Saturday, March 26, 2005 at 1:01am

Syrian Christians: Holy Week celebrated in Damascus

The Christian year crests during Holy Week in Damascus. Unlike many churches in the West where Christmas is the highlight of the Christian calendar, Holy Week for Eastern Christians in Damascus marks the climax of the church year, and is referred to in Arabic as the Week of Sufferings.

Holy Week is bookended by feasts of incredible joy, Palm Sunday at its beginning and Easter Sunday at the end of the week. Between these two swells of intensely joyful celebration, comes the emotional nadir of Good Friday, where Christ's death and burial are not only remembered, but are actually enacted as churches move through the stages of Christ's crucifixion with a funeral Mass.

For many Christians in Damascus, preparation for Holy Week begins five weeks earlier at the start of the Lent, with its emphasis on prayer, meditation and fasting.  Unlike the Western Lenten fast where individuals themselves typically choose to give up eating or drinking something they really enjoy, Eastern Churches have set down what constitutes the fast.  One does not eat anything until later in the day.  For some people this means waiting until noon to break the fast; for others it means waiting until sunset.  When one does eat, the food does not include any animal products — meat, eggs or dairy products. This vegetarian, or better, vegan diet, is a communal act of self- denial in preparation for the feast of our Lord's resurrection from the dead.

Holy Week begins on Palm Sunday with the celebration of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem.  And like the crowds that welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem, Damascenes pour into the streets after Mass.  Many hold or wear palm and olive branches as they proceed through the streets and alleys of the Old City, accompanying bands of youth from the churches who play triumphal marching music.  The police block cars from entering the Old City of Damascus, and the celebration of Palm Sunday shakes the city.

Maundy Thursday celebrations have a slightly more muted tone, but still carry an air of celebration and festival. Sacrament Thursday as it is called in Arabic, recalls the establishment of Holy Communion at the Last Supper.  And in many churches, it also includes the washing of feet.  In the Syrian Orthodox Church, the Patriarch wraps a towel around himself and washes feet, physically performing the very act of servitude that our Lord carried out. On Maundy Thursday people from all over the city of Damascus traditionally gather in Damascus' Old City, whether or not they typically worship there. Then Christians walk from church to church, praying briefly in each and taking its blessing before walking on to the next church.  The youth from each church print up stickers for the occasion, with the church's name and a symbol appropriate for the occasion.  Then as people walk into the church, they receive a sticker to wear on their lapel.  As Christians move from church to church on Maundy Thursday, the collection of stickers grows and grows, until many people sport seven or eight stickers on their jackets. Palm Sunday and Maundy Thursday have an air of festivity; they are occasions to walk about and celebrate with family and friends. 

Good or Great Friday, however, has a completely different air.  Women usually dress in black to attend the Friday evening funeral Mass. Depending on the particular church tradition, an icon or statue of Christ is literally placed in a coffin.  In some churches the coffin is carried by deacons around the church, and people throw or place flowers on the coffin while funeral dirges are sung.  The ceremony is extremely moving, and there is seldom a dry eye in the congregation as all surge to get closer to the bier of Jesus.  Other churches take the coffin of Jesus outside the church before the funeral Mass and circle though the streets in a funeral procession, which have again been blocked off by police.  While the band plays doleful funeral music, the coffin makes a slow trip through the neighborhoods flanked by young people carrying flaming torches.  Upon the return to the church, in traditions like the Armenian Catholic, the coffin is held by four pallbearers at the entrance of the church.  All who enter the church stoop down and literally pass under the body of Christ.

The next day is known as Saturday of Light, and at night churches celebrate an Easter Mass which ends around midnight.  The somber altar covers and banners from Good Friday are exchanged for brightly colored cloth.  On Easter morning children come to church dressed in new clothes, and again after the church services, the youth bands take to the streets to celebrate Christ's triumph over death.  Crowds of families dressed in their Easter best throng the streets, as cries of "Christ is risen!" "He is risen indeed!" are exchanged.

After the last drumbeats from the processions have died away, it is time to visit neighbors, friends and relatives to wish them Easter greetings.  Muslim friends as well, phone or stop by to wish Christians well on the occasion of Easter. Giving and receiving well wishes can run through Easter Monday.

Holy Week is the culmination of the Christian year in the Middle East. The Week of Sufferings in Damascus' Old City runs the gamut of emotions, from extreme joy at each end to the deep sorrow of Good Friday's funeral.  Even if one forgets for a moment that it is Holy Week, the sorrowful notes of Fairoz's* Good Friday CD sounding out from shops and homes in the Old City remind one that Christ's suffering is at hand, the sense of expectation is palpable.  And as young and old go into the church on Good Friday, they do so with a most poignant reminder that under Christ we pass into the Church, and that the shouts of "Christ is risen" will soon follow.

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Source: Mennonite Central Committee / www.mcc.org

(Fairoz is a Christian Lebanese singer.)