The smell of beeswax and incense wafting out to the front steps of St Jude”s is somehow welcoming. And I have a sense of anticipation for the “unknown” in a Maronite Mass that I find quite exciting. I”m not to be disappointed.
The old Egyptian priest enters the sanctuary in pale blue vestments and a high bejewelled crown. The cantor in gold vestments chants prayers of praise as he encircles icons of the Blessed Virgin and other saints swinging a thurible jangling with bells and belching sweet perfumed incense. A single voice chants in very Arabic fashion with but a subtle hint of organ accompaniment.
Throughout the Mass, we were blessed many times by the priest in Arabic and English, and I was drawn to the small hand cross that he always used, similar to the ones we saw in Lalibela in Ethiopia last year.
The Gospel this Sunday in the Church of Rome tells of the Visitation. Here in the Orthodox tradition, it was the reading of so many unpronounceable names of the Ancestors of Christ through the generations from Adam to Abraham, to King David and down to Joseph and Jesus, which I”ve never heard read before. In the Orthodox tradition (and I presume the Maronite), the Old Testament doesn’t function as a history book. It is believed to be a book that exists to point to Christ, to give understanding about who Christ was and what he achieved through his life-giving death.
The music had a very distinct Middle Eastern touch. The Sanctus was sung in very Arabic style, a cross between a chant and a wail but hauntingly beautiful – nothing like the exuberance of the Roman Song of Praise.
I was witness to and moved firstly by the devotion of the congregation, young and old. The overt symbolism of candles, incense, processions, frequent bowing and blessings from ornately vestmented priests and servers lends some credence to Edmundo”s argument for the Roman Church to re-incorporate more symbolism in order to add more reverence to the Mass.
I”m more used to Father Steve at St Canice”s and our “gathering” as one family to “share at the table”. This is the second time in recent months that I”ve had to ponder the question. In East Timor, Father Bong paid much attention to symbolic practices to help the local people in the mountain parishes outside Dili undertand “reverence” better.
I wonder who is right?