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Midnight Mass returns to St. Anthony of Padua Church

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Members of St. Anthony of Padua Church celebrate during the 2014 Christmas season. (Courtesy Photo)
Members of St. Anthony of Padua Church celebrate during the 2014 Christmas season. (Courtesy Photo)

Midnight Mass at Christmas has made a comeback at St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Walnut Hills, Cincinnati’s only Maronite Church.

The Maronite Church is part of the Eastern Church centered in Lebanon and extending into Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Syria and Iraq, said Father George Hajj, pastor at St. Antony of Padua for just over a year. He is responsible for the return of Midnight Mass in the Maronite tradition.

There are significant differences from Midnight Masses in other parishes throughout the archdiocese particularly before the beginning of Mass. Of course, the traditional divisions of the Mass — the Liturgy of the Word and Eucharist — remain.

There other different seasonal traditions including seven specific Sundays in the Advent Season in the Maronite Church, Father Hajj explained. They are, in order: Announcement to the Virgin Mary; Visitation to Elizabeth; Birth of John the Baptizer; Revelation to Joseph; Genealogy Sunday, and Finding in the Temple. On Jan. 1, the liturgical commemoration is the Feast of the Circumcision (Naming) of the Child Jesus with a second commemoration of the common Eastern observance of Saint Basil.

But, midnight Mass is a highlight of the season. A number of reasons, including a desire for many families with children to prefer Christmas eve and day Masses, dwindling midnight Mass attendance, and the character of the Walnut Hills neighborhood, contributed to its demise in 2001, Father Hajj explained.

“I brought it back last year,” he said.

Longtime parishioner and choir member Rose Abiradi said, “We’re the only Maronite parish in Cincinnati. I was in the choir for more than 35 years. Midnight Mass was a highlight and now it’s back and the choir starts practice in September for Christmas Midnight Mass. There was a time they had to bring chairs to accommodate everybody.” The church holds about 300.

Also back is the Christmas choir recital in the decorated church. “The recital includes Christmas carols and hymns of Christmas season. It will be 10:30 a.m., Sunday, Dec. 20. We only had about 70 at last Christmas Midnight Mass, but it has been a long time since we had it. We expect a bigger attendance  this year.”

Father Hajj, a native of Lebanon, has been in the United States since 2001 and was ordained in 2013 at the Maronite National Convention in Tampa. He completed his studies for the priesthood at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., Prior to arriving in Cincinnati, he served as associate pastor at a Maronite parish in Cleveland.

Father Hajj explained some of the Mass tradition.  At the beginning of Midnight Mass, he said, the church is dimmed.  The priest and deacons enter the church from the back. “We have the cross and we have three people — one carrying a Laurel branch — symbolizing the gold of the Magi; a second person will be carrying an oil flask symbolizing the birth; the third will be carrying (incense). They enter the sanctuary with unlit candles.  The rite starts with a deacon walking with an unlit candle to a lit candle to the right of the crucifix at the altar.

“The deacon lights the candle and walks toward the priest, other deacons and servers all at the main door. The priest starts: “Where is the newborn, the King of Kings? We saw a star in the East and we came to adore Him.  The deacon answers: ‘He is Christ the King, the Shepherd who came out from Bethlehem.’ The servers answer the priest. ‘Who is that child; the ancient of days; awaited by all nations.’ and the deacon answers: ‘He is the star of Jacob and the rod of the people of God. … He is Jacob, the rod of the people of God, as the prophet Balaam said: ‘He is our peace and our hope. ‘

“The entire congregation answers: ‘He is our Lord and God, Jesus Christ who brought light into our darkened world to save us and make us children of God.’”

The deacon lights the candles of the servers  and the candles held by all present are lit.

“Then we sing the hymn of light. It is from Ephram the Syriac, a doctor of the church. As we chant the hymn of light of Saint Ephram, we process into the church and start the Mass of the Incarnation.

“When we arrive at the front of the altar, we put the laurel, the incense, and the oil on the right side where we would have the icon of the Incarnation.

“The Mass begins.”

The Mass and pre-Christmas recital are open to all and provide a Maronite religious celebration for parishioners and the people of Cincinnati.

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