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The Maronite Church

by Michael J.L. La Civita

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The Maronite Church is not known for its architectural achievements, artistic wonders or musical treasures. Driven into the peaks and valleys of Mount Lebanon - a mountain range stretching along the eastern Mediterranean - the Maronites’ greatest accomplishments are perseverance in the faith, the unique relationship forged between their patriarch and his people and their role in the creation of modern Lebanon.

St. Maron. The Maronite Church is rooted in the asceticism of the desert fathers from Asia Minor, Egypt, Palestine and Syria – provinces of the Roman Empire that eventually evolved into Byzantium.

Throughout the fourth and fifth centuries, thousands of men and women, following the Gospel’s call to “pray always,” withdrew from society, suppressed all worldly concerns and dedicated themselves to prayer and penance. One such hermit, a priest named Maron, repaired to a hilltop near the Syrian city of Aleppo. According to Theodoret of Cyr, an early fifth-century Syrian bishop, Maron lived a solitary life of fasting and prayer, attaining a “wealth of wisdom.”

Maron’s fame, Theodoret wrote in his “Historia Religiosa” (circa 440), “circulated everywhere … One could see fevers quenched by the dew of his blessing, shivers quieted, demons put to flight … He cured not only infirmities of the body, but … healed this man’s greed and that man’s anger, taught self-control and provided lessons in justice, corrected one man’s intemperance and shook up another’s sloth.“ The fame of this simple but charismatic figure spread throughout Byzantium. St. John Chrysostom, the great preacher and patriarch of Byzantium’s capital, Constantinople, asked Maron in 405 to write frequently, but to “above all, pray for us.”

Maron died in 410. Eventually his disciples, known as Maronites, formed a monastic community, Beit (Syriac, meaning “house of”) Maron, on the banks of the Orontes River south of Antioch (modern Antakya in southern Turkey), carrying with them the skull of the revered priest. According to the Arab historian Abu al-Fida (1273-1331), the Byzantine Emperor Marcian sponsored the construction of the monastery, dedicated in 452.

Christological controversies. The development of the Maronite community coincided with the clash of cultures in the fifth-century eastern Mediterranean world. As Christianity grew and embraced converts from the Greek, Roman and Semitic cultures, debate raged as to how to interpret and practice the teachings of Jesus. More divisively, Christians wrestled with a number of theories regarding the person and nature of Jesus and his relation to the Creator, establishing distinct theological schools. And as the church, particularly in the East, became intricately linked to the imperial Byzantine state, these Christological variations increasingly assumed political overtones. The early Maronites were Hellenized Semites, natives of Byzantine Syria who spoke Greek and Syriac yet identified with Greek-speaking Constantinople and Antioch. Predictably, the Maronites embraced the Christological decrees of the Council of Chalcedon (451), joining the Byzantine emperors and their supporters in enforcing the assertion that in Jesus there are two natures, “perfect in Godhead, perfect in humanity … like us in all things but sin.”

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Tags: Lebanon Church history Maronite Church