By Orlando Hernández
East of the Palestinian city of Bethlehem lies the mostly Christian suburb of Beit Sahur. It is believed that somewhere in the area of this town is the site where the hosts of angels appeared to the shepherds on Christmas morning (Lk 2: 8-20). In a large open space one can visit ruins of Byzantine monasteries and churches doing back to the 4th Century. An Orthodox Church and a nearby Catholic Church commemorate the event. This place, known as Shepherd’s Field, is beautiful, located on a high point looking into a barren valley that is believed to once have been the field where Boaz and Ruth first met, surrounded by hills dotted with modern Israeli settlements in the distance. It is certainly a good vantage point from which to see heavenly things on a starry night.
Grottoes can be visited, where the ancient shepherds once kept their animals, and where artifacts from the 1st Century have been found, In these grottoes Franciscan priests celebrate the Mass with pilgrims all day long. One place that caught my attention and devotion was the “Chapel of the Angels”, designed by Antonio Barluzzi in the early 1950’s. It has a strange dodecagonal ( twelve-sided)shape, with a steep dome, supposed to resemble a shepherd’s tent. Inside it is graceful, peaceful, and filled with light from the many star-like openings in the dome. There are three semicircular chapels, each with a painted mural telling the story of the shepherds on Christmas morning. I have tried everywhere to find the name of the artist but I have not been able to. Our guide said that if we look carefully at the murals we can see the different reactions that persons of different ages can have in the presence of the Divine.
In the first mural one can see that their initial reaction was one of dread and awe as “the glory of the Lord shone around them and they were struck with great fear.”(v 9b) The young shepherd looks shocked, but still dares to look up at the angel. There is even a sort of smile on his face, showing the child-like wonderment that a young person can still feel. The adult shepherd cannot even get up. He looks scared and puts up his hand to shield himself from the Light (don’t we do that too!), but still he peeks through! The old man (to whom I relate the most), cannot even look up. Is it reverence, or a sense of guilt and unworthiness before such a Holy Presence?
The angel reassures them: “Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.”(v 10) Then the angel sends them on a mission (“You will find an infant …”). So many times in our own lives our loving God soothes our fears and doubts, and then inspires us to action.
In the second mural their mission takes place: “They went in haste and found Mary and Joseph and the infant lying on the manger.”(v 16) The mural depicts a scene of light and peace. Time seems to almost stand still. The young man kneels relaxed, but respectful, transfixed. He holds the little lamb with care, as if holding a baby. The adult shepherd, no longer afraid, is inspired to activity, to play a lullaby to the child Jesus. He seems moved by tenderness (God is Love!). The old man genuflects with open hands, in reverence , worship, invitation. He no longer shows fear. Instead he seems peaceful. He dares to look, smiles, loves, fells gratitude in the comfort of God’s benign presence. St. Joseph has an expression of contentment, maybe even a father’s pride. Mary, who is our greatest example of the Christian life, seems thoughtful, in meditation: “Mary kept all these things reflecting on them in her heart.”(v 19) All this happens in the light of the Divine Presence of the Newborn King: a sweet little baby!
In the third mural we see the shepherds returning to their hill, still being showered by Grace, displaying the fruits of such intense contact with God. The youth is full of wild, delirious joy. He dances and sings. The adult channels this energy in a creative way, making a music that calms the sheep. The old man displays incredible joy in his eyes. We see such gratitude and love as he touches his heart and looks up to heaven. “Then the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, just as it had been told to them .”(LK 2:20)
Dear Sisters and Brothers. I pray that your Christmas experiences in 2023 leave you with some of the grace, wonder, and glory that the shepherds found on that Christmas morning at Beit Sahur/