The Maronite Mass:
“How beautiful is this moment” 

Our Lady of Lebanon Co-Cathedral, Harris Park, New South Wales / December 9, 2018

—Stephen Burns.

All photos in this post by Stephen Burns.

All photos in this post by Stephen Burns.

Ten minutes before the liturgy began, there was no clue that the enormous circular co-cathedral of Our Lady of Lebanon in Harris Park, NSW, would be full by 7pm, when the mass “for youth and families” began. People milled around outside, in the Marian shrine, at the gift shop, talking in small groups, while others had quietly gathered in church, standing or seated or kneeling to pray as guitar music strummed gently in the background. As I entered the building, near a statue of St. Joseph and the young Jesus, a young man in front of me crossed himself as he approached the statue, then touched jesus’ foot, then kissed his own hand, and proceeded in.

The Maronites are an Eastern Catholic Church, in full communion with the Pope, and yet with a liturgy both distinct and beautiful. Read here Sister Margaret Ghosh’s essay on the differences between the Roman rite of mass and its Maronite counterpart.

The liturgy began with the incensing of an icon of Mary, to whom the co-cathedral is dedicated, Our Lady of Lebanon. During this opening rite, a stirring song was sung to Mary—like so many others in the mass, in Arabic, with words on the large screens above people’s heads always in both at least Arabic and English. The song addressed Mary as “treasure of love,” asking her to encourage Jesus to have mercy on his people. This song, like the others, was led by a strong female voice, and like most blended traditional Syriac melodies with a folk lilt. Amongst many things of note about this song, it employed the Arabic word for “God,” Allah.

With the bishop presiding, the liturgy moved into scripture readings (like the intercessions later in the service, led by young people) before the sermon in which the bishop emphasised that “to understand the mystery, you have to stop talking, be silent…,” and urged both to “praise the Lord, thank the Lord,” and “include, make space for the name of the Lord in our discussions and conversations” in daily life. And more than that: “don’t promote bad news, fake news, don’t contribute to evil, but stop it.” Relating his message to the readings of the day, about John the Baptist, he ended his talk with encouragement to “never lose hope, because the mercy of God will come, will touch and change our lives when we least expect, and will give us cause to praise the Lord.”

Though the mass was billed as “for youth and families,” in fact people of all ages were present, from tiny children to seasoned citizens, though the majority were younger adults, women and men, sat in groups, in families, in couples, alone. Some stood around the outside walls. The five or six hundred people present in the enormous space listened attentively to the bishop’s sermon, before being drawn into the liturgy of the eucharist.

While complex in some ways, the liturgy had remarkable focus. For example, for the narrative of the Last Supper, the lights around the space were dimmed, leaving on only those right above the altar to make for a dazzling piece of drama. The greeting of peace happened in a way that would be unusual to Christians in western rites, with the deacon “bringing” peace from the altar and sharing it with people in the front row seats around the circle. Those people then turned to those behind them, so that peace as it were spiralled out from the centre. The gestures used were also distinctive, the greeter holding palms together and pointing forward, the recipient drawing their hands down the sides of the other’s joined hands, and then turning around to greet others behind them as they themselves had been greeted.

At least four languages were used throughout the rite, not only Arabic (mainly song) and English (mainly text, and when led by the priest of the community, especially, vocalised in chant close to speaking, with great musicality), but also with fragments of Greek, and notably, for the institution narrative in the eucharistic prayer, in Aramaic.

The texts of the rite were also distinctive and striking to western Christian ears. For example, an injunction to “listen” before the gospel reading called listeners to pay attention. A greeting to the altar, and the “holy mysteries” it held seemed strange, but made sense of the ritual of peace just mentioned. An affirmation of the incarnation spoke of Jesus as he is storied in the Bible and then of him about to be lifted by “priestly hands” in this assembly—a daring prayer linking past and present, ancient faith and present encounter. And immediately prior the the invocation of the Spirit on the gifts of the table, amidst the bright lights above it in the otherwise darkened space, a prayer that called out “blessed is this moment”!

Gestures among the assembly strongly embodied the people’s devotion. So after the consecration of the gifts, many people around the pews throw open their arms, seemingly spontaneously, as if in greeting to Jesus whose welcome was being proclaimed. And during the Lord’s prayer, almost everyone raised their arms aloft in an evocative posture to accompany this unison prayer.

Song was crucial in carrying devotion too. The Arabic songs with their Syriac melodies were stirring. And while most of the music was in Arabic, and this soulful Syrian chant, this did not comprise the whole musical repertoire. During communion, the people sang Hillsong’s “Oceans”—though without building to a “wall of sound” as Hillsong often does. More gentle, more conventionally prayerful maybe, but vibrant and full and sounding like Hillsong. And after communion there was another song in similar mood, charismatic English Anglican Tim Hughes’ “Here I am to worship” with its repeated address to God, “you’re altogether lovely, altogether worthy, altogether wonderful to me.” Similarly again, a final devotional song, Audrey Assad’s “Restless,” proclaimed to God, “you’re dwelling in the songs we’re singing,” before people headed off to the cafe in the adjoining youth centre for a Q&A with their bishop.

This remarkable liturgy was striking and strong, a vibrant example of diasporic liturgy re-homed in Australia, teeming with young people, meshing ancient musical culture from a faraway homeland with the “trendiest” Christian music propelled all around the world from just down the road (Hillsong’s main church building is in a nearby suburb). The spectacular space—both when empty and full, the breathtaking chant, and the unembarrassed devotion of the people made for a moving and refreshing experience.

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The song above was sung—in Arabic—at the opening of the liturgy.

This Hillsong was turned to serve the liturgy beautifully. Listen especially from 3m:10s for the stirring bridge that was repeated over and over as the people came to communion:
”Spirt, lead me where my trust is without borders,
let me walk upon the waters
wherever you would call me.
Take me deeper than my feet could ever wander
and my faith will be made stronger
in the presence of my saviour…”

Below: “Restless,” by its composer. The song begins 5m:10s.

And finally, Syriac melodies, many of which were used in the liturgy, at the Maronite Music website.