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26 December 2011

Bethlehem Beit Sahour

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Bethlehem: The Shepherds’ Field and Grotto

Beit Sahour

Some shepherds, amongst the most despised of the Jewish people, went to adore Jesus. Dazzled by a great light, an angel brought them the tidings of joy that the long-awaited saviour had been born. And they heard a host of angels praising God who, by sending the Messiah to the earth, had shown His greatness to the celestial court and given salvation to men.

Opening hours of the sanctuary

8.00 a.m. – 11.30 a.m.
- 2.30 p.m. – 5.00 p.m.

Tel.: 970-02/277.24.13
- Fax: 970-02/277.61.71

The Christian tradition

An anonymous pilgrim in ancient times, quoted by the Benedictine monk Peter the Deacon (12th century), tells us of the holy memories present in the surroundings of Bethlehem: “Not far from there, there is a church called of the Shepherds, where a large garden is fully enclosed by a wall; and there, there is a very luminous grotto, which has an altar where an angel, appearing to the shepherds in vigil, announced the birth of Christ.” St. Jerome (end of the 4th century) also mentioned this place on several occasions, associating it with the Biblical Migdal-Eder (Tower of Eder or of the flock) and the church of Jerusalem celebrated a feast-day there on Christmas Eve, Bishop Arculph (7th century) recalls the presence of the burial places of the three shepherds in the church. Before the arrival of the Crusaders, the church was destroyed but the ruins still continued to be visited by pilgrims.

Traditionally the place was marked at Deir er-Ra’wat, on the southern edge of the plain below Bethlehem, where there are important ruins of an ancient holy building. The lower church or crypt, which is virtually intact, was also used as a parish church by the Greek Orthodox until 1955. In 1972, excavations began (under V. Tzaferis) and the monument was restored; a modern church stands alongside the old one.

The traditional location was questioned by the discoveries of C. Guarmani (1859) and, subsequently, by the excavations carried out by Father Virgilio Corbo (1951-52) in Siyar el-Ghanam, on a hillock some distance away from the previous place. The remains of a farming settlement dating back to the 1st century AD (with an oil press, grottoes and vault lined with burial niches) and a Byzantine monastery (church, courtyards, cisterns, bakery, rooms with mosaics) which flourished between the 4th and 8th centuries AD were found. The new sanctuary, dedicated to the angels, was built by the Custody of the Holy Land in 1954 (architect A. Barluzzi).

The Place

Shepherds’ Field. Cross-section of the entrance-central apse of the new sanctuary of Excelsis Deo, which has a dodecagonal shape with five apses having an inclined plane, recalling the structure of a field tent (architect Antonio Barluzzi).

The inside of the church

- 1. – The fresco of the scene of the announcement of the angels to the shepherds.
- 2. – The fresco of the adoration of the shepherds.
- 3. – The fresco of the scene of the return of the shepherds.

Biblical readings

The shepherds’ visit

Now there were shepherds in that region living in the fields and keeping the night watch over their flock. The angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were struck with great fear. The angel said to them, "Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For today in the city of David a saviour has been born for you who is Messiah and Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger." And suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel, praising God and saying:

"Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests."

When the angels went away from them to heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let us go, then, to Bethlehem to see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us." So they went in haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the infant lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known the message that had been told them about this child. All who heard it were amazed by what had been told them by the shepherds. And Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart. Then the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, just as it had been told to them.

(The Gospel according to Luke, 2,8 – 20)

God chose the lowly and despised of the world

For it is written: "I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the learning of the learned I will set aside." Where is the wise one? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made the wisdom of the world foolish? For since in the wisdom of God the world did not come to know God through wisdom, it was the will of God through the foolishness of the proclamation to save those who have faith. For Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are called, Jews and Greeks alike, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.

Consider your own calling, brothers. Not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.

Rather, God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise, and God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong, and God chose the lowly and despised of the world, those who count for nothing, to reduce to nothing those who are something, so that no human being might boast before God.

It is due to him that you are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, as well as righteousness, sanctification, and redemption, so that, as it is written, "Whoever boasts, should boast in the Lord."

(First Letter to the Corinthians 1,19-31


Psalm or hymn
- Psalm 85 (84): The Lord proclaims peace to his people.

- The shepherds visit Mary and Joseph and the Child (Luke 2,8-20), the glad tidings to the lowly (Isaiah 61, 1-3), God chose the lowly and despised of the world (1 Corinthians 1, 19-31).

Prayers and oration

Christ came so that the creation could be freed from the corruption of sin and death and reach the freedom of the sons of God. Supported by this faith, let us invoke his name:

You, who exist forever and became a man in time,
- through the mystery of Your birth, renew our humanity.

You, who are the light of the people and the master of holiness,
- light up our steps with the light of Your word.

Word of God, who was made man in the womb of the Virgin Mary,
- deign to live, through faith and grace, in our souls.

Let us pray:
- You wanted, O Father, the humble shepherds to learn of the birth of Your Son in a marvellous way, through the Angel, grant us, who profess faith in his incarnation, to take part in his immortal life, For Christ, our Lord, Amen.