You wouldn’t know it now, but a year ago, as we stood in the West Bank among the fields of Bethlehem, it felt like there could be peace on earth and good will to men. The sounds around us didn’t include the thundering of tanks and the booming of artillery. It didn’t include the shuffling of soldiers or the panic of civilians fearful for their lives. It didn’t include the extinguishing of an infant’s cry. Perhaps, the sounds of nowadays might have been more familiar to those who lived in the days when the Messiah was born.
Under the dome of the church at the shepherd’s field, in the 1953 Italian designed Church of the Angels, we gathered with men and women from many nations as we sang Hark the Herald Angels Sing. The acoustics reflected the perfect angelic harmony of the skies above this very ground. The picturesque scene all around the walls portrayed the wonder of that night long ago when “peace on earth and goodwill to men” was first announced. Architect Antonio Barluzzi (died in 1960), was known as the ‘Architect of the Holy Land’ and created this space along with the magnificent structures in the Garden of Gethsemane, on the Mount of Transfiguration, on the Mount of the Beatitudes, at the Tomb of Lazarus in Bethany along with his work restoring the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
“Go and see!” the sheep keepers were urged. “See the swaddled child in the manger.” They ran, bowing in wonder. And still we come. Humbled. Awed. Bent low in the cave offered as a potential place for the shepherd’s who heralded the birth. While the world bowed to the march of a Caesar’s might, those on the fringes caught their breath at the simple offering of heaven.
Tania was one of those seeking reflection on her pilgrimage with us last November:
“My main goal in visiting the Holy Land was to stand quietly and reflectively, and absorb the surroundings, and feel a connection through time to biblical figures who had walked through those lands. Our Israel itinerary was packed and included many stops to Catholic churches. It seemed that wherever there was a spot that was of biblical significance, there was a sizable Catholic church or two built over it. It was hard to picture the space as it could have been 2,000 years ago, without ornate buildings and crowds of people.
“By Day 8, we were visiting Bethlehem, and I was quite determined to find a spot where I could look at the scenery, just look around, alone, be with my thoughts, and consider God’s presence there, and imagine where Jesus may have walked. In a group of 27, jostling for position with all the other tour groups, I managed to find myself alone for a few minutes. The rest of my group was in the church a few steps away as I absorbed the view of Shepherd’s Field. I was on a hill, and there was a valley, with more fields and hills beyond. I focused on memorizing the view before me, and I knew that here, or near here, was where the angels spoke to the shepherds as Jesus was being born. It was a wonderful moment, thinking about God being in this place, at the momentous occasion of Jesus’ birth, and the rejoicing that it brought. I stood there, alone, absorbed by that holy time so long ago, and quietly, out of the silence, came a chorus of Hark the Herald Angels Sing. It was my tour mates singing inside the church, making the most of the acoustics. It was beautiful and flawless and gave me goose bumps. It is a moment I will always treasure.”
The shepherd’s fields are in a parklike area outside the settlement of Beit Sahur, an eastern suburb of Bethlehem. It was known as the village of the shepherds. A Byzantine cave hosts a chapel where tourists jostle to share the sacraments of their faith traditions. As usual, more than one site has been claimed by Catholics and Orthodox. The red-domed Greek Orthodox church rests at a site known as Kaniset el-Ruat (Church of the Shepherds). Formerly identified as the place where Jacob settled at the Tower of Edar (Tower of the Flock) after burying his wife, Rachel. According to Eusebius (200 years after Jesus) the Tower was about a thousand steps from Bethlehem and was the very place where the angels startled the shepherds with the good news. As usual, a fourth-century church credited to the Emperor Constanine’s mother, Helena, has been discovered, complete with mosaic flooring.
In these very fields Boaz and Ruth once swaddled their son Obed before laying him into the arms of Naomi. The Field of Boaz (also known as the Field of Ruth) is on the plain to the east of the Shepherd’s Fields. The women of this very place said to Naomi “Praise be to the LORD, who this day has not left you without a guardian-redeemer. May he become famous throughout Israel!” (Ruth 4:14) This very Obed walked these fields with his son Jesse who walked them with his son David. Generations strolled through these fields until the child Jesus first learned to walk here. The Messiah would identify himself as the Good Shepherd, identifying with one of the most despised occupations of his time.
A must stop in this area is The Grotto restaurant where we enjoyed a delicious feast of local food fashioned from the land around us. It was meant to be a reflection of Ruth’s provisions for Boaz and the samplings were worth the stop. In the spirit of Ruth, the Moabite, those from outside this community walk in the steps of our Good Shepherd, saying, “Where you go, I will go, and where you stay, I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God.” (1:16)
About four hundred metres north of the Orthodox site sits a Catholic site along the north ridge in an area known as Siyar el-Ghanam (Place for Keeping Sheep). This is where you can gaze at the colourful paintings depicting the announcement of the angels to the shepherds, the scene of shepherds bowing to the Christ-child and the full-bodied joy of outcasts celebrating the birth of their Messiah. As usual, the protestants have chosen a meadow filled with pine trees to mark the space (the YMCA guards large caves with pottery shards here). A Byzantine monastery occupied this site in the fourth century, was refurbished in the sixth century, was destroyed by Persians in 614 and almost erased from existence by Muslims in the eighth century after they chiseled off the crosses marking the former place of worship. Armies have long marched through these lands and the sound of war is nothing new.
Other sites near Bethlehem include the Church of the Nativity (be prepared for long lines for the Grotto of the Nativity) and the Herodium where Herod likely entertained the Magi a short distance from where the Messiah toddled. In 1858, a French archaeologist (Virgilio Canio Corba) claimed that he had discovered the tombs of the shepherds described by a pilgrim in the year 680. The Franciscans bought and preserved the site as they did with so many other sites, marking the land as holy. Perhaps one day these lands will once again know peace.