An entry in my travel journal describes one Sunday in Galilee in 1988 on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, led by John Michael Talbot. As it does now, the world churned in turmoil with war surrounding the holy sites.
Sunday, March 20, 1988, was a day of connecting to the Christians in the Holy Land and to the Lord. On our way to Mass with the local Christians of Ibillin, in Galilee, we saw our first signs of war: armed khaki-clad street soldiers and transport vehicles full of soldiers. This is something we have never had to bear. Among the many olive trees stood burnt-out houses, some abandoned and some occupied.
The Gandhi of Galilee
Father Elias Chacour said Mass at St. George Melkite Greek Catholic Church. Some know Fr. Chacour as the Gandhi of Galilee because he has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize three times. This self-proclaimed Christian pacifist speaks out in a non-violent way, urging the living of the Beatitudes. He built a school to teach children the way of the Beatitudes to bring lasting peace to his country. He wrote “Blood Brothers,” a story of the relationship between the Jews that returned to their homeland as refugees during the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Palestinians who housed and cared for them.
What a contrast between the military presence among the desolate buildings and this pacifist priest celebrating Mass with total confidence in God’s sovereignty!
The church holds about 200 people. That day more than 300 crowded in and around the pews, many of us from visiting groups. It reminded me of Christmas Masses crowded with unfamiliar faces.
The men and boys sat in front and the girls and women in the back of the church. All during the service, the men kept bringing in chairs—as we sometimes do at prayer meetings or Midnight Mass. It was raining, and some chunks of plaster fell down on the chairs behind some of the women a few rows in front of us, splattering plaster on their heads.
Ceiling fans and mismatched antique chandeliers decorated the church. The artwork resembled Greek Orthodox except for a striking contemporary depiction of an angel knocking Paul off his horse. This image could hang appropriately in most churches in our country.
The native language of Jesus
The music and native language (with English and French translations) were the closest possible today to that of Jesus’ time—Aramaic and Arabic with a few Greek responses such as the “Kyrie Eleison.” Hearing the Mass in Jesus’ native Aramaic touched the depths of my heart as I imagined him saying many of the prayers, especially the consecration of the bread and wine into his Body and Blood.
Fr. Chacour’s talk before Mass was in English, his homily in Arabic, English and then French. He reminded us that to God a thousand years is like one day. “Day before yesterday it all started in Galilee. Jesus came to Galilee from Jerusalem. Those from Galilee spread the word to all the world, as witnessed by so many nations represented here at Mass.”
We celebrated what happened at the Resurrection—no more Jew, Palestinian, man or woman, all called as adopted children of God, to whom we will answer.
The clean white paper
Fr. Chacour told the story of a clean white paper among the colored paper and pens. That white paper was so proud of his clean appearance that the colored pens and paper were threatened by his boasting. He remained clean and white and empty. Then Fr. Chacour said, “The Lord will not ask, ‘How long did you keep your hands clean?’ but ‘How often did you dirty your hands to serve?’ Be a little stone in the beautiful castle of the Kingdom of God. Share our confusion, our fear and our life.” I thought how stones are solid, steady, persevering, united to other stones for strength to bear a common load.
The unleavened bread soaked in wine, taken on the tongue or a spoon, gave us a new Communion experience. The crowded aisles meant lack of order in receiving Communion as we made our way to the altar and back again.
The parishioners took home the extra bread, distributed at one of the exits after Mass. How quaint? How practical! The privileged poor took bread home as though Jesus had multiplied it to provide for those who need it. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God.
Jesus with us
Jesus came to us that day in the mystery of the Eucharist, in the murmur of our lips worshipping him, responding to prayers said in his native tongue. He soothed the aching in our hearts to join as one with him and Christians of Galilee and all nations, ready to dirty our hands to serve.
Today’s news is tragic for Christians in the Middle East, and I pray for them and for those in Ibillin, who suffer still.
Can you imagine hearing the words of the Mass in Jesus’ native language? Can you unite your prayers with the suffering of persecuted Christians?
To be continued next month with “One Sunday in Galilee: Calming the Storm at Sea.”
Copyright 2017 Nancy HC Ward