From the Worldwide Faith News archives www.wfn.org
[PCUSANEWS] Ruin upon ruin
PCUSA NEWS <PCUSA.NEWS@ecunet.org>
9 Jan 2003 16:00:34 -0500
Note #7555 from PCUSA NEWS to PRESBYNEWS:
Ruin upon ruin
January 6, 2003
Ruin upon ruin
Disputed area is where shepherds heard the angels sing
by Alexa Smith
BEIT SAHOUR, West Bank - Father Michel Jarnoux, a hefty fellow, moves with
surprising grace as he explores the ruins of a fifth-century church and a
sixth-century monastery on a bluff overlooking the historic Judean hill
"Over there, the desert Judea, and Jericho," he says with a gesture that
takes in a broad swath of the horizon. "There, look at Bethany and Abu-Dis.
And here, Jerusalem."
Jarnoux is standing amid the jumbled remains of several ancient churches, one
so old that its apse was made of stones from the original Basilica of the
Nativity in Bethlehem, which was destroyed in 529 A.D. At Christmastime,
thousands of Catholic pilgrims attend Mass on this bluff, remembering the
shepherds who on the night of Jesus's birth heard the angels sing about an
The hills he is pointing out are deeply scarred by Israeli bulldozers doing
the groundwork for a security wall meant to separate Israelis and
Palestinians. Half-finished concrete apartment towers stand hulking on a
slope nearby. They were built to house Palestinians, but the Israeli army has
an order to tear them down and will do so if its prevails in a court hearing
scheduled for next month.
The burly priest tells a visitor that archaeological digs in this area often
turn up Roman, Jewish and Arab coins buried in the soil over several thousand
years. He holds out a few examples. "Very important," he says.
In the Christian tradition, this is where heaven opened up and yielded a
promise of peace, bringing this world and the other world closer than ever
before or since.
It is hard to keep that in mind in Beit Sahour today.
These are the fields where some believe that Ruth came upon the
barley-harvesting Boaz, an encounter that led to the birth of Obed, who
fathered Jesse, who fathered David, the troubador king who made Israel's
capital in Jerusalem and from whose line Jesus was born.
There are countless caves here where ancient shepherds might have huddled to
escape the area's winter weather, which can be severe.
Pilgrims, the few who still come in these violent times, troop to three
The Catholic site has two caves revamped for worship on a steep hill owned by
the Franciscans and tended by Jarnoux.
The Greek Orthodox site, in a valley less than a mile away, is the oldest
site. It has been occupied by churches at least since the fourth century,
when it was built by St. Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine, who
founded a nunnery, the Convent of the Gloria in Excelsis, on the same spot.
Inside the tiny cave-church is a tomb said to mark the final resting place of
three of the shepherds who heard the angel-song. The sanctuary is
underground, beneath several layers of ruins - of convents, monasteries and
churches. While the Catholic site is frequented only by pilgrims, local
Sahourians worship here
Protestants have a site, too, also an ancient cave, but they have not turned
it into a church.
"Beit Sahour is an old town," says Qustandi Shomali, a historian, guidebook
author and Bethlehem University professor. "Most of the houses here are built
over caves. Many of the people who start to build here find traces of
people who inhabitated them at the time of the birth of Jesus, in Roman
times. Sometimes they find gold in their foundations."
Shomali says it's a good bet that the caves beneath contemporary Beit Sahour
are those in which the shepherds gathered.
Claire Pfann, a New Testament professor at the Holy Land University in West
Jerusalem, says the birth narratives were the last parts of the Gospels to be
written down, years after Jesus's resurrection. Early Christians, who
expected Christ to return quickly, were more interested in the passion
And while accounts of the passion story are generally consistent, that is not
the case for the stories about the birth of Jesus. Luke and Matthew are the
only ones who tell the tale, and their stories are quite different - although
both are full of symbolic Old Testament twists.
They have a few things in common: A story of a pre-marital pregnancy. A birth
in Bethlehem and a subsequent move to Nazareth. A mother named Mary. A baby
Pfann points out that Matthew portrays Jesus as the new Moses, come to
liberate Israel. In Matthew, Herod slaughters the infants, as Pharoah did
ages before. Mary, Jesus and Joseph flee to Egypt, where God called Moses.
Later Jesus and the apostles cross the Jordan, re-entering the Promised Land,
where Jesus immediately climbs a mountain and delivers the Sermon on the
Mount, recalling Moses in the Sinai.
Luke also uses Old Testament imagery: Angels visit a barren Zechariah and
Elizabeth, a new Abraham and Sarah. Jesus and Mary are a re-cast Samuel and
Hannah. Even the Hebrew language used to describe Samuel is repeated: "And
the child grew in stature and in wisdom."
"It reminds the reader that God is fulfilling God's promises," says Pfann,
noting that only Luke includes the story about the heavens opening, the
angels singing and the shepherds hearing. "I don't think there is anything
else quite like that," she says. "Luke was indicating cosmological
significance. A sign in the heavens meant this would affect the entire
history of mankind."
Why shepherds? Pfann says the image of the shepherd is loaded with powerful
Biblical symbolism. God promises to shepherd his people throughout scripture.
And Jesus is known as the Good Shepherd.
"The birth of a shepherd to shepherds," she says. "The Lamb of God is being
born, and shepherds are the first to hear the news. But which field is it?
Nobody will ever know."
Shomali knows the site of the new Catholic sanctuary particularly well. The
Franciscans bought the land from his grandfather, who had been unaware of the
monasteries and churches that lay under his feet.
"It was a farmstead," he says. "Not only a church, but a small town."
In the fourth and fifth centuries, he adds, there were nearly 40 bishops in
the region, building monasteries and convents on every available hill.
The Protestants, of course, were relative latecomers. Their cave was opened
only in the 19th century, according to Shomali, who calls it "very recent."
All his life, Shomali has watched Christmas Eve pilgrims walk past his
mother's doorway in the heart of Beit Sahour, carrying lighted candles while
making their way to Bethlehem to the cave-grotto in Manger Square.
"I'd just stand and watch the groups pass from the Shepherds' Fields and
other places, going up to the church," he recalls. "Some would be English,
some French, some Italian. That's what was happening until the last 20
It has been slowed to a trickle by the steady tightening of the Israeli
"Christians in Palestine feel protected by the holy places, and we feel like
we're here to protect the holy places," Shomali says. "We feel we belong
here. We were the first to receive the message."
He says that makes Palestinian Christians a "chosen people."
"We were the first to be told of the birth of Jesus Christ. So we are here to
stay. We can't leave. We have a sense of belonging to the place, and that
makes us proud. We have to stay, despite the difficulties."
In the not-too-distant past, Jarnoux says, it wasn't unusual for Franciscans
to say Mass for as many as 95,000 Catholic pilgrims each year on the hilltop
at the Latin fields. This year, he says, he has worshiped with only a few
busloads of pilgrims.
He picks up a chunk of stone from an altar in one of the caves, etched
centuries ago. With a finger he traces the shape of a primitive-looking fish.
Words failing him, he shrugs and says only, "Peace. Peace."
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