With daily Israeli airstrikes in Gaza, Baptists and Methodists in Great Britain are calling on churches to adjust their Advent practices. Inspired by Palestinian Christians canceling Christmas lights and festivities in Bethlehem, British Christians urge Christians elsewhere to show solidarity by not lighting the “peace candle” that is traditionally lit on the second Sunday in Advent. This year, that would be Dec. 10.
“The events of over 2000 years ago and of now remind us that sadly, nothing much has changed. We are still caught up in conflict and challenge, fear and uncertainty. This Advent, to stand with Palestinian Christians, we invite Methodist Churches to leave the Advent candle on the Second Sunday unlit and for it to remain unlit throughout Advent,” explained Rev. Gill Newton, president of the Methodist Church of Great Britain. “God is still present even in the most difficult places, and in the midst of violent conflict so many people are wishing for and seeking peace!”
The Methodist Church offered a suggested explanation to add to the liturgy on Dec. 10 to explain the effort: “As we prepare ourselves to welcome the birth of the Prince of Peace, we hear that the festive lights that normally shine bright in Bethlehem will not be lit this year in memory of those killed in the recent violence. To stand alongside our sisters and brothers in Christ, and all who mourn this Christmas, we will leave our second Advent candle unlit during Advent and Christmas.”
The Baptist Union of Great Britain (also known as Baptists Together) quickly echoed the call for churches to leave the peace candle unlit “in solidarity with churches in the Holy Land.” They added, “This unlit candle mimics the unlit lights of Bethlehem and serves as a constant reminder that we stand in solidarity with all who are suffering there.”
The European Baptist Federation, which brings Baptists together across Europe, Central Asia, and the Middle East, joined the call as a way to “inspire reflection and prayer concerning the ongoing conflict in Israel and the Palestinian Territories this Advent.” EBF includes among its members the Association of Baptist Churches in Israel and the Council of Local Evangelical Churches in the Holy Land (a group for churches in the Palestinian Territories). EBF said it backed the unlit peace candle effort “with the blessing of our Baptist churches in Israel and the Palestinian Territories.”
Methodist and Baptist leaders also encourage churches to share photos of their Advent candles on Christmas Day with all candles lit except the peace candle. The images will be shared with Palestinian Christians.
As the statements noted, lights and celebrations will be noticeably missing this year in the land of the first Christmas. In Bethlehem, churches will still hold Christmas services, but there won’t be all the decorations, lights, and large Christmas trees usually found in the West Bank city. Authorities said, “It is not appropriate at all to have such festivities while there is a massacre happening in Gaza and attacks in the West Bank.”
“Bethlehem should send out its own message of condolence and mourning,” they added.
Numerous Christian groups in Israel and the Palestinian Territories — including the Patriarchs and Heads of the Churches in Jerusalem, Catholic churches in Galilee, and the Council of Local Evangelical Churches in the Holy Land — have requested Christians in the region to refrain from “unnecessarily festive” Christmas activities this year because of the ongoing war in Gaza.
“Due to the thousands killed — and in prayer for peace,” explained Baptist pastor Munir Kakish in Ramallah (in the West Bank), “we will only hold traditional services and devotionals on the meaning of Christmas.”
The Jordan Council of Church Leaders in the neighboring country, which is home to millions of Palestinian refugees from previous wars, also announced they would cancel public Christmas celebrations like tree lightings, Christmas markets, and parades.
“In our homes we can celebrate, but in our hearts we are suffering,” said Ibrahim Dabbour, a Greek Orthodox priest. “How can we decorate a Christmas tree?”
Two Christian pastors from Bethlehem trekked to Washington, D.C., last week to push President Joe Biden and congressional leaders to do more to end the war. They brought with them a letter signed by churches in the city of Jesus’s birth. In addition to calling for an end to the war, the letter noted that Christmas would look much different in the little town of Bethlehem this year.
“This should have been a time of joy and hope. This year, it is a season of death and despair,” the letter reads. “This year, Christmas prayers are the only moment of hope in the middle of this human catastrophe caused by the war. There will be no manifestation of joy for the children. This year, Christmas celebrations are cancelled in Bethlehem.”