Every Christmas, visitors around the world descend upon Bethlehem to celebrate the birth of Jesus in the location he is believed to have been born.

In the modern Arab village of Beit Sahour near Bethlehem lies a special place called “Shepherds’ Field and Grotto,” where the angels are believed to have announced the birth of Jesus to a group of shepherds, as described in Luke 2:8-20.

Shepherds’ Field is a popular attraction for tourists who want to come visit the church, underground caves and various chapels all year round, and especially during the Christmas season. It is a place where people come to pray and experience the miracle of the incarnation of Jesus

The site houses a small church, resembling a shepherd’s nomadic tent, which was designed and built by Antonio Barluzzi in 1953.

“He [Barluzzi] took the idea of building a church that will have the image, the same shape of a tent,” Father Silvio, custodian of Shepherds’ Field, told Paul Calvert during a recent interview. “And it makes sense because we are in the shepherd’s field. So when you enter in the church, the first thing that you see is the shepherds and the angels and, of course, the shepherds that go to Bethlehem…they go to see baby Jesus and this kind of decoration. And of course, on the ceiling you can see a lot of angels.”

The church is adorned with artwork, including an impressive nativity scene featuring depictions of the ‘Adoration of the Shepherds’ and a unique star of Bethlehem, with its tail pointing to the place where Jesus was born. The popular Latin phrase, “Gloria in excelsis Deo,” (Glory to God in the highest) can be seen on the main altar.

Aside from the main church, the site also features a group of limestone caves which were once used as dwellings during the Roman-Herodian times. Today the caves have been transformed into characteristic small chapels to commemorate the angels.

In addition, there are ancient ruins from the 4th and 5th centuries, including ruins from a monastery that was built around 400 A.D. The large complex houses an ancient olive oil press and wine-making equipment, as well as evidence of a channel for carrying water from one part of the monastery to another, thus serving the practical needs of the monks in their daily life.

“Actually, the whole area, the whole side of the mount is full of caves. And according to the tradition, many different shepherds were with their flocks. But, in particular, this place gives us the remains of the Byzantine monastery and the church. And that means that in the year 325, this place was already venerated,” Silvio said.

In fact, he added, the Byzantine-period mosaic, dated to be from the year 325 to 614 A.D., may be the strongest archaeological evidence remaining to mark where the angels are believed to have appeared to the shepherds.

The shepherds, Silvio explained, were raising sheep for temple sacrifice, but also for commercial purposes and to consume the meat and the cheese, as well as making clothes from sheep’s wool.

 

Mural on the ceiling inside the chapel at the Shepherds’ Field in Beit Sahour (Photo: Custodia Terrae Sanctae)

 

Shepherds’ Field is currently expanding with the building of five distinct chapels to accommodate the large number of visitors.

“We are building a chapel of the Immaculada [Immaculate Conception] because it’s supported by Spain, by Spanish donors. We are also building a Croatian chapel that is also built by the donors of people from Croatia, and another one from local Arabs that are helping us to build that third chapel. And we still have another two that we would like to build,” Father Silvio told Calvert.

“It’s really a gift and it’s an honor,” Father Silvio said of his role as caretaker of Shepherd’s Field during an interview with Paul Calvert. “But also it’s a duty,” he explained, saying that it takes a lot of work behind the scenes to keep the chapel clean and the sanctuary ready to receive visitors 365 days a year.

Father Silvio talked about the responsibility “to be there and always trying to have a smile to say welcome, to help the pilgrims that come every single day because we don’t close the sanctuary.”

“We have Catholics, Orthodox, Protestant, Evangelical, coming from all over the world, and we always find a place for them to celebrate, to pray,” he added.

During the Christmas holiday, Shepherds’ Field becomes a popular place of  it is a place of worship and song.

“You can always listen to people singing in many different languages. And that is amazing because you may be used to the carols or the songs… in your language. Then you listen to these songs in different languages…in French, in Spanish, in Italian, in Korean, in Chinese, in Japanese, in African languages. And it’s really very touching, how universal this event of the birthday of Jesus can be.”

Share this article