25 April 2010

Our Lady of Lebanon Maronite Catholic Church

Just when I think I’ve seen it all, D.C.’s Catholic community throws me a curveball. Today I went on an adventure to go to Our Lady of Lebanon Maronite Seminary in Northwest Washington, D.C. As far as I can tell, it is the city’s Northernmost Catholic church, in the Takoma Park area, near Silver Spring, Maryland. The twenty minute walk from the Metro station to the church through this lush, quiet neighborhood was a soothing antidote for life in the hectic concrete jungle around GWU.

Our Lady of Lebanon is a unique church in that it is a “Catholic” Church, but not a “Roman Catholic” church. The Maronite rite is one of many eastern churches that did not break with the Church of Rome during the Great Schism in the eleventh century. While they are still in communion with the Holy See, they are not part of the traditional church hierarchy. Rather than being under the jurisdiction of the Washington archdiocese, they are governed by a Patriarch in Antioch (who has a seat at the College of Cardinals) and belong to a local “eparchy” centered in Brooklyn, New York. Maronites are mostly found in the Levant, particularly in Lebanon.

I did some research on the Maronites before I went to Mass, and I got the impression that the service would be done in Arabic. I was worried that I wouldn’t know what was going on, but luckily I made some new friends, Ed and Mary, before Mass. They were both regular parishioners and they explained to me that the Mass would be performed in English and Arabic, with a few prayers in Aramaic, the language of Christ. They showed me how to follow along with the service in the prayer book and helped explain some of the Maronite traditions to me.

The church itself, according to Ed, was finished five years ago, and was the first church built in Washington, D.C. in about forty years. The building was all white, with a large steeple. The worship space was all white as well, with no decorations or paintings on the walls. The center of the church featured a glass dome, allowing sunlight to shine on the altar. The intention of this design was to give the church an austere feeling, with no extra decoration or ornament to distract from worship. Also, the sunlight at the front was intended to give the worshipper the feeling of walking out the darkness and into the light.

The fusion of Arabic and English into the Mass made for a beautiful service. The choir was made of about ten people in black and red robes, accompanied by a man on keyboard and two kids playing violins. Most of the hymns and chants were in Arabic, and they were beautiful. A female cantor did a solo chant at one point, and it felt like she was pouring her soul out into the church. In the Maronite Mass, there is only one reading before the Gospel. The reader asked the permission of the priest to read the Scripture, and, of course, he was granted it. The first man read in English, and then another man read the same passage in Arabic.

There were a few other noteworthy traditions at Our Lady of Lebanon, one of which was the abundant use of incense during the Mass. Another was the blessing of peace, during which Mary told me to put my hands together, and let an altar boy put his hands over mine, before shaking hands and wishing peace to those around me (Thank goodness Mary warned me, I would have had no idea!). The consecration of the host was done in Aramaic, and communion was only given on the tongue, because the host was dipped in wine before being presented to the worshipper.

The priest, Father Dominic, gave a wonderful homily. He started by talking about a boy in Sunday school who was asked to explain the fall of Adam in the Garden of Eden. Remembering only that the event had something to do with fruit, the boy guessed that Adam slipped on a banana peel. Father Dominic talked about how our mistakes, like slipping on a banana peel, may wound our pride and embarrass us. He said that Peter “slipped” many times during Christ’s life, doubting him and denying him three times when he was being persecuted. Yet when Christ returned and saw Peter face to face, he did not ask for explanations or apologies, and did not say “I told you so.” Christ only asked, “Peter, do you love me?” Peter may have failed, but none of it mattered to Christ. The most important question was “Peter, do you love me?” It was a great lesson for Catholics everywhere. Indeed, Peter did love Christ, and I must say that I loved Our Lady of Lebanon.

Our Lady of Lebanon Website
Eparchy of St. Maron of Brooklyn


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11 April 2010

St. Luke Church

I decided to visit St. Luke Church today, across the Anacostia River in east Washington, D.C. I hadn’t been to church in the Eastern part of the city in a while, and truth be told, I had never been east of the Anacostia River before. It’s located near 49th and E. Capitol St., on the dividing line between the Northeast and Southeast quadrants of the city.

The Church was fairly small and square, without any magnificent architectural flourishes. It looked a lot like St. Benedict the Moor Church, but larger. Some interesting features included large wooden statues near the front of the church, and a beautiful wall painting that served as the background of a small shrine.

I got a little lost on the way to the church (I always plan on getting lost when I go somewhere in the city) and ended up getting there a few minutes late. The Mass had already started, so I quietly took my seat. The parishioners were mostly African-American, in fact, if I observed correctly, the priest and I were the only two people in that building who were not. There was also a small choir present. Despite a few comical miscues and occasional sour notes, they did a nice job. Towards the end of the Mass, they did a moving rendition of “So Satisfied.”

The priest, Father Joe, was quite a character. A white man with a New York accent, he took a no-nonsense approach to Scripture. He summed up the story of Jesus and “doubting Thomas” in his sermon today, describing Thomas as “a day late and a dollar short.” Jesus appears to the Apostles in a locked room, and says, “Yo, Thomas, come here!” Thomas does not believe that Christ is risen until he sees Jesus. Then Jesus says, “blessed are those who have not yet seen, but still believe.” Finally, he called on the parishioners to bring people to Christ by doing good works.

St. Luke Website

Pictures: (Click to enlarge)

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04 April 2010

Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception

It is certainly an exciting time to be in Washington. As I’m sure you’ve all heard, the cherry blossoms bloomed this week, bringing plenty of tourists and chaos to the D.C. area. I’ve been down to the tidal basin a couple times already to see them before they leave. There was a big fireworks display on the mall last night to celebrate the cherry blossoms as well.

It’s also Easter Sunday, an exciting time to be anywhere. I visited Washington with my parents when I was 13, and on Easter Sunday we went to Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception at the Catholic University of America. It’s the largest Catholic church in the Western hemisphere and holds the title of basilica, meaning that it does not fall under the jurisdiction of an archdiocese, but under the Holy See. I figured I’d go back there again, to see the beautiful church and experience the madness as hundreds of tourists flooded in for Easter Mass.

The Church is absolutely stunning. It’s built in the style of a Roman basilica, so it’s shaped like a giant cross and has a big dome at the center. The walls are covered with statues and other decorations as well as shrines to the Virgin Mary. At the front of the church is a shrine to the Immaculate Conception. On the wall behind the shrine is a muscular, angry-looking Christ, holding his arms up to heaven.

I arrived at a scene of total chaos in the church, as the folks from the 9:00 Mass tried to squeeze their way out as the people attending the 10:30 Mass tried to wriggle by and find a good seat. It calmed down after a little while, but the church was packed. Even with such a large space, there were still people left standing. The whole Mass felt a little chaotic. There were people walking up and down the aisles, kids trying to get out of the pews, and ushers trying to keep everything orderly.

The music at the Basilica was top notch. The first thing I noticed coming in was the organ. It was beautiful, and at some points it sounded like an electric guitar. It was very cool. There was no choir, but individual singers lead various hymns and prayers. The cantors were some of the best singers I’ve heard yet, and the organ accompaniment made their voices that much sweeter.

The priest had a short and simple message today. I think he was trying to keep it short so the Mass didn’t run too long. He said that today is a day of rejoicing Christ’s rising from the dead. He reminded us of Paul’s message from the reading, which was that Christ gives us a new birth and a new life, and that we should “set our hearts on higher values.”

Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception

Vote for Future Civic Leaders (run by my friend Allen) to receive a $5,000 grant in the Pepsi Refresh contest! Future Civic Leaders is a non-profit run by GW students that is focused on educating underprivileged D.C. youth about civics and government. They're running a summer camp, and they could really use some extra funding. Please vote here!

The Cherry Blossoms at the Tidal Basin:


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