I would like to wish all my Christian readers and friends a (slightly belated) Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. May 2021 be a year of good health, peace, happiness and prosperity for all of us. May this cursed plague be gone from us, and may we all be able to return to a semblance of normality in 2021, without the spectre of the coronavirus hanging over us.
The skies seem to agree with our prayers, and in a very unusual occurrence, Saturn and Jupiter “touched” each other on Monday, a display that won’t be seen again until 2080:
The solar system’s two biggest planets, Jupiter and Saturn, came within planetary kissing range in Monday’s evening sky, an intimacy that will not occur again until 2080.
This “great conjunction,” as it is known to astronomers, occurred fortuitously on the winter solstice for those in the Northern Hemisphere and the beginning of summer in the global south.
The last time Jupiter and Saturn nuzzled up this close was in 1623, but weather conditions in regions where the reunion could be seen blocked the view.
Visibility was apparently better the time before that during the Middle Ages, on March 4, 1226, to be precise.
Sadly the pandemic has kept visitors and worshippers away from Bethlehem and other Christian holy sites, but we must all pray that in the coming year we will be able to resume our prayer services in our synagogues, churches and mosques with full attendance on all our festivals.
Deprived of its usual tourist influx by the pandemic, Bethlehem will celebrate a quiet Christmas this year that is less about commerce and more about religion, says its parish priest.
In a normal year, hundreds of thousands of visitors flood the Palestinian city in the West Bank, located less than 10 kilometers (six miles) from Jerusalem.
While the lack of visitors has been devastating for business owners, it has also offered a rare opportunity for solemn worship, said Father Rami Asakrieh, Bethlehem’s parish priest.
“Sometimes there are more than half [a] million people who arrive in this period to visit the Nativity Church,” he said.
But with coronavirus restrictions making travel to Bethlehem all but impossible for foreign worshippers, the Church of the Nativity has been eerily calm in the days before Christmas.
Under the Grotto of the Nativity, the recitation of Armenian prayers by four monks echoed clearly through the basilica deserted of its typical throngs of visitors.
The Christmas Eve mass on Thursday, regarded as the most important annual event at the church, will be closed to the public.
‘Heartache and pain’
Not even representatives of the Palestinian Authority will come to Bethlehem on December 24, Asakrieh said.
“It has never happened before,” he explained, citing only past restrictions imposed during the First and Second Intifadas.
“I think that this Christmas is different because people are not busy with the external manifestations of the feast,” the priest said, referring to the gift-buying that has, for many, become synonymous with Christmas.
“Now [people] have the time, and they are obligated, to concentrate on the essential… the theological spirit of Christmas,” he said. “Less business, but more religion.”
This year, business is not as usual, as PM Binyamin Netanyahu sent Christmas greetings emphasising the new “outbreak” of peace in the Middle East:
I echo the PM’s greetings and I wish all my Christian friends a peaceful, joyful festive season and I wish Merry Christmas to all those celebrating!