We began Holy Week with a procession the evening before Palm Sunday. Like in biblical times, the day here is seen as starting the evening beforehand. All important feast days, not just Christmas and New Years, have a vigil. While palms continue to be blessed before Masses on Palm Sunday, the main Palm Sunday procession is held on the vigil of Palm Sunday. Instead of holding the vigil at individual parishes, the Chaldean Catholics gather together for the procession, together with the archbishop. The procession begins with the blessing of the palms and olive branches outside of Mar Elias (Saint Elijah) parish. The bishop then leads the people in prayers and chants as they process through the streets to the Cathedral.
We knew about the procession last year, but were unable to attend. This year we went for the beginning and walked with the procession a short way. We had to leave early – there had been a dust storm earlier during the day, so the air was still pretty dusty, and the two kids were exhausted. They were great sports, but had already been out most of the day and were ready to be snuggled in their beds. My husband was picking someone up from the airport at the time of the procession, so the kids and I went with my parents and a friend. We stayed toward the back of the crowd because we had a stroller for Paul and small bike for Charbel to ride. This prevented me from getting good close up pictures of anything other than my two darling children. I did, however, get some shots of the procession from the side and rear. While the tradition is no longer followed by everyone, many of the people were dressed in black, symbolizing the connection between Palm Sunday and the Passion.
One thing I appreciate about the Eastern Catholic rites (such as the Chaldean and Maronite rites) is the sense of community they have preserved. Yes, faith is something personal, but at the same time, it is communal. The Lord himself founded the Church in a communal setting, with the Apostles. When he taught them how we should pray, he did not call upon “my Father”, but “Our Father.” He proceeded to solidify the communion of the Church through the sacramental nature of Church, particularly with the sacraments of initiation – baptism, the Eucharist, and confirmation. The very word “communion,” which means sharing something in common, implies the importance of the community of faith. Communion is a Latin translation of the Greek word koinonia, which specifically refers to a communion that stems from intimate participation. In this way, the word completely joins the individual with the communal; one must “intimately participate”, thus involving their entire selves in the community. The writers of scripture used this particular word – koinonia – to refer to both the Church, the community begun by Christ, and the Eucharist. This establishes, from the very beginning of Christianity, an unbreakable link between the individual, the Church, and the Eucharist. The Church is the communion begun by Christ, beginning first with the apostles, and growing to include all baptized members. This Church cannot exist outside of the Eucharist, or sacrament of communion, referred to as the “source and summit of Christian life” in Lumen Gentium. Neither Church nor Eucharistic communion can exist without each individual bringing himself to intimately participate in a communion.
The Christians here in the Middle East, perhaps without recognizing it, have preserved this sense of bringing themselves to the community. They recognize that they are, in a large part, defined by the Christian community they belong to, and they recognize that their participation and presence as individuals is essential to the community; there would be no community if the individuals did not bring themselves.
I think that we have somewhat lost this balance in the west. We focus a lot on our personal beliefs, our personal faith, our personal conscience, but sometimes lose sight of the importance of a communal, or societal, conscience and faith. A nebulous sense of tolerance can lead to the breakdown of society because a society, by definition, must be a community, and a community must be a unifying entity that receives life from its members and gives life to its members. I honestly believe that many societies in the western world are growing so fragmented, supporting so many conflicting viewpoints that they are in danger of either completely losing that unifying element or redefining it in strictly socioeconomic or political terms. We can learn much from the members of the Eastern “lung” of our Church, as John Paul II referred to the Eastern Catholic rites. They set an example as people that are still willing to sacrifice their own desires, sometimes strong desires, to uphold the values and identity of their community, not because they lack individuality, but because they recognize the importance of protecting their community which, in turn, protects their individuality.
The Chaldean Catholics identify themselves as Christians. They have different groups and parishes, different jobs and ambitions. But whenever an important feast day comes along, they come together from their different places. They are not just “this or that parish” or “this family”. They are “Church”. Centuries and, in the case of Iraq, millenniums of persecution aimed specifically at the Christians have not been able to destroy this community, because the people realize that their strength lies in community, specifically, in the Church. As I visibly witness the unshakable bond between the identity of the individual and the identity of the whole in this people, it strikes a chord in my heart, and reminds me of Christ’s promise that the gates of hell will not prevail against his Church. These people have been to the gates of hell and back, and despite very real suffering and persecutions, the Church continues, because God founded the Church as koinonia – a communion that requires intimate participation of the individual.
These people, the direct descendants of the early Christians and, even before that, of Abraham, are still closely connected to their ancestry and ancestral traditions; they still innately possess the understanding of community that existed in Jesus’ time, and they are a witness to it. When the individual is weak and afraid, they find refuge in the community (Church), which holds them up. When the Church is weak, suffering and persecuted, the individuals, such as the current generations of priests, bishops and laity working so hard preserve Christianity in its homeland, hold up the Church.
Wishing everyone a blessed Holy Week…