Shepherds visit the infant

Lk. 2:9-20   Angels appear to the shepherds in the fields near to Bethlehem, and they go to see the baby Jesus. Afterwards, they praise God and everyone they meet is amazed by what they have been told about the child.

 

                Beit Sahur

Luke tells us that an angel of the Lord appeared to the shepherds in the fields near Bethlehem, and “The glory of the Lord was shining around them” (Luke 2:9). In the Old Testament, the glory of the Lord (‘kabod’ in the Hebrew scriptures, ‘doxa’ in the ‘Septuagint’ – the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible) signified the radiant, shining presence of God himself (also called the ‘Shekinah’).

 

The shepherds see the glory of the LORD

"And the glory of the Lord shone round about them”   (Luke 2:9)

 

The glory of the Lord appeared to Moses on Mount Sinai (see Exodus 24:16), and filled the tabernacle – the tent where the Ark of the Covenant was kept (see Exodus 40:34-35). God’s glory filled the Temple in Jerusalem when the Ark of the Covenant was moved there (see 1 Kings 8:11). But in Ezekiel’s prophetic vision, the glory and dazzling radiance of God’s holy presence (the ‘Shekinah’) left the Temple just before its destruction by King Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BC (see Ezekiel 10:18-19).

When Jesus was born in Bethlehem, the radiant, shining presence of God re-appeared on earth again. God’s personal presence was shown by the glory of the Lord (Greek, ‘doxa’) appearing to the shepherds in the fields on the hillside outside Bethlehem. Today, sheep are still reared on the steep hillsides known as the Shepherds’ Fields outside the village of Beit Sahur near Bethlehem.

 

The shepherds fields outside Bethlehem

The Shepherds’ Fields outside the village of Beit Sahur near Bethlehem

 

Ever since emperor Theodosius made Christianity the official religion of the Roman empire in 380AD, Jesus’s birthday has been celebrated in late December (or early in January in the eastern Orthodox churches), but no-one knows precisely when he was actually born. Before Christmas Day replaced the Roman mid-winter festival of the ‘Unconquered Sun’ on 25th December, the 3rd century Christian historian, Sextus Julius Africanus, who devised one of the first Biblical chronologies, believed that Jesus was born on 25th March.

Traditionally in Palestine, sheep were only kept out of doors overnight during the warmer months from March or April to November. The local sheep were not hardy enough to be left outside during the cold winter nights of December. So it’s more likely that Jesus was born between March and November. If the shepherds to whom the angels appeared were on their way to Jerusalem with sacrificial lambs for the Passover festival, then it’s quite possible that Jesus was actually born in March or April, just before the Jewish Passover festival. 

Visitors to the Shepherds’ Fields at Beit Sahur are welcomed at two churches, both claiming to be the site of the angelic visitation. The modern Greek Orthodox church at Kenisat er-Ruwat was erected on the site of a 5th century church, rebuilt in the 7th century, and again in the 14th century. An early mosaic floor shows that the cave underlying this church was revered as the resting-place of the shepherds as early as the 4th century AD. The Franciscan church built at Khirbet Siyr el-Ghanem in 1954 is on the site of a 4th century monastery.

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