By mid-morning, thousands of darkly dressed figures are gathered in a park in suburban western Sydney.
It’s Good Friday, and for Maronites — members of the Lebanese branch of the Catholic church — it’s one of the holiest, and most sorrowful, days of the year.
Maronite Catholicism comes from the mountains of Lebanon, and dates back to the fourth century. Here in Punchbowl, parishioners from St Charbel’s Church are preparing for a street procession.
It’s a re-enactment of the Road to Calvary, a journey that Christians believe was walked by Jesus Christ on the day of his crucifixion.
By 9:30am, the crowd begins treading slowly towards St Charbel’s.
The road has been cordoned off by police officers, and parishioners in dark suits form a moving wall.
They create a space between the 6,000-strong crowd and those leading the procession — Maronite priests, monks, and selected congregants, who carry a giant replica of Jesus on the Cross.
There are 14 pauses along the path. Each stop represents one of the 14 stations of the Cross, and is marked with prayer and reflection.
There’s a large sound system on the back of the ute, and at each station it broadcasts Our Father and Hail Mary prayers, alternating between English and Arabic.
Once outside the church, parishioners spread out across St Charbel’s grounds.
There are concert-sized screens set up inside the church, and outside in a large undercover area that holds a stage for the hour-long liturgy.
After the prayers and psalms, hymns and handshakes, it’s time for a coffin to be moved inside the church.
Congregants and dignitaries — including Tony Abbott, who regularly attends St Charbel’s Good Friday service — hoist the clear-glass casket onto their shoulders.
The surrounding parishioners nudge their way towards coffin. Some throw flowers into the box, others kiss its wood. Many hold mobile phones to the sky, hoping to capture the moment.
With an atmosphere not unlike that of a funeral, the congregants follow the now floral-laden casket — a symbol of their saviour — into St Charbel’s.
A different kind of Catholic
Journalist Sarah Ayoub was a student at St Charbel’s Primary and Secondary College, and she’s been attending the church’s Good Friday liturgy for as long as she can remember.
“When I was a child, [the Stations of the Cross] would just take place on the church grounds … now it’s a street procession and thousands of people turn up,” she says.
“St Charbel’s will get together with some other churches in the area — Protestant, Roman Catholic, Orthodox — so it’s really interesting to see that unity.”
There are fewer than 37,000 Maronite Catholics living in Australia, according to the 2016 Census results.
It’s a tiny figure when compared to the country’s population of ‘Western Catholics’, which sits around the 5 million mark.
But despite their minority status, Ms Ayoub says Maronites have retained a strong connection to their identity and origin.
“Even though we believe pretty much everything that the Roman Catholic Church believes, we have our own way of practicing the faith that is heavily influenced by our culture,” she points out.
“For a long time Maronites were holed up in the mountains of Lebanon to avoid persecution and that’s why some of their traditions can be a little bit different to the Roman Catholic Church. But ultimately Maronites still look to the holy father, the Pope, as their official leader.”
The soup that Mary ate
One Good Friday tradition unique to the Maronite community is a recipe with ancient roots.
“You could call it ‘monk’s soup’, in Arabic it’s called kibet el rahib,” Ms Ayoub says.
“They’re little dumplings in a broth with lentils, lemon, herbs and garlic, and it’s a very, very simple dish — it’s supposed to be peasant food.
“Someone once said to me, ‘You know the Virgin Mary? That’s what she ate on Good Friday’.
“I had a bit of a chuckle because I’m like, ‘It’s been 2,000 years, do we really know what she ate on Good Friday?’ But I suppose it makes some people comfortable to believe that and, you know, it could be true.”
It’s customary for Maronites to abstain from meat on Good Friday, and fast from midnight to midday.
When families do gather for lunch, Ms Ayoub says it’s far from a festive feast.
“I remember being about 12 years old, my mum said, ‘You’re not supposed to eat anything you enjoy on Good Friday’,” she recalls.
“If that is the one day in the year where you don’t enjoy yourself, then so be it.”
Keeping an ancient dialect alive
Back at St Charbel’s, solemn Arabic hymns such as Wa Habibi (My Beloved) set a sombre tone for the Good Friday liturgy.
The service is primarily in Arabic — there’s an English version later in the day — but some parts are in a foreign tongue: the ancient language of Aramaic.
Believed to be the dialect Jesus predominantly spoke, Aramaic is the linguistic ancestor of modern Hebrew and Arabic.
For Maronites, it’s included in religious liturgies, like this one, to keep the connection alive.
As Ms Ayoub explains:
“We try to stick to the words that Jesus himself spoke when he was [for instance] holding up the bread saying, ‘This is my body,’ and so on.”
Bishop Antoine-Charbel Tarabay, former principal and rector of St Charbel’s College, adds that Aramaic is used to communicate some of the most important messages of the day.
“On Good Friday, part of our worship is in Aramaic, and I’ll use the expression which means ‘Christ who has been crucified for us, have mercy on us’,” he explains.
“This is at the core of [our] worship.”
A grieving mother, a lost son
For Bishop Tarabay, Good Friday is a time to mourn the death of Jesus, but it shouldn’t be misconstrued as a funeral.
“Sometimes it goes beyond what is needed for that day, as the people will feel sad, [and] they will be wearing black as a sign of sorrow,” he says.
“It is a time to think about the suffering and the death of our Lord, [but it’s] not a funeral.”
Ms Ayoub points out that it’s also a time to meditate on the suffering of Jesus’s mother, Mary.
“In the evening, [St Charbel’s] has prayers to the Virgin Mary to comfort her sorrowful heart,” she says.
“And one thing I really remember from my childhood is that you’re not supposed to work on Good Friday.
“I asked my grandmother [why] once because she found me sweeping and I got in trouble.
“She said, ‘You’re supposed to help the Virgin Mary look for Jesus. She doesn’t know where he is. He’s in prison’.
“You’re supposed to kind of unite your heart to her suffering, not knowing where her son is.”