“‘Do not be afraid; for see–I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!’ When the angels had left them and gone into heaven the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’”
I am used to hearing these words during a church Christmas pagent. The scene includes a small child or two wrapped in an itchy, two-sizes-too-big-bathrobe holding a long shepherds staff during the church season of Advent. We are accustomed to this passage whose words are familiar. They have a certain flow, a certain ring, with a certain cadence when read at Christmastime. Today as the People, places, & prayers group gathered on a hillside at “Shepherds’ Field” outside of Bethlehem in the Palestinian village of Beit Sahour, I heard these words in a way that I will never forget. Shepherds’ Field is one of the places believed to be the spot where an angel of the Lord stood before Shepherds who were, as the story goes, keeping watch over their flock by night.
Our group gathered in a low, natural cave on the hillside and enjoyed a “mini-reenactment” of the Angel’s appearance to the shepherds. We sang the customary carols we know and love that point us toward this scene in the story of the birth of Jesus. “Hark! the herald angels sing” and “While shepherds watched their flocks by night” rang out sweetly in four-part harmony as we each moved from our own “itchy Christmas pagent” memories to experiencing the coming of Jesus into the world in a whole new way. As our voices resonated in the cave, the songs of praise rivaled the sound any grand cathederal could produce. We experienced what Celtic Christianity would refer to as a “thin place”, a place where the Kingdom of God was nearby, almost palpable.
We enjoyed a time of silent reflection in this thin place to consider the shepherds, sheep and angels. Following our reflection time the group gathered to share our reflections. Our group noted many things about this passage from Luke and the place where we were. We talked about the shepherds being terrified at the appearance of the angel; the experience of the shepherds living in a land occupied by invaders from Rome, their decision to go and see what the Lord had made known to them, and their response of returning, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen.
The parallels between the time of Jesus’ birth and today are somewhat uncanny. As we sat on the hillside we found ourselves in the West Bank; Palestinian territory occupied by Israeli settlers. We talked about the terrifying fear which many, both Christian and Moslem, in modern day Palestinian Bethlehem live in daily, surrounded by checkpoints, dividing walls and hostility. We talked about how vitally important it is for we who have heard the “Christmas Angel” to share this message with those who live without it’s “great glad tidings”.
It was a day of shepherds, sheep, and the need the world has for Christ. Later in the day we visited Solomon’s Pools, three immense open cisterns. Only minutes after we left our bus to view the pools, a Palestinian shepherd boy meandered by, guiding his flock of sheep, gently moving them along to greener pastures. During evening prayers we were reminded of the Good Shepherd, Jesus, from the Gospel of John, listened as the Psalmist spoke through the familiar #23, and sang “sheep songs” — “My Shepherd will supply my need” and “Gentle Shepherd, come and lead us”.
As night falls on the Holy Land, my prayer for Bethlehem and it’s people are the familiar words of the Christmas carol:
“O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie! Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by; Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light; the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.
O holy Child of Bethlehem! Descend to us, we pray; Cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels, the great glad tidings tell; O come to us, abide with us, Our Lord Emmanuel!”
Salam and Shalom, –Joel Ballew