Whether celebrated in Iraq or America, Easter is the Holiest day for Christians everywhere
By Vanessa Denha Garmo
When Shamasha (Sub-Deacon) Khairy Foumia was a young boy, he and his friends and relatives used to keep kelacha (cookies) in their pockets on Easter Sunday morning so that as soon as Easter Mass finished and they ran outside, they would grab the cookies and eat them. “We couldn’t wait to eat the kelacha,” he said.
Fasting from meat and dairy was very common in Iraq. “Prayers and fasting are both very significant in the Chaldean church,” said Shamasha Foumia. “Most of the words and prayers teach us fasting from some kind of food is not enough. That is only for the body. We also have to cleanse our souls. This is when we can become closer to God. It is spiritual. Typically, during Lent, we pray three times a day especially in the villages of Iraq. Those who lived in Baghdad and who worked, it was harder for them to pray.”
They also colored eggs and played the egg cracking game. “I remember a story about a boy whose father was a carpenter. He carved an egg from wood and colored it. He played the egg cracking game with his friends and beat everybody and no one realized his egg was made of wood,” laughed Shamasha Foumia.
Typically, in Telkeppe and other villages, prayers start around 2 a.m. for about three hours and then they would attend high mass in the morning for about two hours. “During the holiday season the high mass in Telkeppe is always the first mass of the Sunday,” said Shamasha Foumia. “But on the Sundays during the year, it was the third mass in Telkeppe.”
Saturday was also a significant day of prayer. “We used to have a prayer in the afternoon on the Saturday before Easter and then a mass followed,” said Shamasha Foumia. “The mass started as soon as the sun would set. When the Shamasha celebrating mass says, “Bless Me Father,” and then the priest would come on the alter where the Shamasha was reading to announce Jesus has risen and the people would recite back. We don’t do this Saturday tradition in America. This mass is not typical in American. It is done in other masses in English.”
After the Saturday prayers, one of the priests and a church board member would walk around the church and people would donate money to redeem the picture of Our Lady of Sorrows. “The priest used to actually announce how much each person donated,” he said.
Chaldeans brought with them from Iraq their prayers written in Aramaic. “Years ago, Shamasha Sadik Barno translated readings from the Old Testament said on Sunday from written Aramaic to speaking Sourath for us,” said Shamasha Foumia. “It was at Mar Addai in Oak Park many years ago. He did a great job then.”
Since then, Shamasha Foumia has updated those prayers in speaking Sourath. Today, they have translated everything to speaking Sourath. In around in 2004, Fr. Boji translated evening prayers and some of the Feast Day prayers for Sundays and major Feast Days.
Since then, Shamasha Foumia with the help of Bishop Ibrahim, has translated all the prayers for the entire year per the request of Bishop Francis.
Also, during the mass, a play about an angel and the thief is performed. “It used to be an after-midnight prayer but now it is a play during the mass before the Gospel,” said Shamasha Foumia. “We also recite another special prayer just before the Gospel.”
This play is typically performed during the High Mass. Whether Chaldeans are celebrating Easter in America or Iraq, it is the holiest day for Christians everywhere. “The Resurrection is the center of our life,” said Shamasha Foumia. “It is the center of our faith. Jesus died for us. He rose from the dead. This is what our faith entails. Its everything.”
Although things are slightly different in America than they are in Iraq, the liturgy is the same. There are no Easter bunnies or Easter egg hunts in Iraq, but prayers are still a focal point of Lent. Chaldeans start Lent on Monday and not Ash Wednesday and they also abstain from Fasting on Sundays.
“The tones of the prayers that we use for the first Sunday of Lent are the same tones we use for the joyous feasts of Christmas and the Epiphany,” said Fr. Matthew Zetouna, parochial vicar at St. George Church in Shelby Township. “We are joyful during this time. We are looking forward to the transformation that will occur at the end of Lent when the resurrection is our sign of victory. Instead of showing a public demeanor of fasting with ashes like the Latin Rite, the Chaldean Church is actually positive in our approach to Lent. We try to maintain positivity in the face of all of the persecution we’ve experienced because we are confident that Christ is already victorious.”
Lent becomes a joyful time for Chaldean Catholics. “We have hope in our faith,” said Fr. Matthew. “This approach is consistent with who we are as hopeful Christians.”
This same reason is why Chaldeans do not celebrate Ash Wednesday. “We should not get into the trap of comparing ourselves to the Latin Rite,” said Fr. Matthew. “We look at the Latin Rite as a standard because we live in the West but there are 22 other standards as well. Our Rite is also a standard. We have our own ancient and unchanged traditions.”
There are liturgical differences between the rites, “but it goes deeper than that,” he noted. “How we praise God and pray is considered. We don’t want the Rites to be boxed in. We are all one diamond and each Rite is a different viewpoint to the center of the diamond. It is a different facet, but Christ is still at the center. We all can see the center. We all see Christ.”
The Chaldean Church calendar is typically in a seven-week cycle for each liturgical season. Seven weeks of Lent, seven weeks of Easter, seven weeks of summer, seven weeks of Elijah, in addition to other seasons. “We begin the season of Lent in the interest of being consistent with the structure with our yearly calendar.”
In addition to honoring both the Eastern Rite and Latin Rite traditions, individuals can start their own traditions, like watching Passion of the Christ on Good Friday or reading particular scripture verses daily. “I know some people visit many of our churches on Good Friday and recite a decade of the Rosary at each church,” said Fr. Matthew. “Some might recite a decade of Sorrowful mysteries or read the Passion Narrative of John. These are all good personal options to bring yourself closer to Christ.”