WCC– Rev. Dr Munther Isaac from the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church in Bethlehem, is academic dean at the Bethlehem Bible College. Below, he reflects on how, during 2020, the celebration of Christmas in Bethlehem, though vastly different than in the past, still brought hope and comfort.
How did you celebrate Christmas in Bethlehem in 2020?
Dr Isaac: Thank God for the gift of technology! In the last few months, we have relied heavily on online services using our social media platform. Christmas was not that much different. We are asking people to put their health and that of their neighbors first. Those wishing still to attend the Christmas services, were asked to wear masks the whole time and stay distant from one another; alternatively, people could pray from their homes while watching our services online.
What does Bethlehem look like, with churches open or closed? Is the Christmas tree lit as always?
Dr Isaac: Bethlehem is not the same this year. Streets are empty. No pilgrims, shops are closed, and the manger square looks different. We did light the Christmas tree, but the celebration took place without the people! It was just a few clergy, and state and city officials.
Most churches went on as planned with Christmas services, but with very limited participation. The same is true about the traditional processions on 24 December welcoming the Patriarchs into Bethlehem—they took place but with very limited participation.
How did you reach out to your congregation during the Christmas season?
Dr Isaac: These are difficult days for the Bethlehem community. It is hard to put into words the economic effects of the pandemic, given that Bethlehem relies heavily on tourism. Churches are trying to help as much as they can, by giving financial and moral support. It is hard to see families struggling to survive. At the same time, it is encouraging to see the response of many of our church members and our community, and of course many partner churches, who gave generously to support our ministry.
At the same time, some of our members were infected by COVID-19, and we try to encourage them on the phone and on social media.
In my sermons this month, I focused on the idea of God having solidarity with us! During Christmas, we remember how the Word became flesh, and this happened in very difficult situations. Jesus became a man in challenging times; things were never easy for him while he was on earth. He was not born or raised in a position of privilege. This is empowering and a source of comfort.
Do you have a wish or prayer for the fellowship of churches from Bethlehem?
Dr Isaac: That we realize the power in the reality of “Immanuel.” We are indeed not alone—it might feel so, with the political reality of isolation; the daily reality of walls and checkpoints; and COVID-19. Yet I hope and pray that we remember, that in the midst of all of this, and despite all of this, we can find comfort and true peace in the baby born in a cave! We have peace despite our circumstances, not because of them.