Christmas near Bethlehem: A holy night in a holy city

By Brent L. and Wendy C. Top

For the Deseret News

Published: Saturday, Dec. 21 2013 5:00 a.m. MST

It was so still, and away from the bustle of the city, we could hear all kinds of sounds: the bleating of sheep and goats from a nearby Bedouin flock; the Muslim prayer calls from two different mosques in the city; and the sounds of Christmas ringing out from many different Christian churches in and around Manger Square. As a family we sang “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and read the Messianic prophecies in the Old Testament concerning the birth of the Messiah. We read the prophecy of Samuel the Lamanite prophet in Helaman and its fulfillment in 3 Nephi 1.

We are not a particularly musical family, but the carols we sang that Christmas Eve in Shepherds' Field near Bethlehem sounded angelic in the stillness of the night, not because of our vocal abilities, but rather because of the special setting we were in and the Holy Spirit that bore testimony to each of us that the Babe of Bethlehem is truly the Son of God.

Between songs, we would just sit silently, gazing upon the lights of the city and soaking in the sounds of bells caroling from church steeples. We changed the words of one familiar hymn — instead of “Far, far away,” we sang, “Near, near at hand on Judea’s plains, Shepherds of old heard the joyous strains. Glory to God in the highest; Peace on earth, good will to men.”

After testimonies and a family prayer, we closed our special Christmas Eve at Bethlehem by sitting silently and absorbing the spirit of the place and the significance of the moment, remembering the events that occurred there 2,000 years earlier and the feelings that filled our hearts that night.

As we again listened to the choirs singing at Manger Square, it became apparent that we could not see them. The sounds of many voices praising God filled the air, but no persons were visible to us. It made us wonder if there were not shepherds in that very field, if not close by, who, on the night Jesus was born, saw the star and heard heavenly choirs singing praises, but could not see where the music was coming from. It was as if we were the shepherds on Judea’s rocky plains and the glittering lights of Bethlehem were the star and the choirs at Manger Square were the angels.

Silently, we walked back to the car. Darkness had now fully enveloped us. With the aid of flashlights, we carefully stepped over rocks and brush, hoping not to ruin this wonderful evening by someone falling and getting injured.

As he often did, our son, Justin, ran ahead of all of us and soon called out that he had found something. He pointed out a sheepfold, where Palestinian shepherds had gathered their flocks for the night for protection. As we explored the sheepfold made out of stones, we found a cave. In stormy weather, the cave sheltered and protected both the sheep and the shepherd. During lambing season, it became the shepherds’ home as they actually lived in the field with their flocks.

Justin wondered if this very spot could have been the place where the shepherds “were abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night” (Luke 2:8). Was it in this very cave where “the angel of the Lord came upon them and the glory of the Lord shone round about them” (Luke 2:9)?

Wendy explained to the children that the Bedouins of today, like the ancient shepherds of Jesus’ day, do not use wooden barns for their flocks but caves with an outer rock-walled sheepfold. It was probably in such a cave that Jesus was born. It was probably the first time in our children’s lives that they had ever thought about Baby Jesus being born in a cave. “Jesus, once of humble birth” took on a new meaning at that moment.

Yet, in thy dark streets shineth

The everlasting Light.

The hopes and fears of all the years

Are met in thee tonight.

The next day — Christmas Day — was the Sabbath. One of the speakers in sacrament meeting at our Jerusalem branch told of his family’s experience the night before on Manger Square. He spoke of how disappointed they had been with the experience. It was crowded. There was pushing and shoving and jostling for position. It was loud, not just with the loudspeakers and marching bands but with shouting, loud laughter, and the noises of a raucous, partying crowd. Although it was a religious celebration, there was little that was reverential or evoked worship. What a contrast to our family’s experience. The lesson was not lost on us.

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