At Our Lady of Lebanon Maronite Catholic Church in Shepherd’s Park (Washington, DC) the Easter Vigil begins at midnight.
The interior of the church reflects the austere monastic sensibilities of St. Maroun, the 5th Century Syriac monk who shaped this Syriac-Antiochian rite Catholic Church that profoundly influenced Lebanon.
Prior to the accent lights being turned on, the design was stark and aesthetically challenging for me. Even with the lights on, the altar is surprisingly barren for the most important feast of the liturgical year for Christians. There were a few lillies at the foot of the main altar and there was a floral display on the East Apse which also served as the Empty Tomb for the Easter Vigil. Note the tree stump at the foot of the altar, that is used as a stand for the veneration of the Cross. Perhaps it harkens back to the Cedars of Lebanon, which is an important symbol amongst Maronite Catholics.
This is the Clergy approaching the altar for the beginning of the Qurbono (Divine Liturgy). Note the Chorbishop in the center who’s vestment has a cross with the Cedar of Lebanon. The Liturgy was conducted in Syriac as well as English. The hymns that were sung were in Aramaic which was impossible for me to read. Aramaic was Jesus’ native tongue so it sounded like what the followers of “The Way” would have sung in the 1st Century A.D.
There were some unusual aspects of this Easter Vigil. There was incense but no use of Holy Water or candles. The Maronite Church tends to baptize their Catachumens on the Feast of the Epiphany in January. Candles are not as import of an symbol at the Easter Vigil, as the Maronite Church breaks fast on noon of Great Saturday during the simple “Awaited Light” ceremony. This may explain why there is not pent up anticipation for the Easter Vigil as observed amongst the Maronites.
It was remarkable how much this Liturgy celebrating the Resurrection emphasized the Glorious Cross. The Chorbishop made prayers on the four corners of the altar with the processional cross, as if to proclaim the hope of the resurrection to all the Earth. The faithful were invited to venerate the Glorified Cross as they received Communion. Another interesting Easter feature of this vigil Qurbono was the emphasis on the Empty Tomb. As the faithful departed from the Divine Liturgy, they were given flowers from the Empty Tomb as well as an Easter Egg.
Despite the alternating languages during the Liturgy, it was not challenging to follow. The order of the Liturgy is different, as the Prayers of the Faithful are offered in the middle of the Liturgy of the Eucharist. In addition, the sign of peace is passed along from the altar to the congregation by youthful altar servers. For me, the Maronite Qurbono was the most exotic of my Holy Week experiences. Unfortunately, I found the Easter Vigil at Our Lady of Lebanon to be anti-climatic and personally unsatisfying. That being said, I was intrigued by proclaiming the glory of the cross to the four corners of the Earth. In addition, I was touched by the post resurrection highlighting of the Empty Tomb as well as receiving the Easter souvenirs.
The Strepitus is the sudden loud clatter that symbolizes how the Earth convulsed at the physical death of the only begotten Son of our Lord. In Matthew 27:46-53, when Christ gave up His spirit on the Crucifix, there was a tumultuous earthquake. It is the jarring closing of a Tenebae Service, which is done in preparation for the Paschal Triduum.
Some churches have the Tenebrae on Spy Wednesday. Others choose to extinguish the lights after celebrating the Last Supper on Maundy Thursday or even Great and Holy Friday. Regardless of the time, it is a ritual that reminds us of how the Light of the World was briefly extinguished to fulfill scripture as an expiation for mankind’s sinfulness.
While it is difficult to watch Mel Gibson’s cinematic masterpiece The Passion of the Christ (2004) for its depiction of the savage brutality inflicted by the Roman overlords on a political prisoner who challenged the religious practices and expectations of the Jewish hierachy. The teardrop from heaven is incredibly moving.
When Salvador Dali painted Christ of Saint John of the Cross (1951), Jesus was depicted without wounds on a Cross that floated above the Earth. Dali listened to the color of his dream that indicated that depicting the nails, blood and crown of thorns would mar the image. Dali wanted the emphasize the Trinity with the positioning of Jesus hanging on the Cross to represent the nucleus of the atom. Clearly, the cross hovering over the Earth shows the cosmic significance of the passion and death of our Lord Jesus Christ. In a modern manner, Dali celebrates Eastern Christian Church’s emphasis mystagogy of Jesus’ Divine Sacrifice by death on the cross.
But during a Tenebrae service, the faithful were reminded that unlike even in classical depictions of Golgatha (the place of the skull) where Jesus was crucified, the crosses of Calvary were not necessarily hung that high in the air. Since those being executed had their feet nailed bound to prevent them from moving as they slowly suffocated on their crosses, they may have been only a couple of feet above the ground.
Such crosses would serve the Roman overlords as tangible examples of what happens to brigands, rabble rousers and revolutionaries. The low positioning would allow most passers-by to look into the eyes of the executed. This makes the taunts from the crowd and Jesus’ words of forgiveness all the more remarkable.
It is easy to gloss over how the expiation of mans’ sins required a blood sacrifice to seal the New Covenant. By cognitively sounding the Strepitus over Christ’s crucifixion, we may “Ecce homo”.
While some ears may find it as painful as the Stepitus, the Christ’s Passion has been told by Glenn Beck using a motif of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon (1973). Whether we use pop parables, cinematic accounts, scriptural studies, communal worship or prayerful personal reflections, it is worthy to reflect on how God’s only begotten Son chose to be the suffering servant to right the relationship between God and mankind.
Mount St. Sepulchre in Washington, DC is a Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America. The Church itself neo-Byzantine design by Roman architect Aristide Leonari in 1899. The church looks akin to St. Sophia (Hagia Sophia) in Constantinople (Istanbul).
The interior of the church resembles a five fold Crusader Cross of Jerusalem. The large bronze baldachin is is supported by columns which depicts the twelve Apostles. The interior is decorated with the Ave Maria and scenes from the life of Mary.
The Friary is the home of Franciscan Commissariat in the nation’s capital, and they continue their 800 year tradition of supporting the Holy Land. Part of the charism of the Commissariat seems to be a special celebration of Passiontide.
The Tenebrae service which is celebrated on Spy Wednesday is is resplendent in faith and history, as is incorporates a cappella medieval pieces sung by the Suspicious Cheese Lords (Suscipe Domine Queso).
While they are a consummate choir, the Suspicious Cheese Lords need to practice their polyphonic songs in situ at the Franciscan Monastery.
The Suspicious Cheese Lords in rehearsal for the Tenebrae Service.
Even though the Suspicious Cheese Lords ordinarily sing early music works, one year they chose to perform Arvo Part’s De Profundis (1980).
Lighting the Candelabra for the Tenebrae Service.
Extinguishing the candles during the Tenebrae Service.
The closing of the Tenebrae service is marked by a retreat of the single candle into the crypt. As the vault to the catacombs is slammed, it sets off an unnerving Strepitus, meant to symbolize the earth convulsing at the death of the the Messiah, Jesus the Christ.
Wisdom of the Ages…
Tertullian, a Christian writer who died in the third century, wrote the following: ‘Thus, you read the word of God, spoken to Jeremias: “Before I formed thee in the womb, I knew thee.” If God forms us in the womb, He also breathes on us as He did in the beginning: “And God formed man and breathed into him the breath of life.” Nor could God have known man in the womb unless he were a whole man. “And before thou camest forth from the womb, I sanctified thee.” Was it, then, a dead body at that stage? Surely it was not, for “God is the God of the living and not the dead.”’- De Anima 26.5
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