Those who celebrate Christmas in the West may have already put away their decorations and ended their festivities, but Christmas is only just commencing for many of us here in the Holy Land. Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas on January 7. For those of us who live and worship in the birthplace of the Prince of Peace, Christmas is a particularly special time of year. That said, this year is no normal year.
Usually, we welcome millions of the faithful at Christmas. Pilgrims and locals alike gather to worship Christ at the Church of the Nativity, the place where our Savior was born. However, this year, Christmas Eve was a silent night in Bethlehem.
I serve as the 141st Patriarch of Jerusalem. Following an unbroken line of succession, I am honored to walk in the footsteps of St. James, the brother of our Lord Jesus Christ and founding leader of the church in Jerusalem. My predecessors have watched over many periods of hardship and upheaval in these lands. However few, if any, could have foreseen a time such as this. For the best part of a year, our churches and holy sites have been closed to worshippers and pilgrims alike.
Since March, the little town of Bethlehem has been strangely still. COVID-19 has rendered our streets quiet and our churches empty. There are plenty of rooms at the inn, but our pilgrim houses and hotels have no guests. In normal years, people of every tribe and tongue flock to the holy sites in Bethlehem and Jerusalem. As their hosts, we hope that our hospitality enables the trip of a lifetime. Our guests bring a blessing to our churches.
For decades now, Christians in the Holy Land have faced many social and economic challenges. For many, life in the birthplace of the Christian faith has become untenable. We have sadly said farewell to hundreds of thousands of brothers and sisters leaving in search of brighter futures in other countries around the world. In addition to these pressures and problems, we now face the challenges of this global pandemic.
Christians in the Holy Land rely on visitors and pilgrims for their livelihoods. A year without pilgrims and tourists has decimated local businesses and devastated families that have served visitors for generations. It has been a year of unprecedented financial hardship for our community, with many facing extreme hardship and even destitution.
Our churches are doing everything they can to provide help and support. We are fighting to ensure that families are not made homeless and are providing support to local businesses fighting bankruptcy. In addition, we carry on the work we have done for centuries, serving the poor and caring for those in need. Sadly, there are many in need of our help. We continue to run schools, health centers, and many different charities. We love our neighbors, and every day we work and pray for the peace of Jerusalem and the surrounding lands. While we often feel overwhelmed by the tasks and challenges before us, we remember the promise of my predecessor St. James. “God gives us more grace. That is why Scripture says: ‘God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble'” (James 4:5).
Along with our local community, it is our sacred duty to extend Christ’s ministry of hospitality to the whole world. Over the last months we haven’t been able to practice this God-given ministry of offering hospitality. We long for the day when visitors can return once more to walk in the footsteps of Jesus Christ and visit the sites of his miraculous birth, death, and resurrection.
Despite the difficulties we face, our lives are marked by enduring faith and eternal hope. We are not despondent. We are encouraged and expectant and ever grateful for the support of people around the world who have acknowledged our plight and come to our aid, such as the International Community of the Holy Sepulchre.
This year, Christians throughout the world have celebrated the birth of Christ in unusual and difficult times. We would all do well to remember the words of St. John. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5). At the start of this new year, we look forward to witnessing the work of Jesus Christ in our world once again and pray also that we might soon have the opportunity to welcome you to the place of his birth, death, and resurrection.
Patriarch Theophilos III is the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem.
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