Some shepherds, amongst the most despised of the Jewish people, went to adore Jesus. Dazzled by a great light, an angel brought them the tidings of joy that the long-awaited saviour had been born. And they heard a host of angels praising God who, by sending the Messiah to the earth, had shown His greatness to the celestial court and given salvation to men.
The Sanctuary, designed by Barluzzi, stands on a rock overlooking the ruins. It has a dodecagonal shape with five apses having an inclined plane, recalling the structure of a field tent like the one used by the shepherds at that time. The light that penetrates the concrete and glass dome, illuminating the interior calls to mind the divine light that appeared to the shepherds.
An anonymous pilgrim in ancient times, quoted by the Benedictine monk Peter the Deacon (12th century), tells us of the holy memories present in the surroundings of Bethlehem: “Not far from there, there is a church called of the Shepherds, where a large garden is fully enclosed by a wall; and there, there is a very luminous grotto, which has an altar where an angel, appearing to the shepherds in vigil, announced the birth of Christ.” St. Jerome (end of the 4th century) also mentioned this place on several occasions, associating it with the Biblical Migdal-Eder (Tower of Eder or of the flock) and the church of Jerusalem celebrated a feast-day there on Christmas Eve, Bishop Arculph (7th century) recalls the presence of the burial places of the three shepherds in the church. Before the arrival of the Crusaders, the church was destroyed but the ruins still continued to be visited by pilgrims.
Traditionally the place was marked at Deir er-Ra’wat, on the southern edge of the plain below Bethlehem, where there are important ruins of an ancient holy building. The lower church or crypt, which is virtually intact, was also used as a parish church by the Greek Orthodox until 1955. In 1972, excavations began (under V. Tzaferis) and the monument was restored; a modern church stands alongside the old one.
Besides, during excavations the remains of a farming settlement dating back to the 1st century A. D. (with an oil press, grottoes and vault lined with burial niches) and a Byzantine monastery (church, courtyards, cisterns, bakery, rooms with mosaics) which flourished between the 4th and 8th centuries A. D. were found.
Excavations in the area have unearthed the remains of a rural settlement dating to the first century A. D. and a Byzantine monastery (church, courtyards, cisterns, bakery, mosaic environments) which flourished between the IV and VIII sec. A.D.
Limestone caves which were used as dwellings during the Roman-Herodian time, were found in the area.
It was probably a small farming village since remains of ancient mills and other traces of life from the same period were also found.
The Franciscans have cleaned up and turned the caves into very characteristic small chapels.
"You, who are the light of the people and the master of holiness,
light up our steps with the light of Your word"
Now there were shepherds in that region living in the fields and keeping the night watch over their flock. The angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were struck with great fear. The angel said to them, "Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For today in the city of David a saviour has been born for you who is Messiah and Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger." And suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel, praising God and saying:
"Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests."
(Luke, 2,8 – 20)
Psalm 85 (84): The Lord proclaims peace to his people.
The shepherds visit Mary and Joseph and the Child (Luke 2,8-20), the glad tidings to the lowly (Isaiah 61, 1-3), God chose the lowly and despised of the world (1 Corinthians 1, 19-31).
Prayers and oration
Christ came so that the creation could be freed from the corruption of sin and death and reach the freedom of the sons of God. Supported by this faith, let us invoke his name:
You, who exist forever and became a man in time,
through the mystery of Your birth, renew our humanity.
You, who are the light of the people and the master of holiness,
light up our steps with the light of Your word.
Word of God, who was made man in the womb of the Virgin Mary,
deign to live, through faith and grace, in our souls.
Let us pray:
You wanted, O Father, the humble shepherds to learn of the birth of Your Son in a marvellous way, through the Angel, grant us, who profess faith in his incarnation, to take part in his immortal life, For Christ, our Lord, Amen.
Opening hours of the sanctuary
8.00 a.m. – 11.30 a.m.
2.30 p.m. – 5.00 p.m.