Christianity ushers in Christmas

VATICAN CITY — Pope Benedict XVI marked Christmas Eve with Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica and a pressing question: Will people find room in their hectic, technology-driven lives for children, the poor and God?

The pontiff also prayed that Israelis and Palestinians live in peace and freedom, and asked the faithful to pray for strife-torn Syria as well as Lebanon and Iraq.

In Bethlehem, on the West Bank, thousands of Christians from the world over packed Manger Square in Bethlehem Monday to celebrate the birth of Jesus in the ancient West Bank town where he was born.

The ceremony at the Vatican began at 10 p.m. local time Monday with the blare of trumpets, meant to symbolize Christian joy over the news of Christ’s birth in Bethlehem. As midnight neared, chuch bells tolled throughout Rome, while inside the basilica, the sweet voices of the Vatican’s boys’ choir resounded joyously.

The 85-year-old is to deliver his Christmas Day speech at midday Tuesday from the basilica’s central balcony.

In his homily, Benedict cited the Gospel account of Mary and Joseph finding no room at an inn and ending up in a stable which sheltered the baby Jesus. He urged people to reflect upon what they find time for in their busy, technology-driven lives.

“The great moral question of our attitude toward the homeless, toward refugees and migrants takes on a deeper dimension: Do we really have room for God when he seeks to enter under our roof? Do we have time and space for him?” the pope said.

“The faster we can move, the more efficient our time-saving appliances become, the less time we have. And God? The question of God never seems urgent,” Benedict lamented.

The pope worried that “we are so `full’ of ourselves that there is no room left for God.” He added, “that means there is no room for others either — for children, for the poor, for the stranger.”

With his voice a bit hoarse, and looking somewhat tired as the two-hour ceremony neared its end, Benedict decried that history has suffered through “misuse of religion,” when belief in one God became a pretext for intolerance and violence. Still, he insisted that where God is “forgotten or even denied, there is no peace either.”

“Let us pray that Israelis and Palestinians be able to live their lives in the peace of the one God and in freedom,” the pope said.

Benedict also mentioned his hope for progress in Syria, which is mired in civil war, as well as Lebanon and Iraq.

In Bethlehem, the holiday season was an especially joyous one for its Palestinian hosts, with the hardships of the Israeli occupation that so often clouded previous Christmas Eve celebrations eased by the United Nations’ recent recognition of an independent state of Palestine.

Festivities led up to the Midnight Mass at St. Catherine’s Church, next to the fourth-century Church of the Nativity, built over the grotto where tradition says Jesus was born.

“From this holy place, I invite politicians and men of good will to work with determination for peace and reconciliation that encompasses Palestine and Israel in the midst of all the suffering in the Middle East,” said the top Roman Catholic cleric in the Holy Land, Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal in his annual address. “Please continue to fight for a just cause to achieve peace and security for the people of the Holy Land.”

In his pre-Christmas homily, Twal said the road to actual freedom was still long, but this year’s festivities were doubly joyful, celebrating “the birth of Christ our Lord and the birth of the state of Palestine.”

“The path (to statehood) remains long, and will require a united effort,” added Twal, a Palestinian citizen of Jordan, at the patriarchate’s headquarters in Jerusalem’s Old City.

Then he set off in a procession for the West Bank city of Bethlehem, Jesus’ traditional birthplace. There, he was reminded that life on the ground for Palestinians has not changed since the U.N. recognized their state last month in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and east Jerusalem and the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.

Twal had to enter the biblical town through a massive metal gate in the barrier of towering concrete slabs Israel built between Jerusalem and Bethlehem during a wave of Palestinian suicide bombings in the last decade. The Israeli military, which controls the crossing, said it significantly eased restrictions for the Christmas season.

Israel, backed by the United States, opposed the statehood bid, saying it was a Palestinian ploy to bypass negotiations. Talks stalled four years ago.

Hundreds of people greeted Twal in Manger Square, outside the Church of Nativity. The mood was festive under sunny skies, with children dressed in holiday finery or in Santa costumes, and marching bands playing in the streets.

After nightfall, a packed Manger Square, resplendent with strings of lights, decorations and a 55-foot Christmas tree, took on a festival atmosphere, as pilgrims mixed with locals.

Christians said it was a moving experience to be so close to the origins of their faith.

“It’s a special feeling to be here, it’s an encounter with my soul and God,” said Joanne Kurczewska, a professor at Warsaw University in Poland, who was visiting Bethlehem for a second time at Christmas.

Pastor Al Mucciarone, 61, from Short Hills, New Jersey, agreed.

“We come here to celebrate Jesus. This is a very important town. Great things come from small events. The son of God was born in this small village. We hope all will follow Jesus,” he said.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas visited Bethlehem and said “peace will prevail from the birthplace of Jesus, and we wish everyone peace and happiness,” according to the official Palestinian Wafa news agency.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a special Christmas greeting too, wishing Christians “a year of security, prosperity and peace.”

In Iraq, Christians gathered for services with tight security, including at Baghdad’s Our Lady of Salvation church, the scene of a brutal October 2010 attack that killed more than 50 worshippers and wounded scores more.

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