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Toula: the humble village, setting new horizons in new times

11. Religion

Cedars of Lebanon are famous from the Bible, and it is the region where great monotheistic religions have developed, which have influenced world history, such as the Christian church of which the Maronite Church is a significant part.

The region of Lebanon was associated with Christianity from its very beginning, since Jesus Christ is said to have visited the region, as did St Paul.  The people of Lebanon were amongst some of the first people to convert to Christianity.

The Maronites, named after St Maron, the Syriac monk of the early 5th century, are members of the Lebanese Eastern Catholic Church.  A Christian community of Syrian origin, they are Eastern Christians who have been in communion with the Roman Catholic Church since 1182.  They are a Uniat church, that is, a church of Eastern Christendom in communion with Rome, which retains its own rites, language and canon law.  The liturgy, which is their own, is essentially an Antiochene rite, that is, the theological style of the Church at Antioch, and the language is Syriac, with Latin influence in parts. Most Maronites still live in Lebanon, although some are found in the neighbouring countries, as well as in many other parts of the world.  They are the largest single religious group in Lebanon.

Source: Cross and Livingstone (1995), p. 79, sv. Antiochene theology; p. 1047, sv. Maronites; p. 1669, sv. Uniat Churches.

There are many significant saints associated with the Maronite Church in Lebanon, for example, Saints Charbel, Rafqa and Nemetallah, whose relics are venerated.   St Assia, who is the patron saint of Toula, lived until 377.  This was in about the time of the Roman Emperor Theodosius II ‘the Great’, who reigned 379-395.  Christianity, which had been persecuted by the Roman Empire during the first centuries after the birth of Christ, had only relatively recently become the official religion of the Roman Empire from the reign of Constantine the Great, who was Roman emperor from 312-337.  He tolerated Christianity from 312, was the first emperor to convert to Christianity and he moved the capital of the empire in 330 to Constantinople, present day Istanbul in Turkey.

The historical and cultural context in which St Assia lived was the Greek speaking eastern Roman Empire, whose culture was mainly Greek, but influenced by several centuries of Roman rule, and also had the influence of many near eastern cultures, such as, in the region of Lebanon, Phoenician and Aramaic.

His father Famtiros was close to the Emperor Theodosius. Theodosius is famous for founding the Roman Empire as a Christian Catholic state, that is, he made Arianism and other Christian heresies illegal, outlawed paganism and ended sacrifice, and established everywhere in the empire, which included Lebanon, the Christian religion in the form which has developed into the Roman Catholic Church.

Other saints and church fathers of this period came from families close to the imperial family.  Many important saints in the eastern Mediterranean date from the Later Roman Empire, with other examples being St Basil and St George, both of whom were supposedly active in Asia Minor, modern day Turkey, which is not far from Lebanon.

St Maron, the founder of the Maronite Catholic Church, was a contemporary of St Assia and came from the same cultural context.  He was a friend of St John Chrysostom, the famous Bishop of Constantinople, who lived from c.347-407, and whose name means ‘the golden mouth’ on account of his distinguished oratory.  Indeed, St Assia is said to have visited Constantinople to meet Theodosius.

We have an account of the life and works of St Assia.  Soon after becoming a priest, he went to a monastery in Mt Sinai, a region which has been famous for centuries for its monasteries.  These include St Catherine’s Monastery, from where the mid 4th century Codex Sinaiticus comes, one of the earliest Greek manuscripts of the Bible, most of which is in the British Library in London.

The story of his life has facts about his date, family and where he lived and worked, which may be accurate.  The account of the miracles which he performed, living in a cave, praying and fasting, and trials by the enemies of the good is similar to the life of Jesus.  They remind us of the temptation of Christ in the wilderness and the miracles which he performs are similar to those of Jesus.

He destroys a temple where animals are worshipped, which is parallel to the story of Jesus driving the money changers out of the Temple in Jerusalem.  The ambassador of Persian king brings him rich gifts, which is similar to wise men from the east in Bible.  Meeting students before his death and his final instructions to embrace the faith are like Jesus at the Last Supper.

His activities are described as taking place in the region of Lebanon, Palestine, Antioch, and Constantinople, which were centres of the eastern Roman Empire and the early church.

Source: The Story of Saint Assia the Doctor.

In antiquity and in other periods, historical events, lives and speeches are often described not as they actually happened or with the words which were actually spoken, but with stories, or in symbolic language, or in a literary style which conveys the inner significance of what happened or what was said.  In that sense, combined with some actual facts of the event, they are a true account, and indeed a more profound presentation, of what happened, than a simple factual narrative.  Indeed, so called ‘factual’ narratives are themselves either limited by the facts available, and thus have not all the facts, or are only somebody’s interpretation, based on their choice of facts and presentation of them.   Source: Nicholas Hardwick

The life of St Assia is intended to be a more profound presentation of what happened.   It gives a different perspective of the life which is described than a ‘factual narrative’.   It is what is called hagiography, from Greek (h)ağios (ἅγιος, ‘holy’ or ‘saint’) and graphē (γραφή, ‘writing’), meaning ‘writing about saints’.    The life of St Assia is thus representative of Christian hagiographies, especially of the Later Roman Empire, since it is focused on the life, and notably the miracles, of a man who has been canonised, that is, made into a saint.  Source: Nicholas Hardwick

He has long been worshipped as a St Assia the Doctor for his curing of illnesses and disabilities. His name means ‘doctor’. Christ similarly acted in this role.

Source: The Story of Saint Assia the Doctor.

The festival of St Assia is celebrated in Toula each year to mark the anniversary of his death in 377.  On the last Sunday of September, the village holds an annual Summer Festival in his honour.  At the festival, members of the village celebrate with an outdoor party, where the traditional meat dish of the village, called hrissi, is cooked and eaten, arak, the drink made from grapes and flavoured with aniseed,  is drunk, and there is dancing and ringing of the bells of the church of Saint Assia.

The slaughtering of the lambs for the hrissi is done in remembrance of and thanksgiving to God and Mar Assia (Saint Assia).  Many of the villages in the Zgharta District, including the greater village of Zgharta, celebrate their patron saints in a similar manner through thanksgiving and the preparation of hrissi.

St Assia is a significant figure far beyond Toula.  There is an Assyrian Catholic Cathedral of Mar Assia in Halab, which is the older name for Aleppo, in Syria.  A picture of him is displayed in this cathedral. The hrissi and St Assia annual Function are also replicated at the same time of the year for the Toulanians in Sydney.

The Parish priest of Toula is currently Father Maroun Berchara, who has held that position for about 30 years, and has visited the community in Australia on several occasions, most recently for a few months in 2010.  On each occasion he has conducted various Masses and ceremonies for the members of the village in Australia.  Source: Father Maroun Berchara

See zgharta.com for more on St Assia

Source: Ghosn

‘4. History of the Village’ (Source: Toula Village)

Source: Barakat, 190ff.

St Assia the Doctor (Source: Book of St Assia, Mar Assia/Facebook)

The Maronite Catholic Church has a Patriarch, whose see in Lebanon is at Bkerké, north of Beirut.  There are ten bishops in Lebanon, in the USA an Apostolic Exarch, in Brazil an auxiliary bishop and three titular bishops, one of whom presides over the Eparchy in Australia*.

Source: Cross and Livingstone (1995), p. 1047, sv. Maronites

His Excellency Bishop Ad-abi-karam, Maronite Bishop of Australia, resides in Sydney at the Chancellery of the Maronite Church in Strathfield.  He is the Patron of the Museum and leader of the Maronite community in Australia.

In Sydney, Redfern, Waterloo and Surry Hills were the areas where they lived and had their businesses, and a Roman Catholic Church became a Maronite Church.  The older church has been replaced by the Maronite Cathedral.  In the region of Parramatta, the major religious institutions are the church of Our Lady of Lebanon in Parramatta and St Charbel’s Church and Monastery and School in Punchbowl. Source: Nicholas Hardwick

A significant event in the life of the Maronite Church in Australia was the visit of the Relics of Saints Charbel, Rafqa and Nemetallah to Sydney in 2005.  The relics  were brought from  Lebanon and were venerated at ceremony at the church of Our Lady of Lebanon in Parramatta, at which His Excellency Bishop Ad-abi-karam, Maronite Bishop of Australia, presided, and he was accompanied by a large number of Maronite clergy.  Large crowds witnessed and accompanied the procession of the relics and attended the mass, and members of the village of Toula were well represented.  The wooden boat used to carry the relics during the visit is now on display at the Maronite Heritage Centre in Redfern.  Source: Relics Visit to Australia 2005 (DVD Video)