In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. (Luke 2:8-9, NRSV)
In the West Bank there is a beautiful city called Beit Sahour, a municipality of Palestine. There one can discover those famous fields outside of Bethlehem where shepherds were living and keeping watch over their flock by night. Unsurprisingly, there’s competing claims about the exact location of the Shepherds’ Field. So naturally one can go to the Orthodox Shepherds’ Field or the Catholic Shepherds’ Field! In the Orthodox Shepherds’ Field the belief is that there’s a tomb containing the remains of three of the shepherds to whom the angel announced the birth of Jesus Christ (on the west side of the Cave Church.)
Our group went to the Catholic Shepherds’ Field on the north ridge of Beit Sahour (an area called Siyar-el-Ghanam (Place for Keeping Sheep.)) In the Catholic Shepherds’ Field, there’s the Chapel of the Angels designed by Italian architect Antonio Barluzzi. It’s a beautiful church built in the shape of a tent that permits natural light to shower the sanctuary in glowing rays of sunshine. It feels as if you are seeing the “glory of the Lord” as Luke wrote. The acoustics are incredible and when a group sings (our group sang a rousing rendition of “Silent Night”), it sounds as if there really is an angel chorus present. When you look around the walls of the sanctuary, there are paintings that depict the angel’s announcement to the shepherds, the shepherds paying homage to Jesus, and the shepherds celebrating the birth of Jesus. The Chapel of the Angels stands over a cave in which the shepherds are believed to have lived.
It’s moving to be in this beautiful space and it honestly was one of the most peaceful holy sites we visited. We were given time to explore the grounds and to contemplate the Gospel story of the shepherds keeping watch over their flock by night. At its heart, it’s a story about God’s presence felt among the poor and lowly–people who were on the outside looking in as they cared for their sheep in the fields outside of Bethlehem. It’s a story about God sometimes breaking through (the blazing light of God’s presence and power) to make God’s love known to ordinary people like you and me. It’s a story about that constant refrain in the Bible: “do not be afraid.” For God is with us, the presence of God can sustain us, and nothing can separate us from the love of God!