir Rateb Rabie, who has just returned from Bethlehem! He’s the CEO and Founder of the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation.
What are the Christians like in Bethlehem? What are the Church communities like? What does the manger look like today? Learn all this and more! Tune in to this fantastic preparation for Christmas!
Sounds great! How can I participate in this program?
South Texans can tune into Time Warner Cable channel 15 or radio 89.7 FM – and anyone can listen online by clicking the LISTEN LIVE button on CatholicismLive.com from 8pm – 9pm Central Time!
Submit questions / comments using the form on CatholicismLive.com or call during the program: (210) 734-5371
More information related to this episode of Catholicism Live!:
Sir Rateb Rabie, KCHS
Founder and President of the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation (HCEF); Born in Amman, Jordan to Palestinian parents
From 1981 – 1986, he was Director of Operations for Saudi Support Services, Ltd., in 1988, he moved to Washington, D.C. where he managed and owned several businesses. He is a co-founder and past National President of the Birzeit Society and a co-founder of the Institute for Health, Development, and Research in Palestine. Sir Rateb is a Knight Commander of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, a 4th Degree Knight and Co-Chair of the Holy Land Outreach Committee of the Knights of Columbus, Maryland State Council and a Board Member of the American Task Force for Palestine (ATFP). Currently, he is involved in international consulting and developments, as well as the printing and publishing business.
In 2007, The Arab American Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) selected Sir Rateb Rabie to receive the Faith and Tolerance Award. This award is given to individuals working with faith based organizations to encourage cooperation and peacemaking in the region. Sir Rateb Rabie was chosen to receive this award for his strong leadership role in the work of HCEF to promote Muslim-Christian understanding, interreligious and interfaith dialogue between Muslims, Christians and Jews, to build bridges in support of peace and justice in the Holy Land, and to build tolerance through concrete measures to bring about peaceful coexistence in the Holy Land.
Sir Rabie is committed to improving living conditions in the Holy Land and preserving its Christian heritage, and advocates for peace and justice in Palestine and improved Muslim – Christian relations.
Saint of the Week: St. Francis of Assisi (His Feast Day: October 4)
Francis of Assisi was a poor little man who astounded and inspired the Church by taking the gospel literally—not in a narrow fundamentalist sense, but by actually following all that Jesus said and did, joyfully, without limit and without a mite of self-importance.
Serious illness brought the young Francis to see the emptiness of his frolicking life as leader of Assisi’s youth. Prayer—lengthy and difficult—led him to a self-emptying like that of Christ, climaxed by embracing a leper he met on the road. It symbolized his complete obedience to what he had heard in prayer: “Francis! Everything you have loved and desired in the flesh it is your duty to despise and hate, if you wish to know my will. And when you have begun this, all that now seems sweet and lovely to you will become intolerable and bitter, but all that you used to avoid will turn itself to great sweetness and exceeding joy.”
From the cross in the neglected field-chapel of San Damiano, Christ told him, “Francis, go out and build up my house, for it is nearly falling down.” Francis became the totally poor and humble workman.
He must have suspected a deeper meaning to “build up my house.” But he would have been content to be for the rest of his life the poor “nothing” man actually putting brick on brick in abandoned chapels. He gave up every material thing he had, piling even his clothes before his earthly father (who was demanding restitution for Francis’ “gifts” to the poor) so that he would be totally free to say, “Our Father in heaven.” He was, for a time, considered to be a religious “nut,” begging from door to door when he could not get money for his work, bringing sadness or disgust to the hearts of his former friends, ridicule from the unthinking.
But genuineness will tell. A few people began to realize that this man was actually trying to be Christian. He really believed what Jesus said: “Announce the kingdom! Possess no gold or silver or copper in your purses, no traveling bag, no sandals, no staff” (see Luke 9:1-3).
Francis’ first rule for his followers was a collection of texts from the Gospels. He had no idea of founding an order, but once it began he protected it and accepted all the legal structures needed to support it. His devotion and loyalty to the Church were absolute and highly exemplary at a time when various movements of reform tended to break the Church’s unity.
He was torn between a life devoted entirely to prayer and a life of active preaching of the Good News. He decided in favor of the latter, but always returned to solitude when he could. He wanted to be a missionary in Syria or in Africa, but was prevented by shipwreck and illness in both cases. He did try to convert the sultan of Egypt during the Fifth Crusade.
In the year 1223, St. Francis, a deacon, was visiting the town of Grecio to celebrate Christmas. Grecio was a small town built on a mountainside overlooking a beautiful valley. The people had cultivated the fertile area with vineyards. St. Francis realized that the chapel of the Franciscan hermitage would be too small to hold the congregation for Midnight Mass. So he found a niche in the rock near the town square and set up the altar. However, this Midnight Mass would be very special, unlike any other Midnight Mass. St. Bonaventure describes how St. Francis created the first ‘Nativity Scene’ (creche):
It happened in the third year before his death, that in order to excite the inhabitants of Grecio to commemorate the nativity of the Infant Jesus with great devotion, [St. Francis] determined to keep it with all possible solemnity; and lest he should be accused of lightness or novelty, he asked and obtained the permission of the sovereign Pontiff. Then he prepared a manger, and brought hay, and an ox and an ass to the place appointed. The brethren were summoned, the people ran together, the forest resounded with their voices, and that venerable night was made glorious by many and brilliant lights and sonorous psalms of praise.
The man of God [St. Francis] stood before the manger, full of devotion and piety, bathed in tears and radiant with joy; the Holy Gospel was chanted by Francis, the Levite of Christ. Then he preached to the people around the nativity of the poor King; and being unable to utter His name for the tenderness of His love, He called Him the Babe of Bethlehem. A certain valiant and veracious soldier, Master John of Grecio, who, for the love of Christ, had left the warfare of this world, and become a dear friend of this holy man, affirmed that he beheld an Infant marvellously beautiful, sleeping in the manger, Whom the blessed Father Francis embraced with both his arms, as if he would awake Him from sleep. This vision of the devout soldier is credible, not only by reason of the sanctity of him that saw it, but by reason of the miracles which afterwards confirmed its truth.
For the example of Francis, if it be considered by the world, is doubtless sufficient to excite all hearts which are negligent in the faith of Christ; and the hay of that manger, being preserved by the people, miraculously cured all diseases of cattle, and many other pestilences; God thus in all things glorifying his servant, and witnessing to the great efficacy of his holy prayers by manifest prodigies and miracles.
During the last years of his relatively short life (he died at 44) he was half blind and seriously ill. Two years before his death, he received the stigmata, the real and painful wounds of Christ in his hands, feet and side.
On his deathbed, he said over and over again the last addition to his Canticle of the Sun, “Be praised, O Lord, for our Sister Death.” He sang Psalm 141, and at the end asked his superior to have his clothes removed when the last hour came and for permission to expire lying naked on the earth, in imitation of his Lord.
Saint Francis of Assisi, pray for us!
Biography adapted from AmericanCatholic.org, originally written by Franciscan priest Leonard Foley, O.F.M.
Pearl of the Week:
Want to know what’s going on in our ‘Mother Church’ of the Holy Land? We recommend regularly checking the website of the Latin Patriarchate (diocese) of Jerusalem. This website gives news about Bethlehem and Christmas in the Holy Land, including the Latin Patriarch’s Christmas message.
The Latin Patriarch is like the ‘archbishop’ of the Holy Land. He is in charge of all the Roman Catholics in the Holy Land.
The Many Meanings of Christmas
By Antonio Gaspari – An Expert on St. Francis Considers the Crib and Other Elements of Jesus’ Birthday
ROME, DEC. 20, 2011 (Zenit.org).- Has the birth of the Child Jesus truly changed the history of humanity? Is it true that the powerful understood immediately the importance of that birth? Why do we measure time based on that event in Bethlehem?
To answer these and other questions, ZENIT spoke with Father Pietro Messa, president of the Higher School of Medieval and Franciscan Studies of Rome’s Antonianum Pontifical University.
ZENIT: What is the significance in history of the figure of the Child Jesus and, specifically, of the crib made by St. Francis?
Father Messa: We know that the early Christians, all of them being of the Jewish religion, observed the Sabbath, but on the following day, that is the present Sunday, they gathered to commemorate the Resurrection. Hence, the first celebration held par excellence was Easter. Subsequently, other events of Jesus’ life began to be celebrated, such as the birth fixed on Dec. 25, namely, on the same day in which previously the Sol invictus was celebrated, that is, the celebration of not being overcome by darkness, given that the winter solstice had passed, the days began to be longer and light imposed itself on the darkness of the night. From celebration they passed to representation and from there to pilgrimages to Bethlehem, the city of David, from whose descent Jesus was born.
The pilgrimages — at once an expression and incentive of the relationship with the places of Jesus’ life — were the engine for the narration and representation of Jesus’ humanity. It is in this context that Brother Francis of Assisi’s desire is situated, expressed to the people of Greccio, Italy, in 1223, in order to see “with human eyes,” how the Child Jesus was laid to rest in a crib between the donkey and the ox. And thus, on Christmas Eve, on the crib where the two animals of tradition were, the Eucharist was celebrated in such a way that one could see “with the eyes of the body” the bread and wine consecrated and believe, thanks to the Holy Spirit, in the presence of the Body and Blood of Christ.
ZENIT: In a secularized world such as today’s, the birth of the Child Jesus is trivialized and inserted in the context of a “myth,” in which children alone can believe. According to Christians, why has this birth changed the world?
Father Messa: It could be that the worst demystification of Christmas is not that of believing that it is a myth, but its reduction to a celebration of kindness, altruism, of helping the needy. It’s not that these things are unimportant, or that they are not present in the Gospel, but what is key is that Jesus came to us because he has opted for our poverty. He gives us his hand to the end, when his arm will be stretched on the cross. As the Poor Clare Sister Chiara Tarcisia, of the St. Clare pro-monastery of Assisi, said in the last months of her life: “What is important in life is to love, but especially to allow oneself to be loved!” And Christmas is a propitious time to allow oneself to be loved. This doesn’t lead us to passivity because Jesus loves us as we are, but he doesn’t leave us as we are. His presence transforms and initiates a new humanity.
ZENIT: Why do Christians speak of Jesus as Savior?
Father Messa: Jesus of Nazareth — a village from which, according to some, nothing good could come — walked on the roads of Palestine and, as happens with other persons, they also wondered who He was. The answers to such questions were the most diverse, but one who is not enclosed in his own schemes realizes that every answer is inadequate or, better said, not very exhaustive. And thus his reality as Messiah was increasingly recognized, that is, the anointed by the Most High and, hence, the Savior. However, the person of Jesus, even when arriving at some definitive certainties in the dogmas, opens constant questions and, as the saints show us, there is always something more to astonish us; that is, something to pause to contemplate with wonder.
ZENIT: The date, the star, the Wise Men, are these the elements to remember Christmas as an event that happened in history?
Father Messa: The account of Jesus has been given within the coordinates of history, that is, in a place and time: the place is that of Palestine and the time is — as we say in the Creed — “under Pontius Pilate.” However, this isn’t enough because many saw his humanity, listened to his word, admired also the miracles he wrought, but only some believed in his divinity. As St. Francis of Assisi says in his first Admonition, the disciples saw his humanity “with human eyes,” but they believed in his divinity. Hence, in Jesus there is a real history but also something that surpasses history; that is why it is important, as Benedict XVI reminds, that there should be a reason open to the mystery and a reasoned faith. Otherwise, we will fall into rationalism or fideism.
Jesus is a rational event, but which surpasses reason and when reason wishes to understand everything, that is, when it has the pretension of understanding it all, one falls into rationalism. Likewise, when faith excludes history and the discoveries of reason, it becomes a fideism that appears deviant, even violent.
ZENIT: In addition to Christians, are there others who have given importance to the birth that occurred more than 2,000 years ago?
Father Messa: Many people, including Muslims, for whom Jesus is a great prophet. Monsignor Padovese said that, present at the Christmas Mass were also Muslims and in one of his homilies he was able to take wise advantage of this presence. He said that everyone celebrated Jesus’ birth; for some, because he was a great prophet, for Christians because he was the manifestation of mercy, more than that, being the Son of God he was the presence of God among men.
ZENIT: Why does the greater part of humanity mark time from that birth?
Father Messa: In 313 the Edict of Milan was issued which in a certain sense marked the end of the persecutions; subsequently Christianity became the official religion. Thus, the computation of time began to be marked from his birth, recognizing in it the fulfillment of the ancient prophecies and promises, as well as the beginning of a new era. Paraphrasing Blessed John Paul II: He is “the center of the cosmos and of history.”