"Today the concept of truth is viewed with suspicion, because truth is identified with violence. Over history there have, unfortunately, been episodes when people sought to defend the truth with violence. But they are two contrasting realities. Truth cannot be imposed with means other than itself! Truth can only come with its own light. Yet, we need truth. ... Without truth we are blind in the world, we have no path to follow. The great gift of Christ was that He enabled us to see the face of God".Pope Benedict xvi, February 24th, 2012

The Church is ecumenical, catholic, God-human, ageless, and it is therefore a blasphemy—an unpardonable blasphemy against Christ and against the Holy Ghost—to turn the Church into a national institution, to narrow her down to petty, transient, time-bound aspirations and ways of doing things. Her purpose is beyond nationality, ecumenical, all-embracing: to unite all men in Christ, all without exception to nation or race or social strata. - St Justin Popovitch

Saturday 27 November 2010

Worship in the Syriac Orthodox Church

The Syriac Orthodox Church is heir to an ancient tradition of Christian worship that is distinguished by the antiquity and beauty of its prayers and rituals. As recounted in the Acts of the Apostles, the early adherents of the Christian faith fleeing persecution in the Holy Land reached Antioch, a prominent center of commerce in the eastern part of the Roman empire. There they were first called Christians. St. Peter is believed to have founded a church in Antioch in AD 39. Meanwhile, in Edessa, the capital of the Kingdom of Urhoy on the borders of Syria and Mesopotamia, a Church was in existence before the end of the first century. In the course of the next two centuries Edessa became the centre of a Christian culture using the Edessene dialect of Aramaic, called Syriac, as its language. While the Church in the West adopted Greek as its language for worship, the Church in the East, addressing itself largely to the Jewish Christians of the diaspora, continued to speak Aramaic. The forms of worship in the Syriac Orthodox Church reflect the Antiochene and Edessene heritage of the Church.
The sense of awe and wonder before the divine Mystery pervades the Syriac Church. The Syrian liturgy is dominated by the scene in the vision of the prophet Isaiah, when, he saw the Lord on a high and lofty throne in the temple in Jerusalem, and heard the angels crying, ‘holy, holy, holy’ before him. In every Syriac church there is a ‘veil’ drawn across the sanctuary, representing the veil in the temple of Jerusalem, and the sanctuary itself is held to be the ‘holy of holies’, the place where God himself appears in the New Covenant with his people, This scene is recalled at the beginning and the end of every office of prayer and the sense of wonder and mystery which inspires it fills the whole liturgy. Together with this sense of awe in the presence of the holiness of God is a profound sense of human sin. As the prophet was led to cry out, ‘Woe is me, for I am man a of unclean lips and I dwell among a people of unclean lips’, so the Syriac liturgy is filled with this sense of human sin and unworthiness. One of the principal themes of the liturgy is that of ‘repentance’. But this sense of sin and the need for repentance is accompanied by, or rather an expression of, the awareness of God’s infinite love and mercy, which comes down to man’s need and raises him to share in his own infinite glory. Thus there is a wonderful balance of dreadful majesty and loving compassion, of abasement and exaltation.
The Syriac Orthodox liturgy, reflecting the Christological history of the Church, places emphasis on the divine nature in Christ. Its Trinitarian doctrine, mostly derived from the Greek and even using Greek terms, is distinctive in the custom of addressing prayer directly to Christ as ‘our God’ and not to the Father through ‘Jesus Christ our Lord’. Immense veneration is paid to Mary as the ‘Mother of God’, or more literally ‘She who brought forth God’. This profound devotion is based entirely on a continued meditation on the fact that the person whom Mary brought forth was truly God. This is the source of endless wonder and at the same time of amazing paradox, which is expressed in poetic terms: ‘in your arms you embraced the flames and gave milk to the devouring fire; blessed is he, the infinite, who was born of you’. This deeply biblical and theological devotion to the Virgin Mary grew up in the Church as a direct consequence of belief in the Incarnation.
Together with devotion to the Mother of God goes a devotion to the prophets, apostles and martyrs, as members of the Mystical Body of Christ, those who proclaimed and those who died for the sake of the Gospel. Here again this devotion to the saints is expressed in one of its purest forms, deeply rooted in a biblical view of life and springing wholly from devotion to the person of Christ and the authentic message of the Gospel. What is most evident throughout the Syrian liturgy is its biblical background. It is as though the liturgy sprang from the very same soil as the Old and the New Testament. The ‘saints’ of the Old Testament, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; Moses and David and the Prophets, and in’ particular Job and Daniel and three holy men in the furnace of Babylon, are as familiar figures as the apostles and are felt as living witnesses to the mystery of Christ always alive within the Church. Even more interesting is the frequent reference to ‘our father Adam and our mother Eve’, which takes the mystery of salvation back to the first man and woman, and sees Christ descending ‘to Sheol, the place of the dead, at the resurrection, to proclaim the message of salvation to all the dead and to raise up Adam and Eve. The feeling for the dead as waiting in Sheol for the resurrection at the second coming of Christ is also a theme which takes us back to early Jewish Christian theology, from which the Syriac theology so largely derives, and helps us to see how devotion to the faithful departed grew up spontaneously in the early Church.
The Syriac Orthodox liturgy is derived from the prolific works of its poet-theologians. Works of Mor Ephrem, Mor Ya`qub of Sarug, Mor Philoxenos of Mabbug, Chor Episcopus Mor Balay, among others figure prominently in the liturgies. Liturgy is poetic in form, being based on a regular syllabic pattern, but still more in spirit. They are, in fact, one of the most authentic expressions of the Christian spirit. All the mysteries of the Christian faith, the Trinity and the Incarnation, the Cross and the Redemption, the Resurrection and the Second Coming, the Church as the Bride of Christ, Mary, the Mother of God and the saints of the Old and New Testament, the dead in ‘Sheol’ and the expectation of the return to Paradise, all these themes are treated with a wealth of poetic beauty. The meditation on the mysteries of faith seems to awake in these writers (who were mostly monks) an inexhaustible flower of poetry, which is both profoundly theological and astonishingly original. The liturgies have long antiphons known as qolos and bo`oothos and the shorter antiphons known as eqbos and enyonos. It is in these songs that the immense poetic beauty of the Syriac liturgy is found.
In accordance with Psalm 119, verse 164, “Seven times in the day have I praised thee for thy judgments, O Righteous One,” the Syriac Orthodox Church set the times for prayer to seven: Evening or ramsho prayer (Vespers), Drawing of the Veil or Sootoro (meaning ‘Protection’ from the Psalm 91, which is sung at this prayer, ‘He who sits under the protection of the Most High’), Midnight or lilyo prayer, Morning or saphro prayer (Matins), the Third Hour or tloth sho`in prayer (Prime, 9 a.m.), the Sixth Hour or sheth sho`in prayer (Sext, noon) and the Ninth Hour or tsha` sho`in prayer (Nones, 3 p.m.). The Midnight prayer consists of threeqawme ‘watches’ (literarily ‘standing’). The ecclesiastical day begins in the evening at sunset with theramsho. Today, even in monasteries, the evening and compline prayers are said together, as also the midnight and morning prayers, and the three, six and nine o'clock prayers, reducing the times of prayer to three.
Each of the hours has its own particular theme or themes and the sense of the natural background of morning, evening or night is often present and often calls forth the most charming poetry. Thus the natural and the supernatural world are marvellously blended and provides a sense of wholeness. It is the whole mystery of Christ which is presented here in all its majesty from the creation of the world to the Second Coming of Christ, from the Trinity in the height of heaven with the angels and the watchers, who surround it, to man on earth, his sin and suffering in this passing world with all its beauty, his redemption by the Cross and his hope of glory with the prophets and apostles and martyrs, who have entered into glory, and to the dead who wait in Sheol for the coming of the Son of Man and the general Resurrection.
Patriarch Ignatius Aphram I Barsoum, The History of Syriac Literature and Sciences. tr. Matti Mousa. (Pueblo, CO: Passeggiata Press, 2000).
Fr. Bede Griffith, The Book of Common Prayer of the Syrian Orthodox Church, Kurishumala Ashram.

Explanation about the Holy Qurbana

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At the beginning of the public service, the veil closing the sanctuary is drawn aside, signifying the appearance of the promised Messiah. At this time we speak of St. Mary who brought forth the Christ and John the Baptist who baptized Him. The whole congregation sings a song of praise while the priest, the deacon and the servers go solemnly around the altar carrying lights and incense, and waving the fans. These two Saints are remembered and their prayers are asked for because they were the two most intimately connected with the incarnation of the Lord, Mary who brought Him forth and John who prepared His way.
The priest offering incense along with deacons holding candles move in a procession around the altar. The priest represents Christ, the High Priest.  The deacon who leads the procession represents John the Baptist, and the other deacons represent the Apostles and Disciples of Christ.

“Holy art thou, O God!
Holy art thou, Almighty,
Hoy art thou, Immortal,
Crucified for us,
Have mercy on us.”

According to Bar Sleebi three sets of angels came down at the time of burial of Christ. They sang, the first set ‘Holy art thou god’, the second, ‘Holy are Thou mighty’, and the third ‘Holy art Thou immortal’ and Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemose (Mark 15:43) inspired by the Holy Spirit burst forth ‘Thou that was crucified for us have mercy on us’.

God is a trinity and so the number three has special significance. After the Trisagion the priest and the congregation chant kurielaison (Lord have mercy upon us) thrice.
Readings of the Scripture
In the Malankara Syrian Orthodox Church and Syrian Orthodox Church, there are three readings, one from the Acts, one from St. Paul and one from the 
Gospel. They are each preceded by a chant.
  1. The first reading is done by the deacon from the northern side of the chancel, standing on the steps. It represents preaching of the gospel to the Jews.
  2. The second reading is done form the southern side, representing preaching of the gospel to the gentiles.
  3. The reading from the Gospel is done with great solemnity, as in all liturgies, the priest standing in the center of the sanctuary, while the servers carry lights and incense.
Blessing of the Censer

The prayers for the blessing of the censer are proclamations of the faith in Trinity.  The chains on the censer represent the Holy Trinity. The first chain stands for God the Father. The second and third chains represent the human and Godly nature of the Son. The fourth chain represents the Holy Spirit. 

The priest puts incense in the censer and grasps one of the chains and makes sign of cross over it and says: ‘Holy is the Holy Father’. Grasping two more chains the priest proclaims: ‘Holy is the Holy Son’ and finally he grasps the last chain and says ‘Holy is the Holy Spirit’.

The Nicene Creed

We believe the following:

  • In the one True God, the Father Almighty
  • In the one Lord Jesus Christ who took birth for the salvation of humanity
  • In the one living Holy Spirit
  • In the One Holy, Catholic (universal) and Apostolic Church
  • We acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins
  • In the Resurrection of the dead
  • In the new life in the world to come
  • St. Mary is described as the Mother of God and so this is a confession of faith against Nestorians
What does the priest pray privately in the kneeling position?

While the creed is being said, the priest turns to the clergy and people and asks for forgiveness and requests them to pray to the Lord to accept his oblations. The priest then kneels before the altar and beseeches the Lord for remission of sins and acceptance of his offering. The priest prays for and makes the sign of the cross with his right thumb on the altar mentioning the names of those alive and departed for whom prayers have been requested. 

The deacon goes about the whole nave and returns to the altar. This signifies that:

  • God the Word came down from heaven and offered himself for us all
  • This is a sign for the un-baptized to leave

The word ‘Ana’ means ‘Up’ and ‘Phora’ means ‘to carry’. The Anaphora is the solemn prayer of thanksgiving which our Lord uttered at the Last Supper and the works and actions which He used when he instituted the Eucharist. The original Anaphora of the rite of Antioch is that of St. James, but there are a great many others, eighty-eight in all, which were introduced in later times. Of these about sixty-four have their authors identified, which may be used for celebration.

The Kiss of Peace

The kiss of peace is of apostolic origin (Rom 16:16, 1 Cor. 16:20) and is used in every liturgy to signify the ‘fellowship of the Spirit’ of which the Eucharist is the outward sign. It shows the love and harmony which should exist among the followers (disciples) of Christ. By this we fulfill the word of theLord which says, “If thou offer thine offering and remembers that thy brother hath aught against thee; leave thine offering, and go, be reconciled with thy brother” (Mathew 5:23)
Bowing of Head

After the kiss of peace, we bow our heads. This is to express our humility and receptive mood for Gods blessings. According to Bar Sleebi, we collectively bow before Christ who sees all secrets and cleanses, lightens, and completes each one as he or she deserves.
The covering and Lifting of the Anaphora

When the Holy sacrifice is about to begin the veil is lifted form the paten and chalice and solemnly waved over the offering.  The prayer which the priest says, compares the veil to the stone which covered the sepulcher (tomb) of Christ, which is now rolled away and to the rock of the desert which gave water to the people of God, signifying the water of life which Christ gives to his people in the Qurbana (2 Cor. 10:4).
Benediction given by the priest

When the celebrant turns to bless, he turns to the right side after making the sign of cross on him-self and then makes the sign of the cross on the people. The priest blesses the people three times during the Qurbana. The first blessing is using the words of St. Paul: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with you all” (2 Cor. 13:14)
The Eucharistic Prayer

The dialogue between the priest and people which follows is one of the most ancient liturgical formulas found in all liturgies at this point. The people are asked to lift up their hearts and minds to where Christ sits, at the right hand of God the Father, and then to give thanks. Then the congregation breaks with the song of the angels ‘Holy, holy, holy…’ (Isaiah 6: 3) and ‘Blessed is He that cometh…’ (Psalms 118: 26) recalling that the angels are present at this 
solemn moment, joining their praise to that of the church on earth.

“The people are directed to lift up their heart to heaven, to see heaven not earth, the heavenly altar not the earthly altar, the heavenly priest not the earthly priest, the heavenly Body and Blood, not the earthly bread and wine, the heavenly worshipping host, not the earthly congregation.” (Bishop Pakenham Walsh p. 36)
Celebration of the Holy Qurbana

The priest narrates that which the Lord did, and blesses the bread and wine by making the sign of the cross. Thus, they become the Body and Blood of our Lord. If we allow Him to bless us, just as the ordinary bread is changed to His Body, we ordinary men and women, our ordinary lives, are thus transformed into the vehicle of God’s grace (Jn 2:9).  By giving His blood, our Lord has given us everything He has. He makes our whole being His, when He blesses us.

Anamnesis or the Sacrificial Memorial

The priest and the people together recall the mystery of the death and resurrection of Christ which is made present in all its saving power, while they look forward to the second coming of Christ, for which this mystery prepares them. The spoon and cushion are lifted up and placed on the left side of the Thronos (Altar). The priest lifts them over head in his right hand quickly, signifying the second coming of the Lord on the last day, which will be like a flash of lightning.  “For just as lightning comes from the east and flashes even to the west, so shall the coming of the Son of Man be” (Matthew 24:27).

Invocation of the Holy Spirit 

The consecration is followed by invocation of the Holy Spirit in which the Holy Spirit is called upon to descend upon the gifts. The mystery of the Holy sacrifice is considered to be complete and perfected by the action of the Holy Spirit. The priest waves his hands over the bread and wine with a fluttering motion, signifying the descent of the Holy Spirit. We find the deacon warning the people to stand in awe as the Holy Spirit is descending and hovering over the mysteries. The Holy Spirit is here represented by the dove, flying and hovering over (Mark 1:10). The hands signify the wings of the dove. 

This is followed by the thrice repeated earnest prayers of the priest. “Answer me, O Lord” and the people respond with a three fold, “Kurie-elaison” meaning “Lord have mercy”. This reminds us of the repeated prayer of Elijah on Mount Carmel to send down fire from heaven upon the sacrifice - “Hear me, Lord, hear me” (1 Kings 18:36-39).  The coming of the Holy Spirit upon the offering is to transform the offerings into the Body and Blood of our Lord.
Diptychs (Thubden) – The Great Intercessions
  1. For the living spiritual Fathers who tend the Church
  2. For the living faithful brethren
  3. For the living faithful rulers
  4. Intercession of the Mother of God and Saints
    • St. Mary – Most revered saint of the church
    • John the Baptist – The forerunner of Christ (Feast on 7th of January)
    • St. Stephen – Known as the head of deacons and is the first martyr of the Church. He was stoned to death. Death looming, he saw the heavens open and the Son of God standing at the right hand of God (Acts 7:56). The church commemorated his memory through the feast held on the 8th of January.
    • St. Peter – Was called to tend the Church by Lord Jesus Christ and is thus known as the chief of the Apostles. He is the foundation of the One Apostolic and Catholic (Universal) Church and was the first Patriarch of the Church of Antioch (Mathew 16:17). He was publicly crucified by the Emperor of Rome. He was nailed to the cross with his head downward, at his own request, symbolically kissing the feet of His Lord (Pollock, 1985).
    • St. Paul – The greatest evangelist of the church. Originally a persecutor of the Church, he transformed into its most eloquent leader. He was born at Tarsus and was known as Saul. He was finally condemned by the Roman Senate and was beheaded on the same day St. Peter was crucified. His memory is commemorated by the Church on the 29th of June along with that of St. Peter.
    • St. Thomas – It is traditionally believed that He arrived in Malankara (Kerala) in A.D. 52. It is believed that St. Thomas installed seven crosses in different parts of Kerala and performed several miracles. St. Thomas was martyred at Mylapore, near Madras, India in A.D. 72. His mortal remains were transferred to Uraha (Edessa) in A.D. 394. The feast of St. Thomas is celebrated on July 3rd, presumable the day the mortal remains were transferred to Uraha.
  5. For the departed spiritual Fathers of the Church
  6. For the faithful departed – The names of the departed for whom the Qurbana is said are remembered, after asilent prayer. The priest draws the sign of cross on the right rim of the paten while remembering the names of the departed.
Prayers for the Faithful Departed

The Church believes that the faithful departed are present in the Holy Mass along with the living faithful. St. Peter ascertains that the judgment is for both the living and the dead. Therefore, Jesus Christ preached the Gospel to the departed. “That is why the Good News was preached also to the dead” (1 Peter 4:6). Thus the congregation intercedes for the remission of sins of the faithful departed, so that the Lord may make them worthy of inheriting the heavenly kingdom. 

Why is the Sanctuary closed after the above?

The veil is pulled over the sanctuary as a reminder of the time of His redemptive passion, death, burial, and resurrection, when the earth was engulfed in darkness (Luke 23:44, 24:1; Mat 28:1; John 20:1)

The Fracture and Commixture performed by the priest while the sanctuary is hidden: The breaking of the host (bread) signifies the suffering and death of our Lord. The priest breaks the bread and anoints it with the precious blood, signifying that the body and blood of Christ, which are separated in death, were reunited at resurrection. Then the host is lifted signifying our Lords resurrection.
The Seraphic Hymn (While sanctuary is hidden) – “Anpudayonae (Hearken gracious)”: Hymn is based on Isaiah’s vision (Isaiah Ch. 6). It describes the worship of the seraphim and our desire to draw near to our Lord. 

The veil is opened symbolizing the appearance of our Lord to His disciples after his resurrection several times, before Pentecost.

The Lords Prayer (Mat. 5:6)

It is the family prayer of the Church, addressed to the Father in heaven by His little children. It is all inclusive, and can be used for every kind of intention. Every clause is wonderful in its combined depth and simplicity. But its very familiarity makes men repeat it hurriedly without thinking of its meaning in other words, saying it, instead of praying it. This we must avoid.

Elevation of the Holy Mysteries

The priest holds up the sacred mysteries, bells rings, two lighted candles on either side, and fans on either side shaken (Acts 1:10). The deacon calls to watch with fear and trembling, emphasizing the solemnity of the occasion. This commemorates the ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ to heaven.
Hymns of Eucharistic Devotion

The Church commemorates the saints and seeks their intercession through these hymns. The Church venerates the 
memory of St. Mary, the mother of God, the patron saint of the parish or the saint whose feast is being celebrated. 
The congregation also intercedes for the departed clergy and the faithful departed through these hymns, based on 
  •  “The righteous man will flourish like the palm tree…” Psalms 92:12-14
  •  “Let Thy priests be clothed with righteousness…” Psalms 132:9-10, 12
  •  “Just as a father has compassion on his children...” Psalms 103:13, 15
Why is the sanctuary closed again?

It symbolizes that our Lord is now hidden to our bodily eyes and also the age in which the Church awaits the second coming of our Lord. 

The veil is then opened symbolizing the second coming of our Lord and the Day of Judgment. The priest, carrying the paten in his right hand and the chalice in his left hand, turns counter-clockwise to face the congregation to specially signify the coming of the Lord of judgment. This is in contrast to the usual clockwise turn, which is symbolic of the first coming of our Lord as the Redeemer. The priest then proceeds west in a procession which signifies the anticipated second coming. 

The accompanying deacon’s with lighted candles, marvahtso (fans), and bells represent the tumultuous second coming of the Lord with trumpets and accompanied by the angels. (Mathew 25: 31 - “And He will send forth His angels with a great trumpet and they will gather together his elect from the four winds…”)

The priest returns to the altar where he sets the paten and chalice on the tablitho.
Prayers of Thanksgiving

Also known as the concluding prayers, the priest thanks the Father on behalf of the congregation for having considered us worthy of partaking in the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. After the prayers of thanksgiving, the faithful are dismissed by saying ‘depart ye in peace and pray for me always’.

How is the Holy Qurbana concluded?

The Qurbana is concluded behind the veil when the priest completes his communion. He concludes by kissing the altar three times saying: “Farewell, O Holy and divine altar of the Lord. Henceforth, I know not whether I shall return to Thee or not…” This reminds that death is always at the door and makes us vigilant in preparing ourselves to meet the Lord whenever the call comes.
Compiled From:
  1. Samuel, A. Yeshu, H. E. (1967). Anaphora - The Divine Liturgy of Saint James, the first bishop of Jerusalem. New York.
  2. Rajan, Mani Rev. Dr. (1994). Queen of the Sacraments. Seminary Publications.  Mulanthuruthy.
  3. Panoor, Punnose Dr. (1994). A Guide to the Orthodox Liturgy and Faith. Madras.

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