The word ‘Maronite’ is derived from the Saint Monk, whose name was Maroun in Syriac and Maron in Greek. Saint Maron is the patron Saint of the Maronite Church, which is the only Catholic Church to hold the name of its founder. He is mentioned in a letter written sometime before the year 407 by the powerful patriarch of Constantinople, John Chrysostom. He is mentioned again some thirty years later by Theodoret, Bishop of Cyr (d. 466), who spoke of the profound devotion the monks of the monastery of Beth-Maron had for their departed spiritual father, Maron.
Maron was a contemporary of Saint Patrick and as with Patrick in Ireland, Saint Maron attracted people from far and wide as they were inextricably drawn by his wisdom and godliness, desiring to live under his spiritual guidance. The monastery, built near Saint Maron’s tomb, became the centre of a community where men and women, under the guidance of monks, could find spiritual fulfilment and serenity. It is because of this that today the liturgy and the organisation of the Maronite community carry monastic characteristics. It is also because of this that spiritual leaders of the Maronites have kept close watch over social and political rights of their people.
Situated North of Syria, on the banks of the Orantes, the monastery belonged juridically to the venerable patriarch church of Antioch. The church of Antioch was founded by Saint Peter and was the church where the disciples of Jesus were first called Christians.
Along with Alexandria in Egypt and Constantinople, Antioch was one of the most important spiritual centres of the East. It outranked the others in biblical scholarship. However, two factors led to the gradual decay of the church of Antioch: its political position as a buffer state between the Byzantine Empire and its antagonistic powers; and it apostolic division by schisms and heresies.
The faithful then more and more set their hopes on the Maronite community. Here, in spite of persecutions and shattering wars, the spiritual leaders guided and protected their faithful flock with compassion, kindness and wisdom.
In the beginning of the 8th century, the community of Beth-Maron had to proclaim one of its members, the monk John, already bishop of Botrys in Lebanon, as patriarch of Antioch. Since that day, the spiritual leader of the Maronite community has been patriarch of Antioch and the entire East, that is, of the territory administered by the capital Antioch.
Sadly, that is all we know about the first Maronite patriarch, John Maron. What we have are reverent stories about his life created by his devoted followers in his honour. There are documents written since the time of the Crusaders, but the legends that they contain have been set aside as unreliable evidence.
It appears that during the reign of Saint John Maron that the Maronite community left the North of Syria to take refuge in the ‘Holy Valley,’ the Qadisha of the Lebanese mountains. It is estimated that in the year 749, that they built their first church in Lebanon, Mar-Mama, in Ehden. It was the responsibility of those disciples and followers of St Maton to preach Christianity among inhabitants of the mountains. It is important to note that the inhabitants of the Lebanese coastal cities and the Bekaa were the first to embrace Christianity (around the year 34 A.D.) Saint Maron’s disciple’s encountered difficulty in spreading Christianity, however they accomplished this sacred mission and achieved their goal successfully.
While the Maronite’s began a new life in Lebanon, the monastery of Beth-Maron continued its struggle to survive the incomprehensible damages caused by the armies of the Byzantine Empire and the invasions perpetrated by the Arabs. This holy site was completely devastated in the 10th century. As far as we know, only a single manuscript escaped the pillage and is now preserved in the British Museum.
It was thanks to the judiciousness of their spiritual leaders that the Maronite community was able to enjoy peace of the Cedars and the relative security of the Lebanese mountains. From that time, the history of the Maronite’s and Lebanon have been intertwined. Without the Maronite’s Lebanon would not have existed, and without Lebanon the destiny of Christianity in the Middle East would certainly have been more unstable.
In the beginning of their stay in Lebanon, isolated by the mountains and concerned about political unrest in the Near East, the Maronite’s faithfully adhered to the creed of the Catholic Church. But here-in lies a paradox. Because the tradition of Antioch always preferred biblical expressions over dogmatic formulations, the creed they professed did not contain the ‘new’ formulations that belonged to the sphere of theological terminology; they did not lessen the unshakable attachment of the Maronite’s to the Catholic faith. In fact, Maronite followers are renowned for their commitment to the Universal Catholic Church and are in perfect harmony with the Holy See.
In the 11th and 12th centuries in Lebanon, the Maronite’s found themselves once again positioned between the Latin Church of the West and the churches of the East. The Latin missionaries found warm welcome in the Maronite community. They did not, however, understand or appreciate the profound value and riches of the oriental traditions and tried to impose, sometimes with success, the juridical and liturgical structures of the Latin Church as the ‘only true Catholic’ structures. The Maronite’s, in turn, with their traditional spirit of moderation and openness, enjoyed enriching their oriental patrimony with the richness of Christian dogma as it had developed in the West. They also introduced into the Oriental churches such expressions of Western devotional life as the rosary and the Stations of the Cross.
It would be easy to assume the Maronite’s of being responsible for the ‘Latinization’ of the Eastern churches, however, such would be an unfair accusation. The Maronite’s always kept and guarded their Oriental traditions. This contact with the Latin Church enriched the intellectual world of Europe in the Middle-Ages. Maronite’s taught Oriental languages and literature at the universities of France and Italy. It is thanks to their position between East and West, and to their knowledge of the occidental theological tradition, that they successfully began the dialogue with the Orthodox churches of the Near East. The history of Melkites and Chaldeans, of Catholic Armenians and Syrians, shows the important role of the Maronite’s in the formation of these communities.
Today, over one million Maronite’s in Lebanon courageously maintain, under the guidance of their patriarch, this tradition of openness and hospitality in the politically and religiously explosive situation of the Near East.
The Maronite’s were a people between two worlds, between East and West, between Latin Church and Oriental churches, between Catholicism and Orthodoxy, between Islam and Christianity.
In the post- Vatican II Latin Church, the introduction of the vernacular language into the Roman liturgy has encouraged all nations to celebrate the unique sacrifice of the Lord in the language, music and symbolism proper to each people and each culture. While the Latin Church is rediscovering, sometimes painfully, the riches of the liturgical renewal, the Maronite’s always celebrated a liturgy in which they can recognise their culture and history: their relation to Antioch, their monastic origins, their contact with the Latin Church.
It is always with emotion that the Maronite’s listen to the worlds of consecration sung by the Maronite priest in Syriac, so close to the language in which our Lord, on the day before He suffered and died, pronounced these words for the first time.
The Maronite liturgy stresses these words with gestures that probably belong to ancient Christian symbolism. After the words, “He gave thanks and praise, and blessed the bread,” the priest blesses the bread with the sign of the cross; and after the words: “He broke the bread,” he touches the four ends of the host. In the same way, the sign of the cross is drawn on the chalice, and after the words, “this blood is to be shed,” the priest inclines the chalice to the four sides as if to shed it in reality. With these gestures, the Maronite liturgy likes to stress the universal character of the Eucharist, and the faithful, by their “Amen,” participate in this universal gift and universal mission.
While the Latin Mass brings the consecration to a close by the recitation of the words, “Do this in memory of me,” the Maronite liturgy continues with the biblical reference, “Do this in memory of me… until I come again,” a verse which was a favourite of the Antioch. In this addition, the eschatological character of the theology of Antioch, which the Maronite Church has inherited and enriched, clearly takes form. Once more this theology is placed between the theology of the East and the West, as the Maronite patriarch pointed out in one of his interventions at Vatican Council II. While the theology of the West has always stressed the actualisation of the world, and while the theology of Byzantine Christianity continues to celebrate the Divine Liturgy which the Risen Lord accomplishes in His heavenly glory, the Maronite liturgy celebrates the Eucharist in expectation of the coming of the Lord.
The Maronite’s in their liturgy are aware of the fact that we are actually not in the glory of the Lord and in the plenitude of His redemption. We are awaiting it. On the other hand, they realise in faith that this sacramental sign is really rahbouno, a pledge of glory to come, and zouodo, a viaticum which really transforms a simple terrestrial being into a pilgrim on the way to his or her home, the “house of the heavenly Father.”
The interventions of the Maronite bishops at the Vatican Council and the publications of Maronite scholars clearly show that the Maronite’s are aware of the precious contribution that the realistic and biblical theology of Antioch can make, not only in the dialogue between Byzantium and Rome, but especially in the delicate interfaith relations with Islam and Synagogue for which the death of God and the divinisation of man remain scandal.
The rich tradition of living between two worlds prepared millions of Maronite’s to live far from their country and holy sites, between the culture of their adopted country and their own tradition.
The Maronite Church in the world is neither a national church nor a territorial church. It is the implantation of a venerable old Christian tradition around the world.
In conclusion, it is worthy to note that Lebanon undoubtedly remains the only spiritual Land of Maronite’s who preserve today, as strongly as ever, their tradition of hospitality, openness, attachment to their land, thirst for freedom, and who are resolutely united around their Patriarchate.