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Christmas cheer in Eastern style

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Children, from the Syro-Malabar Church, act out the story of the birth of Christ. PHOTO: Syro-Malabar EPARCHY OF AUSTRALIA/SUPPLIED

Side by side with the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney, Eastern Catholics like the Maronite and Syro-Malabar churches are celebrating their own Christmas traditions and culture, revealing the different ways Catholics worship their One Lord.

For Maronites, the approach to the season is one of the most unique differences compared to the Roman Catholic tradition.

“For starters, we don’t actually refer to it as the Advent season, as you may hear in other Catholic denominations,” explained Fr Charbel Dib, a parish priest and youth chaplain at Our Lady of Lebanon Co-Cathedral in Harris Park.

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“It’s known for us as the ‘Season of the Glorious Birth of Our Lord,’ and runs for seven weeks in its entirety.”

Christmas begins with a season of announcements, from Zechariah to Mary, and focuses on St Luke’s Gospel.

The nine-day novena during this period is also infused with traditions of the earlier church.
“Though a Christmas novena isn’t uniquely Maronite, the way we pray includes exposition of the blessed sacrament, particular hymns that come from our Syriac tradition and relevant prayers that accompany it,” Fr Charbel said.

“There’s also what we call the ziyeh (benediction), which is a procession to conclude the prayer.”

The Syro-Malabar Church, from India, also incorporates a unique procession into their cultural traditions, beginning their Christmas Eve liturgy outside rather than indoors.

“At the crib outside the church, we make a fire and begin our service there, incorporating the Nativity scene into the Holy Mass,” said Fr George Mankuzhikary, parish priest at Christ the King in Villawood.

Our Lady of Lebanon Co-Cathedral in Harris Park, above, lit up for Advent. PHOTOs: MARONITE EPARCHY OF AUSTRALIA/SUPPLIED, SYRO MALABAR EPARCHY OF AUSTRALIA/SUPPLIED.

“The idea is that it’s a cold night and we are taking the baby Jesus to be warm.”

Once Mass is concluded, clergy and parishioners take the statue back outside in procession with singing and prayer.

“It’s a special adoration of Jesus in that sense,” he said.

As Fr George explains, the Syro-Malabar rite, as with all Catholic rites, is like an ornament on the decorated Christmas tree that makes up the Catholic Church.

“That’s why we have different rites. Each apostle spread to different places and preached the Gospel, and the people received the Gospel in their culture, in their language, and in their way of life.”

It’s something Fr George has experienced first-hand as his mission shares the church premises with the Vietnamese community at Sacred Heart Catholic Church, who also celebrate their own Liturgy.

“It means you have one faith, one Bible, and many ways of worshipping. That shows the true richness of the church,” he said.

Though east and west hold different practices, the connection to each other during the Christmas season, such as the shared date and focus on Christ’s genealogy, speak to the reality of our One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.

One of many diverse of ways to celebrate. PHOTOS: MARONITE EPARCHY OF AUSTRALIA/SUPPLIED, SYRO MALABAR EPARCHY OF AUSTRALIA/SUPPLIED

“I think it’s one of the beautiful things, that you can go into any of these churches—east or west—during this season, and share in that intimate moment,” said Fr Charbel.

“Every church has to celebrate its own liturgical practices and live to its traditions, which we encourage. But the times of coming together in communion are truly beautiful.

“Whichever church you find yourself in this Christmas season, in that celebration you will feel the joy of the birth of Our Lord.”

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