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An Enlightening Journey into the Christian East

An Enlightening Journey into the Christian East

By: Elizabeth Winkle ‘15

Last Saturday, January 19, several students (accompanied by Father Chris Saliga) journeyed to the far distant land of Lawrence, Massachusetts in search of a deeper understanding and appreciation of the Eastern Catholic churches.

We were welcomed warmly at the door of St. Anthony’s Maronite Church by Father Peter Azar, a Lebanese priest with an accent that hinted of the Holy Land. (In fact, Father Peter is fluent in English, Arabic, and Syriac; the basic languages necessary to fully serve his congregation.) Seated in his living room, we listened attentively as he outlined the origin of the Maronite Church and explained the differences between its liturgy and that of the Roman Catholic Church. For example, in the Maronite Church, communion is taken by intinction—the priest lays the host on the tongue—and the sign of peace is passed along the aisle.

Our entrance into the sanctuary elicited many stares, but we nonetheless proceeded to the front and opened our liturgical books to find lines of unintelligible characters. Among the branches of the Catholic Church, the Maronites are the only ones who celebrate mass in English and Syriac (Aramaic), the same language spoken by Jesus.

As mass commenced, the voices of the congregation rose in an ancient chorus. Most of us tried to fumble along with the transliterated lines, but when Father Peter began to speak in Syriac, I gave up my struggle and listened in awe. To me, one of the most beautiful and significant facets of the Catholic Church is in its very name—universality. The Syriac portions of the Maronite liturgy are exclusively Jesus’ words, as quoted in the Bible. Those same words were recorded by the gospel writers, and spoken by the disciples who established the first Christian churches. Despite our mangled readings, we, too, became part of a celebration stretching back to first-century Palestine. Father Chris, who was privileged to concelebrate the mass alongside his Maronite brother priest, joined with centuries of priests speaking the language of our Savior.

Perhaps I seem a bit obsessed with words, but after all, they’re an important element of Christianity. Jesus was the Word made flesh; the Word of God is sharper than a double-edged sword. Participating in the “communion of the saints and the blessed company of all faithful people” in Jesus’ own tongue was an understandably powerful experience.

After mass, Father Peter indulged us in a fascinating question and answer session. I would go into more detail, but Chris Hauser’14 asked too many thoughtful questions to be reviewed succinctly. We departed following an excellent dinner at the local Lebanese restaurant, where Father Peter demonstrated his Arabic calligraphy skills.

Three cheers for Bridget Shaia’15, who took the initiative to organize this greatly edifying experience.

Elizabeth Winkle is a Dartmouth ’15 who hails from the great state of Alaska, where she attended Grace Christian School in Anchorage. She serves as the “token Anglican” at Aquinas House and Class Delegate to the ‘15s.

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