Pastor's Page
By Fr. George Welzbacher
February 10, 2013

Lent begins this Wednesday. The rules of fast and abstinence are these: Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are days of obligatory fast and abstinence. Fasting is obligatory for all who have completed their 18th year and have not yet reached their 60th year. On days of fast those obliged to fast may take only one full meal, with reduced consumption of food at the other two meals and no eating between meals. Abstinence from meat on all the Fridays of Lent is obligatory for ALL who have reached their 14th year.

A commendable practice is to continue the Good Friday fast until the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday night to share in humble measure in the sufferings and death of the Lord Jesus, and to prepare ourselves more worthily to celebrate his Resurrection.

ALL FRIDAYS IN LENT are OBLIGATORY days of complete ABSTINENCE FROM MEAT for ALL who have completed their 14th year.

Through our works of prayer, fasting, and alms-giving, let us heed the prophet Joel's exhortation to return to God with our whole heart (2:12). During Lent the Stations of the Cross will be conducted every Friday evening at 7 o'clock, followed by Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. Our Lenten Soup Suppers will begin each Friday evening at 6 o'clock.

Lent should be a season of additional prayer and of penitential acts of self-denial, as well as special works of charity. It is a time for making energetic atonement for our sins and a time for seeking a closer union with our Crucified Lord. Lent is a season that we ought not let slip unproductively by, all the more so as for some of us this may prove to be our very last Lent on earth. Young and old, starting this Ash Wednesday, in pursuit of a spiritual awakening, let's all of us put our shoulder to the wheel!

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This year, once again parishioners are invited to gather each Friday during Lent, Good Friday excepted, for a buffet soup supper at 6:00 p.m. served before the devotion of the Stations of the Cross. The teams that prepare and serve the meals need your help. Please use the sign-up sheets on the back tables of the church to volunteer to bring a meatless food item and/or to help with set-up, serving or clean-up. These delicious suppers are free of charge and all are welcome! Please contact Deb Kaczmarek (651-398-9771) with any questions related to these soup suppers.

On Ash Wednesday Mass will be offered here at St. John's Church at 8:00 a.m. and at 5:15 p.m. Ashes will be distributed at the conclusion of each Mass.

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As we enter the holy season of Lent, the forty days during which our attention is focused in a very special way on the humanity of Christ our Lord, a humanity that exposed its bearer, the Eternal Son of God, to suffering and death. I thought you might find an article from the latest issue of the Smithsonian magazine to be of interest. The article deals with the LANGUAGE THAT CHRIST, THE ETERNAL WORD MADE FLESH, SPOKE as He gave Himself to the work of our salvation, the language that He, Who in His human nature is like unto us in all things save sin, as a Person Divine subsisting beneath the developing mind and body proper to a young child, freely chose to acquire for His human mind from the lips of His attentive mother. The language Christ spoke here on earth was Aramaic, a close cousin of Hebrew but in important respects diverging from the ancient language of the Scriptures read aloud each Sabbath in the Synagogues. In the era that coincided with Christ's life on earth Hebrew was no longer a language of daily discourse.

The Smithsonian article offers a brief history of this language, made sacred as it became the vehicle of Christ's preaching. It is a language still spoken today, though by a diminishing number of Jews and Christians of the Middle East, diminishing because those Jews and Christians have become a target of Islamist fury. Aramaic is thus becoming more and more a language of refugees uprooted from their ancestral homes, a language, that is to say, on the road to extinction as those refugees come one by one to breathe their last, even as their children and grandchildren learn and speak only the languages of their new homelands in the West.
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Last Words
Ariel Sabar
The Smithsonian, February 2013

It was a sunny morning in May, and I was in a car with a linguist and a tax preparer trolling the suburbs of Chicago for native speakers of Aramaic, the 3,000-year-old language of Jesus.

The linguist, Geoffrey Khan of the University of Cambridge, was nominally in town to give a speech at Northwestern University, in Evanston. But he had another agenda: Chicago's northern suburbs are home to tens of thousands of Assyrians, Aramaic-speaking Christians driven from their Middle Eastern homelands by persecution and war. The Windy City is a heady place for one of the world's foremost scholars of modem Aramaic, a man bent on documenting all of its dialects BEFORE the language  - once the tongue of empires - follows its last speakers to the grave.

The tax preparers Elias Bet-shmuel, a thickset man with a shiny pate, was a local Assyrian who had offered to be our Sherpa. When he burst into the lobby of Khan's hotel that morning he announced the stops on our two-day trek in the confidential tone of a smuggler inventorying the contents of a shipment.

"I got Shaqlanaye, I have Bebednaye." He was listing immigrant families by the names of the northern Iraqi villages whose dialects they spoke. Several of the families, it turned out, were Bet-shmuel's clients.

As Bet-shmuel threaded his Infiniti sedan toward the nearby town of Niles, Illinois, Khan, a rangy 55-year-old, said he was on safari for speakers of "pure" dialects: Aramaic as preserved in villages, before speakers left for big, polyglot cities or, worse, new countries. This usually meant elderly folk who had lived the better part of their lives in mountain enclaves in Iraq, Syria, Iran or Turkey. "The less education the better," Khan said. "When people come together in towns, even in Chicago, the dialects get mixed. When people get married, the husband's and wife's dialects converge."

We turned onto a grid of neighborhood streets, and Bet-shmuel announced the day's first stop: a 70-year-old widow from Bebede who had come to Chicago just a decade earlier. "She is a housewife with an elementary education. No English."

Khan beamed. "I fall in love with these old ladies," he said.

Aramaic, a Semitic language related to Hebrew and Arabic, was the common tongue of the entire Middle East when the Middle East was the crossroads of the world. People used it for commerce and government across territory stretching from Egypt and the Holy Land to India and China. Parts of the Bible and the Jewish Talmud were written in it; the original "writing on the wall," presaging the fall of the Babylonians, was composed in it. [Daniel 5: 24-28] As Jesus died on the cross, he cried in Aramaic, "Elahi, Elahi, lema shabaqtani?" ("My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"). [These are the opening words of Psalm 22, the psalm that predicts that the Messiah, after much suffering and seeming defeat, will enjoy an eternal triumph].

But Aramaic is down now to its last generation or two of speakers, most of them scattered over the past century from homelands where there language once flourished. In their new lands, few children and even fewer grandchildren learn it. (My father, a Jew born in Kurdish Iraq, is a native speaker and scholar of Aramaic; I grew up in Los Angeles and know just a few words.) This generational rupture marks a language's last days. For field linguists like Khan, recording native speakers --"informants," in the lingo -- is both an act of cultural preservation and an investigation into how ancient languages shift and splinter over time.

In a highly connected global age, languages are in die-off.   Fifty to 90 percent of the roughly 7,000 languages spoken today are expected to go silent by century's end. We live under an oligarchy of English and Mandarin and Spanish, in which 94 percent of the world's population speaks 6 percent of its languages. Yet among threatened languages Aramaic stands out. Arguably no other still-spoken language has fallen farther.

Its first speakers, the Arameans, were desert nomads. (The Bible describes the mythic forebear of the Hebrews as "a wandering Aramean.") Spreading out from ancient Syria, they so blanketed Mesopotamia that when the Assyrians conquered the Middle East in the eighth century B.C., they adopted Aramaic - not their own tongue, Akkadian - as a language of empire. So did the Babylonians when they vanquished the Assyrians, and the Persians when they toppled the Babylonians. The language crossed the lips of Christians, Jews, Mandeans, Manicheans Muslims, Samaritans, Zoroastrians and Pagans.

The writing on the wall (the proverbial sort) came for Aramaic in the seventh century A.D., when Muslim armies from Arabia conquered the Middle East, and Arabic routed Aramaic as the region's lingua franca. Aramaic survived only in the Kurdish mountains of Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria, places so remote they never got the memo. Jews and Christians there (though not Muslims, who spoke Kurdish) kept up Aramaic as an everyday tongue for another 1,300 years.

The number of Aramaic speakers alive today is difficult to calculate. Though some estimates set the figure as high as a half-million, that number is misleading. Because of its ancient lineage, lack of standardization and the isolation of speakers from one another, the modern tongue, known as Neo-Aramaic, has more than 100 dialects, most with no written analogue. Many dialects are already extinct, and others are down to their last one or two speakers.

As an everyday language, linguists told me, Aramaic is safe now in only one place: the Christian village of Maaloula, in the hills outside Damascus, where, with Syrian state support, elders still teach it to children.

Like many Neo-Aramaic experts, Khan, whose accent bears traces of his working-class childhood in northeast England, stumbled on the field almost by accident. In his early years at Cambridge, he worked on a trove of ancient Jewish manuscripts - in Hebrew, Arabic and Aramaic - known as the Cairo Geniza. But the long hours squinting at microfilm were a downer. Eager for change after a dispiriting day in a Jerusalem microfiche lab in the early 1990s, he asked a local organization of Kurdish Jews for referrals to actual native speakers of Aramaic.

No sooner had Khan sat down with a Jew from Erbil, a northern Iraqi city whose Aramaic dialect was undescribed, than he felt he had found his calling. "It completely blew my mind," he told me. "To discover a living language through the lips of a living person, it was just incredibly exhilarating."

The traditional aim of fieldwork is to produce for undocumented languages what linguists sometimes call "the holy trinity": a grammar, which is a road map to sounds, syntax and structure; texts, which are chunks of unedited speech that reveal a language's texture; and a dictionary. Over the past two decades, Khan has published highly regarded grammars on the previously undocumented dialects of Barwar, Qaraqosh, Erbil, Sulemaniyya and Halabja, all areas in Iraq, and Urmi and Sanandaj, in Iran. He is also at work on a web-based database of text and audio recordings that allows word-by-word comparisons across dozens of Aramaic dialects.

Aramaic speakers tend to greet microphone-toting linguists with traditional Middle Eastern hospitality. The widow we visited in Niles, Apes Nissan Esho, would not let us leave before serving an elaborate lunch of kubba hamuth (sour dumplings), masta (yogurt), chicken with rice, and kadeh (spiced-walnut pastry).

"I'm getting very excited about some vowels here," Khan said as Esho carried in the steaming plates of food.

"And I'm getting excited about the kadeh," Bet-shrnuel deadpanned.

The half-dozen Neo-Aramaic linguists I spoke with said informants often served feasts, confided family gossip and plied them with take-home boxes of fruit. But some are puzzled by the outside interest in their language, and others suspicious that their interlocutors are spies.

And bum steers abound. On our drive to one informant's house, Khan told a story about his multi-year search for a Chicago man from Iraq's Barwar region who had been described to him as a font of Assyrian folklore. "When we finally met, I said, 'I heard you know lots of stories.'"

The man's response: "I've forgotten them all."

When we arrived at homes around Chicago, Khan, in dress shirt and blazer, explained his research, then drew from his backpack a digital voice recorder, a microphone and a sprawling loose-leaf questionnaire. Each session lasted two or three hours, as Khan worked, like an archaeologist with a soil sifter, to tease out nuances, among dialects, in pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar.

How would you say, "There they are"? he asked. How about, "Here I am"? How about, "He wants to come"? And on it went: "You want to come. I want to come. Come!"

To make sure he heard words correctly, Khan repeated them slowly. He held his mouth open an extra second to verify a vowel or ran a finger over his Adam's apple to confirm a guttural.

At a public housing tower, we spent more than an hour with a 97-year-old Assyrian from Turkey and his 90-year-old wife. When we stopped for coffee afterward, I asked Khan whether he'd found the meeting productive. "Some pronunciations of one of the consonants in the word for 'hen' are not according to what I predicted," he said.

Advances in field linguistics, I saw, come in dribs and drabs, not eurekas.

The work has its exhilarating days, though, and few moved Khan more than his 2008 trip to the former Soviet republic of Georgia. He was in the capital of Tbilisi in search of Aramaic speakers from Salamas, a city in northwestern Iran. One wave of Assyrians fled Salamas after a Kurdish chieftain murdered a Church of the East patriarch there in 1918; another, after an earthquake a dozen years later.

In Tbilisi, people told Khan that all but three of the dialect's "pure" speakers had died. At the first house, the man's daughter apologized: Her father had recently suffered a stroke and was mute. At the second, an older woman lived with a quartet of energetic Rottweilers. "I took out my microphone and they just started howling and barking," Khan recalled. "It was impossible."

Finally, a local Assyrian escorted Khan one night into an imposing Soviet-era apartment block. At the top of a dark flight of stairs was a one-room apartment. A frail woman in her mid- 90s answered the door.

Khan looked at her brittle physique and wondered how much she could handle. He told himself he would stay for just a few minutes. But when he got up to leave, the woman stretched a bony hand across the table and clasped his wrist.

"Biqir, Biqir," she pleaded, in a small voice. ("Ask, ask.")

"She literally grabbed onto me," he said. "It was as if this was her last breath and she wanted to tell me everything."

For two hours she hung on his wrist as his recorder filled with the sounds of a language in twilight.
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