Holy Land

Shepherds' Field

Stations of the Crèche by Thomas A. Stanley, S.M.

There is a tradition that the "sorrowful devotion" (way of the cross) began almost immediately after Christ's death and resurrection when Jesus' mother, along with a group of disciples, regularly retraced her Son's journey to Calvary stopping prayerfully at places of special significance. Centuries later returning Crusaders introduced this devotion to Europe. Along the side walls of churches fourteen crosses were placed along with plaques bearing art images of these special sites (stations). Thus the faithful could visit in spirit the Jerusalem sites and meditate prayerfully on the events.

I would like to suggest a new devotion for the twelve days of Christmas (Dec 25 to Jan. 6). It consists of a prayerful visit in spirit to geographical sites that had special significance during the birth and infancy of Christ. Here are the sites and events; you have to furnish the prayerful meditations.

" ...you will conceive in your womb and bear a son.... "Luke 1:31.

It is appropriate to begin our stations at the Basilica of the Annunciation, a majestic building of white limestone in Nazareth, built over the traditional site where Gabriel told Mary she was to bear the Child Jesus. After the resurrection of Christ, the relatives of the Lord continued to live in Nazareth carefully preserving memories of Jesus and the genealogies of the family.

The main source of Mary's Well. It is under the crypt of the church.

They ruled over Nazareth's community of Judeo-Christians and erected a Church-Synagogue on the site of the Annunciation. About the year 427 a Byzantine church replaced it and it in turn was replaced by a Crusader church in 1239 only to be destroyed in 1263. In 1620 the site was acquired by the Franciscans who erected a modest edifice there. In 1955 this church was completely demolished to open the way for a complete examination of the site and the eventual building of the present Basilica. The latter is really two superimposed churches, a lower church or crypt which preserves the grotto remnant of Mary's home and the remains of the Byzantine and Crusader churches and an upper church which serves as the parish church for the large local population of Palestinian Catholics. The upper church has an oculus, a large opening in the floor, through which you can see the grotto below. In its pavement there are emblems of the Councils of the Church that had Marian significance and a huge mosaic on the wall represents Vatican II's doctrine of the Church. On the other walls there are artistic works each given by a different country and each representing the principal figure of Mary venerated in that country. The Basilica has a great cupola rising above the roof. Some say it is shaped like an inverted lily (a Marian flower). Others see it as a tent, a view that fits well with the literal translation of verse 14 of the first chapter of John's gospel ["and he set up his tent among us"].

Some distance north of the Basilica is "the Fountain." Legend says that it was here, while Mary was drawing water, Gabriel first greeted her vocally, but seeing no one she returned to her home where the angel again appeared, this time visibly.

"...and why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? "Luke 1:43.

Although Ain Karim is presently within the  limits of the greatly expanded modern city of Jerusalem, in Jesus' day it was was five miles northwest of Jerusalem. Ain Karim means "Fountain in the Vineyard," a well-merited name in view of both the abundant water and rich vineyards there. The town stretches on hillsides and the bottom of a small valley. Its houses are shaded by trees and even today all the surroundings are green with cypresses and pine trees. It was there that Zechariah and Elizabeth lived. They had two dwellings. One, their usual residence, was in the valley. A second, high on one of the nearby hillsides, was a summer place where they could escape the heat and humidity. Elizabeth, fearing that people in the village will censure her because she had intercourse with her old husband and wishing to meditate in solitude, to savor the deep joy of maternity, to praise God who at last has thought of her, moved to the country house on the hill overhanging the village, quiet in the middle of woods. It is late autumn; there are no flowers, but the leaves, red, brown, yellow and multi-hued, keep her joyful company. It was to this place that Mary came after leaving Nazareth and it was there that Mary stayed for three months until the birth of John the Baptist. Mary is the ark of the new covenant and her three-month visit echoes the three months the ark of the ancient covenant had remained in the house of Obed-Edom during its journey from Abu Gosh to Jerusalem in David's time.

"...she gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths. " Luke 2:7

Mary and Joseph came to Bethlehem as refugees of a sort. At the present time there are hundreds of poor refugees there. They live in half-cave-half house dwellings for it is still the custom as it was in Jesus' day to find a cave ( of which there are many in this area) and erect in front of it another room. The cave is warmer in winter and cooler in summer and where the cave is large it can also be used for keeping animals at night. It was in such a home of a relative that Joseph sought shelter. His hosts had already given over their "guest area" (which is often translated as "the inn") to others so Joseph and Mary were put up in the cave area with the animals. It was there that Jesus was born. The manger mentioned in the Gospel was most likely a storage place for fodder rather than a feeding place. It was the best and driest place to put the newborn baby.

Like  Nazareth, Bethlehem had from the first days of Christianity a group of Judeo-Christians who transmitted from father to son the events which the oldest among them had personally witnessed and they venerated in a special way the grotto in which Christ was born and which they called "the cave of light." The Emperor Hadrian tried to obliterate the memory by placing there a shrine honoring Adonis. He only insured the memory. In 326 Constantine erected a church there. After it was damaged in 529 during a revolt, the Emperor Justinian pulled it down and built in its place the present church, the oldest one in the Holy Land.

The Grotto is reached by descending a flight of stone steps. It is a rectangular room about thirty-five feet long and ten feet wide. There is a brass star affixed to the stone floor in the alcove at the east end. It is inscribed (in Latin) "Here, of the Virgin Mary, Jesus Christ was born." The walls of the Grotto are covered with large sheets of asbestos, once brightly painted with scenes from Jesus' life, but now blackened by the soot on many burning candles. Behind these sheets, scholars have identified a small chimney which perhaps provided ventilation for the fire that warned the Holy Family.

"...there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night." Luke 2:8

About a mile and a half east of Bethlehem is the village of Beit Sahour (House of the Vigilant) which lies in the middle of the so-called 'Boaz' fields. On the glorious night of the Nativity the shepherds kept watch in one of those fields.

The Shepherd's Field in Beit Sahur, east of Bethlem

Already in St. Helen's day there was a church here dedicated to the angels who had announced Christ's birth to the shepherds. The site honored by Catholics has a natural cave nestled in a lower protected position.  Its mouth opens eastward--away from the prevailing west wind and toward the warming rays of the morning sun. The cave's mouth also opens into a small, natural glen, where animals could be gathered during times of danger. The shepherds were probably gathered in this cave when the angel appeared to them. The Franciscans have converted the cave into a very inspiring chapel. Its natural stone ceiling is covered with black soot evidence of long use as a refuge. A few short steps before the mouth of the cave are the ruins of a Byzantine church and monastery, which archeologists date to the fourth century. On the knoll above the cave, a new and inviting tent like chapel has been built with funds Canada helped to raise in 1954. It is circular in shape with an altar set in the middle. The large dome covering the building is studded with round glass blocks which catch the sunlight and splash a rainbow of colors into the chapel. Around the base of the dome is written (in Latin): "Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to men of good will."

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