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Christmas near Bethlehem: A holy night in a holy city

Editor's note: This is an excerpt from "With Wondering Awe," which includes a compilation of Christmas essays from several authors and is published by Covenant Communications.

Each Christmas Eve there is a big celebration at Manger Square in Bethlehem. Religious pilgrims come from far and near. Music fills the air. There are marching bands and choirs from all around the world playing and singing Christmas carols in their native languages. It is one big celebration culminating with a midnight mass in the Church of the Nativity.

My wife, Wendy, had hoped that while our family lived in Israel we would be able to participate in this traditional Christmas event. I, however, was not as enthusiastic. I hate big crowds, traffic jams and long lines.

My idea of a great Christmas Eve is a nice family dinner, a simple gift exchange, and children retiring to their beds early (the earlier, the better) with “visions of sugarplums” and Santa Claus dancing in their heads. But there was no way Wendy was going to let us spend Christmas Eve in our apartment. With Bethlehem only seven miles away, we were not going to miss out on the experience of being near Bethlehem (the operative word being near).

We reached a compromise: We would go to Shepherds' Field outside of Bethlehem and have our own Top Family Bethlehem Christmas celebration. Even as we loaded the family into our gray, gutless-wonder, Subaru station wagon, we were not all converted to the idea. It was somewhat cold and overcast that day.

“What if we get rained on?” one of the kids complained.

It was getting later in the day, and it seemed like there was still so much to do to be ready for Christmas.

“Can’t we just stay here and sing a few songs?” another child said.

“We are in the Holy Land, you know,” Wendy said insistently. So away we went.

There was still some murmuring as we parked along the side of the road and walked through the rocky terrain in search of the perfect place to view Bethlehem and have a brief — brief — Christmas program.

But whatever misgivings we’d previously held quickly dissolved as we caught our first glimpse of the twinkling lights of Bethlehem. The words to a beloved Christmas hymn "O Little Town of Bethlehem" instantly permeated my mind:

O little town of Bethlehem,

How still we see thee lie.

It was a beautiful, clear evening — light-jacket weather — and only partly cloudy so we could see the stars as they began to appear in the sky. Even with our earlier misgivings about the weather, I had feared that there would be crowds at Shepherds' Field. However, there was no one else anywhere. We were all by ourselves.

We found a spot on top of the ridge overlooking the city where we each found our own private rock. There were no smooth or comfortable places to sit on, but, oh, what a view. As the evening grew darker, the city lights multiplied and magnified. In the starlight, we could see the Christmas lights adorning the churches and the tall Christmas tree erected in the middle of Manger Square. The song continued to illustrate the beauty of the view:

Above thy deep and dreamless sleep

The silent stars go by.

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.

The night Jesus was born, scores, perhaps even hundreds, of people were packed in every available space in the “inn” — the khan, or caravanserai. There was no privacy. Undoubtedly, the air was filled with a blend of sounds and smells; people talking, even shouting; bellowing livestock; smoke from fires for warmth and cooking; unpleasant smells from animals and humans.

These people had gathered to Bethlehem, the city of David, from many places for a high holy day yet were unaware of the spiritual significance — even holiness — of what was occurring in a cave beneath them. They had perhaps noticed the young couple — the wife ready to give birth. This couple appeared much like all of the other pilgrims coming to the Holy City. Little did the pilgrims know the young couple and their babe would come to be known as the Holy Family. Holiness was found, at least that night, not just in the temple in Jerusalem but in a cave in Bethlehem.

For Christ is born of Mary,

And, gathered all above

While mortals sleep, the angels keep

Their watch of wond’ring love.

Although we, as a family, may have missed out on a cultural experience among the crowds at Manger Square that Christmas Eve, we experienced something far greater — a holy night. It was just us — Mom and Dad and children (and some nearby sheep and goats) and the spirit of the Lord. In the stillness of Shepherds' Field, as we remembered and reverenced the Holy Family, our determination was strengthened to become a holy family ourselves.

How silently, how silently

The wondrous gift is giv’n!

So God imparts to human hearts

The blessings of his heav’n.

No ear may hear his coming;

But in this world of sin,

Where meek souls will receive him, still

The dear Christ enters in.

Brent L. and Wendy C. Top have written or co-authored several books, including "Protecting Against Eternal Identity Theft," "Glimpses beyond Death’s Door," "What’s on the Other Side?" and "When You Can’t Do It Alone."