IBILLIN, Israel (Mennonite Mission Network) — According to tradition, England’s King George II sat in the Covent Garden audience of the first London performance of Handel’s Messiah in 1743. When, during the rousing “Hallelujah Chorus” at the close of part two, he heard the words from Revelation, “The kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our Lord,” the king reportedly rose to his feet and remained standing until the end of the number.
On a recent December morning, a group of international Christian teachers traveled from Jerusalem to the auditorium of the Rev. Elias Chacour’s new Church of Sermon on the Mount in Ibillin, part of Israel’s Galilee region, to hear George Frideric Handel’s oratorio. On the bus from Jerusalem, we wondered aloud what would happen when the choir approached the end of part two. What about the tradition of standing for the musical proclamation from John’s Scriptural reference to the Messiah. Would an audience of Jews and Muslims also rise to their feet?
The 25 players in the HaKibbutzit HaKamerit, a small symphonic group of Jews from Kibbutzes around Israel, accompanied the 45-voice Galil Elyon Choir of Northern Galilee—also all Jews. The Jewish voices performed the glorious story of the promised Messiah for an audience of 750 people comprised of local Palestinian Arabs (mostly Muslim), other Israeli Jews from the region and a handful of Christians, all sitting together.
It was the third time that Chacour had organized such an event, a musical attraction in a part of this ancient land that would rarely see or hear such music performances. He crowded the space with Arabs and Jews, Christians and Druze (an Islamic sect)—as performers and as patrons. It seemed to represent the whole philosophy that Chacour, three-time Nobel Peace prize nominee and tireless champion of working for peace and reconciliation between Jews and Palestinians, lives and works for with his thousands of students.
“We don’t talk about peace,” he so often reminds our visiting groups. “We try to live peace, every day.” Chacour smiles when introducing himself as a Palestinian Israeli Arab Christian, who has just founded the first-ever Christian Arab Israeli university.
He talks proudly about the cultural and religious mix of the 4,000-plus students and professors at Mar Elias Educational Institutions, his huge educational complex of young people in elementary and high school, and in the university-level program he started three years ago. Irrespective of their background and historical differences, his students live and study and work and play together day by day.
Their parents attend these concerts of Christian music together—Israeli Jews coming to this small Arab where town they previously may not have considered entering, then spending the concert sitting next to Palestinians like those of the West Bank towns, and normally separated from them behind massive walls and separation fences a few kilometers away.
As the conductor waved the choirs through the soaring musical passages so loved by audiences around the world, we were getting closer to the end of part two, the “Hallelujah Chorus”: “For the Lord God omnipotent reigneth.”
The audience gave rapt attention from the balconies and the side sections. Then came the passage, “The kingdom of this world…”
We watched, not wanting to be the first to stand.
“Is become the kingdom of our Lord.”
No one moved.
The basses took up the line, “And He shall reign for ever and ever,” and, fugue-like, the other voices followed. Still no one moved.
“King of Kings, and Lord of Lords…”
The audience did not stand. The passage came to an end, the conductor’s baton dropped to his side.
Suddenly, the audience exploded into wild applause, shouts of “encore” rang out, and the performers grinned wide in appreciation.
A repeat of the “Hallelujah Chorus” was the encore selection performed at the end of the oratorio, satisfying the enthusiastic applause. The conductor turned and invited the audience to sing along—and they did, heartily.
In this newly dedicated Melkite Catholic church, in a small Arab town in Galilee, Israeli Jews sang, “King of Kings.” Israeli Muslims sang “Lord of Lords.” All sang together: “Forever and ever. Hallelujah!”
The old custom initiated by King George II was almost certainly not known by most in attendance. But the impact of the Chacour experiment was evident—Don’t just talk peace. Live it.
Together—Muslims and Jews and Christians and Druze. It’s the message of the Prince of Peace.
Together. It’s what they all stand for.
Glenn Edward Witmer lives in Jerusalem and is affiliated with the Israel ministries of Mennonite Mission Network and Mennonite Church Canada Witness, which include Chacour’s Mar Elias Educational Institutions in Ibillin. He can be reached at email@example.com.