Even though I graduated in May and had to retire from the B.A.R. (Boston Area Religions) Hoppers at Harvard Div. School, I’ve tried to keep up visiting different religious communities while living in Jordan.
A couple of weeks ago, I attended a Melkite Catholic service at Saints Peter and Paul Church in Amman. Melkites are from the Greek Catholic tradition and are part of the global Catholic Church. With origins dating back to first century A.D. in Antioch, Turkey, Melkites have Byzantine roots and services are often held in either Arabic or Greek.
The service was interesting for several reasons: partly because, when someone says “religion in the Middle East,” Islam is almost always what comes to mind, at least for me (and seemingly just about every Western media source). But this region is home to a great diversity of religious traditions, and Arab Christians make up a strong minority. I’m constantly amazed at how much ancient Abrahamic history surrounds me here. The baptism site of Jesus is only a short car ride away from Amman, and if you travel to the Dead Sea, you will see road signs pointing you to Mount Nebo, where – according to the Bible – Moses looked out over the promised lands.
The service was also interesting because it was held entirely in Arabic. I studied Arabic for two years but that meant virtually nothing when listening to songs, chants, and prayers in Biblical Arabic. Not understanding the words of the service meant that I paid attention to other things – to the people who attended, to the ritual elements, and to the space.
The Church itself is beautiful and draws you in with its simple design that is bright, colorful, and inviting. The vibrant paintings of the apostles, Mary, and Jesus which adorn the walls would have been enough in themselves to keep me captivated and present.
Much of the ritual was beyond my understanding in terms of its symbolism and meaning. Taking communion and transsubstantiation are familiar concepts — even if not fully graspable — however, the procession of the Bible around the space, the intentional patterns and directions by which incense is waved, the timing of various elements of the service…all of this was, for me, unfamiliar.
Contrast my unfamiliarity to the deep familiarity exhibited by the congregation, all 30 or so of whom anticipated every moment of the service. They did not need to consult the books and pamphlets scattered along the benches which outlined what was next and when to do this or that. They had every response, every song, every prayer memorized. They were so clearly dedicated to their faith and I was honored to witness the intentionality and devotion which the service evoked in them. The ritual of attendance and the ritual of participating in community were very much present – these are two rituals which I always enjoy seeing enacted and embodied in various religious spaces.
Father Nabil Haddad is the priest of Saints Peter and Paul Church and is also the Executive Director of the Jordanian Interfaith Research Coexistence Center in Amman. JICRC does some incredible interfaith work both in Jordan and in the Middle East. Father Nabil has agreed to do an interview for Practicing Vicariously, so expect that in the coming weeks!
After the service, we adjourned to an adjoining room where we sat and chatted, drank coffee, munched on sweets, and discussed what we had done over the weekend or our plans for the coming days. It was a lovely transition from sacred space to the return to daily life.
More to come soon!