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Rev. Fr. James Doran, Pastor
Mr. Steve Crate, Subdeacon

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From Antiquity to Antiquity:

A Latin Priest

in the ancient tradition of Aramea

Awe, majesty, wonder and humility before Divine Mercy – these are notions expressed in all the Catholic traditions. While they all radiate out in beauty from the One Incarnate Word, Our Lord Jesus Christ, they are expressed in different nuances in each of the Patriarchal Churches in their respective traditions, rites and spirituality. Although with all the caveats needed when making generalities, and leaving aside the tradition of Alexandria, one could say that Rome glories in the Precious Blood of the Lamb of God on Calvary, Who graciously acts in the Sacraments from His glorious place eternally at the Right Hand of the Father; that the Churches of the Hellenic Constantinopolitan tradition worship before the eternal High Priest as He acts in Mystery among His members; it is in the Churches of Antioch that the baptized turn in adoration and awe before the Hidden One as they await the Day of Judgement --the Day of the Lord. Maranatha. It is to the latter tradition that this author, after twenty-seven years of apostolate in the Latin Church, has found himself drawn by God’s Providence.

There are many good things scattered over the path we traverse in this Valley of Tears. Some are apparent. Others require sensitivity to perceive. The most beautiful are often those that are completely unforeseen. We spend so much time mapping out and planning how things are “supposed to go” that when caught by surprise, our protective shell lowered for a moment, we can be touched by Infinite Beauty in a way not restrained by our egotistic preoccupations. Overwhelming these moments may be, but they carry with them great possibilities for self-knowledge and wisdom.

Wonder, light, awe before mystery, beauty, wisdom in selflessness: we know very well that these are fundamentals to the Catholic Faith, but do we really try to discern them in the congested lives we attempt to construct?

For twenty-eight years I have been a priest of the Latin Church, in fact, laboring in its fullest form of the Latin patrimony now called “extraordinary”. The unexpected turn in the path began in September 2007 through a chance meeting with a Maronite Archbishop at his cathedral in Damascus, Syria. Building upon this initial encounter, he reciprocated the years following by subsequent visits to the parish where I worked. As respectful acquaintance transformed into friendship, and knowing my love for the eastern traditions (reason for my visits to Syria) two years ago he invited me to consider working in the eastern eparchy of the Syro-Maronite Church in the US. So it was done, I acquiesced to Providence to enter another world of ancient Catholic Christian beauty. The spirituality of “light” has been one to which I have always been attracted. It is especially present in the Syriac traditions, and this drew me easily toward the transfer in Churches. It also seemed an appropriate time in history to show solidarity with our persecuted brothers and sisters in the ancient cradle of Christianity. From the succinct majesty of the Latin Church I was called to serve the divine and luminous Mystery as it is lived in the Maronite tradition.

Often when we think “east”, most will call to mind the beautiful Liturgies of Constantinople, but in truth these are historically found mostly in the eastern realms of Europe and thus are “of the west” when considered relative to the Holy City, Jerusalem, the center of the world. The Churches and traditions truly of the East are those that have branched out from the primitive Christian community of Pentecost, that is, those that are rooted in the Patriarchate of the “City of God”, Antioch.

A long and entangled history along with Islamic occupation have made these Churches rather unknown to most Christians in the western world. The Syrian Catholic, Chaldean and Maronite Churches – and even farther east in the Indian Syro-Malankara (western Syriac) and Syro-Malabar (eastern Syriac) Churches – continue their ecclesiastical lives in the Great Catholic Communion of Churches. They are all Churches of Antioch and Aramaic/Syriac/Assyrian in tradition. The Syrian Catholics are from the western Aramaic tradition. The Chaldean Catholics are from the eastern Aramaic tradition. The Syro-Maronites, having been formed anciently around an ascetic/monastic movement initiated by Saint Maron (d. 410 AD), have taken from both the western and eastern Aramaic traditions – and, post Crusades, an influence also from Latin Rome. For the purposes of this small essay (and what this author finds most beautiful) we can limit ourselves to consider a few of the characteristics found in the Maronite tradition. Moving from the Latin tradition – historically where all is clarity, precision, order – and from the beauty of its Latin orations, we pass to a liturgical world that is steeped traditionally in veiled transformative communications in the radiant light of the “Bright-One-Who-cannot-be-Clouded” awaiting the great and final “Day of the Lord”.

Although presently there is an attempt to eradicate and exterminate these traditions in their homelands, we must remember that Mesopotamia, the plains of Syria, Jordania, the Lebanon and Palestine by the time of the Gospel had cultivated an Aramaic culture for many centuries. It is true that there was a Hellenistic veneer, especially in the urban areas, but the populations in the countryside remained fundamentally Aramaic. They shared this in common with the ancient Israelites. When the Word of God entered time, He came to a people of Aramaic language and customs, not only as the Son of Mary in Nazareth, but as the Son of Man born to a culture of vast antiquity, language and customs. The Incarnate Word thus was cradled in one of the most ancient civilizations still extant at the time. The first quality of these ecclesiastical traditions then is that they are the most “Semitic” of all the Christians Churches.

All the Catholic traditions hold the inspired Scriptures in veneration, but the Syriac Churches traditionally seem to have adopted the ancient synagogue as their architectural model in which to enthrone the Sacred Texts. The Book of the Gospels was veiled in its place on the raised bema, more or less central to the congregation, and the reserved Eucharist, also veiled, replaced the Torah in the Holy of Holies. This is a simple and appealingly beautiful custom that emphasizes the central preoccupation these Semitic Christian traditions have had for the written word of God.

While the authoritative Scriptures for the Latin and Hellenic Churches were transmitted through the Vulgate and Septuagint respectively, historically the Syriac Churches possessed the Old Testament, Peshitta, as directly translated from the Hebrew and Aramaic texts.1 Evidence would seem to indicate that the translators often were themselves converts from the stock of ancient Israel. Traditionally the Sacred Scriptures that have most influenced the Syriac Churches have been the Sapiential Books of the Old Testament, the Gospel of St. John and the Epistles of St. Paul. Again traditionally, there have been at Mass three readings: Old Testament, Epistle of St. Paul and the Gospel. Typology is central to the interpretation of the Sacred Scriptures, also. “Coming out of a world view that considered Creation, revelation, and Incarnation as elements of one process, the Syriac tradition regarded the typology found in Scripture as a particular manifestation of the nature of things. Types, symbols, and mysteries are at the core of Creation itself.”2

In the West we are familiar with the terms “Sacrament” and “Mystery”. They are taken from the Latin and Hellenic traditions respectively. The Syriac tradition takes another term altogether – from Persia. “Raz” was originally a reference to a secretive or hidden communication of the Shah to his court officials.3 The king’s will is expressed in a hidden manner, but its power radiated out from the Shah’s inner council. It is thus interesting to note that governance and counsel are at the basis of the Syriac term to describe of the channels of grace instituted by Christ, and not the military (sacramentum) or the pagan ceremonies of Eleusis (mysterion). As with the Scriptures, the Syriac Churches have added to the sense of awe before the divine Mysteries and revelation of the Good One by the traditional use of veils before the altar.

The original eastern theological expression is distinctly poetic. Poetry is an excellent vehicle of the religious awe that is inspired as we stand before the “consuming Fire.”4 Knowing full well the Hellenic and Roman attempt to express the Faith with linguistic precision, the ancient Syriac Fathers chose rather to express faith in the Hidden One through poetry. A simple reason for this is the Semitic stress on the ineffability of God. He is “wholly Other,” ultimately transcending all human concepts and words.

The Hidden One reveals Himself definitively in His Incarnate Word – and by extension in the Church throughout time – but by necessity these communications/epiphanies act simultaneously as “veils”. Insofar as they exist in a created manner they must be limited.5 They infinitely fall short of that which they are meant to express and reveal. They reveal and veil, uncover and cover, at one and the same time. They are simultaneously true and inadequate. From this point of view, the better theological expression chosen in the Aramaic tradition is poetry. What is to be described remains ever transcendent Mystery and therefore to humanly describe It requires that terms turn about the indefinable Center in paradox and image rather than in categorical linguistic definition.

The greatest of the Aramaic theologians is St. Ephraim of Edessa, Doctor of the Church. The Syriac Churches happily continue to follow the ancient Hebraic and Mesopotamian poetic traditions. As an example of this, as Catholics we all certainly believe in “transubstantiation” but even before this scientific word was created other terms had been used to describe the sublime Reality:

At thy feast He mixed a cup;

Those who drink it thirst no more.

Come and eat Fire in the Bread.

Drink Spirit in the Wine.

Clothed in Spirit and Fire,

Thou shalt be with Him, His bride.6

Another thing demonstrating this Semitic tradition is the central ceremony of the Maronite Church called the Hoosoyo. In the Old Law the place above the Ark in the Holy of Holies, framed by the cherubim, was known as the “kapporeth/propitiation”, and this word is translated into the Syriac as “hoosoyo”.

Thus the “mercy seat” of the Old Testament, once physically localized in Jerusalem, has been taken over into the Christian Faith and is now universalized: “the hour cometh, when you shall neither on this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, adore the Father. … and now is, when the true adorers shall adore the Father in spirit and in truth. For the Father also seeketh such to adore him.”7

The “hoosoyo” is considered a spiritual reality now present, neither “here” nor “there”, but a Place of Mercy ever present in the Messiah: the juncture of God and man in the Person of the Word. This is perfectly expressed in the “’etro” prayer from the traditional Hoosoyo of the Sunday of the Announcement to Mary:

We are seized with amazement, O Lord,

and like Mary, we do not understand.

With her we draw back,

blinded by Thy eternal Flame,

scorched by its touch,

and overcome by its power.

We know only to offer incense

as a fitting response to so great a Word

Who this day

makes His presence among us.

Behind clouds of perfumed smoke

we cower and dare not even glimpse

the power that now descends

over our altar.

Purge us with Thy living Flame, O God.

Treat us as wayward children

and not as hostile enemies.

And we will praise Thee

now and forever.8

The hoosoyo is found in all the major Offices, Roze and in the Divine Eucharistic Liturgy (Alohoyo Qoorbono). This central ceremony consists of an introductory prayer (proemion) followed by a series of petitions and often a poetic description of the feastday (sedro) which is then continued in a hymn of adoration and praise (qolo) during these an incensation of the cross, altar, celebrant, ministers and faithful is made either by a concelebrating priest or by a deacon. This is considered a priestly function so can be done by no other minister. The conclusion to all this is the final prayer (‘etro) which asks that God receive this incense and prayer to His honor and glory.

It is after the Hoosoyo, whose fundamental liturgical action is one of conversion,9 that the Trisagion is sung. Known commonly by its Greek name, it is the Qadisha(n)t that we sing in Aramaic. It is our response to the Most Holy Lord God for having revealed His mercy to us in the Messiah, our Hoosoyo. Following this act of conversion, we are better disposed to listen to His words in the Sacred Scriptures.

In a distinctly Semitic and concrete manner of prayer proper to the Syriacs,10 this prayer is addressed most often to the Word Incarnate, and this is in contrast to the Constantinopolitan tradition where it is strictly interpreted as addressed to the Most Holy Trinity. Sadly, this difference has been the origin of much misunderstanding and mutually slung anathemas during earlier centuries of doctrinal quarrels.

All of this is best understood – the Trisagion addressed to the Messiah – in the light of another distinctive characteristic of the Syriac Church: its eschatological expectation.

Lord, when Thou dost come

on that great Morning,

escorted by the heavenly angels, separating the just from the unjust, show us Thy kindness.

On that Day when

the hosts of Gabriel and Michael

will appear,

separating the just from the unjust, show us Thy kindness.

The Morning of the Lord is dawning; light your lamps,

and on the Day of Judgement you will enter the Paradise of Light.11

Within the Eucharistic Sacramental Action we look to the past, the present, and the future; but the emphasis is diverse and distinctive among the major Catholic traditions. While the Latins look in gratitude to the Lamb of God Who died for our redemption present now in the great Sacrifice of the Mass, the Byzantines stand in awe before the eternal High Priest acting now in the Divine Liturgy, and the Syriacs in the Alohoyo Qoorbono (The Divine Offering) remain alert and vigilant in expectation for the Day of Judgement on which the Lord will return in majesty and glory: “Blessed is He Who comes and will come again in the Name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest”.12

The images of light and radiance are ever present in the spirituality of the Syriac Churches. In fact, this is central to its spirituality. The term used is shafyoutho. This word covers a variety of different but related ideas: “lucidity, luminosity, purity, clarity, and serenity.” Where the Greek text of St. Luke 8; 15 is translated “an excellent and good heart”, the Syriac text is “The seed in the good ground refers to those who hear the Word with a luminous (shafya) and good heart.” The Christian ideal to be pursued is shafyout lebba, “luminosity of heart”.13

Be praised and glorified, O God,

Who didst create light

and dispelled the darkness.

Thou hast taken us

from the sleep of error

and granted us this morning

to fill us with joy.

Thou dost reveal to us

the light of Thy creative power

and the sublime grandeur

of Thy wisdom,

for Thou didst create the heavens

and spread the earth over the waters.

We beg Thee to keep us

from the places where sin lieth in wait

to wound the virtues within us.

Illumine our souls

with the rays of Thy love

and the hope

of Thy glorious manifestation

of that great Dawn

that will never end.

In all our actions and conduct,

may the presence of Thy light

and the splendor of Thy revelation

guide us to eternal happiness.

Joyfully we shall sing praise to Thee,

O Christ, the Light of Truth,

and to Thy Father, the Father of Mercy,

and to Thy Life-giving Spirit,

Light of all beings, now and forever.

Amen.14

In the Eastern traditions, the Eucharist Prayer is seen a full consecratory act, without concentrating on the specific words of the Institution (“This is My Body,” “This is My Blood”) as the sole place of transubstantiation, as is done in the Latin tradition.

The Epiclesis (Greek for “invocation”) is the fulfillment and conclusion to the Divine Offering being made, and as recounted in the Words of Institution, bringing to a climax the Eucharistic Sacramental Action with the descent of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Qoorbono is thus threefold in its sacramental prayer: to the Father is offered the Body and Blood of Christ in His Sacrifice, His Death and Resurrection, as the Son establishes this Sacred Mystery recounted in the Words of Institution, into which all is fulfilled through the Holy Spirit – in the descent of the Power and Charity of God.

The Epiclesis invoking the transforming presence of the Spirit of God is common to all the eastern traditions. In the Maronite Church at Mass this is done by the priest kneeling at the altar. The Holy Spirit is invoked not only to transform the sacred oblata on the altar and to perfect the Divine Offering – the Alohoyo Qoorbono – the Divine Power is also called upon to transform all the baptized present as He once did in the Virgin in Nazareth, analogously making Christ present also in them: “Aneen, Moryo”/“Hear us, O Lord”.

Praise, glory and honor to the Light,

Whose radiance has revealed

the Father of lights;

to the Brightness,

Whose splendor had drawn us

to the threshold of light;

to the Wise One,

Who, in divine generosity,

has offered us the treasures

of wisdom;

to the Living and Life-giving One, Who in His kindness,

has led us to the source of Life.

To Him, the Lord of Goodness, is due glory and honor this night, and all the days of our lives, now and forever. Amen.15

Lastly, the characteristic to be mentioned here, and one most cherished by the Syriac faithful, is the Marian quality of our prayers. Her central title is simply “The Mother of the Light”.

The ever-Virgin Mary is seen as the realization of all the promises made to Israel through the previous fifteen centuries before the coming of the Messiah. She fulfills the types of the Old Testament as the embodiment of the “Daughter of Zion”. She is present everywhere and invoked continually under many images and types: Chariot of the flesh, the Closed Door, Higher than all the ranks of the angels, Palace of Mysteries, Blessed Field, Source of Joy, etc.

O Mary, thou art the Tower of David where marvelously appeared

the Light Who proceeds

from the Light.

Petition the eternal Light within thee to drive from our souls

the darkness of sin and fill them

with the light of justice.

With enlightened and pure hearts,

we shall then celebrate

thy glorious feast

and give glory to the One

Who is within thee,

to His Father,

and to the Holy Spirit, forever. Amen.16

While the Messiah is the perfect Manifestation of God and man, the ever-blessed Virgin is the perfect finite expression of all creation. She is the perfect created response and fidelity to God in whom we find our exemplar, intercessor and Mother.

Finally, the following prayer addressed to the Mother of God, taken from the Night Office of Tuesday, allows us to appreciate the extraordinary vision of the Syriac Church that at once brings together the notions of holiness, light and the Divine Maternity. It also gives a taste of the beauty to be found in the Aramaic tradition, and why this Latin priest has easily been captivated in her embrace.

Palace of holiness in which

the King descended

and came to dwell;

New Heaven

which carried God the Word;

in thine arms

thou didst embrace the Flames

and didst give milk

to the devouring Fire;

blessed is He, the Infinite,

Who was born of thee.”17

1 Brock, Sebastian. The Bible in the Syriac Tradition, p. 23. Gorgias Press, Piscataway, NJ, 2006
2 Beggiani, Joseph. “The Typological Approach of Syriac sacramental Theology”. Theological Studies, Sept. 2003.
3 Beggiani, Joseph. “The Typological Approach of Syriac sacramental Theology”. Theological Studies, Sept. 2003
4 Hebrews 12; 29
5 Even the sacred Humanity of Our Lord both indicates the presence of the Divine Word and obscures that Presence at one and the same time. For this reason the Transfiguration holds such an important place in the eastern mindset.
6 The Consecration and Renewal of the Church, Qolo.
7 Jn 4; 21-23
8 Hoosoyo, ‘etro. Sunday of the Annunciation to Mary, tr. Rev. Joseph Amar
9 Let us go therefore with confidence to the throne of grace (kapporeth): that we may obtain mercy, and find grace in seasonable aid. Hebrews 4; 16.
10 Echoing St. John’s “and the Word was made flesh”.
11 Mazmooro, Wednesday Safro.
12 “Sanctus” at the opening of the Eucharistic Anaphora.
13 Brock, Sebastian. The Bible in the Syriac Tradition, pp. 99-100. Gorgias Press, Piscataway, NJ 2006
14 Sedro, Tuesday Safro.
15 Proemion, Friday Ramsho.
16 Second Prayer, Ramsho, The Announcement to Mary.
17 Lilyo from Tuesday, First Qaumo, Qolo. The Book of Common Prayer of the Syrian Church, p. 91, tr. Rev. Fr. Bede Griffiths. Gorgias Press, Piscataway, NJ, 2005.
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