Christmas Celebrated in the Language of Jesus

By Claire Riobé

Syriac was the language of the predominant culture in Syria and Mesopotamia between the 2nd and 13th centuries. Christians adopted this form of Aramaic and made it the language of their culture, which continues to this day. Syriac, along with Greek and Latin, is the third linguistic component of ancient Christianity. The church of Antioch, founded by the Apostles Peter and Paul as early as the 1st century AD, is the origin of the Syriac church (also called the Syrian church). Their spirituality is marked by asceticism, a liturgy inherited from the first Christians of Jerusalem, and a rich heritage of hymns. From its beginnings the Syriac church rejected the Greek influence, refused the definition of the Council of Chalcedon (451 A.D.), and recognized the human and divine natures of Christ. The Syriac-Orthodox church now has nearly 300,000 worshippers; its Patriarch, Ignatius Ephrem II Karim, is located in Damascus.

The priests name is Abouna Shimon. And for sure, he loves this celebration of Christmas. His eyes shine and he come alive when he talks about this mystery, celebrated by Christians all over the world. Abouna Shimon is Syriac. He arrived in Jerusalem some thirty years ago and serves in the Vicariate of the Syrian Orthodox Patriarchate.  Bent over and settled into an armchair in St. Mark’s monastery, he tells us about his community’s celebration of Christmas.

It all begins in Bethlehem. The ceremony starts on the morning of January 6th with the ancient tradition of processing from the Armenian monastery across the square to the crèche. It’s cold and dry at this time of year, but his does not put off the faithful.  The atmosphere is solemn but joyful.  The air is filled with the sound of drums and bagpipes from the groups of Scouts in the city as well as those from Jerusalem. According to tradition, the Syrian Orthodox community enters the Basilica of the Nativity after the Greeks.

At the entrance to the basilica, they meet the Palestinian Authority delegation who extends its greetings to the Greeks and then to the Syriac community. "It's quickly done, just enough time to take a picture!

When the clock strikes 3:00 p.m., they descend into the cave of the Nativity, and the first of its three Christmas celebrations begins.

But celebrating Christmas is also a time of waiting. This is all the more true in Bethlehem, where all Christian communities celebrate in the same church and follow one another throughout the day. The Syrian Orthodox must wait until midnight before they can begin the second part of their Christmas celebrations – there again, it’s a question of tradition – in the north transept, on a small unpretentious altar, where they will celebrate the heart of their liturgy, which will last as long as five hours.

In this space at the exit of the stairs leading from the cave of the Nativity, time passes according to the rhythm of ancient hymns. "We attach great importance to singing," says Father Shimon. In the choir women and men alternately sing the psalms and antiphons in praise of the newborn child. The small assembly is made up of about forty faithful, most of whom come from Syrian Orthodox families in neighbouring villages.

In Bethlehem and Jerusalem combined, the Syriac community of the Holy Land has about 3000 faithful (some families also live in Jericho, Ramallah and Nazareth). "We are relatively few at Christmas celebrations, because the Syriac community is small." Abouna Shimon meets more faithful at Easter, which is considered more important than Christmas and the most important Christian liturgical feast day.

January 7th is the last of the Syrian Orthodox’s three Christmas celebrations. The clergy gather in the early morning to read the Gospel of St Luke in the basilica of the Nativity and afterwards in its cave. The festivities end in the afternoon at the Armenian monastery, before the clergy leave for Jerusalem and families celebrate Christmas with their families.

Abouna Shimon sits up in his chair and rearranges his headgear on his uncovered forehead. Despite his apparent fatigue, the priest wants to finish his story. "The mosaic of rites and traditions that we observe in the different Christian communities", especially at Christmas time, must make the world realize that "this is a time of peace". A small flame lights up in his eyes. Taking my hands, he explains how Christians in the Holy Land must seek to love each other and to connect with each other. He would like to have even more meetings with the clergy from the local churches. He concludes, "At this time of Christmas, we must interact with one another, not so that each community can present itself well to the pilgrims, but really act in the name of Jesus, in the name of his love, for we are all brothers."


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