BEIRUT, Lebanon – On the evening before Christmas, the city of Beirut was decked with lights and trees and nativity scenes. A festive glow covered everything as people made their way to the various Catholic and Christian churches for Midnight Mass.
In downtown Beirut, the traffic around the cathedral was heavy with cars and pedestrians as my colleague, Alexey Gotovsky, and I arrived. Muslim families, too, could be seen walking around the streets, enjoying the festive atmosphere and the air fresh off the nearby Mediterranean Sea.
The Cathedral of St. George is the Maronite Catholic cathedral for the Archdiocese of Beirut. The Maronite Church is an Eastern Catholic Church sui iuris, in full communion with Rome, which celebrates the liturgy according to the West Syriac Rite.
The cathedral, like other Catholic and Orthodox churches the evening of Dec. 24, was guarded by a handful of armed military police. Lebanon is relatively stable and safe, but in recent years churches in other parts of the Middle East have been targets of attacks on important feast days, meaning precautions must be taken.
The large cathedral was almost full for Christmas Mass at Midnight, though there was a steady stream of people who would wander in to sit in the back for five or 10 minutes, or longer, before departing again.
Maronites celebrate the Mass in Arabic, a language they share with their Muslim neighbors who worship in the grand Mohamed al amin Mosque situated next door.
The Mass was not quite an hour and a half long. When it finished, and almost all the people had left the church, the choir, a group of around 25 young adults descended from the choir loft, already changed out of their red robes.
They gathered at the front of the church, to the left, by the altar which holds the tabernacle and the already consecrated hosts. A priest approached to give them Holy Communion as men gathered up the video camera cables from the floor around them.
As they stepped up to receive, the group caught my attention as they broke out in song: “Bless the Lord, my soul, and bless his holy name.” I approached to listen, the a capella harmonies the first English-language hymn I had heard since arriving in Lebanon.