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A church is formed. Until this period, the Maronites were a juridically indistinct part of the Antiochene Church, a dynamic community that assimilated the theological learning of Constantinople with the poetic and literary traditions of the Syriac intellectual center of the early church, the city of Edessa (present-day Urfa in southeastern Turkey). And while the Christological controversies that had ravaged Antioch eventually created a multitude of churches, they did not prevent cross-pollination among them.

The richness of the Western Syrian tradition of the Maronites – for example the structure of the eucharistic liturgy, which originated in Edessa; the existence of the Sharar, an ancient eucharistic prayer nearly identical to the Anaphora of Addai and Mari used by the Assyrian Church of the East; and the custom of chanting the Trisagion hymn as in the Syrian Orthodox Church – attests to the communication that had once existed among these daughter churches of Antioch as well as the distinctiveness of the Maronite Church.

Despite the Arab annexation of Syria and the rejection of the Ekthesis by the Council of Constantinople (680-81), the Maronites remained loyal, in theory, to Heraclius’ Christological compromise – they were now living a very different reality. With Antioch in Muslim hands, contacts with Constantinople severed and Antioch’s ecclesial situation in disarray (Chalcedonian patriarchs of Antioch were exiled to Constantinople while a parallel Monophysite patriarch assumed the head of the city’s Christian community), the monks of Beit Maron elected one of their own as patriarch of Antioch. Tradition has it this first patriarch of Antioch of the Maronites, St. John Maron, was elected in 685.

Mountainous retreat. Bands of Maronites began to flee to the northern reaches of Mount Lebanon soon after the Muslim Arab invasion of Syria. There, they established autonomous communities, the Marada, eventually forming alliances among themselves while pledging fealty to the patriarch. Fierce fighters, the Marada tenaciously defended their autonomy, repeatedly attacking Arab positions and harassing Byzantine troops who periodically advanced into Syria seeking to retake it. The Marada grew stronger after the destruction of Beit Maron in the ninth century and the relocation of the Maronite patriarchate to a monastery near the coastal town of Batroun. Exiled to the valleys of Mount Lebanon, the Maronites terraced the difficult terrain, tilled the soil, planted olive trees and fruit trees and cultivated vineyards. Maronite holy men and women, like their hermitic predecessors, lived and prayed alone, carving hermitages in the rock, inaccessible to predators but accessible to those seeking counsel. Thus for more than two centuries the Maronite Church endured in mountainous isolation.

Contacts with the West. The Great Schism that ruptured the unity of the churches of Constantinople and Rome (1054) did not prevent the Byzantine emperor in 1095 from requesting papal help to deliver the Holy Land from the Muslims. Pope Urban II immediately responded, calling for a Crusade in which he offered spiritual and material benefits to those who joined the emperor’s quest.

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Tags: Lebanon Church history Maronite Church