'We still believe these things': Eastern Christian tradition and spirituality
David A. Hannes
On the vigil of the celebration of Theophany in January, Mariam Zerka brought to St. Michael Byzantine Catholikc church in Flushing MI, a clean napkin forming a little sack of a flour and water mixture for Father David A. Hannes, pastor, to bless with the new Jordan water. This was a Middle Eastern custom that both Mariam and her sister, Rahijeh, vividly remember happening in their Lebanese village where their family participated in the liturgical life of the Melkite Byzantine Catholic Church.
It was on the vigil of the Theophany that not only was this dough mixture blessed by the priest but it was then taken home to be hung on a tree that evening. It is said, according to the Zerka sisters, that Jesus passes through at midnight, and all of the trees lie down on the ground to honor Our Lord’s passing on the vigil of his baptism in the Jordan River. The next day the napkin with dough is taken from the tree where it was hung. It is said that the dough – which did not contain any yeast – begins to rise because of Our Lord’s passing through, and the faith of those who hung the dough mixture on the tree is blessed.
When the Zerka family came to United States, it was believed by many that the Michigan winter weather was much too cold to hang the dough mixture on any tree. For the Feast of Theophany of 2012, and now 2013, the Zerka sisters decided to reinstitute this practice, as an outward expression of belief, faith and confidence in the goodness of Christ. Mariam said that last year when they took the napkin of dough off the tree, it was frozen. She also said, "Once we brought into our home, it began to thaw and rise. It’s God’s power and we believe everything!"
They also related that their mother, Amira, was a person who offered the altar bread to be used at the Divine Liturgy both in Lebanon and the United States. The Zerka sisters make this bread offering for St. Michael’s. They also take a piece of the dough that was hung on the tree, which they keep covered with flour in a special container, and add it to the dough mixture of altar bread for the parish community.
Father Hannes related this faith account to the members of St. Michael and St. George, Bay City, communities on Theophany, after the Great Blessing of Water. He emphasized the words of Jesus to John the Baptist, "‘Give in for now. We must do this, if we would fulfill all of God’s demands.’ ‘So John gave in’" (Mt 4:15). Father Hannes said, "Perhaps like the trees that lie down for Our Lord to pass, we need to be submissive to God’s demands in our lives. We do not like to do this, yet, we are to be aware of what the Gospel demands of us and submit to it willingly. We are to ‘give in’ for now."
He also noted that Christ is the yeast, and the dough – even though frozen – needs to be brought into the home, uncovered and let to rise so hearts may be thawed and faith renewed, which inspires the whole household as well as the parish. Then our faith will be joyously shared as we truly become "evangelizers" of the faith. Rahijeh and Mariam quite clearly proclaim, "Thank God we live for faith and love!" Perhaps this is a vibrant example that will help us all during this "Year of Faith!"
Very Rev. David A. Hannes is the pastor of St. Michael Byzantine Catholic church in Flushing MI.
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