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)

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                     THE NAZRANI        "The Truth will make you free"

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------          Vol. 20, No. 10             New Delhi                October, 2010                         --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

SYRIAC (SURIANI), THE MOTHER TONGUE OF OUR LORD ISO' MISIHA

 

Aramaic belongs to the Semitic family of languages like Hebrew, Arabic, etc. Some call this Syriac (Suriani); others call it Hebrew; still others call it Chaldea ( St Jerome) (Cath. Biblical Encyclopedia N.T). Aramaic and Syriac are one and the same language according to the most outstanding Syriac Grammarian Bar Hebraya, who says "Cleanse O Lord my tongue that I may compose confidently poems in the metre of Ephrem, in the Aramaic tongue which is indeed the Syriac tongue without any foreign admixture” (Introduction Maaltha). As a matter of fact, the style, uniqueness, grammar, etc are not essentially changed through the vicissitudes of time. "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: Gramatica Aramaica Seu Syriaca). 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. "The language which is now known as Syriac is the same first Aramaic of the regions of Aram which after some changes flourished at the beginning of the appearance of the Messiah on earth.  From that time onwards, this language remained the same without any considerable change to the present day" (Syriac - Syriac dictionary preface).

 

The late Dr P. J. Thomas in his introduction to the Syriac language says that Aramaic or Syriac is famous for its beauty of sound and meaning. It was the lingua franca (mother tongue) of the Orientals for more than twenty centuries. The philologists divide the world language into two families - the Semitic and the Indo-European.  According to the famous scholar, Dr. Dringer: "The direct and indirect descendants of the Aramaic Alphabet can be divided into two main groups, those used for the Semitic and those used for the non Semitic languages" (The story of the Alaph Beth). It is worth quoting from the famous work "A Sanskrit Grammar for students, p. 2": "A form of Semitic writing was introduced into North-West India by way of Mesopotamia probably about 700 B.C. The earliest Indian adaptation of this script, known from coins and inscriptions of the 3rd century B.C. 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 or Aramaic. Even the Arabic and Hebrew languages are indebted to Syriac for their rhetoric, logic and grammar (The Islamic Quarterly April 1954, page 17). Even Arabic has only one or two words for its logic or rhetoric while Syriac has many technical words. "The use of Indo-European tense-names for the Semitic tenses was adopted by the Syriac speaking community and by the Arabs who followed the example of the Syriac speaking community and finally by Jewish Scholars" (A Scientific Hebrew Grammar).

 

The Apostles transmitted their catechesis by words in Aramaic language. This is testified by Ricciotti in his works "The Life of Christ p. 121": "Without doubt the earliest oral catechesis of the Apostles was in Aramaic". The original language used by St Mathew was Aramaic "Mathew wrote in Aramaic, the mother tongue of Christ; hence in his Gospel the words of our Saviour which the Apostles for the most part gathered into five long composite discourses not only keep their primitive meaning but also remains in their original language". Lagrange O.P. (The Gospel of Jesus Christ p. 4).

 

Our Syriac liturgy was formed at the golden era of the Syriac language. In literary style, our liturgy is equal to the Armenian one. The "Peshitha" version too happened in the golden eara of the Syriac language. The learned polyglot, Prof. Noldeke says "These last (the Synoptic Gospels) exhibit almost invariably an exceedingly flowing, idiomatic style of Syriac which upon the whole reads better than the Semitic Greek of the original” (Compendium Syriac Grammar Preface).

 

Those who do not know the genius of the Syriac liturgy and its hymns and songs may listen to the words of Irenee-Henri Dalinais, O.P. in his famous work "The Eastern Liturgies": " Edessa appears to have had a particularly important part in the development of the writing and use of hymns among Christians. The oldest known hymns, the Odes of Solomon, without doubt belong to Northern Syria or Asia Minor, but towards the end of the 2nd century, Bardesanes of Edessa wrote 150 hymns un-orthodox in tone which became so popular that in the middle of the fourth century Mar Aprem borrowed their rhythms and tunes and set them to orthodox words; this was the beginning of the hymnody common to all the Syriac speaking Churches and its influence was felt throughout Christendom". Above all, the very inspiration and origin of the Gregorian Chant of the Latins is from the songs of Mar Aprem. "This manner of singing was improved by St Gregory the Great and perfected still more after him"  (Rites of Eastern Christendom Vol II p. 318).

 

It is worth recalling, in the first centuries, there were only two Rites languages namely Syriac and Greek. Latin became a Rite language only after the 3rd century. At that time there was no Malayalam language. Tamil was the Mother tongue, but there is no proof or evidence to show that Tamil ever was a liturgical language of the Marthoma Nazranis of India. There is not even a legend about it! Moreover, when Marthoma Sleeha, our Father in faith, came to our country, 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, Marthoma Sleeha had brought a copy of the Gospel according to St Mathew. These are the reasons why we say Syriac was the liturgical language introduced by Marthoma Sleeha in India and Kerala.

 

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, our Mother and the Apostles. The latinised group may not agree to this because of their obduracy. Remember, if the sun light falls on wax, it melts; if it falls on mud, it gets harder and harder. Let us conclude in the words of Thomas Merton: "I imagine that every contemplative would at some time or other wish that he could chant the Psalms in the same language in which they were chanted by Jesus on this earth and in which He quoted them when He was dying on the cross".

 

"Dr Neale mentions that the liturgy used on this coast was collateral with rather than derived from the East Syriac Liturgy of all Apostles and is clearly a much earlier form of most remote antiquity much earlier than the fifth century, and at the very latest of the beginning of the 4th century, but which may have come from Apostolic times....So in this Liturgy, there is a passage which has no parallel in any known Eastern Rite and may possibly have been written by the Apostle St Thomas himself: "GRANT MY LORD, THAT THE EARS WHICH HAVE HEARD THE VOICE OF THY SONGS...............THE EYES WHICH HAVE SEEN THY GREAT LOVE, MAY ALSO BEHOLD THY BLESSED HOPE" (Kerala State Manual Vol. I, page 651).