Why did this nice Jewish girl from New York spend the last night of Chanukah at "A Festival of Lessons and Carols for Advent and Christmas", occurring at Al Akhawayn University (AUI) in Ifrane, Morocco?
When I was young, I sang in my high school and university choirs. I was deeply moved by the simple faith expressed in songs like "In the Bleak Mid-Winter", "Bring a Torch, Jeanette Isabella", and "Joy to the World" - and I admit to even tearing up for "The Little Drummer Boy." So, while I was a Visiting Professor at Al Akhawayn University, I indulged my nostalgia, and subjected myself (and the others who had to listen to me) to trying to read the tenor line in the volunteer choir, which met a few times in the two weeks while I was at AUI working on a theatre project with a colleague at the University.
"People of faith" is an expression we hear and perhaps even use quite often. I identify myself as a person of faith. But what does that actually mean? I feel somewhat uncomfortable trying to capture this amorphous phrase in words -- and publicly, at that, because faith is a very personal and private matter. My relationship to a Higher Power, in whom I put my belief and trust, is not something that I choose to talk about easily. It feels difficult to share such an intimate relationship in the public arena.... Nevertheless, I will try, because to me, the term "Faith" is not a weapon to be brandished in rage at a supposed enemy, but rather a means of connecting with others who also give themselves to belief and faith. And that act demonstrates a generosity of spirit, which I feel the world is sorely lacking at the moment.
Faith often gets defined through the practices of organized religion. That can be appealing, as it gives the believer a community to join - and the yearning to belong is a primal human need. But it is not necessary for you and me to follow the same religious practices, in order for us to feel connected to one another as people of faith. The impulse to believe can unite all people of faith together, if they would only realize it.
And this brings me back to Sunday afternoon's Festival of Lessons and Carols. It was a living example of that generous, loving, positive impulse at work. At 4 p.m. (actually 4:30, by the time all the different choirs arrived), this nice Jewish girl from New York was wearing a Moroccan djelaba (long Moroccan robe, which covers the body of men and women chastely, lent to her by a Muslim friend), and sitting with about 200 other people from 8 different community choirs and their families, as we sang songs and listened to various Old and New Testament scripture readings in at least a dozen different languages.
Here are some indelible images for me, snap shots taken by my mind's eye while at the Festival:
-- the young woman in the hijab singing Handel's "Hallelujah" Chorus from the Messiah
-- the infectious rhythms of the choirs from other parts of Africa, making it hard for us to remain in our seats, as they sang Christmas songs whose words were strange to me, but whose joyous meanings were crystal clear
-- our choir singing the beautiful Latin round - "Dona Nobis Pacem" - holding candles in the darkened auditorium, praying for peace
-- our choir singing an Arabic Christmas song. Read the translation of some of the lyrics, below:
"Laylat Al Milad" - Traditional Arabic Christmas Carol
"When we offer a glass of water to a thirsty person,
When we clothe a naked person in a gown of love,
When we wipe the tears from weeping eyes,
When we cushion a hopeless heart,
We are in Christmas."
"On the night of Christmas: Hatred will vanish, the earth blooms, war is buried, love is born."
This event was inspiring to me - I felt a deep connection to all the people in the room, although I may have been the only Jewish person present, and the only person with my particular relationship to a Higher Power. I was moved by faith: the belief that we all could make a more loving and more just world. To that end, the money collected during the service is going towards purchasing blankets for refugees and migrants seeking a home in Morocco, "In honor of our Lord Jesus, who became a refugee as a tiny child," as stated in the Festival program. And in the lobby, as we all left, after a shared meal of hot soup, bread, and sweets, there were handicrafts for sale by Berber shepherds, honoring the memory of Jesus, the Shepherd to his flock.
I feel deeply grateful to Al Akhawayn University, and all the people who organized the Festival and made it so meaningful. I was told that this was the 17th year of the celebration. May it continue for many years to come; and may hatred vanish, the earth bloom, war be buried, love continue to be born.