The Maronite Church

History of the Maronites

On the mountains of Lebanon, in that mystical land, in those deep valleys, among those white-topped mountains, in the land of milk and honey, in the nation of the Cedar Tree and the Alphabet, in the Phoenician land, there the Maronite Church, the smallest of all the Churches, has grown like a mustard seed and become a tree. The Holy Valley of Qadisha, with its hermitages carved in rocks overhung by the cedars  which endlessly extend the summits of the mountains, are the symbols of the Maronites’ tenacity, vitality and independence. The history of the Maronites is marked by persecution and martyrdom for the sake of liberty, independence, and the preservation of the true faith as it was passed down to us by the Apostles. The Patriarchal Monastery of Qannoubine, perched as an eagle’s nest, summarizes their entire history.


Christianity in the Middle East

After Our Lord Jesus Christ resurrected from the dead and ascended into heaven 40 days later, the Holy Spirit came down upon the Apostles and empowered them to preach the gospel in every land and to tell the whole world their testimony of who they had encountered and what they had seen (Acts 2). Since the followers of Christ were distinguished as adhering to a new and foreign faith, the early Christians were heavily persecuted in the Roman Empire, first by the Jews, then by the Gentiles. The Jewish people were split among those who believed that Jesus was the long awaited Messiah (or Christ) while others failed to recognize him and instead persecuted his followers, as St. Paul did. St. Paul, a zealous Jew, converted to Christianity (which at that time was a sect of Judaism) after receiving a vision from God, who identified himself as “Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting” (Acts 22:8). The Gentiles (non-Jews) likewise persecuted followers of Christ because they blasphemed the gods by asserting that there was only one true God of all humankind, and they refused to offer sacrifices to the fake pagan gods. For this reason, pagan villagers despised having Christians living among them, for they feared that by the mere blasphemy of a Christian’s life, they would be cursed with bad harvests and lack of prosperity. Nonetheless, the early Christians persevered in their faith and the Apostles continued to travel throughout the world and preach despite being imprisoned, scorned, beaten, and eventually martyred for the sake of Christ. The martyrdom of some of the Apostles are recorded in the Scriptures themselves, such as that of St. James the Great in Acts 12:1-2.


It was not until the year 313 when Emperor Constantine (who later converted to Christianity) issued the Edict of Milan which legalized Christianity in the Roman Empire. But before this, being a Christian was a death sentence. If an ill-wishing Roman were to find out that one was a Christian, this meant death for the person unless they renounced their faith. Tyre is one of the cities in the Roman Empire that had some of the earliest followers of Christ. The city of Tyre is referred to in the Holy Scriptures numerous times. We are told that people came from Tyre to hear Jesus preach (St. Mark 3:8) and that Jesus went to the district of Tyre and Sidon and performed miracles, most notably the healing of the Syrophoenician woman's daughter, recorded by St. Matthew (15:21) and St. Mark (7:24) in their gospels. We know that many of those early Christians in the Eastern Roman Empire were persecuted for their faith. The historian Eusebius tells us that in the early fourth century, under the reign of Emperor Diolectian, many soldiers of Christ were killed for their faith in the city of Tyre. It is recorded that 500 Christians in Tyre were tortured and persecuted in the year 304. This period in early Christian history is known as the Great Persecution. The Christians were tortured in various ways and underwent numerous punishments. These Christians were put to death for their beliefs and for simply being Christian. By dying for their faith they gained the holy crown of martyrdom, and their memory lives on in the living tradition of the Church, and they are remembered with a special memorial in the liturgical calendar. Other early martyrs from this region whose memory lives on in the Church are St. Theodosia of Tyre, St. Dorotheus of Tyre, St. Christina of Tyre, St. Aquilina of Byblos, St. Barbara of Baalbek, Sts. Cyprian and Justina, St. Charbel of Edessa, St. George, St. Romanus (Raymond) of Caesarea, Sts. Sergius and Bacchus, the 40 Holy Martyrs of Sebaste, and St. Thecla, disciple of St. Paul and the first female martyr. The relics of the martyrs and their bones were often buried under the altars of churches. In the same way that the Lamb is sacrificed on the altar for us at each Eucharistic celebration, the martyrs’ relics were placed under the altars to commemorate that they were sacrificed for their faith. This was the reality of the world at the time that the Maronite Church sprouted. 


The Holy Gospels record that Jesus was the first to evangelize the people north of Judea, Samaria, and Galilee, and it was the Apostles St. Peter, chief of the Apostles, and St. Paul (at the request of St. Barnabas) who first traveled further north to Antioch and established the patriarchal See of Antioch before continuing their missionary journeys to Rome, the capital of the Empire (Gal 2, Acts 11). Therefore, the Church of Antioch, from which the Maronite Church grew, is older than the Church of Rome and has claim to the same apostolic authority, and after all, this is where the followers of Christ were "first called Christians" (Acts 11:26). This is because it was first in Antioch that Christianity was no longer seen as a sect of Judaism for ethnic Jews to either be a part of or not, but as a religion for all people, especially those who are "weary and burdened" by society, as it was embraced by Antiochian Romans, Greeks, and Semites (Syriac people) without needing to first embrace the Law of Moses and be circumcised in accordance with it (St. Matthew 11:28). Rather, it was determined that Gentiles (non-Jews), such as those from the multicultural city of Antioch, did not need to first convert to Judaism before they could embrace the Messiah, who came not just for the Jewish people, but for all people. It was determined at the Council of Jerusalem, the first council of the Church, recorded in Acts 17, that baptism replaces circumcision in this New Covenant, and it is baptism in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit which saves all of humankind (1 Peter 3:21). And since the Maronite Church grew out of Antioch, whose vernacular was Syriac, the liturgical language of the Maronite Church is not Latin or Greek, but Syriac. It was in Syriac that the great Syriac Church Fathers (such as St. Ephrem, St. Jacob of Sarug, St. Isaac of Nineveh, and St. Aphrahat) wrote. The Church of Antioch even prays with the oldest liturgy of the Church: the Liturgy of St. James the Just, Apostle and First Bishop of Jerusalem. The establishment of the chair of St. Peter in Antioch is remembered annually on February 22 in the Maronite liturgical calendar, and the Maronite Patriarch always takes the middle name Peter (or Boutros in Arabic) after St. Peter who was the first bishop of Antioch and patriarch of the Antiochene Church.


Who are the Maronites? What is the Maronite Church?
The Maronites are those early Christians who gathered around a monastery called Bet Maroun in Syriac or the House of Maron in English built in 452 AD on the Orontes River after the Council of Chalcedon, the 4th ecumenical council of the Great Church, was convoked by Eastern Roman Emperor Marcian. Those Chalcedonian Christians who defended their faith in Jesus Christ as true God and true man were called Maronites after a hermit priest, St. Maron, who was their spiritual father and a renowned holy man in that region of Syria. Fascinated by his unwavering faith and his profound holiness, devotees from various parts of the region gathered around St. Maron who lived a life of asceticism and preaching.


St. Maron
St. Maron (or Mar Maroun in Syriac) was a man of Syriac ancestry who lived in the open air on the mountains of Cyrrhus, near Antioch (near modern day Aleppo, Syria), in the 4th century AD. God bestowed on him the gift of healing, which made his fame spread in the entire region. During his lifetime, he lived an ascetic and monastic life, and devoted his existence to preaching the Good News that the God of All People had become a man, clinging to the apostolic belief that Jesus Christ was both truly human and truly God incarnate. St. Maron died around the year 410 AD. His disciples continued his mission of disseminating the Good News of Christ to all people by becoming missionaries, while others followed in his example of monastic life. St. Abraham the Hermit, the Apostle of Lebanon, traveled south to the land of Phoenicia and converted many of the native Phoenician inhabitants of the mountains of Lebanon. These Phoenician pagans became Maronite Christians. Some of St. Maron's earliest disciples were also women, such as Sts. Domnina, Marana, and Kyra who devoted themselves to the monastic life in his example, praying for the conversion of heart and mind of all people, and offering their whole selves to God.


Bet Maroun

In 451, the Fathers of the Church (the bishops and patriarchs) held a meeting called the Council of Chalcedon which was convoked by Emperor Marcian. They sought to clarify the teaching of the Church concerning the person of Jesus Christ. They proclaimed that Jesus Christ was both truly human and truly divine: true man and true God. The Maronites, as faithful apostolic Christians, strongly defended the Council of Chalcedon, which made the non-Chalcedonian miaphysite dissenters their bitter enemies. Pope Leo I requested a monastery be built on the Orontes River for the disciples of St. Maron and the defenders of the true faith in the East. The monastery was called Bet Maroun. The conflict between the Maronites and the miaphysites (whose theological descendants exist as members of the Oriental Orthodox Churches) led to a strong persecution that resulted in the death of 350 Maronite Christians (who we remember as the 350 martyrs) and many refugees in 517 AD. The Maronites informed Pope Hormisdas about their martyrdom and their struggle for the preservation of the true faith. The Pope of Rome sent the Maronites a letter to strengthen them, describing the Maronite martyrs as soldiers of Jesus Christ and members of his Living Body in the East.


St. John Maron

Around 685, the Maronites appointed a patriarch, St. John Maron, who became the first patriarch of the Maronite Church, which made the Byzantine Emperor furious. The appointing of the patriarch was a very important event in the history of the Maronites, which led to another persecution that resulted in 500 martyrs. The monastery of Bet Maroun was heavily damaged. Many Maronites left their lands in Syria and joined their brethren in the mountain ranges of Lebanon. On those cedar-topped mountains, the Maronite Church continued to grow.


The Mountains of Lebanon
The Maronites lived at a crossroad of different cultures and beliefs and thus, their history was marked by continuous and numerous constraints which lead to numerous persecutions. In 936, the monastery of Bet Maroun and other Maronite monasteries were completely destroyed in Syria at the hands of members of a new and foreign religion: the Muslims, who were persecuting Christians for their belief that the true God, the author of Love, had incarnated. The Maronites and their patriarch who had remained in Syria had to take a very difficult decision: to leave the rich plains of Syria and take the mountains of Lebanon as a refuge. The Syriac Maronites and Hellenic Maronites in Syria joined the Phoenician Maronites and the Mardaites in the Lebanese mountains where they enjoyed peacefulness and security under the shadow of the cedars. Protected by the mountains of Lebanon, the Maronites and their patriarch were able to organize their Church away from persecution.


The Crusades
For 350 years, the Maronites have been isolated in the valleys and mountains of Lebanon until the beginning of the Crusades. When the Crusaders invaded the East, they were surprised to find out about the existence of the Maronites, for communication between Christians in the East and the West had been severed as a result of many religious and political disputes, and the isolation of the Maronites in the mountains. The Pope of Rome himself was astonished that this pocket of Christians had survived among the Muslims. During the Crusades Period, the Maronites succeeded in building relationships with France, especially after the visit of St. Louis IX, King of France, to Lebanon. 


The Mamluks
At the end of the Crusades and after the defeat of the Crusaders, the Maronites were attacked by the Mamluks. Between 1268 and 1283, persecution began at the hands of the Mamluks who attacked the strongholds of the Maronites, sowing destruction in Ehden, Bsharre, Hadath El-Jibbet, Meifook, and other villages. They captured the Maronite Patriarch and sent him to his death. Between 1291 and 1305, the Mamluks destroyed the area known as Kesrwan and the Maronites were forbidden to enter it. The Maronites once again had to learn how to survive amid persecution and to protect their freedom in order to maintain the presence of the true faith in the East. But in 1357, they became divided against themselves: The Maronites of Byblos and Batroun against those of Bsharre. Consequently, the Mamluks invaded Byblos and Batroun, destroying their villages, and burning their Patriarch alive in 1367. Many people escaped to the Greek Island of Cyprus, which still has a Maronite population to this day. The Maronites lost their freedom in Lebanon. Because of the many disasters that happened in the world in that period of time (13th- 16th century), especially in the Middle East, the Pope of Rome, Leo X, described the Maronite Church as a rose among thorns, an impregnable rock in the sea, unshaken by the waves and fury of the thundering tempest. Despite heavy persecution throughout the ages, Maronite Christians are renowned for their strong commitment to the precepts of the Church.


The Ottomans & Independence
In 1516, the Ottomans defeated the Mamluks. The Maronites were granted protection by France. The Maronite Church expanded in Lebanon and the Maronites mixed with other minorities. The Maronites built churches, founded religious orders, formed schools, and cultivated arid lands. The valleys and the mountains were filled with monks and hermits. Many families, some of whom had been forcibly converted to Islam, converted back to Christianity, joined the Maronite Church, and celebrated their freedom. But between 1845 and 1860, hatred was incited by the Ottomans, who worked so hard to break the Maronites’ spirit of independence. Dozens of villages, churches, and monasteries were completely destroyed. Thousands were martyred or displaced, and many immigrated to other lands. It was during this time that the Blessed Massabki Brothers were martyred in the monastery at Damascus, Syria. The persecution returned between 1914 and 1918, when the Ottomans blocked the roads to the mountains of Lebanon, causing a human disaster. Tens of thousands of people died of famine and diseases, and thousands immigrated. This was happening simultaneously as Greek, Armenian, and Assyrian Christians were also being killed at the hands of the Ottomans in their respective genocides for the same reason: they were proud Christians who refused to be be compelled to follow a false religion and abandon the Love of God, who had become incarnate. After the First World War, Lebanon was liberated from the Ottomans. France, Lebanon’s compassionate mother, entered the mountains of Lebanon and made the land a French mandate. The Maronite patriarch left for Paris. He arrived on October 25th, 1919. He requested the recognition of Lebanon as an independent country. On September 1st, 1920, General Gouraud proclaimed the State of Greater Lebanon in the presence of the Maronite patriarch. In 1943, Lebanon won its independence. Ever since, Lebanese Independence Day is celebrated on November 22nd.


Persecution & Diaspora
Peace did not last too long. Between 1975 and 1990, the people of Lebanon engaged in a terrible civil war. Tens of thousands died, and thousands emigrated. The Maronites defended their country with great courage, but in 1990, they divided into political parties against themselves and fought each other. Consequently, their enemies invaded them, bombarding their cities and villages, sending their leaders into exile, and putting others in jail. The Maronites lost their independence and hundreds of thousands left the mountains of Lebanon for other countries, such as the United States and Canada. Freedom became threatened, but God did not abandon his people. He consoled the Maronites, giving them three saints: St. Sharbel, St. Rafqa, and St. Nimatullah Hardini. In 1997, the Pope of Rome, John Paul II, visited Lebanon to give hope to the Lebanese people and particularly to the Maronites. He said, "Lebanon is more than a country, it is a message." The history of the Maronites has been intertwined with that of Lebanon. Without Maronites, Lebanon would not have existed as an entity, and without Lebanon, Catholic Christianity in the Middle East may never have survived. Lebanon remains undoubtedly the only spiritual land of the Maronites. And the Lebanese Maronites still survive to this day day, as strongly as ever. Their hospitality, thirst for freedom, love of God and neighbor, and fidelity to their patriarch are known to all people. 


Due to the severe persecution of the Church in Lebanon that occurred in the late 20th century, many were scattered throughout the world, which caused the Maronite Church to grow outside Lebanon. That’s how the Early Church grew outside of Judea. The Maronite Church became international. Now, she does not only include Phoenician, Syriac, and Arab Maronites, but also American Maronites, European Maronites, Mexican Maronites, Venezuelan Maronites, Brazilian Maronites, Canadian Maronites, Australian Maronites, and people of every ethnicity and nationality. And the words Our Lord spoke to St. Peter, the first patriarch of Antioch, have remained true: "I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not overcome it" (Matthew 16:18). Maronite Christians have remained loyal to the true faith since their inception as a movement in the 4th century, and have never broken communion with the Church of Rome. The Maronite Church is the only Church to hold the name of a Saint, and we are very proud of our history.


If you feel a desire to encounter Christ through the Maronite tradition, we would love to welcome you. We believe that our Maronite identity and Syriac spirituality provide a unique way to Christ. It is one thing to learn about our centuries old history, but it’s another thing to see our tradition in practice: to smell the incense, to hear the prayers of the ancient liturgy, and to taste the goodness of the Lord. All people are welcome to join us on Sundays because every person deserve to have a relationship with our Creator. Please contact our parish office if you would like to be baptized or just want learn more about the Maronite Church. See the "Sacraments" tab to learn more about Maronite spirituality.


The Five Distinguishing Marks of the Maronite Church

The Maronite Patriarchal Assembly which met from 2003-2004, made up of over 500 Maronite participants – clergy, religious and laity - from throughout the world, described the identity of the Maronite Church by five distinguishing marks: First and foremost Maronites are Antiochene – from where Christ’s followers “were first called Christians” (Acts 11:26). Maronites share a historical, liturgical and spiritual heritage with all the other Catholic and Orthodox Antiochene Churches. Maronites are also heirs of Syriac cultural and religious heritage, whose language, poetry, and hymnody were the means used to express the mystery that God is beyond all descriptions yet has come close to us in Christ.


Second, Maronites are Chalcedonian, meaning they were staunch supporters of the Council of Chalcedon, convened in 451 AD, which taught that Jesus is true God and true man. In this formula, Maronites found a balance and way of life that placed them forever in the communion of the universal Church, despite persecution from the non-Chalcedonians they lived around. 


Third, the Maronite Church is patriarchal and monastic in her nature. St. Maron was a hermit priest. The first Maronites were monks, priests, and laity associated with the monasteries of St. Maron in the 5th - 8th centuries. Her first patriarch, St. John Maron, was chosen from among the monks. Maronites have a cherished history known for an ascetic life of sacrifice, devotion to God, and peace, both in one’s own soul and toward one’s neighbor despite persecution.   


Fourth, the Maronite Church is known for her love and devotion to the See of Peter in Rome. This relationship has allowed Maronites to fully express the true Catholic faith held from the beginning, and at the same time be part of the balance between East and West, for St. Peter was not only the founder of the See of Rome, but also the See of Antioch. 


Fifth, the Maronite Church is tied to Lebanon, her spiritual homeland and the dwelling place of her patriarch. This is something to be admired, for Lebanon is a land of exceptional beauty and history. Situated on the east coast of the Mediterranean Sea, the Lebanon mountain range rises majestically from the sea to snow-capped mountain peaks that reach over 10,000 feet. Nestled in the mountains in the north are the famous Cedars of Lebanon, often mentioned in the Bible such as in the Psalms, the Song of Songs, and in the Book of the Prophet Isaiah. The Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem was built from the Cedars of Lebanon, as described in the First Book of Kings 5-7. The prophet Elijah attended to the widow and her son in Zarephath near Sidon in First Kings 17, and even Our Lord Jesus himself preached and healed people, like the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter, in the south of Lebanon during his public ministry. The Lord tells us, “The righteous will flourish like a palm tree, and they will grow like a cedar of Lebanon” (Psalm 92:12). Though being a Lebanese citizen or having Lebanese ancestry is not a requirement to be a Maronite Christian - on the contrary, all people are welcome to encounter Christ though the unique Maronite tradition, even St. Maron himself was not Lebanese - we can agree that Lebanon is a blessed land, and the Maronite Church is blessed to have her as a spiritual homeland on earth.


For an even more detailed history of the Maronite Church, see the Canadian Eparchy of St. Maron's website: maronites.ca/maronites/origins-of-maronites/



 


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