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Liturgy - The Maronite Liturgical Year

By HE Bishop A-C Tarabay (2006)

Fr. Matar made reference, first, to many old Syriac manuscripts and ancient liturgical books. This is because the history of the Maronite liturgy and calendar is a Syriac language history. Further, the heritage is found only in a slender trail of rare and valuable books. It needs just one dedicated person to trace something like this over the seas of time and space, and the results are extraordinary. At the end of the paper, we provide a list of Fr. Matar’s invaluable references.

The Development of the Liturgy and Calendar

The oldest version of the Maronite calendar is both Antiochian and Syriac. This means that it is based upon the practice and the teaching of the ancient Church of Antioch, where St Peter was Bishop. From Antioch, St Peter went to Rome, where he was martyred. So the calendar is Antiochene in provenance. It is Syriac in language. The Maronite origin as an Antiochian Church with a Syriac tradition should not surprise us. Antioch was a religious and cultural centre. The Syriac tradition was a vigorous one, which was able to reach the people of the countryside and mountains.

The Maronite liturgical year, like the Syriac liturgical year, started at the beginning of October.  This is shown by the surviving Maronite documents and the Syriac manuscripts which have come down to us from between the fourth and tenth centuries. This liturgical tradition has been followed by the Maronite Church from the time of its first organization as a separate Church. But that tradition represents what the people were doing when they were simply the Christians of the area in and under the influence of Antioch.

Significantly, too, as in the Syriac tradition, the most important feasts of the Maronite calendar are also the oldest fixed feasts of Our Lord, such as the Nativity on 25 December, the Circumcision on 1 January, the Epiphany on 6 January, and the Presentation in the Temple on 2 February. In the Roman Church, the Epiphany commemorates the visit of the Wise Men, the magi. However, in the Maronite Church, in accordance with the ancient tradition, it represents the public announcement of Jesus’ mission when he was baptized in the Jordan by John the Forerunner, also known as “John the Baptist”.

It would appear that the Marian feasts were celebrated particularly after the Council of Ephesus (431 A.D). These feasts were spread in the Church’s calendar in this manner: Our Lady of the Crops on 15 January, Our Lady of the Wheat on 15 May, Our Lady of the Grape on 15 August, Nativity of Our Lady on 8 September, the Annunciation on 25 March; and jointly with Our Lord, the Presentation on 2 February.

Two points must be noted. First, there are three curious Marian feasts: Our Lady of the Crops, of the Wheat and the Grape on 15 January, 15 May and 15 August respectively. These are not agricultural or farming feasts as such: they are special celebrations of the eucharistic ingredients for bread and wine. That is, they link the reverence for Our Lady to the Holy Eucharist, and thus point back to Our Lord, his sacrifice, and the redemption.

Second, the Feast of the Annunciation on 25 March is one of the oldest feasts in the Church. It is common to both the Eastern and the Western Churches.  However, the date of this feast was later changed to the third Sunday of the Nativity Season where, as we shall see, it fits into the Sundays of announcement.

In order to mark the closeness  of Our Lady and Our Lord, a closeness especially respected in the Antiochian Syriac tradition and theology, there was always a feast for Our Lady following the major feasts of Our Lord. For example, on 26 December, immediately after Christmas, we have the Congratulations of Mary (also known as “the Praises of Mary”). Further, we must note here the striking liturgical hymn of the Virgin Mary which is sung on the evening of Good Friday, “I am the sorrowing mother” (Ana al-um al-hazina). This association of Our Lady with the major events in the life of Our Lord is another proof of the antiquity of the Maronite tradition, and demonstrates again a link to the Church of Antioch.

After the feasts of Our Lord and His Mother, we come to a series of feasts in the Maronite calendar which are similar to those in the calendar of the Chaldaean Church. However, neither Church has borrowed from the other, rather, they each possess these feasts because they both find their origin in the Church in Antioch. These are the feasts of the Apostles in October, the Martyrs in November, St. Maroun and his disciples in February, and the various feasts of the Fathers of the Church and founders of monastic and religious orders.

February is especially important in the Maronite calendar, with its feasts for disciples of or those closely associated with the mission of Mar (Saint) Maroun: Mar Asabsimas, Mar Abraham, Mar Haouchab, Mar Yacoub, Mar Lymneos, Mar Simeon the Stylites, Mar Talalayos, Mart Marana, Mart Kyra and Mart Domnina.[1] The most important of these, that of Mar Maroun, is celebrated on 9 February.

Further, the Maronite Church also adopted the historical and commemorative feasts  which were observed by the Church in Antioch in the 4th century, before the death of St Maroun between 410 and 423. Some of those feasts are: the visit of the Magi, the massacre of the Innocents, the nativity of John the Forerunner, his decapitation and the discovery of his head, the chains of St Peter, and, most importantly, the feast of Saints Peter and Paul.

The Maronite Calendar Today

If the Maronite calendar is based upon, and mainly formed from the Antiochian Syriac liturgical tradition, nonetheless, it has received many influences. At sundry points, the calendar has been enriched with contributions received from other ancient liturgical traditions such as the Melkite, Coptic, Chaldaean and Armenian Churches, with whom Maronites have been in close contact for 1,500 years. However, the greatest influence has undoubtedly been that of the Roman Church (often called the Latin Rite or Latin Church).

Latin missionaries introduced so many feasts in the Maronite calendar, and made so many alterations to it that it has become similar to the Roman calendar. This was done so that the Maronite Church might participate in the liturgical calendar of the Universal Catholic Church. This is an important part of the process known as “Latinization”. In addition, the expansion of the Maronites all over the world, and their assimilation among communities of the Roman Rite, has simplified the entrance and reception of Latin feasts into the Maronite calendar, and even of Roman practices into the liturgy.

Many examples can be offered of the changes imposed by Latinization: the feasts of All Saints, All Souls (the Faithful Departed) and Saint Joseph. Generally speaking, these are ‘stable’ feasts, celebrated chronologically and outside the liturgical seasons. Another Latin influence has been the practice of dedicating a month to a particular devotion, for example, March as the month of St Joseph, May as Our Lady’s month, and June for the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

Finally, in the last three decades we have witnessed an outstanding and magnificent liturgical renewal in the Maronite church. The Institute of Liturgy at the Holy Spirit University brought together liturgical expertise from all over the Church. Later on, the Patriarchal Commission for Liturgical Affairs has been able to reorganise, renew, and revive the spiritual and the liturgical heritage of the Maronites.

In addition, an impressive body of authentic Maronite text and music has been translated and adapted into English for the benefit of non-Arabic-speaking Maronites.  In this regard, we must especially mention the work of Rev. Fr. Geoffrey Abdallah in the Maronite diocese of Australia.

After many years of research and study, we have seen the publication of the calendar and associated materials. The liturgy and calendar now reflect the seasons of the Maronite liturgical year, and Maronite calendar has been reviewed in order to make it conform more faithfully to the tradition of the Antiochian Syriac Church. Most critically, there has now been published a new edition of the Divine Liturgy, a striking evidence of how liturgical reform in the Maronite Church is inspired by fidelity to the authentic tradition of the Church.

As we see in “Iconography of the Maronite Liturgical Year” by Rev. Fr. Abdo Badwi, Maronite spirituality has been centred on one major feast, Easter, known in Arabic as the ‘Id el Kbir, together with three other fixed and small feasts (the A’iad Saghira): Nativity, Epiphany and the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. These last two, Epiphany and the Holy Cross do not receive such honour in the Roman Church.

The Seasons of the Maronite Church

It is worthwhile setting out some more detail of these seasons, as the differences from the Roman Church are interesting.

1          The season of the Birth of Our Lord

This season, which commences the Church’s sacred year, begins with the feast of the Renewal and Consecration of the Church.  Note that the Church’s year commences not with New Year’s Day but in October, and that at the head of the sacred year is the sanctifying of the Church, the house of God, and the meeting place of His people. That is, the sacred year cuts across the secular year, and commences with purification, consecration and renewal – activities of eternity. Each time we celebrate a feast of the Church, such as the Ascension, we are not just commemorating it. In eternity, each Ascension is also the first Ascension.

We then have the Sundays of:

  • the Announcement to Zechariah, the father of John the Forerunner,
  • the Announcement to Mary,
  • the Visitation to Elizabeth,
  • the birth of John,
  • the revelation to Joseph, and
  • Genealogy Sunday (when we remember that Our Lord was born into the House of David).

The great feast of the season is the Birth of Our Lord (Christmas Day), followed by:

  • the Praises of Mary on 26 December,
  • the Finding of Our Lord in the Temple, on the Sunday after the Nativity, and
  • the Circumcision of Our Lord (Day of Peace or New Year’s Day).

This is quite different from the Roman Church’s first, second, third and fourth Sundays of Advent. Of course, the feasts of the Nativity, the Praises of Mary and the Day of Peace are stable, they always fall on 25 December, 26 December and 1 January. Also, there is a midnight liturgy (qorbono) on the Day of Peace. Thus even at the start of the secular year, the emphasis is given to the sacred, as opposed to ordinary worldly celebrations.

2          The season of the Epiphany

The Epiphany is also stable. It is always comes on 6 January, known as the ‘Twelfth Day”. But celebrated only on Sundays in this season are the Sunday of:

  • Deceased Priests,
  • the Righteous and Just, and
  • the Faithful Departed.

Once more, the possession of these three Sundays in addition to the solemnities  of 1 and 2 November which were imported from Rome, marks another distinction between the Maronite and Roman Churches. The fact that we Maronites have these three observations tends to support the impression many have that the Maronites piously never forget their deceased, and pray for them to a significant extent. Again, we see how the liturgy reflects and guides the life and mentality of the people.

3          Lent

The Season of Lent unfolds through an extraordinarily imaginative cycle of Sundays and weekday liturgies in the Maronite church. We have:

  • Cana Sunday, the entrance into Lent,
  • Ash Monday (not Ash Wednesday), followed by the first weekday cycle,
  • Sunday of the Leper,
  • Sunday of the Haemorrhaging Woman,
  • Sunday of the Prodigal Son, followed by the second weekday cycle, the Cycle of Miracles’,
  • Sunday of the Paralytic,
  • Sunday of the Blind, then the third weekday cycle, Hosanna Week,
  • Lazarus Saturday,
  • Hosanna Sunday (Palm Sunday), and then
  • Passion Week.

4          The season of the Resurrection

The most important season, the centre of the mystery of salvation, is also the shortest, being made up of:

  • Resurrection Sunday (Easter Sunday),
  • the Weekdays of Resurrection (Easter week),
  • New Sunday, and
  • Ascension Thursday.

One of the distinctive features of this season is its midnight liturgy (qorbono) for Resurrection Sunday.

5          The season of Pentecost

The second Sunday in the Pentecost season is known as “Trinity Sunday”. People used to Latin Church’s season, which often extends for more than six months, may be surprised to find that the season is not so long amongst the Maronites, always finishing on the Sunday before 14 September, when the Season of Holy Cross commences.

6          The season of Holy Cross

This feast, the Exaltation of the Glorious Cross, is always celebrated on 14 September. The Sundays which follow until the new church year commences repeat this liturgy.

Fr. Matar’s Sources

It is interesting to note Fr. Matar’s sources.

1. The handwritten manuscripts (in chronological order)

These books are venerable, ancient witnesses of our faith.

  • The Rabboula Gospels book of 586 AD, that is, late 6th century.
  • A Jacobite and a Maronite Calendar of the 12th century.
  • The manuscript of Salamanca no.2647 of 1242, that is, mid-13th century.
  • The manuscript of Ibn Al-Qalai from the end of 15th century.
  • The Vatican Syriac document 313, dated 1564.
Bear in mind that reading these handwritten documents brings its own difficulties, even if in reading them one feels as if one has stepped back through an open door into the past. Then, in the famous library of the Mariamite Monks in Rome, Fr Matar was fortunate to find the following 17th century texts:
  • Manuscript no. 414 from 1613.
  • Manuscript no.235 from 1682.
  • Manuscript no. 81 from 1699.

2. The published books (in chronological order)

Although Fr. Matar was now able to work from printed books, these were the only extant copies, and were not always very legible, being quite old.

  • The Maronite Breviary of 1624.
  • The Proceedings of the Maronite Synod of Hrach in Lebanon, from 1644.
  • The Missal of the Maronite Divine Liturgy (the Maronite Mass) from 1716.
  • The Maronite Ritual in a volume from 1752.
  • The Maronite Breviary volume of 1797.

[1] These last three, it will be noticed, all bear the same name, and may in truth have been one person. “Marana”, “Kyra” and “Domnina” are all women’s names referring to the “Lord”, in Syriac (Aramaic), Greek and Latin, respectively.