Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!
Since The Faithful Traveler in the Holy Land will air on EWTN nightly from February 17-22, 6:30 pm/3 am EST, I thought I’d start exploring some sites in the Holy Land. What better place to begin than the beginning?! It’s still the season of Christmas, so today, liturgically, the Holy Family would still be resting in a manger in Bethlehem after Jesus’ birth. Let’s explore the Church of the Nativity and Shepherds’ Fields, where the herald angels told the shepherds about the newborn King.
Did you know that Bethlehem is in Palestine? When Jesus was born in that little cave that looked nothing like the crèches that make up most Christmas decorations, Bethlehem was part of Judea. Today, sitting atop this cave, the Church of the Nativity is one of the oldest Christian churches in the world, dating back to 565 AD. Although people have worshipped here for centuries, the first church built here in 326 A.D. was commissioned by St. Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine.
The main entrance to the Church of the Nativity is called the Door of Humility. It’s a small door that most people have to bow down to enter to avoid hitting their heads on the lintel. It was built to keep people from entering the church on horseback, as apparently, they were wont to do. (So leave your horse at home!)
The church is maintained by three religious denominations–Greek Orthodox, Armenian, and Roman Catholic. Since the Greek Orthodox maintain the main altar above the cave, an iconostasis–a wall of icons–separates the nave from the sanctuary and beautiful chandeliers and lamps hang overhead. The church’s five aisles are divided by forty-four pink limestone columns, most dating back to St. Helena’s original church. Fragments of 11th-century mosaics can be seen above the columns, and 4th-century mosaics can be seen under trap doors in the floor.
Below the sanctuary is the Grotto of the Nativity, believed to be the site of Jesus’ birth. Under an altar, pilgrims kiss a 14-pointed silver star with the words, “Here of the Virgin Mary Jesus Christ was born.” It all goes by so quickly, you have to really prepare yourself, mentally and spiritually, for what you’re about to see and do. I remember collecting my thoughts as I bent down, caressing it gently and thanking Jesus for being born. If you think about it–what He did for us, the nature of His birth, His life, and His death–it blows your mind. He was King of Heaven and Prince of Peace! It could have been so different! Yet that is what He chose.
Nearby, in the town of Beit Sahour, Shepherds’ Fields is where the angels told the shepherds about Jesus’ birth. You remember that scene from “A Charlie Brown Christmas Carol”, right?
“And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not; for, behold, I bring you tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you: Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, 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, and on earth peace and goodwill towards men.’” (Luke 2:8-14)
That’s what I kept hearing when I was there: Linus quoting the Bible. It was awesome.
When you first come to the area, you see a beautiful fountain, with a shepherd perched atop, and animals all around. The Catholic Church of the Angels, built in 1950 by the Architect of the Holy Land, Antonio Barluzzi, is in the shape of a shepherd’s tent. Bronze statues of shepherds support the altar, and paintings on the walls illustrate the wondrous events of that night. The white ceiling lets in so much light, you can imagine the brightness that must have come upon the shepherds that night. Angels encircle the ceiling, with their words written in gold: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
Below the church are the caves where the shepherds lived while they tended their flocks. Pilgrims can sit and pray or, as our group did, sing “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” and try to imagine what it must have been like, to see a great multitude of heavenly host and to hear them proclaim the birth of the Savior of the world.
The new series, The Faithful Traveler in the Holy Land can be seen on EWTN nightly from February 17-22 at 3 am/6:30 pm, and will rerun on EWTN after (check EWTN’s listings for more information). Diana and David will also appear on EWTN’s Life on the Rock on February 13th at 10 pm EST, February 14th at 8 PM EST, February 15th a 1 AM EST, and February 18th at 9 AM EST.
Photography: Courtesy of Diana Von Glahn, used with permission.