By Alex Taylor
The Daily Star
BEIRUT: It is perhaps ironic that the feast day of saint who spent his life in isolation is today credited with bringing Christians together, but that is exactly what Mar Maroun Day on Feb. 9 does.
An official holiday in Lebanon, Mar Maroun Day celebrates the life and work of a Syriac Christian hermit whose disciples formed a religious movement after his death in 410 AD.
“Christians of all denominations celebrate Mar Maroun – in the U.S., Canada, Brazil, Mexico, Australia, Europe, Syria and more,” said Father Richard Abi Saleh, pastor of Mar Maroun Church in Gemmayzeh.
“It is a national holiday in Lebanon but an important day for all Christians – not just Maronites.”
Orthodox Christians also celebrate Mar Maroun day, but it falls on Feb. 14, rather than Feb. 9.
A time of togetherness, the day brings special events and masses as well as large family gatherings and feasts.
People mark the day in three ways, according to Father Saleh. One is to attend special masses for Mar Maroun that include prayers about his teachings and his story. Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai will lead the official mass for Mar Maroun Thursday at 11 a.m. in St. George’s Maronite Cathedral in Downtown Beirut.
The second aspect is to conduct morning and evening prayers to open and close the saint’s day. Patriarch Rai will be at Mar Maroun Church earlier Thursday to lead the morning prayer at 9:30 a.m., which includes the Benediction of Mar Maroun.
The third and most popular way people mark the feast day is to hold a special dinner, inviting extended family and friends to dine on traditional Lebanese dishes.
Many people also visit the sick, added Father Saleh.
“They light candles and incense and take them to people who are ill to pray for their return to health.”
Mar Maroun had “a special gift from God to give spiritual help and health to the sick,” said Father Saleh.
The saint’s other principal qualities include his role as the inspiration for the Maronite Church and his commitment to a solitary life of prayer as a hermit, Father Saleh added.
Mar Maroun – originally a priest who later became a hermit – is known in particular for the role he played in inspiring monasticism.
He spent a substantial portion of his life on a mountain in Syria, isolated and exposed to the elements, in a place known as “Kfar-Nabo.”
He inspired the beginning of monastic orders among his disciples – who spread the movement named for him after his death abroad from Syria, eventually to Lebanon.
Father Saleh says the holiday is significant to Christians in Lebanon as “a source of hope” and as a reminder of their “mission to live in the name of God for all men regardless of their religion.”