Shepherds' Field

Shepherds' Field

East of Bethlehem, some 2 km. from the centre, there is a village, Beit Sahour, the house of vigilant, of lookouts. We can reach it on foot following along Milk Grotto street.

Already in St. Helen’s day there was a church here dedicated to the Angels who had announced to the shepherds the Redeemer’s birth. After various ups and clowns in the fast century a rectory and a school were built awaiting the time when a church could also be erected. Meanwhile the liturgy took place first in a grotto called Mihwara, then provisio-nally in the rectory.

Finally in 1950 the church built by Arch. A. Barluzzi was consecrated and dedicated to our Lady of Fatima and St. Theresa of Lisieux. The inhabitants of the village, heirs of Boaz’ generosity, cooperated with great enthusiasm. The fine portico of the church has three pointed arches; the upper part of the façade is crowned by a flight of slender little arches which run also on the side walls.

The inside is divided into a nave and two aisles by two rows of four columns each. The column shafts of pale red stone of the country at first sight look a little squat. To make them appear less massive the architect resorted to a simple optical expedient: the various drums from base to capital have decreasing height. The very narrow pointed arches create the illusion that the inside is longer than it actually is. Capitals, massive yet not heavy, are quite original.

Grotto of the Shepherds

The main altar is especially worth being mentioned. It is a real jewel, a credit to Palestinian sculpture. In spite of its size it looks like an ivory miniature rather than carved stone. The frontal and the altar upper part are decorated with 15 panels representing various scen es from the Annunciation to the arrival of the holy Family in Egypt.

At the same level as the tabernacle there are four little statues (the Evangelists) while in the upper part the 12 Apostles surround the image of Christ. Authors of this work were Yssa Zmeir of Bethlehem and Abdullah Haron of Beit Sahour. Beit Sahour lies in the middle of the so called ‘Boaz’ fields’. In the glorious night of the Nativity the shepherds kept watch in one of these fields. “The angel said to them: ‘You have nothing to fear! I come to proclaim good news to you – tidings of great joy to be shared by the whole people. This day in David’s city a saviour has been born to you, the Messiah and Lord”’ (Lk. 2,10 11).

Although the Gospel words do not exactly localize the place where the Angels appeared, yet the ancient tradition has fixed it at Siyar el-Ghanam, the field of the shepherds, not far from Beit Sahour.

The excavations carried out by Fr. Virgil Corbo ofm in 1951 2 were more exhaustive than the previous ones (C. Guarmani, 1859) and the ruins could be dated precisely. The traces of human life found in caves, going back to Herodian and Roman times, and the remnants of very ancient oil presses found under the foundations of two monasteries, demon¬strate beyond every doubt that the place was inhabited at the time when Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Fr. Corbo gathered enough elements corroborating the hypothesis that a small community lived here.

Furthermore, at Siyar el Ghanam there are the remains of a guard tower, now incorporated in the Franciscan hospice. After Rachel had died, “Israel moved on and pitched his tend beyond Migdaleder” (Gen 35,21), beyond the “tower of the flock”. The Targumin7 localized this tower east of Bethlehem specifying that the Messiah would be announced there.

The Talmudic tradition pointed at the same region and the Christian tradition, after the birth of our Lord, accepted and maintained the localization. St. Jerome sees the tower at “almost one thousand (Roman) feet from Bethlehem” and adds that in that place the Angels had announced to the shepherds the birth of the Redeemer. What remains of the farming settle¬ment and guard tower explains very well an expression of Luke’s original Greek text.

According to the most qualified exegetes (among whom M. J. Lagrange) the verbe used by Luke does not mean that the shepherds were spending the night in the open, rather that “they lived in the fields”.

Excavations at Shepherds field

Excavations have retraced the existence of two monasteries, one of the 4th 5th cent., the other of the 6th. cent. Of the first one there are the foundations of the church and those of several walls. In the 6th cent. the church was demolished and rebuilt in the same place with the apse slightly displaced towards the east.

Of the second monastery we have similarly parts of the apse and walls of several rooms. Fr. Corbo thinks that many stones of the 4th cent. building, re used in the apse of the 6th cent. church, come from Constantine’s Nativity Church.

The place where the monasteries stood is not the best one in this area because it is not level. The fact that the second church was built exactly over the previous one further confirms that a special remembrance was tied with this site.

The 6th cent. monastery was destroyed in the 8th cent. by Moslems who tried even to erase the Christian signs by chiselling off and scraping off the stones on which they were engraved. Among the rooms of the second monastery a few were identified as used for particular purposes: porter’s lodge, bakery with a big basalt millstone, refectory, oil presses, cave cellar, stable. Also a canalization system and several cisterns were brought to light.

The present sanctuary was built in 1953 4 on a design by Arch. A. Barluzzi. Both the laying of the foundation stone and the dedication took place on Christmas Day.

The sanctuary stands on a large rock dominating the ruins. It represents a bedouin camp: a polygon with 5 straight sides and 5 projecting sides bent towards the centre, shaped like tents. Light floods the inside through the glass cement dome and calls to mind the very strong light which appeared to the shepherds. The bronze high relief on the door lintel was designed by sculptor D. Cambellotti who created also the portal, the four bronze statues supporting the main altar in the middle of the chapel, candlesticks and crosses. Arch. U. Noni frescoed the three apses and sculptor A. Minghetti cared for the execution of the ten stucco angels of the dome.


The Milk Grotto

House of Saint Joseph

Cisterns of David

Hortus conclusus

Rachel's tomb 

Shepherds field

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