A couple of weeks ago, Commonweal published an article I wrote about the Assyrian Church of the East. It begins with the story of my encounter with this church and its liturgy, and ends with some reflections on the current political situation of Christians in the Middle East and the moral obligations of Christian solidarity.
I suspect that Pray Tell readers may find some of the liturgical material intriguing, so I am sharing an extract here (see below), followed by a link to the full story for any who are interested.
Writing this article has been a journey of discovery for me. That process continues.
One reader of the article wrote to me, drawing my attention to a fact I did not know: namely, that the so-called “Nestorians” came to China during the Tang dynasty (early middle ages) and founded churches. It’s an interesting story, not of colonialism or conquest, but of trade and mission. The fortunes of these Christians went up and down over time, depending on who ruled. My informant, a former research director for Maryknoll and the Bejing Center, connected my description of the Assyrian liturgy with his research into Jingjiao, the “religion of light” as it came to be called in China.
The world history of Christianity is rich and full of surprising connections. It’s just that we don’t always know they are there.
Another reader wrote and called my attention to the fact that there is also a church made up of Palestinians near the Assyrian church that I visited. My area is quite ethnically diverse because I live in a big city, but I wonder if a wide range of Christian communities is not also represented in some smaller cities as well — because of refugees and migration.
Too often we remain in our silos and do not know who are neighbors are. Practical ecumenism “on the ground” begins with getting to know who is actually here.
The Assyrians, by the way, have never had their own country. Only a religion. But they are a resilient group, and even now are coping with their present misfortunes courageously. I admire them.
But, enough. Here’s the article, entitled “Found in Yonkers”:
One of the joys of knowing a bit about liturgical history is that, occasionally, you come across a pebble that proves to be a gem. This happened to me a few months ago in, surprisingly enough, my dentist’s office.
We were chatting about religion, which itself was not unusual: I write about religion, and my dentist takes a friendly interest in many subjects; he is an Assyrian Christian, and I always want to know more about the various branches of world Christianity. I asked him what day his church celebrates Christmas, thinking they might follow the Orthodox calendar. “Oh no,” he said. “Ours is the same as yours.” In the ensuing conversation he mentioned something about an historic agreement between his church and the Catholic Church in 2001.
The penny dropped.
“Forgive me,” I said with some excitement, “I know this sounds strange, but I have to ask: Does your church celebrate the liturgy using the anaphora of Addai and Mari?” (Anaphora means “offering”; it is a term for the Eucharistic prayer.)
He looked at me in blank astonishment; he had no idea. But we turned to the computer, called up a few websites, and confirmed that, sure enough, it was true. The Assyrian Church of the East is the possessor of one of the most ancient, venerable, and fascinating Eucharistic prayers extant in the Christian world.
This Eucharistic prayer is famous among liturgists. Named after the two disciples that their tradition identifies as being among the seventy-two sent out by Jesus (see Luke 10:1–24), the anaphora of Addai and Mari has a unique profile. Dom Gregory Dix, in his 1950 classic tome, The Shape of the Liturgy, pointed out how different it is from ancient prayers that were shaped by Greek influences. According to him, Addai and Mari is the most Hebraic of the surviving ancient Eucharistic prayers. So enamored was he of this liturgical artifact that he closed his monumental work with a long quote from the proclamation of the deacon at the breaking of the bread. Here is a bit of it:
Let us all with awe and reverence draw nigh to the mysteries of the precious Body and Blood of our Saviour. With a pure heart and faith unfeigned let us commemorate His passion and recall His resurrection. . . .
Let us receive the Holy and be hallowed by the Holy Ghost. . .
More recently, the anaphora of Addai and Mari was the focus of attention among liturgical scholars in 2001, when the decision was reached by the Catholic Church to acknowledge this Eucharist as valid. It was a big deal. The eminent American liturgical scholar, Archimandrite Robert Taft, SJ, who taught for many years at the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome, called the statement that announced this “the most remarkable Catholic magisterial document since Vatican II,” and Taft is not one to gush.
His essay for Worship magazine was provocatively titled: “Mass Without a Consecration? The Historic Agreement on the Eucharist Between the Catholic Church and the Assyrian Church of the East Promulgated 26 October 2001.” In it, Fr. Taft explained the reasoning behind this decision—reached after considerable research and dialogue, and approved by the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, the Congregation for the Oriental Churches, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and Pope John Paul II himself. The fact that the liturgy has been prayed continuously since ancient times, and the undeniable faith of the Christian people it nourished, influenced the decision. When the Catholic Church affirmed the anaphora of Addai and Mari as valid, it was saying that the Eucharist produced by this liturgy is truly the Body and Blood of Christ. This is true despite the fact that there is no institution narrative in the prayer.
Yes, you heard that right. The anaphora of Addai and Mari does not contain the story of the Last Supper. The words “This is my body” and “This is my blood”—words that Catholics have long considered essential—do not appear. Instead, the prayer makes reference to what Jesus has given us, praises God for it, and confesses our unworthiness, using highly eschatological language touched with a kind of spiritual ecstasy. The prayer consecrates the elements in its own way.
Arriving at the point where Catholics could affirm that this is acceptable was not the work of a moment. It was the fruit of a long process of study and ecumenical dialogue pursued following the Second Vatican Council, which made a commitment to seek unity among all the churches. Following the landmark decision, the 2011 International Liturgy Conference in Rome centered on the anaphora of Addai and Mari, and produced a volume that summarized the history of this dialogue and discussed its ramifications for the various churches. The dialogue proceeded in phases. It began with considerations of the Incarnation (this phase concluded in 1994), and then moved on to dialogue about the sacramental life (leading to the agreement in 2001). The third phase concerns church structure and is ongoing.
For Catholics, what does it mean that we recognize the anaphora of Addai and Mari? It does not mean what some hostile Catholic critics have hinted: that the door is now open to an erosion of our definition of the Eucharist. Instead, it means and ought to mean that Catholics acknowledge the authentically Christian character of the Assyrian Church and the genuineness of its liturgical tradition. There are differences between the two churches, of course; neither is about to become the other. But in a very important way we hold something sacred in common because we recognize one another’s Eucharist, or “holy Qurbana,” as the Syriac Churches call it.
Today the Assyrian Church of the East is concentrated in Iraq, Iran, and Syria. I had some vague notion, therefore, that you could only experience the anaphora of Addai and Mari somewhere out on the plains of Nineveh. What I discovered, through a chance conversation in my dentist’s office, was that you could find it down the street, in Yonkers.
Of course I had to go.Some Assyrians have grand churches, but this church building was simple and modern. Inside, a red velvet curtain separated the sanctuary from the rest of the church. There were no icons or sacred images, only the cross—a distinctive cross without a corpus, which is the hallmark of their tradition. Crosses were displayed on stands around the church, so that people can approach the cross and kiss it (much as icons are kissed in the Eastern Orthodox Churches). The priest held a similar cross in his hands during parts of the liturgy. Nineteenth-century Protestants, fascinated by the fact that the Assyrian Christians had no images, proclaimed them “aniconic.” Subsequent historical study showed that they did have images at one time, but lost them due to historical circumstances: first the iconoclast controversy in the Byzantine Empire, and then the spread of Islam. Yet because they had worshiped without images for so many centuries, the term “aniconic” stuck, and is still sometimes used today.
The entire liturgy was celebrated in Aramaic. The church projected the prayer texts on a screen, paired with English translations to help the congregation follow. The anaphora was in ancient Aramaic, while the homily and other spoken parts of the liturgy were in its modern equivalent, but the congregation obviously knew modern Aramaic well enough to sing the songs easily and laugh at the homilist’s jokes even without the translation. I had never heard Aramaic spoken before, and I was intent upon hearing it now because it is the language that was spoken by Jesus. There was something awesome about that for me, a connection to the Incarnation. We all, more or less, assimilate Jesus into our own cultural landscape, and it is fitting because he came for all and belongs to all who believe in him. Yet the slight shock of “otherness” I felt in hearing the Aramaic language called me to encounter him as different, as “the other” whom I do not know.
The peace was solemnly passed from one member of the congregation to the next with a gesture unlike the handshake we typically exchange in the Catholic Church. One person cupped their hands together and extended them, while the next put their hands around the first person’s hands as if to receive what was held out to them. That person then passed it on to the next in the same way—a kind of mime, making an invisible reality visible. We were also doused with incense before communion in a ritual of purification. The worshippers fanned the smoke toward themselves as the thurifer brought the incense up and down the aisle. Communion was offered under both forms, with leavened bread and with the chalice administered by the deacon. Communion in the hand is the ancient practice of the Assyrian Church and the cup is always offered, though communion given with a spoon was mentioned as an option in some medieval texts.
I learned later that the yeast used in the home-baked bread of the Eucharist is always mixed with some yeast from a previous batch. Tradition maintains that due to this practice, the yeast in the bread can be traced all the way back to apostolic times—kind of like your grandmother’s sourdough starter, only more numinous. We Catholics make much of apostolic succession in Holy Orders; the Assyrians have it even in the bread.
We were received with respectful and genuine hospitality, which I understand is typical of Assyrian communities. My dentist and his family couldn’t come that Sunday, so he put his parents in charge of us. My husband and I got turned around on our way to the church and arrived late (“lost in Yonkers” is not a Neil Simon play, it’s an existential condition), yet this lovely couple waited for us at the door until we came, and helped us find our places. They didn’t hover, but they made sure we were settled. After the service, they found us again and told us, with a smile, “You must come for breakfast. It’s required.” And indeed, everyone was at breakfast, including the bishop, whom we had the honor of meeting. We ate a kind of stew made of chicken and barley on which you ladle a spoonful of melted butter—the menu, we learned later, is determined by the saint’s day, though we never found out which saint inspired this particular dish.
It was hard to leave—literally. Late as we were, other people had come in later still (the service lasted about two hours, with people continually arriving) and our car was boxed in at the parking lot. But because everybody knew everybody else, we were soon able to identify the person who was the overseer of parking and he identified the owner of the car, who obliged us, and soon enough we were on our way, amidst smiles and waves and general camaraderie.
As is the case with all warm cultural traditions, I am sure there are people in it for the food, the shared heritage, the sense of family. But for me, as a visitor, I remain haunted by the liturgy itself. The Assyrians hold a treasure in their liturgy—a liturgical gem that belongs to the great, diverse heritage of worldwide Christianity.
They hold this treasure in earthen vessels . . .
(The article continues here.)