Let us pray, peace be with us:

"The Cross that has been the cause of our good and by which our mortal humanity was set free,
O Lord, be for us a strong fortress. And by this Cross, we shall overcome the wicked one and All his devices."

(Syro-Malabar Qurbana)


“The Truth will make you free”

Vol. 15, No. 4                                New Delhi                                      October, 2005


Bishop Mar Abraham D Mattam

Pope John Paul II in the apostolic Letter Orientale Lumen speaks about the special features of the Eastern Liturgies.  He writes: “Within this framework, Liturgical prayer in the East shows a great aptitude for involving the human person in his or her totality; the mystery is sung in the fullness of its content, but also in the warmth of the sentiments it awakens in the heart of redeemed humanity….The lengthy duration of the celebrations, the repeated invocations, everything expresses gradual identification with the mystery celebrated with one’s whole person” (Orientale Lumen, 1995, n. 11).  This is true also of the Syro-Malabar Liturgy in its authentic form

The Genius and Spirit of the Syriac Qurbana:.
In order to imbibe the genius and spirit of the liturgy, it is necessary to understand the symbolisms of the actions and ceremonies, the scriptural richness of the references, and content of the prayers.  Then the mystery is to be celebrated with devotion, prayerfully, meditatively.  Otherwise many of the actions prescribed might appear meaningless.  “Lengthy duration,” as the Holy Father remarks, devoting sufficient time for the celebration, “repeated invocations” seen in the prayers throughout, “Glory to God in the highest” at the beginning, and the hymns like the prayer to the Risen Lord, “Lord of all we praise you….” The Trisagion, all belong to the authentic nature of the celebration.

Dialogue form or alternating recitation:               
In folk songs and theatrical displays it is customary that one group sings a melody or stanza and the other group with a chorus repeats the same.  It is an art form that is exhilarating, and expresses a sharing and companionship.  In Christian prayers also this method is employed.  For example those in the sanctuary on one side and the faithful with the choir on the other, repeat the same hymn.  The ceremony is conducted by the priests in the sanctuary or Bema.  Theologically, the ordained priest has a distinctive role in the liturgy.  The Hymn to the Risen Lord, “Lord of all we praise you….” is one such ancient hymn or prayer, short but rich in theological content, that is sung thrice alternately, with a different antiphon.  It increases the participation of the faithful.

The number three has a special significance in the Christian context as it signifies the Trinity, and is symbolically expressed in different ways:  At the end of angelus the “Glory be to….” Is repeated thrice, similarly several other prayers.  While incensing, the act of incensing is done thrice.

Human psychology teaches that moderate number of repetitions are helpful to impress upon the mind, and to give vent the expression of human sentiments, of admiration, piety, praise and thanksgiving.  We notice the same in the social and religious life of the people everywhere.  When the Pope appears for a public audience, people shout ‘Viva il Papa’, not just once.  Pilgrims en route to Sabarimala, chant, “Swami Saranam” “Saranam Ayyappo”, repeatedly.  Watch the Communists at their gatherings, they shout “Inqulab Sindabad” three times or more.  Rationalizing human behaviour, one may argue why to repeat the same and waste the time.

The celebration of the Holy Qurbana reduced to the minimum, omitting all repetitions, leaving out many of the ceremonies and prayers, even the Creed which is an integral part of Eastern Liturgies becomes a skeleton of the celebration of the Eucharistic Mysteries in the East.  Such a celebration fails to nourish the faithful spiritually and satisfy their yearning for prayer.

Hunger for Prayers:

All the shortening of the celebration is done arguing that people do not like long functions.  But we find faithful of all ages and all walks of life are hungering for prayer, and are ready to spend long hours in prayer with God.  There are Charismatic groups in many places and in several dioceses who spend one or two or more hours in singing and praying together, and many are young people working in offices.  Prayer groups of youth, people assembled at the Charismatic prayer centers spend three or more hours in prayer and worship.   We witness people flocking in big numbers for Perpetual Novenas to various Saints.  This must open our eyes.  People are leaving the Church and seeking satisfaction elsewhere, even forming their own sects, since the celebration of the Eucharist, the centre of Christian life is performed in a perfunctory manner, without devotion and unction, not as the Popes are appealing to the Bishops and the priests.


Mysterium Tremendum et Fascinosum

     Dr. Varghese Pathikulangara cmi

In almost all Eastern liturgies, there is the announcement of the Deacon at the beginning of the Quddasa or Anaphora, to stand with fear and trembling to offer the Holy Sacrifice in peace. The Fathers such as Theodore of Mopsuestia and others exhort the assembly to stand in absolute silence when the celebrant offers the divine sacrifice. The same is seen at the beginning of the Quddasa or Anaphora in the East Syriac or Chaldeo-Indian Liturgy. Gabriel Qatraya in his commentary on the Holy Qurbana gives the same instruction.

Many are the examples in the East Syriac or Chaldeo-Indian Qurbana, where these aspects of tremendum (awfulness) and fascinosum (fascinating), namely, the unworthiness of man and the abounding mercy of God, are expressed and experienced. We may mention only a few of them here.

As the celebrant enters the sanctuary, he recites: "though I am a sinner, You have made me worthy by Your grace, to offer before You these holy, glorious, life-giving and divine Mysteries…". Just before the elevation of the Eucharistic Body, the celebrant prays with hands lifted up: "Bless us, O Lord! May the mercy of Your grace draw us near to these glorious, holy, life-giving and divine Mysteries, though truly we are unworthy". In the Onitha d-Bema, the communion hymn, for the fifth Sunday of Resurrection, we sing: "Let us all kiss the Mystery with love and with fear serve the High Priest who has purified us". In one of the communion prayers of the priest, these aspects are very clearly expressed: "Lord Jesus Christ, unworthy as I am, I bear within me the riches of Your mercies; manifest in me the great power of Your awesome Mysteries which I receive through Your grace without any merit of my own". The ancient East Syrians or Chaldeo-Indians, though they showed great respect and fear before the Eucharistic Mysteries, they were really receiving the Body of Christ in their hands, embracing and kissing It with great affection and love, and then consuming It. Narsai (399-502) writes in his homily XVII:

"He who approaches to receive the Body stretches forth his hands, lifting up his right hand and placing it over his fellow. In the form of a cross the receiver joins his hands; and thus he receives the Body of the Lord upon a cross… He receives in his hands the adorable Body of the Lord of all; and he embraces it and kisses it with love and affection. He makes to enter, he hides the Leaven of life in the temple of his body, etc.".

The Eucharistic sacrifice, in fact, is a tremendous and fearful mystery, because then, the King of kings, the Lord of lords, the High Priest, the Only Begotten of the Father, the universal Judge re-enacts the whole mystery of salvation in types and symbols, offering himself to the Father in the Holy Spirit in the presence of the heavenly and earthly choirs. The altar of the sacrifice is the special place of God’s fearful and fascinating presence, the place of encounter between God and man. This fact is crystal clear in one of the prayers of the Chaldeo-Indian Qurbana.

Woe is me, for I am lost! For I am a man of unclean lips, living among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts! How awesome is this place, for today I have seen the Lord face to face; and this is none other than the house of God. And now, O Lord, pour out Your mercy upon us. Purify us from our uncleanness. Sanctify our lips and mingle our feeble voices with the hymns of the seraphim and of the archangels. Glory be to You, O Lord! In Your mercy, You have joined the earthly with the spiritual beings.

In fact, man ought to be fearful to face such God, who has already worked out his salvation objectively, and who through his infinite power will accomplish his subjective salvation through this liturgical celebration. Of course, this is a reverential fear, which attaches him more and more to the person of the Lord. This fear is the outcome of deep faith, which is historical, temporal and eschatological. It presupposes the metanoia, the real conversion of heart. This total conversion is signified by the absolute silence during the Quddasa or Anaphora. And this is the primary effect of the act of Redemption: the Reconciliation of man with God.

It is such a fear and sacred reverence that induced the Fathers to separate the sanctuary from the nave, the celebrant from the faithful and to shut the door of the sanctuary or cover it with a veil during the Eucharistic prayer. And it is precisely one of the typical ex-pressions of Oriental spirituality that collides with the Occidentals. But to one who has entered into the spirit of Oriental Liturgies it is not something strange, but even highly fruitful.

It was also sometimes prescribed in the West. The Baptismal Catechesis of St. Ambrose demands silence on the moment of divine nuptial intimacy, when God presents himself and unites himself totally to the redeemed man. The history of the Middle Ages tells us that the Western Church too was taken up by the theology of Mysterium Tremendum; but it was pushed to the other extreme and its understanding was quite different. Actually the sense of mystery evoked in them a detachment and servile attitude. This separated the community more and more from the Sacred Mysteries. Gradually, the Eucharistic celebration began to be considered primarily an action of the priest and the people became mere spectators; the communion, which is an essential part of the celebration, became a rare privilege of the faithful. As it happens always, this drift in the mentality affected also the construction of the churches. Still there are many such examples in the West.

A different ex-pression of the Mysterium Tremendum et Fascinosum is the attempt to proclaim God in negative concepts. Such concepts are also very often attributed to the Eucharist as well. First of all, the negative theology is an attempt to affirm the supreme, absolute and infinite transcendence of God before all created realities; and that too against all rationalism, nihilism and anthropomorphism. Such transcendence is profusely seen in some Old Testament authors, who were preoccupied with the eradication of all excessive self-confidence of man in front of the divine essence and operation. Thus in the Elohist tradition, the Lord, to whom Moses asked to show his person, replies; "You cannot see my face: for, man shall not see me and live" (Ex 33: 20). The same tendency is seen also in some of the prophets (Is 45: 4. 5. 15). The sapiential Books are another example for this. Such transcendence is strongly reaffirmed in the New Testament, especially, in Jn, 18; Rom 11: 33; 2 Cor 9: 15; 12: 4; Eph 3: 8; 1Tim 6:16; 1 Pet 1: 8; and in the Book of Revelation. The only source and basis for the great composers of liturgical texts, the Fathers, was the biblical narration. So, it is natural that this biblical tendency is expressed also in their liturgical compositions. The negative theology is a close relative of the affirmative or analogous or eminential theology. The affirmations start from the visible works, the eminential predicates of God are the supreme grades of visible perfection; but the ultimate phase must necessarily be that of negation. Nothing as it exists in this world, can be predicated to God, who stands above all categories and human predications. In this context, we can very well understand the Indian philosophers, who explained the Absolute as ‘neti, neti’, i.e., it is neither this nor that. God is ineffable, invisible, indescribable, unseizable, incomprehensible, impenetrable and so on.

The Jewish history and culture had great influence in the formation of such thinking in early Christian communities. The important centres where this negative theology developed are Antioch and Alexandria. The Capadocean Fathers also had helped its growth considerably.

As an example we may compare one of the most ancient Anaphoras, i.e., of Hippolytus of Rome (+ 232) with the liturgical documents of the fourth century. Both these texts are filled with negative epithets referring to God, to show his all-sublime, unarrivable and transcendental dignity. An exception to this rule, among the most ancient anaphoras, perhaps, is that of Mar Addai and Mar Mari. Its formation is attributed to the time of Didache. It celebrates althrough the great works of God (Magnalia Dei), another specific trait of the Old Testament writings. The epithets used to explain the great works of God, are all in the Old Testament style, and hence the scholars argue that it is Judeo-Christian and antique in its origin. The seventh Book of Apostolic Constitution is also another example to this. The Anaphora of Serapion of Thmuis (ca.350) also uses a lot of negative epithets as uncreated, ineffable, incomprehensible, invisible and so on.

The negative theology in humble formulas explains the absolute transcendence of God and thus the divine Sygkatabasis, the divine condescendence to men, his continuous manifestation in the mysteries of creation, redemption, and his ever-renewed and efficacious operation in them. This continuous operation of the Holy Spirit works effectively always through the Eucharist.


Syriac is a form of Aramaic, belongs to the Semitic family of languages like Hebrew. Aramaic is a language whose many dialects have been in continuous use since the 11th century BC.  According to the most outstanding Syriac Grammarian Bar Hebraya, Aramaic and Syriac is one and the same language.  It is the opinion of Thoma Avdha the famous author of the Syriac Dictionary that it has not changed much even after the time of our Lord.  Syriac became the lingua franca of the Near East by the 6th century BC.  It was the native tongue of the ancient Chaldeans, a second language to the Assyro-Babylonians, an official language of the Persian Achaemenians and a common language of the Jews replacing Hebrew.  Jesus and the Apostles spoke and preached in Syriac.  "It is certain that the Syriac tongue of the Jews at the time of Christ was the same as that on their return from the Babylonian captivity" (Clemens David: Grammatica Aramaica Seu Syriaca).

Syriac is the Aramaic dialect of Edessa, a center of early intellectual activity.  It became an important literary language around the 2nd and 3rd centuries.  The earliest dated Syriac inscription is from AD 6, and the earliest parchment, a deed of sale, is from 243.  The earliest dated manuscript was produced in November 411, which is the earliest dated manuscript in any language.  "A form of Semitic writing was introduced into North-West india by way of Mesopotamia probably about 700 BC. The earliest Indian adaptation of this script, known from coins and inscriptions of the 3rd century BC is called Brahmi or writing of Brahma, though written from left to right, it bears clear traces of having once been written from right to left".  Even the origin of the first Alphabet in India was being influenced by Syriac.  The oldest of the Syriac scripts, known as Estrangelo 'rounded', was fully developed by the 5th century. Later, two geographic scripts would derive from it: West Syriac, whose proper name is Serto, and East Syriac.  The Syriac writing sytem lent its vocalization system to Hebrew and Arabic in the 7th century, before which Semitic languages were written using consonants only.  During 12th century, the Mongolian script was derived from Syriac.

The spread of Syriac was due to the following factors: The sprad of Christianity in the Semitic speaking world and comemrce on the Silk Road, both activities sometimes combined.  The Apostles transmitted their catechesis by words in Aramaic language.  The original language used by St Mathew was Aramaic.  Within a few centuries from its origin, Syhriac produced a wealth of literature in all sorts of fields, literary, philosophical, liturgical, scientific, historical, and linguistic, etc.  The early Syriac literature was produced in Mesopotamia, in and around Edessa.  The literature of the first three centuries consists mostly of anonymous texts whose date and origin cannot be established.  By the year 200, the books of the Old Testament were translated from Hebrew, probably by Syriac speaking Jews and early Jewish converts.  The earliest form of the New Testament, the Diatessaron, a harmony of the Gospels, appeared at the same time.  A full translation of the Greek New Testament followed.  To this period also belong the Odes of Solomon, 42 short lyrical poems; the story of the Aramean Sage Ahikar, a narrative set in the time of the Assyrian King Sennacherib (740-681 BC); and the Acts of Judas Thomas.

The fourth century witnessed the first major writings that survived till this day.  Of the writings of the Persian Sage Aphrahat, twenty-three Demonstrations survive; twenty-two of which are alphabetic acrostics. Another work of this period is the anonymous Book of Steps, dealing with spiritual direction.  The most celebrated writer of this period is Mar Ephrem, the Harp of the Holy Spirit.  He is the theologian-poet par excellence.  Mar Ephrem produced a welth of theological works in prose and artistic poetry.  His fame resulted in many writings of later centuries to be attributed to him.  Of his genuine works, however, we have received many commentaries, expositions, refutations, letters, and above all poetry.  Mar Ephrem lived  in Nisibis and Edessa in Mesopotamia.

Our East Syriac liturgy was formed at the golden eara of the Syriac language. In literary style, the East Syriac liturgy is equal to the Armanian one.  The Pshitha version too happened in the golden era of the Syriac language.  It is worth recalling, in the first centuries, there were only two Rites languages namely Syriac and Greek.  The Latin became a rite language only after the 3rd century.  At that time, there was no Malayalam liturgical language. Tamil was the mother tongue, but there is no proof or evidence to show that Tamil ever was a liturgical language. There is no even a legend about it.  When Mar Thoma Sleeha, our Father in Faith, came to India, Syriac was commonly used in the Jewish Synagogues and it was customary for the Apostles to have their preaching centered in Jewish colonies.  According to tradition, Mar Thoma Sleeha had brought a copy of the Gospel according to St Mathew.  we can be proud and be grateful to God's Providence for having the rare gift of praying and conducting the liturgy in the very same language spoken by our Lord and His disciples.

There was a major intellectual activity in the Syriac speaking world during 5 - 9th centuries. Amongst the many poets, we received the writings of Narsai and Jacob of Serugh. Of the Biblical commentators, Ishodad of Merv and John of Dara (both 9th cent.) stand out.  The mathematicians and astronomers include Sergius of Resh Aina, Severus Sebokht and George of the Arabs.  Those who wrote on grammar and rhetoric include Jacob of Edessa, Anton of Takrit and Isho Bar Nun.

The fifth century witnessed the division of the Church into many factions.  The Christological controversies produced many theological debates.  Amongst the most prominent apologists were Philoxenos of Mabbug and Babi, the Great.  Theologians of the period also include Dadisho, Isaac of Nineveh, Timothy I, Moshe Bar Kepha and Theodore Bar Koni.  The School of Edessa and the School of Nisibin, both produced many of the best known scholars.  It is remarkable that a few of the monastic schools of this period are still in use.

From the 7 - 13th centuries, the Syriac Christians in West Asia liv ed under the Umayyads (7-8th c), the Abbasids (750-1100), Seljuks (11-12th c), Mongols (13th c) and later under the Mamluks and Ottoman rulers.  It was a period of great devastation and destruction through war and later by the Black Death. In the 16th century, the Syriac mathematician Patriarch Ignatius Ni'matallah, who abdicated his office in fear of execution and left to Rome, was invited by Pope Gregory to join the Commission on Calendar Reform.  Shortly after, he wrote an extensive criticism of the reform proposal which helped in shaping the gregorian calendar.

Syriac is the liturgical language of many Christian communities, belonging to various Churches in the world despite the fact that the Syriac speaking communiteis went through many hardships during 14-19th century.  As Sanskrit is considered sacred for the Hindus, the Thomas Christians considered as sacred the Syriac liturgy and Syriac language spoken by our Lrd and the Apostles.  Adaptation is seen mostly in the externals of worship.  Thomas Christians did not develop their own liturgy but accepted the East Shyriac liturgy which was well known to them and nearer to them.  It is worth recalling, even the Jacobite church adapted the West Syriac liturgy only in the 19th century.  Till they they were all using our East Syriac liturgy.  Persecutions and massacres under Ottoman Turkey left the Syriac people in continous fear. The persecutions culminated in 1915 "The year of the Sword" when hundreds of thousands were collectively massacred.  The result was the migration of the Syriac people to various parts of the world.

Syriac is witnessing an expansion in Western Universities.  The Western scholars are giving more and more attention to the contribution of the Syriac writers. Every four years there is a World Syriac Conference under the auspices of SEERI at Kottayam.  There are also attempts to make available the translations of these Syriac texts into modern languages.  Formerly, they were mostly translated into Latin.  Every four years there is a Symposium Syriacum, where many of the Syriac scholars from all voer the world takes part and give their contributions.  The Pro-Oriente Foundation in Vienna formed a syriac Commission in 1994.  This commission is the unique platform for the Syriac Churches to come together and to discuss the matters pertaining the Syriac culture and heritage.  It enables these Churches to exchange their views on various issues and it helps these Churches to come closer for full and visible communion.  Normally, the Commission meets once a year and at times twice.  After centuries of separation, these Churches are trying to rediscover their common Syriac heritage.

In the late 1980's, Oxford University began to offer a Master Degree in Syuriac studies.  The Unviersity of Birmingham is following suit. In most of the major Universities, Syriac is taught eitehr in Semitic Departments, religious studies or both.  Mahatma Gandhi University of Kottayam, Kerala has started Masters Degree in Syriac Studies.  They also have started a Ph.D. Programme in Syriac.          J.T


1) The Orthodox Churches all over the world celebrate Easter after the Jewish Passover and never before it.  There are some very complex formulae for calculating these dates.  They calcualte the date of the first full moon of spring according to teh Julian, not the gregorian, calendar.  Like the Marthoma Nazranis of India, the Sunday after Easter is always dedicated to Mar Thoma Sleeha because it was then that Christ appeared to the apostles and told Mar Thoma Sleeha to put his finger in His wounds and his hand in His side, after which the Sleeha replied, "My Lord and My God" having been convinced that it was indeed the Risen Lord.  It is universally celebrated in all the Orthodox Churches the week after Easter.

2) The Syro-Malabarians draw the sign of the Cross on themselves in a very special way.  While it is generally known that Christians all over the world, until the 11th, 12th or 13th centuries, originally made the sign of the cross in the same manner that the Syro-Malabariansof India and the Orthodox Churches all over the world do to this day, the exact reason as to why the otehr Christians reversed this is not widely known.  When an Orthodox / Syro-Malabar priest faces the people and blesses them, they literally trace his blessing on themselves as they make the sign of the cross.  Hence, the priest moves his hand from left to right, while the faithful touch their shoulders from right to left, thereby moving in the same direction at the same time.  We do not know the exact reason as to why the otehr churches reversed this on the part of the people, even though the priest blesses in the same direction as an Orthodox / Syro-Malabar priest would.  It seems to be one of those things that just happened.... The Easterners hold the first three finger tips of the right hand joined together to form a sign of the Triune God and the otehr two fingers folding inward as to touch the palm, and cross themselves from the head to the breast and from shoulder to shoulder, right to left.  This unique and all-embracing symbol shows that the cross is the inspiration, power and indeed the very content of our lives as Christians; and that man's mind, heart and stgrength must be given to the love of God and man.  By joining the first three fingers together, they decalre that there is only one god and in the One god there are Three Persons.  By joining and folding the last two fingers inward, they confess that God the son, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, came down from Heaven and took the human form, and in this god-man the Divine and Human natures are joined together.                                                    J.T.