Attending an Ancient Nestorian Worship Service

 

Image: The Prayer Foundation logo (with white Celtic cross on a green shield).

(Communion Service) from before 431 A.D.

 

Photo: "Skellig Michael" Copyright Irish Tourist Board.

 

Image: portion of illuminated manuscript page from "The Book of Kells."Photo: of the Cathedral of the Assyrian Church of the East, Trichor, South India. Cathedral of the Assyrian Church of the East, Trichor, South India.

We discovered this article on a Christian satire/humor website and post it here because of the insight it might provide into the earliest Church decoration and Liturgy.  During times of great persecution, it was not possible to even have dedicated church buildings. "The Edict of Milan" made Christianity legal in 313 A.D.  Before this, Christians had often been forced to meet secretly in homes and in underground cemetery catacombs.  (Following the article, find information on "Nestorius" and "Nestorianism".)             ___________________________________________

The Church: Cathedral of the Assyrian Church of the East, Trichor, South India.
                                                                                                     
Denomination: The Assyrian Church of the East is a 'Nestorian'
* Church, which split with the Orthodox Church in A.D. 431.

The Building: Built in 1814, the church has an oriental look.  The interior is quite plain, with no icons or images (the Church believes that images break the second commandment), but with a host of globe lamps and a great chandelier hanging from the ceiling.  

At the back is a high gallery, and at the side a grotesque pulpit, some 25 ft. in height and elaborately carved in dark teak, issuing from the sharp-toothed mouth of an Assyrian lion at floor level.  Beyond a floor-to-ceiling curtain at the front is the 'chancel' area a barrel vault, the ceiling painted with sky and clouds.
                                                                                                                 
The Neighbourhood: Trichor is a large town in Kerala State, India.  A well-founded legend says that St. Thomas brought the gospel here in A.D. 52, and a number of ancient churches in South India claim this as their origin.  

The church stands in a compound which includes the present Archbishop's palace and the tomb of the last Archbishop (Mar Abimelek Timotheus), who is still revered as a man of prayer.  His tomb is practically a pilgrimage centre, visited by large numbers of people.

     

The Cast: Father Raphael, assisted by a deacon.    __________________

What was the name of the service?
                                                                                                                 Holy Qurbana, 7:00am ('Qurbana' is the name for Holy Communion). The local people come to this service before starting their day's work. The liturgy we used, the Liturgy of the Holy Apostles, dates from before A.D. 431, which makes this the oldest Christian liturgy in use in the world today.

How full was the building?
                                                                                                                   Not very.  There were 25 of us, the men standing on the left, the women on the right, with more men than women.  On Sundays, some 200 people attend, and then it's standing room only.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
                                                                                                                    No welcome.  An old woman sitting near the centre of the church looked agitated when I sat down, for reasons that I discovered a few minutes later.

Was your pew comfortable?
                                                                                                               There were no pews.  You slipped off your shoes at the door and entered barefoot.  Most people then collected a rattan mat from a pile at the back of the church and sat cross-legged waiting for the service to begin.  We stood on our mats for most of the hour and a quarter service.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
                                                                                                                        People were still arriving, pulling up their mats and sitting in silence. Maybe they were expectant, I'm not sure; it's difficult to read moods in a foreign culture.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
                                                                                                                  The big sanctuary curtain was pulled back, and then the opening words of the Liturgy were sung three times by the priest: 'Glory to God in the highest'.  This was followed immediately by the Lord's Prayer, sung by everyone.  The service was in the local language, Malayalam, not one of the languages I took successfully to GCSE stage.

What books did the congregation use during the service?
                                                                                                            Several worshippers were singing from prayer books, but they looked like their own copies.  Most people knew this intricate service very well and did not need a book.

What musical instruments were played?
                                                                                                                  Just the human voice.  There was lots of congregational participation and the singing was strange, as it was very discordant. I couldn't decide whether this was just an Eastern singing style, or a congregation of tone-deaf worshippers.

Did anything distract you?
                                                                                                               When I arrived, there were only a few women sitting on their mats on the right-hand side of the church.  I pulled up my mat quite near them. Then the men started to arrive.  Only when we were about 10 minutes into the service did it dawn on me that it was men on the left, women on the right, and I was in the wrong place. The dread of every stranger in a church service: to be wrong-footed.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
                                                                                                                      It was led from the front, although the congregation knew the Liturgy inside out, sang the responses with conviction and at one point seemed to initiate a section of the singing without a prompt from the priest.  I lost count of the number of times when the men (and one woman) slipped through the side doors for a moment to hawk and spit on the ground outside.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
                                                                                                               There was no sermon.  But I was struck by the way the Gospels were handled during the reading.  The book was contained in three layers of silk green, red and saffron coloured, and each layer was carefully peeled back, corner by corner, until the book was ready to be opened.  I've never seen such loving reverence for any book.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
                                                                                                            Sharing the peace. A man from the congregation went up to the foot of the steps leading to the sanctuary and received the peace from the deacon by placing his hands in the deacon's hands.  He then returned to the rest of us and the blessing of peace was passed on in the same way.  The whole idea of 'sharing the peace' originated in India, and it was a moving experience to receive and give the peace in this way.

And which part was like being in...er...the other place?
                                                                                                         Watching everyone else move forward to the sanctuary steps to receive the bread from the priest and wine from the deacon, while I stayed where I was.  I later discovered that I would have been welcome at the table.  The Archbishop told me over breakfast (I was staying with him): 'It's not good to turn people away from communion' a refreshing contrast to the protectionist approach of the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
                                                                                                                   Sad to say, no one approached the Englishman Who Stood in the Women's Section.  Maybe they were a bit shocked to see an out-of-season tourist in their midst.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
                                                                                                        Breakfast with the Archbishop included weak black tea and a dish made from rice and coconut, steamed inside a fat bamboo pole.  Sounds exotic, but it was actually a bit tasteless.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
                                                                                                                      7, but only if I was able to learn Malayalam.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
                                                                                                                  Yes, absolutely.  This ancient and genuinely Indian expression of Christian faith made me feel part of the great communion of saints, past, present and worldwide.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
                                                                                                               There was a whirring fan on the left side of the sanctuary, and when the priest came to cense the altar, it blew the smoke across in a streaming hurricane of incense.  It amused me, but also seemed like one more symbol in a service rich in meanings.
___________________________________________________________

Above Article by: Mystery Worshipper, Nick O'Demus.  Ship of Fools 2006.  Re-printed by permission.  The following is posted per the terms of permission for re-printing:

The Mystery Worshipper project, which produced this report, is run by shipoffools.com, the online magazine of Christian unrest.  The project has volunteer reporters who visit churches of all denominations worldwide, leaving only a calling card in the collection plate. For further reports, visit the Mystery Worshipper at: http://www.ship-of-fools.com/mystery/1998/027Mystery.html ___________________________________________________________

* Some Background on Nestorius and "Nestorianism"

Or: Why many Protestants feel that after Emperor Constantine, it was "all downhill from there"!

This is a much more complicated matter, both historically and Theologically, than can adequately be covered in a short summary.  However, briefly...

Some argue that Nestorius' beliefs were misrepresented intentionally for reasons of Church politics (in modern parlance, that he was "framed" and "railroaded" on "trumped up charges" in an unfair and technically illegal "show trial"), so that he could be exiled by his powerful ecclesiastical enemies, one of whom subsequently took over his office as Bishop of Constantinople.

In 431 A.D., Celestine I, Bishop of Rome, commissioned Cyril, Patriarch of Alexandria, to conduct proceedings against Bishop Nestorius of Constantinople, his longtime adversary...  When the Eastern bishops who were more sympathetic to Nestorius arrived and learned that the council summoned by Emperor Theodosius II had been started without them, they set up a rival synod.  Those Bishops who participated in this Synod, and declared Nestorius innocent of any heresy, would also all be excommunicated with their entire flocks, and thereby was created the "Nestorian" Church.

What is commonly known as "the Nestorian heresy" which has been rejected by Christian orthodoxy throughout history, is the teaching that Christ was composed of two distinct persons, one human, one divine.

Oddly, the Nestorian Churches do not actually hold this view.  Some scholars think that neither did Nestorius himself, and that the Schism might have been caused by a misunderstanding of terms in translation, or perhaps even an intentional "misunderstanding".  

Historic accepted Christian teaching holds that Christ was and is one person (of the Trinity) with two natures: that He was at once both both fully man, and fully divinity. 

Another issue: a sore point with both the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox Churches then and now: the Nestorians refused to call Mary "the mother of God" ("Theotokos"), saying that she should instead be referred to as "the mother of Christ" ("Christotokos").  

Later, during the Protestant Reformation, when some groups denied the doctrine of the Real Presence and the communication of attributes between the two natures, they were accused by the Roman Catholic hierarchy of "reviving the heresy of Nestorius". _______________________________________________________

Sources:

  • Wikipedia: "Nestorius".

  • Wikipedia: "Nestorianism".

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Related Pages:

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   (Except article text and article photos) 2007 S.G.P. All rights reserved. 

  Photo of Skellig Michael Copyright Irish Tourist Board. 

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Notes by The Prayer Foundation Points of Interest:

No Icons or Images...Chancel painted with sky and clouds.

 

Pulpit for sermon during Sunday Service.

 

 

 

 

Prayer regarded highly, and in being "a man of prayer".

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

                 

 

Communion Service held daily.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

No pews...standing during service.  

Shoes removed before entering Sanctuary.  This was observed in all Christian Churches until the 800's A.D.

 

 

Service opens with a "Gloria" ("Glory to God") followed immediately by The Lord's Prayer...both sung.

 

Service memorized by most, probably without trying, just from lifelong familiarity.

                         No musical instruments.  

Much Congregational participation...by singing.

                                Men and women on separate sides.  This is still a common custom in many different parts of the world...Russia, Mexico, the Middle East, India, and elsewhere.

 

Congregational Responses...also sung.    

 

 

                          No sermon during daily Communion Service.

Gospel Reading.

 

 

The Peace.

 

 

 

Open Communion. Offered to all Christians, and in both kinds, Bread and Wine separately.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

                                  Incense.

 

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