22 Jan

Istanbul: Christmas at the Basilica of St. Anthony

Inside our church, we emphasize all of the liturgical seasons with decorations that signify what the Church is celebrating. The short Advent and Christmas seasons usually take place within a month and a half. However, the Friars Minor Conventual celebrate them with meditations lasting almost three months.

There are two reasons for this. The first is that St. Francis loved this time of year. He celebrated the Child Jesus joyfully and tenderly, as he did at Greccio. The second is that, for us, it is an occasion to proclaim to our Muslim brothers that “in times past, God spoke in partial and various ways to our ancestors through the prophets; in these last days, he spoke to us through a son” (Hebrews 1:1-2), who now passes from the state of being the Divine Word to that of being flesh.
Today, the crib of the Nativity Scene contains the Holy Scriptures. Tomorrow it will hold the divine Child. Now the crib contains our faith and hope and, after experiencing these two theological virtues, tomorrow we will find the greatest virtue, love itself. Jesus says: “Ero cras” [“Tomorrow I will come”], to those who will be coming back to celebrate Christmas. This event takes place at the Franciscan Nativity Scene, in the “Courtyard of the Gentiles” located in front of the Basilica of St. Anthony in Beyoğlu, Turkey.
The courtyard at St. Anthony’s architecturally and spiritually embraces all those who pass under the portico. The portico leads them from the street into a common space for the people. Our first proclamation takes place in this courtyard. It is where we proclaim the incarnation of the Son of God with a simple and clear evangelical Nativity Scene. Mary and Joseph wait by the crib and, at the same time, they silently proclaim the birth of the Verbum caro factum est.
Several feet away, on the opposite side of the courtyard, like it or not, is the statue “Twisted Crucifix” by the artist Wim DELVOYE. It expresses another birth, the painful one, suffered by the One who was born exclusively for our salvation.
These two “Advents” of Jesus, his birth and crucifixion, follow each other under the gaze of the Immaculate, who appears as a mosaic in the lunette above the church door. The Virgin is shown with her arms down at her sides and her palms open, indicating the birth and the crucifixion. At the same time, she is seen as a patroness welcoming all who enter the courtyard. She invites us to go into the church in order to more fully discover the mystery of Christmas.
Whoever goes into the church cannot fail to notice the Advent wreaths on the columns. Lit up, the wreaths look like royal crowns proclaiming: “The righteous live forever, and in the Lord is their recompense…therefore shall they receive the splendid crown, the beautiful diadem, from the hand of the Lord” (Wisdom 5:15-16). The wreaths also point to the two Christmas trees on the altar. They burn like the burning bushes in the desert (with light bulbs), causing the spectator to say to himself, as Moses did: “I must turn aside to look at this remarkable sight” (Exodus 3:3). Those who come closer discover not only the trees, but also a larger, more elaborate Nativity Scene, which says something extra about the person of Jesus and his birth. This is a Nativity Scene for believers.
Thus, the Friars Minor Conventual, on the calenda, December 24, solemnly proclaimed Christmas to the citizens of Istanbul: “For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Messiah and Lord” (Luke 2:11).

Friar Anton BULAI

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