In past years, at the Christmas season, I have written about my visits to the Church of the Nativity in Manager Square and about my efforts to follow (by car) the route that Mary and Joseph must have taken during their journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Today I will describe my visits to the churches that purportedly mark the spot where “shepherds were abiding in the fields,” where the magi (aka wise men) rested after visiting the new born babe and where Mary and Joseph, fleeing with their newborn, stopped to rest on their way to Egypt so that they might escape the cruelty of King Herod.
First, some background. Of the 27 books that comprise the New Testament, only Matthew and Luke contain any reference to the birth of Jesus. Both of these Gospels present Jesus as having been the son of Mary and Joseph, having been born during the reign of Herod the Great, and having subsequently grown up in Nazareth. Beyond this basic information, however, there are some slight differences in the two accounts. These, no doubt, result from the writers having used different traditions in the composition of their respective narratives. While these differences are not at all contradictory to one another, they do shed a bit more light upon our understanding of the birth of Jesus.
What are these differences? Both accounts present a rather detailed family tree. Matthew traces Jesus’s roots all the way to Abraham, emphasizing his role as the Jewish Messiah. Luke, on the other hand, traces Jesus’s lineage to Adam, emphasizing the universal importance of his life. Luke mentions a manger (a feeding trough for animals) suggesting perhaps a stable or even a cave as the place of Jesus’s birth while Matthew indicates that those who came to visit the Christ child “entered the house” where he lived. Luke describes the shepherds who visited the Christ child while Matthew recounts the visit of the magi who arrive bearing gifts. Matthew further adds an episode in this young child’s life: his family’s journey to Egypt.
So the places we visit today, as the Christmas season approaches, are the churches that commemorate these threads of the story: the shepherds out in the fields, the magi bearing gifts and the journey of Mary and Joseph and their first-born to Egypt.
First, the shepherds and the magi. At the outset it is apparent that these two small groups of visitors who came to celebrate the birth of Jesus represent different strata of ancient society. The lowly shepherds are representative of the common folk who often lack advanced education and work with their hands to provide for their families. The magi, on the other hand, are highly educated and bring gifts that are obviously not from any “bargain basement!” In neither Gospel is the exact number of visitors quantified although many scholars infer that there may have been three magi because of the enumeration of the gifts that they brought.
Even though the these two groups are from the opposite ends of the socio-economic spectrum, they do have at least one thing in common. Their involvement in the stories of Jesus’s birth are rooted in a miraculous event–a very common feature in ancient stories about the birth of a person of great significance and influence. In the case of the shepherds, angelic creatures appear in the heavens to announce the birth of the Christ child and to dispatch them to city of Bethlehem. The magi follow a star that “stops” over the spot where they will find the baby Jesus. Obviously, this detail reflects the earlier geocentric view of the universe and not the post-Galilean heliocentric view.
One day, six years ago, I was in Jerusalem and decided to spend the day in Bethlehem. I walked from the Damascus Gate to the Arab bus station a few blocks away and boarded a bus for Bethlehem. When I arrived, I was in the Palestinian Territories, specifically the area known as East Jerusalem. I took a taxi to Manger Square and along the way the driver asked me, as these drivers routinely do: “Is this your first visit to Bethlehem?” I told him I had led student tours here several times and in the course of the conversation he told me about some “off-the-beaten-track” locations very near to Bethlehem and offered to take me to each one for a very reasonable fee. I eagerly accepted his offer.
The first stop was at the Church of the Shepherds–a Greek Orthodox church built at the “traditional” spot where the shepherds received the message from the angels. This small, yet beautiful structure boasts an exquisite red-dome. Situated east of Bethlehem, the church is said, by one ancient historian, to be exactly 1,000 paces from Manger Square. Though the church has been rebuilt many times over the centuries, recent excavations have uncovered the remnants of a mosaic-floor that dates to 4th century.
The Catholics remember the shepherds in the fields and the angelic hosts who spoke to them at the Chapel at Shepherds’ Field. This small church sits atop a ridge about 400 meters north of the Orthodox site. Adjacent to the church is a tent-shaped “Chapel of the Angels” that has been built to resemble the habitat of the lowly shepherds.
Next we drove to the Monastery of Saint Theodosius also located a short distance east of Bethlehem. Near this monastery is the Holy Shrine of the Cave which is said to mark the spot where the magi took refuge during the first night after delivering their gifts to the newborn baby Jesus. In the story, an angel appeared to them and ordered them to return home without reporting the location of Jesus’s birth to King Herod.
Finally, the driver took me to The Chapel of the Milk Grotto, a Catholic chapel, constructed in 1872, located about a half-mile from Bethlehem. Christian tradition claims that this is the place where the Holy Family took refuge during the massacre of the innocents as they began that escape into Egypt. The name is derived from a story that tells how a “drop of milk” from the breast of the mother of Jesus fell to the floor changing the color of the cave to white. The church is quite small with steps that lead to a grotto hollowed out of the soft white rock. The site is sacred to Christian and Muslim pilgrims alike, especially new mothers and women who are trying to conceive. By mixing the soft white chalk with their food, and praying to Our Lady of the Milk, they believe it will increase the quantity of their milk or enable them to become pregnant.
Before my taxi driver, Hamid, dropped me at the checkpoint where I would “depart” the Palestinian Territories and board my bus for the short ride to Jerusalem, we sat together at an outdoor café in Manger Square. This engaging, older Arab shared with me pictures of his two sons and of his four grandchildren. He provided a short summary of the life of each one, his eyes gleaming with a sense of pride in their accomplishments. To me, he sounded like a typical father and grandfather. He asked me about life in America and spoke at length about his life-long dream to one day visit the USA. His English was near perfect compared with what one usually hears from taxi drivers in this part of the world.
If this kind man is in any way indicative of what the Palestinian people are really like, how is it that so many Israeli government officials, as well a sizeable chunk of the world’s population, simply write them off as radical terrorists and so absolutely oppress and condemn them? There in Manger Square with the Church of the Nativity in plain view, talking with a natural born Palestinian Arab, I reflected on just how far we are today from realizing the promise announced at Jesus’s birth by the angelic hosts so long ago: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men” [Luke 2:14, KJV].