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the mystery worshipper
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1624: St Joseph’s, Phoenix, Arizona, USA
St Joseph’s, Phoenix, Arizona, USA
Mystery Worshipper: Amanda B. Reckondwythe.
The church: St Joseph’s, Phoenix, Arizona, USA.
Denomination: Maronite Catholic, Eparchy of Our Lady of Lebanon. The Maronite Church traces its origin to St Maron, who founded a monastery near Antioch around AD400. Maronites today have a significant presence in the Middle East, especially in Lebanon, as well as in Australia, Brazil, Canada and the United States. In communion with Rome since at least the 12th century, the church is headed by the Patriarch of Antioch and All the East (who actually resides near Beirut). By custom, successor patriarchs upon their election request of the Pope that ecclesiastical communion be renewed. Pope Benedict XVI has announced that anyone who visits a Maronite church on February 9, the feast of St Maron, may gain a plenary indulgence.
The building: A modern brick A-frame structure. Inside, the free-standing altar is framed against a triangular pine reredos that resembles an oversized bishop’s mitre. On the east wall are a large cross of blue stained glass, and several large paintings depicting the Annunciation, Nativity, Baptism of Christ, Christ's entry into Jerusalem, the Resurrection, and the Trinity, in no apparent order. The overall effect is very pleasing.
The church: They offer classes in Arabic and sponsor a St Rafka Ladies Guild and a Maronite Youth Organization.
The neighborhood: The church is located at 5406 East Virginia Avenue, in a quiet, tidy and well scrubbed but not particularly affluent residential neighborhood.
The cast: The Revd Ghattas Khoury, pastor. Father Khoury was vested in alb, girdle, red stole and red cope. He was assisted by a crucifer, two acolytes and a thurifer, all in albs and red girdles.
The date & time: First Sunday after Holy Cross, September 21, 2008, 11.00am.

What was the name of the service?
Divine Liturgy.

How full was the building?
The church can hold about 700. I counted 75 people at the start of mass, but by gospel time it was about three-quarters full – mostly young families and lots of children.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
Not at first. I helped myself to an announcement leaflet and took a seat in the back row. A gentleman came over to me and asked me if I read Arabic. When I replied that I didn't, he asked me if this was my first time here, and told me I was most welcome. He introduced me to Father Khoury, who by that time had moved to the rear of the church where the entrance procession was forming. Father shook my hand and also said that I was most welcome. The gentleman then suggested that I move up closer, saying that children tended to sit toward the back and that they could be noisy. He then joined me in my pew, and said that he would be glad to explain anything that I might have a question about as the liturgy progressed.

Was your pew comfortable?
Yes – a wooden pew with no cushions. There were no kneelers. During the eucharistic prayer some people knelt on the floor but most stood.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
People visited amongst themselves while Father, in full vestiture, made last minute preparations at the altar. The keyboardist practiced a bit with the volume turned way down.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
As the church lights were switched on, the choir sang: "Alleluia! In your light we see the light" in Aramaic.

What books did the congregation use during the service?
The official Maronite prayer book, a spiral bound booklet in English and Aramaic entitled Qurbono and subtitled The Service of the Holy Mysteries according to the Antiochene Arabic Maronite Church. There was also a bulletin listing church-sponsored events for the entire month and containing some devotional readings.

What musical instruments were played?
A digital keyboard. There was a small choir of mixed voices concealed behind a wooden partition. Unfortunately they were overmiked and sang with a loud, harsh, strident sound. The keyboardist drew primarily on a deep organ-like stop that sounded good, but there was another instrumental sound as well (I couldn't tell if it was a digital stop or if there was a second musician behind the partition) that, at least to my Western ear, sounded out-of-tune with the keyboard.

Did anything distract you?
There were lots of squirming, babbling, fidgeting and crying children who made it difficult to concentrate on the service. One little girl sitting behind me took great pleasure in kicking the back of my pew until her parents finally made her stop.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The Maronites believe that their liturgy derives from the worship practices of the apostles themselves. The liturgy has evolved over the years, most recently as a result of the reforms of Vatican II. A good discussion can be found here. The entire service was chanted, partly in Aramaic and partly in English (I couldn't figure out the rationale behind which language was used when). The structure of the liturgy was more or less what we are used to in the West – opening prayers, Gloria with lots of incense, Old and New Testament readings with the gospel book being censed, sermon, Nicene Creed (with Filioque intact), offertory with the bread and wine carried in procession around the church, eucharistic prayer, peace ceremony, communion service. But the specific liturgical texts, while somewhat familiar, were yet quite different and quite beautiful. Fortunately the spiral bound Qurbono laid everything out clearly and the service was easy to follow.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
14 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
5 – Father Khoury's English was heavily accented and hard to follow. He spoke half in English, half in Arabic, and seemed much more at ease in the latter. He had notes in front of him but looked up often. He did not, however, make especially good eye contact with the congregation. The two acolytes, both strappingly handsome Lebanese teenage boys in their prime, apparently had difficulty following along as well, as they thought it more appropriate to engage in a lengthy whispered conversation between themselves during the entire sermon. Had they needed something to meditate on, they might have considered where they could buy a pair of shoes appropriate for wear at the altar – but there goes Miss Amanda again on one of her favorite soapboxes.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Father spoke on the readings for the day, but I could barely understand his English and didn't understand his Arabic at all, and so I can't summarize what he said.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
I always find it heavenly that God is worshipped in so many different ways in so many ancient liturgies. I also thought that the greeting I received was heavenly. It's too bad that I ended up being not worthy of it (read on!).

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
I've Mystery Worshipped 57 churches, more or less, over the years, but I've never had this happen to me before. Shortly after the collection was taken, an usher came storming up the aisle brandishing my Mystery Worship calling card. He stopped at each pew and angrily demanded to know who had put the card in the basket. For some reason he didn't stop at my pew – had he done so, and had I owned up to the deed, I am sure he would have struck me. At length the other ushers had to subdue him and lead him to the back of the church.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
In light of the above, I thought it best to beat a hasty exit at communion time. The ushers (as well as the friendly gentleman sitting in my pew) had gone forward to assist at communion, and while the usher's back was turned I skulked out the door, out to the parking lot, into my car, and away.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Can't say (see above).

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
3 – Even if the aforementioned embarrassing incident had not occurred, I was put off by the inattentive behavior of the acolytes and the apparently cavalier attitude of the congregation toward being on time for mass. And I don't think I'd ever be able to learn Aramaic or Arabic or to accustom my Western ear to what sounded like out-of-tune music.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, until my concentration was smashed.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
Having started my own little jihad over the calling card. And I'm sure they'll remember for a long time to come having been blessed by a visit from the Mystery Worshipper.
 
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