THE MARONITE CHURCH: A CHURCH OF HOPE
Liturgical Texts about Hope
Hope: Some Signs
Horizons of Hope
Conclusion: Gratitude & Joy
By nature, the Church is driven forward towards the fulfillment of the kingdom of Heaven to which Christ called us to belong. He established its foundations and principles in order to guide all believers towards the kingdom. The Maronite Church is seeking to institute a constant spiritual renewal which includes multiple facets of her life; she invites all her children to strengthen their hope in Christ, despite all the difficulties and disappointments that they may face on more than one level. In all, the Maronite Church relies on the strength of the Holy Spirit who assists her in her journey and breathes hope into her.
In order to highlight its comprehensive outlook toward a hope that is built on complete trust in God and in His promises we have simply to go back to certain sources in our Maronite heritage. This text will have recourse only to some liturgical texts about hope. It will then move to analyzing the current state of affairs and its concerns, along with its signs of hope that enrich our Church and help her in forecasting a future of hope.
This text uses the outline of past, present and future. The Christians in general (and Maronites, in particular) are the children of history and are the children of the Divine initiative in creation as well as in salvation. Their hope is rooted in this Divine work, whose main traits are embodied in God’s fulfillment of His promises that will be achieved despite all adversities. This is why historical memory is considered one of the carriers of hope. When the believer looks over the history of salvation and the history of his Church he discovers, that he too is the son of the promise that began with Abraham, was fulfilled in Christ, and will reach its fulfillment in the kingdom of Heaven. That is why he clings to the hope that does not disappoint because its source and its foundations are in God. This does not mean that he runs away from or avoids the harshness of reality; rather he faces this reality with faith and with determination. What was considered indignation turns into a blessing by the power of the Holy Spirit, which God has placed in our hearts to form the deep-rooted basis for our hope
Liturgical Texts about Hope
Our liturgical texts are very rich in expressing the theme of hope because they are inspired by the Holy Bible as a history of salvation with an accent on the eschatological. We adopt in this text one single model which is the weekly Divine Office in Ordinary Time. This model is sufficient to offer a clear idea of the concept of hope, its content and the horizons that it opens. The theme of hope in this Divine Office will be presented with four titles:
1. Christ Is Our Hope
There are numerous texts that address Christ as the only hope for believers because He is the Savior of the world and never disappoints those who rely on Him. “Glory be to your mercy O Christ our King, O Son of God to whom all creatures bow. You are our King, our Lord, and our reason for living, you are our great hope” (Office for Thursday morning: the Hymns of St. Ephrem). “You are our realm, our treasure, our precious pearl, our wreath and our crown” (Thursday: Office of the ninth hour, proem ion).
Further, the metaphors used in describing Christ as the Light, the Resurrection, and the Life, the deeds that he has done throughout his life, his exhortations to rely on Him, encourage believers to take refuge in Him and to ask for His aid: “We know not of another door to knock upon except Your door O God because You have said through Your sacred words: Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and you shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you” (Saturday evening).
The prayers are rich in reciting the wonders of God in the Old and the New Testaments and the prayers beseech Him to intervene now. Also, the appearance of Christ to his Apostles, the calming of the storm, the salvation of Daniel and the sons of Hanania are mentioned in these prayers: “Hear our prayers like You have heard theirs, O good and clement Lord; answer our prayers, like You have accepted theirs; protect us under Your wings on the day of Your coming O Lord because our hope lies in You, and we rely on You, and it is You whom we call Our God, for glory be unto You” (Monday evening, the fourth rising).
Countless are the texts that remind God that since He has answered the prayers of many of His servants, so He must also answer the prayers of those who beseech Him now because He is their succor and their hope.
2. The Tribulations of Hope
Hope is based on the promises of God in the Beatitudes, the upholding of the commandments, and the carrying of His burden, if we are to enter the kingdom of Heaven: “Help us O Lord to keep on seeking the kingdom of Heaven which You have promised us and to yearn for the blessings that You have prepared for us” (Wednesday evening). Hoping in Christ's promises is consolation: “Console us, O Lord, with the hope of Your true and abundant promises, save us from the tribulations of the temptations and sorrows surrounding us…Help us to follow the path of Your commandments” (Friday evening). However, the believer and the community in its diversity are faced with hurdles and hardships. Some of these stem from the heart of the human being who indulges in worldly matters and their temptations, forgets God, and commits sins. Here the sinner compares between his wretchedness and the mercy and compassion of God, so that he remembers Him: “This wretched soul glorifies You because You have embraced him in Your mercy though he is not deserving. Your compassion has given him greatness from nothing. You have created him with Your grace, You have saved him for You are all merciful, and You have pity on him for You are all compassionate…” (Monday morning, 3rd hour). He also remembers God’s forgiveness of the sinful woman and beseeches Him by saying, “My Lord, the sinful woman has beseeched You with pious tears and sighs and You forgave her sins through the abundance of Your mercy. You have made her the hope of all who repent” (Monday Night).
This is why there was an appeal to become aware of temptations, and the need to avoid them. This appeal stems from meditation on the end of the world, from renunciation of the world and its despotic rulers, and from avoidance of worldly traps. On the other hand, there also is an appeal to remember the promise of the kingdom of Heaven which calls upon each person to remain vigilant like the wise virgins and to keep the lamps lit, awaiting the Heavenly Bridegroom, who is Christ, the One who brings joy to all who have awaited him. He invites them to come to the Wedding Feast and places them at His right hand, granting them eternal life.
Some of the other hardships that face the believer stem from the external world itself. The Church is surrounded by obstacles on all sides, which is why she beseeches God to have mercy on her and to save her: “The Church is beseeching You with pain and tears, for all her children suffering from pain, hunger, disease, torture, and oppression. O God grant them Your mercy, so that all those bowing before You will know the promise of Your salvation, and all the people will praise You and glorify You” (Tuesday evening).
“O Lord, bestow peace on the whole earth, put an end to war and enmity between all Your creatures, preserve the Churches and the monasteries…and safeguard Your people” (Wednesday morning, third hymn).
In spite of all the hardships, Christ remains “The helper of the righteous, the hope of all the pious and the refuge of all believers” (Saturday evening). That is why they come to him to support them, “O Christ the King, you are the hope of all believers, you are our Savior. We beseech you every hour. Come to our aid O God and strengthen us in Your ways so that we may praise You and glorify You at all times” (Sunday evening).
3. The Hope of the Martyrs and of the Dead
The hardships and obstacles that face the believers might become oppression that causes the death of innocents, who then become martyrs. What drives these human beings to defy all sufferings and to face death with courage, forthrightness, and joy? The only reason mentioned in the texts is that the Holy Spirit came to their support, and they accepted martyrdom based on the hope that the Holy Spirit has given to them: “You have armed Your Apostles and Your holy martyrs to fight the good fight…and to seal their deep rooted faith…make us partners in their sufferings and glory…to hasten to Your hope through their intercession…and to expect Your aid. We run to You. So be our help O Lord in hardships, our comforter in sufferings, our shelter from the oppressors, our savior from difficulties, our healer from diseases, and our supply in need…for You are the shelter and the salvation of all those who ask for Your help” (Sunday night, the second rising. It is worth noting that the second rising of the night prayers is always dedicated to the martyrs).
The hope that fills the hearts of the martyrs has made their remembrance a constant part of the Maronite Divine Office which has allocated to them a part before the last paragraph in every hymn of the ecclesial prayers.
What clearly draws attention is the hope that surrounds the dead in the Maronite Divine Office. Those who died with the hope of Christ are awaiting their resurrection, “for he is the Resurrection, the hope of the living and the salvation of all” (Sunday night, the third rising). “O living One who has descended to the abode of the dead, who has resurrected us from death and gave us life, who brought hope to the dead: with You will rise the dead who have eaten from Your Holy Body and drank from Your Forgiving Blood ” (Wednesday evening, first hymn).
The hope of the dead in the resurrection is based on the following constants: Baptism, the Holy Eucharist buried in the human body as the yeast of the resurrection, the true faith, and the risen Christ. The texts did not forget to mention the sorrow, pain, and disfiguration brought about by death. But, they consider all of these as transitory compared to the joy of the resurrection: “Peace be with you, O you who have died in the firm hope of Christ. Do not be saddened by the dissolution of the beauty of your faces because that beauty will be renewed and you will inherit the Kingdom of God” (Friday Night).
4. The Comprehensive Ecclesial Vision
It is no wonder that hope is based on Christ and that it is tightly linked to faith, love, and the promises of God. It comes as a result of the continuous recounting of the Divine plan in the Maronite prayers. This plan is replete with all of the amazing deeds that create trust in the hearts of the believers, encouraging them to put their trust fully in God and to wait for the fulfillment of His promises. There is, however, another dimension of hope and that is the ecclesial dimension; or rather the comprehensive ecclesial vision. It is clear that most Maronite prayers, especially in their concluding parts, place the believers in a relationship with the sons and daughters of the Church who “were blessed by God from Adam until today.” The Virgin Mary takes up the lead because “God is the hope of all humans, and He has descended through her to give hope to the hopeless” (First introduction, Wednesday night).
How can the faithful not be strong and not have hope when their repeated prayers include the mentioning of the prophets, the apostles, the martyrs, the confessors, the priests, the shepherds, the teachers, the dead, the church, the monasteries, the altars… the virgins, the righteous, those who fast, the ascetics, and the hermits (Wednesday night, fourth introduction). This procession of witnesses are those who have fulfilled their quest and intercede with God for their brethren who are still fighting in the world and waiting to meet Christ on whose hope they live.
The names of St. James, St. Maron, St. Ephrem, and their friends, are repeatedly mentioned to remind Maronites that they belong to a family of saints who serve as model examples of putting one’s trust in the Lord. But, the pinnacle expression of the ecclesial dimension is reflected in the conclusion of the Maronite Divine Office daily prayer: “Have mercy on Your children through the prayers of Your Mother, Who gave You birth, and of the saints, prophets, apostles, martyrs, confessors, the righteous, the priests, the holy fathers, the true shepherds, the teachers, and the prayers of Mary and of the saints. Preserve us in Your holy and ever living Name from evil, and lead us not into temptation because our hope lies in You, and it is You whom we call our Lord, for thine is the glory forever.”
It is impossible to miss the fulfillment of hope in the Mass—a hope that is based on the Resurrection, e.g., when the community answers the celebrant, after the Eucharistic Institution: “Each time you partake of these mysteries, do this in memory of me.” “We remember Your death O Lord, we acknowledge Your Resurrection and we await Your Second Coming.” These are the three stages in the Divine plan of salvation upon whose rhythm the life and hope of believers is centered: death represents misery, pain, and the end of life, while resurrection is the guarantee that proves to believers that death is not the end of everything; rather it is a necessary passageway towards life. Between these two stages of death and resurrection, Christian life takes place, animated by waiting for the coming of the Lord. Waiting is a sign of hope. It is what drives believers to carry the Cross and to transcend death with Christ, the One who rose from among the dead and conquered death. “For he will come with great glory, to bring light to the eyes that awaited him…and with his joyful light he will bring joy to our lives” (Hymn of Light for St. Ephrem).
The aspiration to the kingdom of Heaven and the ardent desire to realize this kingdom are two main themes in the Maronite Divine Office. There is an eschatological awareness that fills the liturgical community, and the texts express it as follows: “Mix, O Lord, the lyrics of our praises and the chant of our hymns this morning with the lyrics of the heavenly hosts in the heavenly Jerusalem” (Wednesday morning).
This is the general environment in which the Maronites have always lived. Hope has always strengthened their faith in spite of the many hardships that they faced and in spite of all the oppression because the measures that they have upheld during their lives were not purely human; rather they were heavenly. Their hearts were quenched by following the model of Christ and His saints; this led them on to great heights where they awaited their salvation from the Lord. Their lives, which they lived in the rhythm of prayers and hymns, both in Church and at home, were tuned to the promises of the Lord, to His Second Coming, and to the heritage of the holy fathers. That is why they beseeched the Holy Spirit saying: “Strengthen the true faith in our minds, kindle in us the blazing fire of Your love, fortify our hearts with true hope and firm consolation, which will carry us far away from this corrupted world” (Evening of Sunday of Pentecost).
The environment in which the Maronites lived has changed. It was characterized by a spirituality of work and prayer on the pastoral and ecclesiastical levels. The ancient world has disappeared along with its traditions and practices that provided a framework to unify and fortify them. The Maronites have now entered a new world or new worlds: worlds having their own criteria, worlds characterized by pluralism of religion and culture. Maronites have mingled with others who do not share their vision and they were subjected to rules and interests that have moved them from one situation to another. Life in the urban city is different from life in the village, and the Countries of Expansion are different from the countries in the Patriarchal Domain, especially in Lebanon: the current change in lifestyle has forced Maronites to confront new challenges that have undermined most of the traditional values that had previously sustained them.
Maronites, especially in Lebanon, have experienced many tragedies and calamities, have suffered from the pangs of displacement and of division, have witnessed political and social disappointments, causing some Maronites to surrender to despair because their dreams were shattered and their hopes were thwarted. With bitterness inside of them, Maronites are now wondering about their future and their destiny. Their ranks, both old and young, have been shattered and doubt has taken hold of them, except for a few who keep holding onto hope.
Given the current situation the question must be asked: Why have we reached this condition of despair if the Maronites are truly the children of hope?
A fundamental distinction must be made between Christian hope and human aspirations.
Hope is concerned with all that is related to the life of faith on all of its levels, especially on the spiritual level. Whoever places his hope in God and in all that God says as well as in His guidance even when it is difficult to understand, remains strong when put to the test. Such trials can make us stronger and enable us to deepen our trust in God and in His promises. This was apparent in the position of the martyrs who preferred death to the denial of Christ. They saw death as a door to life, whereas denying Christ would have driven them away from him forever. St. Paul accurately expressed the quality of this hope when he said, “By whom also we have access by faith into this grace wherein we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God. And not only so, but we also glory in tribulation, knowing that tribulation works to give patience; and patience to give experience; and experience to give hope: and hope makes us not ashamed because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit which is given unto us” (Romans 5: 2-5).
Human aspiration stems from the mind of the individual, and from his own plans and projects. These aspirations could be fulfilled under the proper circumstances. They could also fail for reasons related to the individual himself or to reasons out of his control. When this human aspiration is fulfilled, the individual is happy, tranquil, and plans for a better future, unconcerned about what the future, which he cannot control, might hold for him (The parable of the ignorant rich man in the gospel of Luke 12/16-21). When a human aspiration is thwarted, the individual despairs and experiences disappointment. If such a failure is repeated over and over again, and if despair takes control of the person, this might lead him to stop work, become depressed, and even commit suicide.
If we apply this analogy to the current status of the Maronite Church, especially in Lebanon during the experience of the last war, it is clear that many have confused Christian hope and human aspiration:
There were those who remained constant in their faith and held onto hope, responding to the exhortations of the letters and declarations of the Catholic patriarchs and bishops. Evidence of such faithfulness emerged among those who enthusiastically prepared for the Synod for Lebanon and accepted the Apostolic Exhortation that came thereafter, “A New Hope for Lebanon,” which was handed on by Pope John Paul II to Christians and to all Lebanese citizens during his visit in May 1997. This Apostolic Exhortation has become the reference for strengthening determination as well as for cultivating faith and hope.
However, there were also those who were disconcerted by political setbacks and social tragedies causing them to give-in to disappointment and to despair because the human aspirations have greatly failed. They lost what they had once considered as a guarantee for Christians in a developing political system. The differing parties started exchanging accusations and blaming the failure on one another. Even ecclesial authorities were not spared.
Yet, it is essential to reiterate that there is a relationship between Christian hope and human aspirations because the Christian lives like the rest of people. The Christian has his ambitions and his hopes, which he expresses in projects that are inspired by the Christian spirit, allowing him to view all its dimensions and perspectives, so that he does not remain prisoner of limited worldly visions. The community of believers, that is the Church, is concerned about the human being with his aspirations and ambitions. But the Church’s ultimate aim is to help the believer embrace what matters most, the Divine project of the salvation of the person and humanity.
It is not the place to determine responsibilities for what has happened. But, in spite of all the negativities that befell the Maronites, it should be stated that the signs of hope in the Maronite Church have remained the strongest and the most constant. These signs helped the Church from being lost, setting her forward with firm trust and hope, armed with deep rooted faith.
Hope: Some Signs
1. The Expansion of the Church
Although tribulations cause afflictions they have turned into blessing for the Maronite Church because they have led to her expansion and have taken her out of a limited national and geographical domain. This expansion has added a universal dimension to the Church and has put her on the same level with other Churches, witnessing to the rich diversity of the Church and her plurality in an undivided unity. But, this expansion entrusts the Maronite Church with a mission to remain authentic to her heritage, and to interact harmoniously with other Church traditions. She can not remain a Church of the past, but she must draw from her riches all that is new in order to meet the needs of today’s individual, whether Maronite or non-Maronite. This challenge is not unrealistic because it is based on a rich Syriac Antioch heritage that is appreciated by everyone who comes in contact with it. In fact, some of the children of the Maronite Church, with their spirit of cultural openness, played a crucial role in the Arab Renaissance and did so even at a time when the political and social conditions were extremely difficult.
2. Attachment to the Patriarchate
Wherever they have been, Maronites have Maronites have expressed their attachment to the centrality of the patriarchate and specifically to the person of the Patriarch, as guarantor and symbol of their unity. This attachment has two congruent facets. On one hand, it protects against ecclesial division. This means that no Maronite group, no matter how powerful it becomes, should consider separating from the Mother Church. Such divisions contribute to the loss of her identity, weaken the Mother Church and threaten her very existence. On the other hand, this attachment strengthens the unity between the patriarchate and the other eparchies, religious orders, and other ecclesiastic institutions. For there is richness in exchange; there is life, progress, and evolution in communication; and there is strength and good investment of resources for the benefit of all in cooperation and unity.
3. Awareness for Distinctiveness and Spreading of the Heritage
Regrettably, some Maronites have not had the opportunity to really come to know their own distinct and unique heritage. Those who have had the chance have recently become acutely aware of the necessity of preserving and sharing this great heritage. Many among them, such as researchers and scholars, in the past and at the present time, have contributed directly to this great task. But work is still in its early stages. Its objective is double: providing cultural, spiritual, and theological nourishment to the children of this heritage in cooperation with its sister Antioch Churches; and defining this heritage to be another stream among the streams that enrich the thought of the Universal Church. Being aware of the distinctiveness of this heritage should not lead to exclusiveness or arrogance, but instead should move us to constantly give thanks to God for His Providence that sustained this Church throughout the ages, and to remain faithful to Him through our commitment to the Church.
4. Sense of Ecclesial Belonging
The positive response to the Patriarchal Synod, which was welcomed in all the clerical, monastic, and lay circles, is a clear proof that Maronites have a deep sense of belonging to their Church. This response was evident on various levels, especially in joint prayer and contemplation, in answering questionnaires, in presenting suggestions and projects, in writing articles. It was also manifest in the interest of the media in the subjects that were studied, in organizing seminars around those subjects, and in spreading publications. The faithful followed the sessions of the Synod, were concerned about its future, and wondered about the resolutions that would ensue from it. It is certain that this phenomenon was only generalized to a certain degree. However, the response of the faithful testifies to the fact that they are not strangers to their Church, provided she gives them what they need by way of guidance, thought, vision, and concrete projects that can get them involved and active in their Church. This obliges the Church leaders to utilize the vast resources of the laity since they also bear the responsibility of up building the Church.
5. The Church’s Attractiveness
In spite of her great antiquity and the many calamities suffered by her people over the centuries, the Church has not aged. On the contrary, she has prospered and has borne fruit. She has provided saints, who have crowned her head. Some of these saints have been canonized, while others are known only to God and to the community which they enlightened by their lives. The latter are greater in number for they have fulfilled God’s will in their daily endeavor and service.
The Maronite Church still attracts young men and women to consecrate their lives to Christ and to serve him through a clerical and monastic life. She still offers the faithful her spiritual nourishment through rituals and prayers, especially since the recent liturgical renewal which she undertook for the last years. This renewal encourages communal celebrations and parish prayers, so that the faithful can participate and continue to dwell in the spirit of their ancient heritage that has proven to lead to piety, knowledge, and sanctity.
The recent liturgical renewal has reached the youth, who belong to different organizations and apostolic movements and are engaged in different activities in and beyond their parishes, as they have felt society’s needs and have responded responsibly. There is a longing to get back to the Gospel sources and to discover the face of Christ and follow Him.
The Church, by her shepherds, remains a reference and a shelter sought by all those who want to listen to the words of truth, the defense of human dignity and rights, and the nation’s right to freedom and sovereignty.
The Church’s attractiveness is in direct correlation with her faithfulness to Christ and with the reflection of His face on the face of her children, regardless of their ecclesial or social rank. The Church’s hope is rooted in Christ and in the Spirit who revives her every day.
6. Spiritual Renewal
There is a longing for a spiritual renewal and for a return to a spiritual authenticity that springs from our knowledge of Christ and from our discovery of his person as presented in the Gospel. This explains the recent popularity of spiritually oriented educational initiatives among youth and adults. Accordingly, a number of youths are knowingly committing to their faith and are striving to practice it both in their private and in their public lives. They are doing this after they have discovered the love that Christ has for them, and after they have experienced the importance of their commitment to Him. Proofs of that renewal are the eparchial gatherings of youth, their active belonging to their parishes, and their thirst for a genuine spiritual life through a return to the Maronite Saints: Sharbel, Rafka, and Neematallah, who attract particularly the youth who strive to imitate them in their daily lives in their family and society.
7. Initiatives of Solidarity
The repeated and increasingly numerous social crises have created initiatives of solidarity on the part of both individuals and ecclesial institutions. These initiatives have materialized in the undertaking of charitable projects, and in providing help at various levels. Many individuals have been progressively awakened to the need for collaboration in facing reality, being motivated by both humanitarian and Christian spirit. Love is not words but deeds and truth. There have been educational campaigns and gathering of donations in schools, universities, and parishes. Furthermore, educators, having realized the value of social commitment, started encouraging the youth to volunteer in various social services, considering these activities as a complementary part of their education. The sense of solidarity that results from belonging to a Church community obliges to give utmost attention and care to those who are in need so that they can more fully achieve their human and spiritual call.
8. A Church with a Mission
Christians, particularly the Maronites, have begun to realize that they have a mission in the Orient despite their dwindling number, while the majority of the population of this region embraces the Islamic faith. Such a mission is what the Catholic patriarchs called for in their pastoral letter to the Christians of the Orient, whereby they considered the Christian presence in the Orient to be a witness, a mission, and a service. In this letter they warned against the dangers of seclusion, fear, loss of identity, and depleting emigration.
The mission of the Church has its historic roots and its raison d’être even though surrounded by dangers. Christians in general and Maronites in particular should realize that to choose this mission, i.e., to stay in the Orient, is an individual and communal decision. The efforts, exerted to help those who were forcefully evicted to return to their homes, especially to villages of religiously mixed populations, converge toward consolidating the choice made for mission and conviviality. Conviviality is based on dialogue, respect, and cooperation in building a nation where justice and truth prevail and where human rights are honored, that is one of the foundations of genuine hope.
Emphasizing the role of the Church in the Orient does not minimize the importance of her mission in the Countries of Expansion, provided that, with all her children, she would remain faithful to her heritage and would be a living witness to diversity within unity.
9. Participation of the Laity
During the last fifty years the laity has become increasingly more aware of their role in the life and mission of the Church. The laity can no longer be satisfied with the role of being merely consumers who attend Church services just out of obligation, or who meet with their shepherds just in their times of need. There are many who do give their attention to Church affairs and who like to take part in her life and progress. One must also acknowledge the positive presence of women, their distinctive role, and their dedication in different areas of Church life. This religious and spiritual awakening was helped by belonging to apostolic movements, by being educated in the faith, or thanks to the service rendered by the religious media.. As a result, the sense of belonging to the Church has substantially improved, and so has the willingness to assume the responsibility in Church activities, whenever they are called upon by the shepherds according to the new Canon Law.
10. Ecumenical Rapprochement
Recently, and especially after Vatican II Council, the Church has witnessed many ecumenical initiatives whose aim is to strengthen the relations among Christians, to spread the spirit of mutual love and cooperation, and to remove many of the barriers which have prevented their communion. This new approach has been disseminated into both secular and religious quarters, especially the youth. This is a source of great hope for it will lead us all to follow the path of longed for unity and would help us witness together to the one mission of Christ and to his gospel.
11. A Church with a Marian Dimension
The Church’s Marian dimension falls within the signs of hope due to the fact that Mary, by carrying Christ, carried hope. Moreover, this dimension is also due to the place Mary occupies in the liturgical Maronite prayers, the Syriac theological heritage, the public devotions, the apostolic movements, and the Marian Sodalities. There are many books that address this topic; therefore, there is no need to develop it here. However, it is worth noting here the constant and repeated references to the Virgin Mary in all the hymnals of the daily office prayers, and also at the end of each prayer, as though Mary were praying with the community: “Mary, your Mother, intercedes with you on our behalf, along with the prophets, apostles, and martyrs.” Asking always for the intercession of Mary is what distinguishes the Maronite praying community: “Your prayer is with us, O Mother of God, your prayer is with us. May God have mercy on us and forgive us through your prayers.” The Maronites believe that Mary accompanies them. Therefore, they call on her praying: “O soft-hearted Mother of God, O treasure of Mercy and o help, you are our refuge and our hope. Even though your body is distant from us, your prayers accompany us.”
Seeking Mary’s help is a common practice as is her veneration. The continuous mention of her name is familiar to the lips and to the ears. She occupies a very large portion of the Maronite hymnals, the prayers of the Liturgical Year, and the daily office prayers, both in prose and in poems. It is worth remembering here what the late Patriarch Elias Hoyek said on the occasion of the inauguration of the Shrine of Our Lady of Lebanon in Harissa: “Yes, the storms are building up above our heads. However, the Virgin who protected the mountain until today will keep doing so. As soldiers during the night before a battle transmit to each other the password so that they would not fall victim to the enemy’s traps, so we too should do the same. Let us transmit our password of hope which is no other than ‘the Virgin Mary.’”
Horizons of Hope
The signs of hope surpass the signs of restlessness, deception, and despair. They offer a solid basis to foresee the future with confidence and faith, and to face its challenges both as individual and community. A collective ecclesial commitment guarantees the dissipation of all fears. Christ the Lord has already promised his Church that the gates of hell will not subdue her. Any particular Church, who wants to benefit from this promise, would have to live as a Church with all of her members and at all levels.
The present Patriarchal Synod should be considered an essential stage in the life of our Church. It provides us with the intellectual and practical means to continue the project of revival in our Church that has been entrusted to us. This strengthens our hope, without which we will have no future. Hope is commitment and commitment is evidence of the trustworthiness of hope. Our commitment as a Church is to continue the march of the Synod at all levels, relying on the power of the Holy Spirit and on the blessings, graces, and talents that God has granted us so that we can fulfill the responsibilities that He has entrusted to us.
The Synod has made evident to us the importance of working collectively and has developed in us a new ecclesial mentality that needs to be generalized. Recalling the original meaning of the word “Church,” resorting to the spirit of collaboration, praying, and depending on God, gathering and investing resources to the benefit of the community of believers and to the achievement of its mission, would give us the strength to withstand the difficulties and consolidate our hope in God’s promises. However, we have to acknowledge that collective ecclesial work requires great sacrifices, some of which are: abandoning all kinds of selfishness and adopting the stand that Christ asked of his followers, “he among you who wishes to be the greatest must serve the rest, and he who loses his life for my sake in this world will gain it for eternal life.” These requirements provide the one who lives them with happiness and peace of mind for he is working in God’s Name for the sake of His Church. The success of the Church is her members’ success. Accordingly, ecclesial communal work brings great benefits to those who perform it.
“Stay with us.” The two disciples of Emmaus responded with this expression after Christ explained to them the meaning of his suffering, death, and resurrection, thus opening their minds to understand the Scriptures. After the setback that they had suffered, He rekindled in their hearts the fire of love and hope. This same expression was used by Pope John Paul II in his encyclical in the year of the Eucharist. He wanted it to be an act of faith in the continuous presence of Christ in his Church, in the Holy Mystery of the Eucharist. This expression may also represent the call of the Maronite Church to Christ at the conclusion of the Patriarchal Synod so that he would stay as her companion on the journey of the Synod who had chosen for motto the words of Christ: "I am with you till the end of time, be not afraid.”
However, Christ may want to address to the children of the Maronite Church a parallel expression: “Stay with Me.” To beseech Christ to remain with us requires us to be and to remain with him. That is what he is asking of us: “Remain in me and I in you… whoever remains in me and I in him bears many fruits, for without me you can do nothing” (Jn. 15:4-5).
This is the lesson of our history and the source of our hope: The stronger and firmer our Church was attached to Christ, even to the point of martyrdom, the easier she has passed through difficulties and tribulations, and bore fruits of holiness, progress, and renewal; because the risen Christ has been her hope and her refuge.
This is also call for the future, which stems from the history that the Maronite Church lived with Christ; and He has never let her down.
Conclusion: Gratitude & Joy
The Maronite Church, following Mary’s example, has to be grateful to God for all the graces He has accorded to her and for all the blessings that He has bestowed upon her. We give thanks for all the believers, young and old, and for the leaders at all levels. All of these blessings have helped the Maronite Church to pass through all kinds of difficulties and tribulations and she has reached the present stage through the intercession of her father Maroon along with her martyrs and saints.
Recalling the Church’s ecclesial past is also recalling God’s faithfulness and promises. In spite of the tragic periods in the Maronite Church history, God never has let Her down. Therefore, the recalling of the Maronite Church history is an important source of hope and should be brought to the attention of new generations so that through this hope they may approach the new world.
One of the Latin bishops, after visiting Qannoubine and becoming acquainted with the life of the patriarchs who resided in this Holy Valley for centuries, said: “The spirit of Kadisha should move to Beirut.” This means that recalling the past is not a matter of nostalgia; it is not a matter of rejecting modern developments; nor is it a matter of simply holding on to traditions in some sort of static way; rather we should recall the constants and lessons of our past that have molded the Maronite spirituality and spread it in Beirut and wherever Maronites are living in the world.
These words are not dreams; they express an ambitious hope founded on firm faith, which has been a major resource in the past, is a solid basis for the present and a refreshing source for the future.
There have lately been various attempts to rediscover the genuine Maronite ascetic spirituality by seeking inspiration from the constants of the past; these attempts were aiming at fostering a better Christian commitment in today’s world. The Spirit of God is still at work in the Church to renew and to revive her in hope. He is only waiting for a generous response and thankfulness to the One who makes new the face of the earth.
It is truer that hope is a grace from God. However, it is an ecclesial responsibility to which every Church member should contribute according to gift he has received from Christ, the source of hope.
In its deepest meaning, hope is the basis for joy; and both are fruits of the Spirit. “The Church of Hope” is the Church of gratitude and the Church of joy, for she dwells in the Spirit of God who gives her life, guides her path, and constantly renews her youth.
HH POPE SHENOUDA III, COPTIC PATRIARCH OF ALEXANDRIA DIES
Egypt's Coptic Christian Pope Shenouda III has died at the age of 88, state television has announced.
The leader of the Middle East's largest Christian minority was reported to suffer from cancer that had spread to several organs.
Coptic Christians make up 10% of Egypt's population of 80 million.
After attacks on Coptic Christians in recent years, Pope Shenouda urged officials to do more to address the community's concerns.
Pope Shenouda led the church, one of the oldest Christian communities in the world, for four decades.
His political adviser Hany Aziz told Reuters news agency that Shenouda "died from complications in health and from old age".
He had returned recently to Egypt after seeking treatment abroad.
Pope Shenouda was born Nazeer Gayed into a devout Christian family on 3 August 1923 in Asyut, Upper Egypt, and became a monk in 1954, taking the name Shenouda.
After Pope Cyril died in 1971, Shenouda was enthroned as Pope of Alexandria.
He fell out with President Anwar Sadat, who in 1981 sent him into internal exile. He was allowed back to Cairo by President Hosni Mubarak four years later.
The BBC's Jon Leyne in Cairo says Pope Shenouda sought to protect his Christian community amid a Muslim population by striking a conservative tone and lending tacit to President Mubarak's rule.
Whoever succeeds him now faces the task of reassuring the Coptic community as the Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood look on the verge of sharing power in Egypt for the first time, our correspondent says.
Many younger Copts will now be looking for a leader who can help redefine their community's role in a rapidly changing post-Mubarak Egypt, our correspondent adds.