Looking Back: The Tabernacle Choir Performs in Shepherds’ Field in Bethlehem

Contributed By Gerry Avant, Church News senior contributing editor

  • 11 December 2018

Members of The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square perform a song in Shepherds’ Field near Bethlehem in 1993.

I attended a stake conference on December 2, 2018, the opening hymn of which was “Angels We Have Heard on High.” The congregation sang with enthusiasm and joyful energy. It was the first Christmas hymn I sang at the beginning of this year’s Christmas season.

The hymn stirred memories. I once stood in Shepherds’ Field and heard an angelic chorus singing of the birth of the Savior Jesus Christ.

It was in 1993. I was on assignment to report on the Mormon Tabernacle Choir on its tour to Israel December 26, 1992, to January 6, 1993. (The choir is now named The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square.)

In addition to concerts in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv and the videotaping of the choir’s weekly Music and the Spoken Word to be broadcast on January 3, the choir sang Christ-centered hymns at several sites of significance in the Savior’s life: Shepherds’ Field near Bethlehem; the Mount of Beatitudes and the Sea of Galilee; the grounds of Dominus Flevit (a church built on the Mount of Olives commemorating the area where Jesus wept over Jerusalem); and the Garden Tomb, believed by many to be where Jesus was buried until His Resurrection on the third day.

The documentary, titled “Special Edition: In a Land Called Israel—Mormon Tabernacle Choir,” can be viewed on ChurchofJesusChrist.org and thetabernaclechoir.org.

Ed Payne, producer of the documentary by Bonneville Communications, selected the sites during an earlier visit to Israel and obtained permission for videotaping the choir in the various settings.

In Shepherds’ Field, I looked in the distance at “the little town of Bethlehem” as the choir sang of Jesus, who was born in “royal David’s city.”

I met two representatives of the Franciscan Order of Friars Minor, owners of Shepherds’ Field, who went to watch the documentary being filmed. The choir was already singing of the Savior’s birth when the Franciscans entered the field.

The Reverend Peter Vasko, director of Pilgrimages, St. Saviour’s Monastery, and the Reverend Raphael Caputo stood near the film crew and choir staff members, listening to that momentous event.

“I often wondered what the angelic chorus of long ago sounded like when they sang to shepherds in the fields of Bethlehem,” the Reverend Vasko told me. “I need wonder no more.”

The Reverend Caputo said he and his colleagues were excited when they learned the choir wanted to use Shepherds’ Field. “Your reputation goes before you,” he said in comments to the choir’s president, Wendell M. Smoot. “We’re extremely pleased that you’ve been here, that you’ve given witness in your own way to the Lord in the Holy Land, here in Bethlehem where He was born.”

He said it was a pleasure to hear “such an angelic chorus’ music once again reverberating through the hills and fields of Bethlehem. This is music from heaven.”

The Tabernacle Choir sang several hymns that day in Shepherds’ Field. The one featured in the documentary was “The Lord Is My Shepherd.”

As I sang with members of my stake on December 2, I remembered those sights and sounds from that January day in 1993 and seeing nearby a shepherd with some of his flock, with Bethlehem visible in the background.

“Shepherds, why this jubilee? …
Come to Bethlehem and see
Him whose birth the angels sing,

Come, adore on bended knee
Christ the Lord, the newborn King.”
(Hymns, no. 203.)