Thursday, January 11, 2007

Incense, icons and a message of peace

Sometime ago, the Orthodox churches in Syria agreed to celebrate Christmas on the same day as the Catholic and Protestant churches. (The Western churches, the story goes, were to agree to move their Easter to the same day as the Eastern churches, but decided against it. In Syria, there is one Christmas and two Easters, except every fifth year when the Easters coincide.)

So, Syria’s two million Christians – Armenian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, Greek Catholic, Syrian Catholic, Maronite, Chaldean, Protestant – celebrate Christmas on the same day – Dec. 25 – unique in the Levant, and perhaps the world.

I attended midnight mass at the Greek Catholic cathedral called Al-Zeitouna (the olive, or olive tree) with Juliet, Basil, Lena and Mimi, along with a couple American friends. The church, a short walk from our house, just across Straight Street, near Bab Sharqi, the old city’s Eastern gate, is an impressive stone edifice with marble floors and lots of iconography on the walls. The two-hour service was in Arabic and featured incense and singing by a choir that I couldn’t see as my view was obstructed by a (beautiful) stone pillar. It was broadcast on state television.

Presiding was Gregorius the Third, Patriarch of Antakia, Iskanderia (two predominantly Arab cities in southern Turkey, historically part of Greater Syria) and Jerusalem (also once part of Greater Syria). In his homily, Gregorius prayed for peace in Iraq, Palestine, and Lebanon, never mentioning Israel, and said that man, inspired by God, must build peace on the shoulders of reconciliation. He also sought common ground with the country’s majority Muslim population, saying that Syrian Muslims and Christians both pray to the same God.

Afterward, a youth marching band played American Christmas carols in the church courtyard. The crowd slowly dispersed and headed home, as did we, into the freezing cold, and it felt like Christmas.