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. Identity of the Maronite Church - A Syriac Antiochene Church with a Special Lit. Heritage
A Syriac Antiochene Church with a Special Liturgical Heritage
The Maronite Church developed within the Antiochene Church, which came into existence through the evangelization by the Apostles, thus acknowledging her Petrine origin. It was in Antioch, the capital of the Eastern region of the Roman Empire, that “the disciples were first called Christians”, (Acts 11:26) which is the common attribute among the followers of Jesus and the solid base of every genuine ecclesiastic identity. In Antioch too, the Church opened up to all nations, and duly became the “daughter of nations.”
Since her inception, the Antiochene Church has been distinguished by the unity in faith and the communion within plurality, which marked the peoples of that region through a diversity of civilizations, cultures and languages. This plurality earned the Antiochene Church a spiritual and intellectual fertility as well as an apostolic zeal that distinguished her from other Churches. The Christian Antiochene heritage is still considered one of the richest and most profound in the world. It had greatly influenced the Church’s history and life, particularly during the first six centuries, as it allowed Christian theology the opportunity to express itself through two main interacting cultures, the Aramaic-Syriac and the Hellenic. The Aramaic culture was prevalent in the cities of the interior and in the countryside, while the Hellenic culture was more predominant in some coastal cities.
Many local Churches sprang up in Antioch in the midst of this cultural and linguistic diversity, whereby each was characterized by her own distinguishing features, yet safeguarding the ecumenical structure on which the early Church was reared. This structure ties the bonds of communion among the members of the one local Church, with their diverse talents and functions, for the sake of building the One Body of Christ. We have many examples in the New Testament that testify to its existence and importance in the safeguarding of communion and unity (Refer to Acts 2:44; 4:32; 15:1-29, 1 Corinthians 12:12-30).
In Antioch, we came to know the first theology of the local Church, which reveals her unity and universality in the Eucharistic celebration. Saint Ignatius of Antioch reminded all Churches he wrote letters to, encouraging them in times of persecution and bolstering their unity: “Do not participate except in only one Eucharist. For, Our Lord has only one body, one chalice that unites us in his blood, and one altar, one bishop along with many deacons who are my partners in service. In this way, you would fulfill God’s will in everything[1] The Bishop is the successor of the Apostles, and, in the structure of the assembly and in the service of unity, he occupies the first position of the first who watches over the proclamation of the Word in his local Church, to safeguard the orthodoxy of the faith in it, and to bring unity through harmonious diversity. He is responsible for discerning the gifts of the Holy Spirit in the faithful, being continuously vigilant in order to identify them and employ them toward the building of the One Body of Christ. It is needless to say that this spiritual communion reaches its climax and is distinctively proclaimed in the Eucharistic communion presided by the bishop or whomever he delegates for this mission.
This Episcopate Synodal System is at the root of the patriarchal system that is still prevailing in the East and also at the base of the Episcopal assembly whose spheres are spacious enough to encompass the Universal Church. Regional councils and patriarchal synods were and still are the place where communion between local churches is proclaimed through the practice of this Episcopal assembly in a spirit of consultation, love and deliberation on common issues and the adoption of appropriate decisions. We find strong echoes of this Synodal spirit in the writings of many of the saintly fathers, since it is the guarantee of unity in the Church. This is why the Church, since her first epoch, has adopted the convoking of councils and the exchange of association and greeting letters as signs of communion among the various churches.
Our Maronite Antiochene Church belongs to the family of Churches of Syriac heritage in its “Western and Eastern” branches. This division refers to Syriacs living in regions west or east of the Euphrates River. This heritage, in its theological, spiritual and liturgical dimensions, has been enriched by Syriac Fathers who expressed their Christian faith through a Semitic language that was very close to the language of the Old Testament. Their intellectual and ecclesiastical activities were centered around the theological schools of Antioch, Edessa and Nisibis. At the liturgical level, this heritage was expressed in poetic prayers written by poet theologians such as Ephrem (+373), James of Serug (+521), Balai (+after 432) and others. These prayers still remain the main source for the Maronite office in its two formats, manuscript and print. We continue to find in these poetic prayers a deep spirituality that is rich in references from both the Old and the New Testaments of the Holy Bible. These prayers have a distinctive Marian character and a persistent call to repentance in the hope of meeting the groom at the end of time. The hopeful return to this common heritage, which was formed in its segments and basic characteristics before the Maronite Patriarchate came to be between the end of the seventh century and the first half of the eighth century, makes of Maronite believers partners with their Antiochene and Syriac brethren in the one workshop. In this way, they strive to rediscover, revive and benefit from this heritage, in trustworthiness to their common identity and enrichment of the Universal Church.

      Our Synod lauds all the efforts and the many important accomplishments made during recent decades, in Lebanon and overseas, thanks to the Maronite universities, seminaries, and others as well as the efforts of those individuals who researched the Antiochene Syriac heritage, in its theological, spiritual, and liturgical dimensions. They have presented it in a new attire, making it accessible to the sons and daughters of our Churches wherever they settle. Our Synod also urges these universities and seminaries to continue supporting this project that it may not remain a concern just for some Orientalists, who have rendered great service in this field and still do. All eparchies and orders are to select those in whom they discern scientific skills and the love of ancient and modern languages, encouraging them to dedicate themselves to this difficult yet fruitful task, providing them with the required spiritual and material support. Consecration to this theological task is a necessary service for consolidating the mission of our Church and updating it in the light of its traits.
[1]Refer to Rasa’il Ra’awia (Pastoral Letters), Second Century, translated and introduced by George Saber; the series Al-Ousoul al-Maseehia ash-Sharkia (Eastern Christian Origins), 1, Beirut, 1972, p. 129