Faculty - Gordon Matties

When Was Jesus Born?

Photo Creative Commons License Tamer Shabaneh.

The other day I was listening to the The Blind Boys of Alabama Christmas CD (Go Tell it On the Mountain). The song “When Was Jesus Born” struck me as worth commenting on during Advent (please do read to the end to watch the video). The fact is, shepherds were not tending their sheep in Bethlehem’s “fields” in late December (“the last month of the year,” as the song goes) but in summer or into September, some time after the grain harvest in April and May (Luke 2:8-10). Flocks simply wouldn’t have been allowed in the fields until then. And that reminds me that we will be visiting the Shepherds’ Fields in Beit Sahour, just outside Bethlehem, on May 1, 2010 (our first day on the ground). Although one website I read recently claimed Jesus was born on September 29, 05 B.C., it could have been May. So perhaps we’ll celebrate with the shepherds and the angels that day.

I have a wonderful memory of one of my visits to that site (Christmas, 1991). There’s a beautiful chapel at the Franciscan site. It was designed by the Italian architect Antonio Barluzzi in 1954 (more on his work in another blog posting). As we were leaving the site, we heard a group inside the chapel singing the old standby, “Angels We Have Heard On High.” Our daughter, 3 years old at the time, on hearing the chorus “Gloria in excelsis deo,” asked, “Mommy, where are the angels?”

“Tradition”locates the Shepherds’ Fields in least two places, one run by the Greek Orthodox and the other by the Franciscans. As one looks around the village of Beit Sahour, one realizes that the entire region surrounding Bethlehem would have been cultivated in grain. Remember the biblical story of Ruth and Boaz? David Roberts’ lithograph (1842) presents that image well. CLICK HERE to locate the shepherds’ fields on an interactive map of the Bethlehem region.

So whatever the date (let’s say some time in summer), the song “When Was Jesus Born” is still worth listening to. You can hear the crystal clear version sung by the Stars of Faith, with Marion Williams singing lead (video version here). I like the raucous Winans’ version set in the context of a Christmas party. Best of all is this video of the Blind Boys of Alabama stealing the show from a very staid Christmas Pageant.