The Liturgical Year
Lecture 1 – November 3, 2010
Second Hour: Mar Sarhad Y. Jammo
The Liturgical Year: History & Development
The Liturgical Prayer of the Church of the East
by Mar Sarhad Yawsip Jammo
Introductory Remarks on Our Identity
The Church of the East was so simply named because of its historic and geographic reality for many centuries. Considering the Euphrates as the stable boundary between the two superpowers of the early Christian centuries until the Arab conquest, i.e. the Roman and the Persian Empires, “East,” in that context, meant the countries and regions east of that very river, up to the Yellow Sea of China. Christianity spread in Mesopotamia, as well as in Persia and India, from the Apostolic era on, and was carried in the following centuries to the adjacent regions by eastern missionaries who established hierarchical centers throughout most of Asia. The headquarters of this immense ecclesiastic organization had settled, since the third century, in the twin cities of Seleucia-Ctesiphon, which was succeeded by Baghdad, as being the civil capital of the eastern empires of their times.
Following the Mongolian invasions during the 13th and 14th centuries, culminated by the pervasive destruction of Tamerlane’s attacks, this magnificent Church was reduced to a shadow of its former self, preserving only a small remnant in the countries of its origin: Mesopotamia, Persia, and India. Consequently, it has adopted, since the 15th century, regional names of its enduring presence (Chaldean, Assyrian, Malabar) to signify its identity and historic background.
In astonishing disregard to elementary facts of history and geography, many scholars, unconcerned about the identity and dignity of renowned nations, glorious civilizations, and Apostolic Churches, continue to use, until the present time, the term “East Syrian” while talking about peoples, churches, and countries that are not Syrian at all. “Syrian,” in fact, is a term reflecting direct relation to the land of Syria, not to that of Mesopotamia or Persia, or their peoples or churches.
On the other hand, “Syriac,” in classical linguistics, is one of the major dialects of the Aramaic language. During the first six centuries of Christianity, it was the dialect of rural Syria and of Edessa, a city-state which fell, in the 3rd century, within the Roman province of Syria, and was the host of major Christian Aramaic academies. “East Syriac” is the dialect used in Eastern Syria, which is the region of Edessa, and may include Nisibis as an extended cultural zone. Under the influence of major schools in that region, Syriac became the scholastic language of near-eastern Christian literature, patristics and liturgy, during ancient times and the middle ages, whose knowledge remains quite relevant to the history of Christianity and its patrimony.
At the present time, however, Syrians in Syria do not speak Syriac but Arabic; Edessa and Nisibis are in Turkey, and their populations speak Turkish, Kurdish and Arabic, not Syriac at all. I should not forget to mention the village of Ma’lula in Syria, so much cherished by western connoisseurs of the matter as evidence of living Aramaic, where a few families are encouraged to show their usage of Aramaic. And yet, east of the Euphrates, the Assyrians and Chaldeans of Mesopotamia, before and after Christ, spoke their own genuine dialect of Aramaic, which they preserve until the present time. It should be called rightly the “Vernacular Aramaic” of Mesopotamia or simply “Chaldean” or “Modern Assyrian.” Though Christians of Mesopotamia have also used the classic Edessene dialect in scholastic literature and ancient liturgy, Mesopotamia or Iraq is where the living Aramaic language survives until the present time, mostly in its Vernacular form.
Reality at the Present Time
Serious scholars should know these facts and acknowledge them in their writings. I notice, unexpectedly and unfortunately, that many of them, while dealing with the history of Mesopotamian Christianity, are stuck at its theological centers of the 4th or 5th century, as if Edessa, with its School of the Persians, and Nisibis, with its prominent Academy, still exist through the third millennium, towering on the landscape of the Church of the East, devised by them as the fantastical entity of the “East-Syrians.” I am amazed to observe how, with all the information the researchers collect, they do not realize that this nomenclature is, and has been for most of history, a complete phantom.
In 1887, when the Chaldean Breviary in its current form was published, His Beatitude Mar Putrus Eliya, Catholicos-Patriarch of Babylon, never once used either the term “East Syrian” or “Syriac” in his Introduction, although these terms are used by Cardinal Tisserant, a westerner, in his Preface to the same work. The Patriarch, as an authentic witness speaking on his own behalf, with great clarity uses the terms “Aramaic Language”1 and “our Chaldean Nation.”2 The alien terms “Syrian” and “Syriac” he finds unworthy even of mention. For us as well, our topic will be the factual Mesopotamian Church of the East, as it stands with its liturgical and spiritual patrimony throughout its impressive history and far-reaching geographic extension.
I. The Liturgy of the Hours:
The Formation of a Prayer System
In continuity with the Scriptural Jewish practice of common and individual prayer, the Mesopotamian church and her faithful formulated and developed a rich collection of parochial and monastic prayers and rituals. I do not think it an exaggeration to assert that the Mesopotamian Sapra and Ramsha, in addition to the Eucharistic Anaphora of Addai & Mari, are the only textual Christian remnants that maintain genuine and cultural continuity with the apostolic euchological tradition.
The Scriptural Background:
“For burning incense you shall make an altar of acacia wood, with a square surface, a cubit long, a cubit wide, and two cubits high…This altar you are to place in front of the veil that hangs before the ark of the commandments where I will meet you. On it Aaron shall burn fragrant incense; morning after morning, when he prepares the lamps, and again in the evening twilight, when he lights the lamps, he shall burn incense. Throughout your generations, this shall be the established incense offering before the Lord.”
– Exodus 30:1-8
There are, then, two prescribed daily hours of public prayer: morning and evening. In addition to the offering of a lamb, lighting lamps and burning incense are at the core of both the morning and the evening daily ritual, as Moses was ordered to legislate. In Jerusalem, as the temple was built, this very order passed on to the succeeding generations of Israel. Everywhere else, in the Synagogues, Scriptural reading, oral prayer and the singing of Psalms were organized for the morning of the Sabbath. Devout Jews prayed three times a day, morning, noontime and evening. Likewise, the Apostles, at the Gate of Solomon, gathered together in the Temple three times a day.
The actual body of public prayers of the Church of the East, as preserved and printed by the Chaldean Catholic and the Assyrian Apostolic Churches, is the principal core of the theology and spirituality of Mesopotamian Christianity, being the result of a long course of spiritual and theological growth. The comprehensive structure remains the annual cycle that Patriarch Ysho’yahb III (+658) organized and established for his Church, assembling two basic collections of prayers: the parochial and the monastic.
The commentary of Gabriel Qatraya (6th century) is the first document whose author is a liturgist of the Church of the East that deals in a systematic way with the subject of the Hours of liturgical prayers. Nevertheless, the canonical legislation of that Church furnishes us some important, though sketchy, information related to our subject, specifically in regard to the public prayer, or as it is called frequently, the cathedral or parochial office.
As early as the first Synod of the Church of the East in 410 AD, the issue of public prayer was well in the minds of the Fathers that gathered together after long years of bloody persecution. Canon 15 talks about’iddana da-Slotha (the time of prayer). I think that this expression should be interpreted in the obvious sense of the meaning of the words, i.e. the public prayer of the Church. It states:
If any priest who [i.e., whose residence] is in the city, unless he is sick, does not take his place on the benches (sapselle) with his companions during the time of prayer (b’iddana da-slotha), and does not stand in front of the altar during the time of the [Eucharistic] Offering (b’iddana d-qurbana), let him be deposed from his office.3
The concern of the Synod was not restricted to priests only, but deacons also were included in the same canon, indicating that the public prayer was a community affair toward which every rank of clergy has an obligation:
The same goes for the deacons (mshamshane): if any deacon who [i.e., whose residence] is in the city, unless he is sick, is not present at the time of the prayer (b’iddana da-slotha) and does not take his place in the rank of deacons among the people (‘amma); and when he receives the order of the archdeacon to take the book or the stole and ascend on the bema, he shall receive the punishment (msam bresha) that is due to him. After he has read, he is not allowed even then to leave the people (‘amma) and sit in the sacristy (beth-diaqon), unless he is sick, but he should stay among his companions until the hour [of prayer] is completed. If a deacon despises these duties, the archdeacon is authorized to judge him according to justice.4
The subdeacons similarly have their own role to observe during the public prayer, which is participation in the Psalmody:
Also the subdeacons, if any one of them is not present at the time of the service (b’iddan tishmishta) in the church, unless he is sick or traveling or is prevented, and if he is not present at the [recitation of] the Psalms (b-Mazmore), or is not attentively standing at the door of the temple at the time of the service (b’iddan tishmishta), he shall be cast away, so that this kind of weakness would not corrupt too many.5
Furthermore, Canon 16 of the same Synod contains orders to admit no one to the subdeaconate unless he knows the whole Psalter by heart, indicating that attending to the liturgical prayer constituted a good part of the responsibility of subdeacons, as well as what their major function in it should be:
Whoever is ignorant of doctrine, unless he recites [the Psalter of] David by heart should not become even a subdeacon.6
Another canon of the same synod states:
Furthermore, the western [type of] service (tishmishta) that Isaac and Marutha the bishops have taught us, as all of us have seen them celebrating in the church of Seleucia, from now on, all of us will celebrate equally in a similar fashion. In every city, the deacons will perform the proclamation (karozutha) similarly. The Scriptures will be read similarly. The holy and pure Oblation will be offered in a similar fashion on one altar in all churches.7
From these texts it appears clearly that there was, before the year 410, a definite hour, during the day or the week, for public prayer (‘iddana da-slotha), distinct from the Eucharistic liturgy (Qurbana). That prayer included the recitation of Psalms (Mazmore) by the subdeacons and the performance of a proclamation (karozutha) by the deacons. Furthermore, it is indicated that the clergy, with all of their ranks, priests, deacons, and sub-deacons, participated in it, together with the people.
The cited texts do not specify the hours of these public prayers or how frequently they are held, but if we consider the fact that the Canons talk about the “weakness” that might have corrupted some of the subdeacons in the relaxation of their attendance to Church services, we can reasonably presume that those services should have been held with some frequency during the week.
How long before the year 410 should we place the constitution of a primitive structure for the liturgical prayer within the boundaries of the Church of the East? In order to be able to give a pertinent answer to this question we must examine the circumstances in which the Church of the East conducted her life during the early centuries of her history.
The first mention of church building in Mesopotamia is found in the Acts of Mari, which informs us that the Governor of Seleucia granted a property to the Apostle Mari in a location called Kokhe (i.e. “slums”), and that he built a church, following his healing of the Governor’s daughter.8 Furthermore, from the year 201 AD, a Christian church building, distinct from the synagogue, was publicly functioning and well-acknowledged in the city of Edessa, as witnessed by the Annals of that city.9 Therefore it is safe to presume that regular public prayers were conducted in that church as well as in other neighboring Christian congregations of upper Mesopotamia, in cities like Nisibis and Arbela.
The closeness of the early Christian communities of Mesopotamia to the Jewish congregations is well-founded. The liturgical practice of Mesopotamian synagogues could be a useful point of reference and comparison in the study of the formation of early Mesopotamian Christian liturgy. In fact, for example, all the Psalms that formed the morning prayer for Saturdays in the synagogues, i.e. Psalms 100, 91, 104, 113, 93, 148, 149, 150 and 116, are found entirely and in the same order, except the inversion of order of the first two Psalms, in the Mesopotamian daily morning service.10 Therefore, it seems that the early liturgical prayer in Mesopotamia, probably until the end of third century, was based mainly on selected Psalmody, and that its original structure and pattern are to be found in the usage of the synagogue.
The persecution of Shabur II, which began in 340 AD, had disrupted drastically the steady growth of the Church of the East in Mesopotamia and Persia. Considering that this persecution lasted until 379, and that the see of Seleucia remained vacant after the martyrdom of three successive shepherds (Shim’un Bar Sabba’e, Shahdost, and Barba’shmyn, for about forty years from 348 until 388), it would be circumspect to say that a nucleus of structure for public prayer should have been already formed and practiced within the congregations of that Church prior to the Shaburian persecution, that is, prior to 340 AD.
Bar Hebraeus (1225-1286) tells us accordingly that it was precisely the martyr-Catholicos Shim’un Bar Sabba’e (+340) who arranged the partition of the choir into two groups, and based on it the revolving cycle of selected Psalms for the daily office. (Chronicon II, 11). Eusebius of Caesarea (ca. 263-339) witnesses to the fact that at the time of his writing – that is, during the first decades of the fourth century – public prayers, morning and evening, had been established in the churches throughout the world, for the glory of God. As it seems, the statement of Eusebius should apply to the liturgical situation East of Euphrates as well. He states:
It is surely no small sign of God’s power that throughout the whole world in the churches of God, at the morning rising of the sun and at the evening hours, hymns, praises, and truly divine delights are offered to God.11
An element of primordial importance in the formation of the daily office was the adoption of the Psalter for the prayer of the Hours, which implied:
a) The organization of the Psalter into liturgical units called Marmyatha, each one of them including generally three Psalms. It would seem that this development is of monastic origin, being consistent with the monastic use of the Psalter which recites the Psalms in sequence one after the other, as opposed to the parochial use, which make appropriate selections of the Psalms according to the celebration.
b) The addition and composition of responsories, called in this case ‘qanone,’ and of related prayers called ‘collects’ – one respectively for each Psalm – is attributed to the catholicos Mar Abba (536-552).12 This development made the Psalter a spiritual treasure ready for usage and practically well-adapted for a multitude of liturgical celebrations.
The Shaburian persecution could not pass without registering the heroism of Mesopotamian and Persian martyrs. It was Marutha, the bishop of Mayferkat, (+ ca. 420), and the active ambassador to the same above-mentioned Synod of Mar Isaac, that composed the beautiful ‘Onyatha d-Sahde’ (The Responsories of the Martyrs) that were assumed into the liturgy.13
Certainly, the fifth and sixth centuries of the Christian era were a period of dense and abundant spiritual productivity among Mesopotamian and Persian authors. Following the path of the great Mar Ephrem, theologians of the Church of the East like Narsai the Teacher (+503) and other composers of spiritual literature as Gregorius the bishop of Shoshter (ca. 466), Thomas of Edessa, a contemporary of Mar Abba, Abraham beth Rabban (+569), Hnana of Hadhayyahb (ca. 581), Babai Bar Nisibiens (+588), and Babai the Great (+627) – to mention but a few – contributed with their spiritual compositions to the formation of the Chaldean liturgical prayer until it reached its full development in the first decades of the seventh century, ready for the patriarch Isho’yahb III (650-661) to finalize and standardize its shape with his perduring reform.
This is where we meet our liturgical commentator Gabriel Qatraya (615-625), that is, at a moment when the liturgical forms were in the latest stages of their development but had not yet taken their final shape, a position that allows us to peer into the past, helping us to distinguish the different layers of euchological formations.
The Hours of the Mesopotamian Liturgy:
The first and most basic information that we find in Gabriel14 is the clear distinction between public prayer and individual piety or monastic Hours. There are seven hours of prayer during the day, he says, two of them, Sapra and Ramsha, are the public prayer, and the other five are the monastic hours, i.e. the third (Qutta’a), midday (‘Eddana), none, compline (Subba’a), and midnight (Lilya).
A preserved “Pact and Vows” (Tenway waQyame) of the Monks of the Monastery called “Of Bar Qayty,” situated in the Shingar region in northwest Mesopotamia, addressed to the Patriarch Sabrisho’I in March 598, expresses the promises of the monks of three adjacent monasteries regarding a solid spiritual life. They declare in their statement:
We shall persevere, as unceasingly as possible – as we have done until now we shall do from now on – in prayer in the service of evening and morning (tishmishta d-Ramsha wadSapra), in the Hours of nights and days (b’iddane d-Lailawatha w’Ymame), in the songs of the blessed David. We will fulfill also the observance of Lent (Sawma), pure and holy as requested by our rite and the manner of our vows.15
Gabriel sees the root of this system of daily hours in the Scriptures. For the public prayers, he mentions the divine order to pray morning and evening, and the similar divine mandate to offer a lamb every morning and evening (Exodus 29:38-43 and 30:1-8).
As for the piety system of praying five more times a day, Gabriel finds a pattern in the practice of Daniel praying three times during the day (Daniel 6:11-13), but, somehow incongruously, states that the Book of Daniel mentions five devotional prayer times. Therefore, in order to make the statement of Gabriel accurate, we must consider Daniel’s nightly visions in 7:1-7 as referring to a compline and his nightly vigil in the Lions’ den (Daniel 6:14-21) as implying a prayer of the night. Evidently, the long penitential prayer in Daniel 9:3-19, should be connected with vespers, as stated in Daniel 9:21.
In addition to the Old Testament, Gabriel is well aware of the instances of the New Testament where the prayer of the Hours is indicated or implied, as in Acts 3:1, 10:1-10 and 16:25.
Only one Chaldean manuscript is known to have preserved the monastic rite of the prayer of the Hours. It is the Vat. Syr. 88 of 1557, yet to be explored. Nevertheless, the system of the “seven Hours” daily prayers, so emphatically exposed by Gabriel Qatraya, has survived, almost in its integrity, in the order of prayer for the weeks of Lent. In fact, in addition to Sapra and Ramsha – which are the public prayer throughout the year –Lilya is preserved as well, and with it the Qutta’a, ‘iddana and Subba’a, in the Lenten season. The only missing Hour is the ninth, which has completely disappeared from the prayer structure of the Church of the East, possibly because that hour is too close to the time of Vespers.
It was Isho’yahb who enriched the public prayer with the treasures of monastic spirituality, by adopting the midnight Hour (Lilya) – which contains the core of the monastic euchological compositions – for the prayer of parochial devout congregations, juxtaposing and combining not only two liturgical hours but also their texts and content. In that fashion, the Lilya (nocturne) has been moved with its integral structure to early morning and has been positioned before Sapra. Sundays, feasts, commemorations, Fridays of the year, and the weeks of Lent are special occasions for which a special course of Hours is adopted. The difference regards mainly the nightly monastic Mawtbe, i.e. the prayer sessions during the night, and the parochial or public Shahra, i.e. the public or cathedral vigil, as it is frequently called.
Thus it makes sense to respect the original Cathedral structure of Ramsha and Sapra without losing the richness of the monastic compositions. This was done both in the “Mawtwa d-Sapra” of the daily prayer, as well as in the Shahra-Vigil of Sundays and Feasts.
While Gabriel is quite willing to make the case for the importance of the number seven in regard to the arrangement of the Hours, nothing is mentioned about this very number in relation to the seasons of the liturgical year called Shabo’e, i.e. the groups of seven weeks or septenaries in which the Mesopotamian liturgical year is divided. In fact, it was Isho’yahb III again who divided the liturgical year into seven septenaries with a prelude (4 weeks of Subara or Advent) and a conclusion (4 weeks of Quddash ‘Edta or the Sanctification of the Church). The absence of any mention of this arrangement in this commentary is an additional indication that Gabriel Qatraya belongs to an era preceding Isho’yahb and his reform.
II. The Liturgical Year of Mar ‘Ysho’yahb III:
A Reform in Need of Reform
In order to understand this Patriarch’s major contribution to the formation of a liturgical year, we must shed light, though in a cursory way, on the preceding phases. I may divide Mesopotamian liturgical history, prior to ‘Ysho’yahb III, into two periods:
From the 1st to the 4th Century:
The Aramaic-speaking community of Mesopotamia and Persia, Jewish and Pagan, accepted Christianity as a fulfillment of their own history and culture. The Holy Scriptures and the Jewish liturgical tradition with its practices were certainly the initial resource for the emerging Christian community in performing its liturgy. With the growth of the Church East of the Euphrates, new Aramaic literary compositions expressing Christian content were gradually added to the rituals. The initial vibrant growth of the Church of the East came to a halt with the extended Persian persecution of Christians (339-379 AD), mostly in reaction to the conversion of the Roman emperor to Christianity and its consequential spread in the entire West.
From the 5th to the mid-7th Century:
The beginning of the 5th Century, especially following the Synod of the Catholicos Mar Isaac (410 AD), brought some stability to the Church of the East and some freedom to its institutions, effecting a flourishing of monasteries and of theological schools, providing scores of teachers and spiritual fathers, who in turn adorned the Mesopotamian liturgy with an immense wealth of compositions.
One major event happened before ‘Ysho’yahb’s eyes: the Arabic-Islamic conquest of vast regions and countries in the Near and Middle East (630-645 AD), putting an end to the Persian Empire, modifying the relationship between Church and State, inviting the Church to deepen and enrich its spirituality within its institutions and to reach out with missionary zeal to the vast eastern lands beyond the Muslim domain.
‘Ysho’yahb III and the Reform of the Liturgical Year
The Catholicos ‘Ysho’yahb reorganized the liturgy of the Church of the East in its entirety when he was Metropolitan of Arbil (637-649 AD);16 when he became Patriarch (649-659), he generalized his liturgical canons to the whole patriarchate. The best description of this subject is found in the Expositio Officiorum of an Anonymous Author.17
The Design’s Building Blocks
Sunday & Friday as the new main weekly references:
For three successive times, the Lord Jesus appeared to his disciples on a Sunday: on the Resurrection Day to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35), in the evening of that first day of the week in the Upper Room (John 20:19), and again a week later, in the Upper Room to the Disciples with Thomas (John 20: 26). Friday, being the crucifixion day, maintains its status as a point of reference that may begin or conclude a period or a cycle, especially as a commemoration day for a martyr or a saint. It is significant also as it is the day of creation when humans were created (Genesis 1:26), the day in which Eve and Adam fell into sin, as well as the day that Christ suffered and was crucified.18 Indeed, Friday is the pattern for the other “ferial” weekdays, and its combination with Sunday gives us a rich, Christo-centered Passion-Resurrection spirituality.
The Jewish feast of Pentecost:
Immediately after the Feast of Unleavened Bread, which was joined by the Priestly Code to the Passover celebration (Leviticus 23:5-6), “beginning with the day after the Sabbath, the day on which you bring the wave-offering sheaf, you shall count seven full weeks, and then on the day after the seventh week, the fiftieth day, you shall present the new cereal offering to the Lord.” (Leviticus 23:15-16). “On this same day, you shall by proclamation have a sacred assembly, and no sort of work may be done…”(23:21).
The Christian Pentecost:
The Ascension of the Lord into heaven was celebrated Forty days after the Resurrection, based on Acts 1:2-3. Ten days later, on Sunday again, the Holy Spirit descended upon them. It was Pentecost, the Fiftieth day (Acts 2:1-4). Thus, the period of seven weeks from Resurrection to Pentecost is the initial scriptural reference and fixed core for the development of the Christian liturgical year.
Lent-Resurrection and its Season:
The Lenten season leading to Resurrection Day, as a liturgical period, was developed gradually through the first three centuries, up to the Council of Nicea (325 AD), from a few days of fasting before Easter, to one week, to a season of seven weeks, with variable systems for calculating the forty days of fasting.19 The end result for the Mesopotamian Calendar was the formation of a period similar to the Pentecostal season, i.e. a fifty-day or seven-week period becoming the core of the Liturgical Year, Easter Sunday being the central axis, followed by a period of another seven weeks climaxing with Pentecost. Evidence for the unity of this Lent-Easter-Pentecost axis is noted on the First Sunday of Lent that “from [there] until Pentecost, there are no ‘alam, not in the evening nor at night.”
Christmas-Epiphany and their Season:
Another major initial reference was the Christmas-Epiphany season, which had to be organized in relation to the Lent-Easter season, especially after adopting the arrangement by the Western and Eastern Churches of two celebrations for the Manifestation of the Lord to the world: the Nativity (December 25th), and the Baptism (January 6th), agreed upon in the 4th-5th Century.
Jesus’ life with all of its aspects, including his acts, teachings, healings and miracles, is an integral part of his redemptive mission, and thus it was a matter of spiritual and educational dynamic to follow Jesus through the historic events of his life following his Nativity and Baptism. This development led to theformation of another period, the Epiphany Season of ideally seven weeks, that was arranged prior to Lent.
We have seen that the preliminaries of the liturgical calendar developed collectively in the Christian East and West: the core axis is Resurrection Sunday, with a 7-week period before (Lent) and another 7-week period after (Pentecost), keeping in mind the period of Epiphany. With this core in hand, how did the Bishop and later Catholicos construct his year? The Mesopotamian theology is brilliantly scriptural, as ‘Ysho’yahb will prove.
Building a Yearly Cycle
There is evidence to support the notion that the Sumerians and Akkadians used the so called “Pentecostal” Calendar, its unit being not the month but seven weeks plus one day.20 Remnants of this system have survived in the scriptural Jubilee and Pentecost, but most of all in the Chaldean liturgical calendar.
The Jubilee and its cycle: “Seven weeks of years shall you count –seven times seven years– so that the seven cycles amount to forty-nine years… This fiftieth year you shall make sacred by proclaiming liberty in the land for all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you.” (Leviticus 25:8-10).
Jesus and the Jubilee:
The Lord Jesus, at the beginning of his ministry, “… came to Nazareth, where he had grown up, and went according to his custom into the synagogue on the Sabbath day. He stood up to read and was handed a scroll of the prophet Isaiah. He unrolled the scroll and found the passage where it was written: ‘The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.’ (Is. 61:1-2). Rolling up the scroll, he handed it back to the attendant and sat down, and the eyes of all in the synagogue looked intently at him. He said to them: ‘Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing’.” (Luke 4:16-21).
The Mesopotamian ecclesiastic leadership was entitled to think:
Because the Lord is with us forever, every year is a jubilee year! Why not build upon that? Why not expand the pattern of the Paschal periods of 7 weeks to the whole year? Implying that every calendar year may be organized as a full cycle of salvation events: Annunciation, Nativity Festivities, Epiphany, Lent, Resurrection Festivities, Pentecost Festivities, Apostolic Preaching and Festive celebration, followed by 7 weeks of Penance and conversion (called “Hallilayn” = Purification).
When Constantine in 313 AD saw in the skies the sign of the Cross, that he adopted as his banner of victory, the Empire tilted decisively toward Christianity, leading to the uncovering of the buried cross of the Lord, with a fixed celebration of the event on September 13. The Exaltation of the Cross became a new point of reference for the yearly cycle, becoming the core for a new liturgical period, to be culminated by the Dedication of the Church as the crowning of the whole yearly cycle. This is the yearly cycle that I may call: the Cathedral Liturgical Year.
What is the role and the vision of ‘Ysho’yahb?
‘Ysho’yahb, a great supporter of monasteries, will combine the vision of the historic marking events of our salvation with the eschatological phase of the Kingdom of God; this one will comprehend the following periods: a period 50 fasting days in imitation of the prophet Elijah, the precursor of the end of time, coupled with the eschatological sign, the Exultation of the Cross, plus 1 to 4 flexible weeks of Moses to fill any leftover gap, then the Crowning of the Church as the fulfillment of the Kingdom. The end result is the following:
4 weeks of Subbara + Yalda 1 or 2 Sundays
7 weeks of Dinha
7 weeks of Sawma
7 weeks of Qyamta, including 1 for Week of Weeks
7 weeks of Sh-lyhe + Nawras d’El 1 week, including 1 week of Pentecost
7 weeks of (Qayta) Hallilayn=Purification
7 weeks of Elijah including Slywa + Mushe
4 weeks of Quddash ‘Edta
The greatness and originality of the Mesopotamian design as transmitted by ‘Ysho’yahb:
Rabban Brykh’ysho’, abbot of the Monastery d-Beth-Qoqa (14th c.), known by the name of Bar Eskape, offers one of the classic and standard presentations of the Mesopotamian Liturgical Year,21 which is in agreement with the presentation of Patriarch Putrus Elijah Abbu-Alyawnan rendered in the Preface of the Chaldean printed Hudhra, whose basic outline is the following:
a) It is great to design every year as a jubilee of festivity, redemption, and liberation.
b) It is of great significance to accompany the Lord through all the steps of his earthly life and through all the major events that accomplished our redemption.
c) It is fulfilling to celebrate the Descent of the Holy Spirit igniting the Apostolic role for carrying on Christ’s salvation to all the nations.
d) It is meaningful and highly recommendable to challenge ourselves in penance and spiritual renewal, as a healthy result of the Apostolic preaching.
e) ‘Ysho’yahb, then, combines the dawning of the year with the end of time, bringing the prophet Elijah to remind us of it, battling the Son of Perdition with the Sign of the Son of Man, the Victorious Cross, thus celebrating Christ’s triumph joined by his crowned Bride, the Church. An impressive design and a dazzling beauty.
A Reform in Need of Reform
For 1350 years the Church of the East took benefit from `Ysho’yahb’s design and arrangement. Nevertheless, every human endeavor can be improved and completed. After so many centuries, it seems to me that the time is ripe to give a facelift to this impressively venerated design. Leaving aside many minor disconnections, like putting the Emmaus encounter Tuesday after Resurrection Sunday, distancing it from the connection with the event.
What is the major structural flaw in this design? It is the artificial mixture of current historic time with eschatology. It is bringing the Prophet Elijah to make him the flag-bearer of a 7-week period, making the Holy Cross Exaltation an insertion or inclusion into its structure, mixing the military triumph of Constantine with the end of times, then bringing Moses into the picture, to supply the few weeks needed to complete the year, though he has nothing to do with the end of time. The Dedication of the Church is, in this context, totally disconnected with what comes before and with what comes after.
These are the main observations in that regard:
1) After the Sunday of Nawras d’El, indicated by the Hudhra as the 1st Sunday of Qayta, supposedly the penitential Period of Summer should begin, implying that penance would be the subject of the weekly days. But, looking at the texts, the dominant subject is the Apostles’ role and intercession; only with the following Friday (Hallilayn=Purification), and the following days, is penance the main topic.
In fact, in many ancient references, this period is not called “of the Summer” but of “Hallelayn,”22which is the Incipit (first word) of the Friday’s Evening “‘Onytha.”23 Furthermore, it appears ‘Ysho’yahb himself called it exactly so, as reported by the Commentary of Rabban Brykh’ysho’, indicating that that Friday was the beginning of this Shawo’a, not the prior Sunday or the following one. Darmo’s printedHudhra is more faithful to the ancient manuscripts and reports the title “First Friday of the Beginning of the Period of Qayta.”24 The 7th Friday is the conclusion of this Shawo’a, as reported in the Hudhra itself.
Therefore, counting the 8th Sunday after Pentecost the Final of the Period of the Apostles (Nawsar d’El), as the 1st of Qayta is out of order. Indeed it has nothing to do with Qayta, all the prayers being in regard to the Apostles. The Feast of God should rather be called “Nawras d’El” and celebrate the success of the Apostles until the following Friday!25
2) It is noticeable that from the 1st Friday of Elijah for ten weeks (from Friday to Friday), every Friday and Sunday, both evening and morning prayer, contain a special section of the prayer addressed to the Cross, the topic being not penitential but triumphant.
3) A conclusion could be made: in the original Cathedral Year the penitential period of Hallilayn was followed by a period dedicated to the Exultation of the Cross, that ‘Ysho’yahb, subordinated to a superimposed eschatological season, in the fellowship of Elijah and Moses, that he borrowed from the monastic tradition.
4) Patching historic time with eschatology causes a disruption of vision in the continuous flux of the liturgical year. Furthermore, eschatology should be considered present in the whole course of messianic time, since the incarnation of the Word of God. Historic events of redemption and eschatology are concomitant spiritual realities: each person’s life and death is, in some realistic sense, an expectation of the coming of the Lord. Moreover, mixing a triumphant Cross season with a monastic penitential period connected to Elijah is quite artificial; the disconnection and imbalance is patent especially on Sundays, where the topic of the Victorious Crucified and Risen Lord is subordinated to the theme of monastic ways of penance!
5) Patching the cathedral practice with the monastic is a pattern that ‘Ysho’yahb applied also in the formation of the Public Prayer (Slotha d-Gawa), where “Lilya” is nothing more than the monastic prayer of the night that he inserted before the Cathedral Morning Prayer. The Lent Period presents another sample of the mingling between the Cathedral and monastic cycles, accredited to ‘Ysho’yahb. If we read Toma d-Marge26 we will witness another sample of the tendency of ‘Ysho’yahb to mingle the monastic and the secular.
I think a solution is warranted:
1) Restoring the Liturgical year to its original Cathedral cycle is the basic first step toward any reformation of the Reform of ‘Ysho’yahb, after which the monastic spiritual wealth could be explored and used within a comprehensive system of spirituality.
2) The Exultation of the Cross is a fundamental part of the History of Salvation and of the yearly cycle, and could be fully connected with the Preaching of the Apostles and the conversion of the nations, from one side, and the Dedication of the Church as its fulfillment, from the other. Elijah and Moses could be given a subordinated role within this period, as a representative period of the Old Testament, guiding us to the dawn of the New Testament.
This would be the adjusted Mesopotamian liturgical year, a perpetual Jubilee:
1. Subara: 4 weeks + Christmas Season (2 Sundays flexible)
2. Dinha: 7 weeks, flexible
3. Sawma: 7 weeks
4. Qyamta: 7 weeks
5. Pentecost with Shlyhe: 7 weeks
6. Purification=Hallilayn: 7 weeks
7. Slywa: 7-10 weeks (including Elijah and Moses, flexible)
Crown of the Year – Coronation of the Church: 4 weeks