The Syriac Orthodox Church is heir to an ancient tradition of Christian worship that is distinguished by the antiquity and beauty of its prayers and rituals. As recounted in the Acts of the Apostles, the early adherents of the Christian faith fleeing persecution in the Holy Land reached Antioch, a prominent center of commerce in the eastern part of the Roman empire. There they were first called Christians. St. Peter is believed to have founded a church in Antioch in AD 39. Meanwhile, in Edessa, the capital of the Kingdom of Urhoy on the borders of Syria and Mesopotamia, a Church was in existence before the end of the first century. In the course of the next two centuries Edessa became the centre of a Christian culture using the Edessene dialect of Aramaic, called Syriac, as its language. While the Church in the West adopted Greek as its language for worship, the Church in the East, addressing itself largely to the Jewish Christians of the diaspora, continued to speak Aramaic. The forms of worship in the Syriac Orthodox Church reflect the Antiochene and Edessene heritage of the Church.
The sense of awe and wonder before the divine Mystery pervades the Syriac Church. The Syrian liturgy is dominated by the scene in the vision of the prophet Isaiah, when, he saw the Lord on a high and lofty throne in the temple in Jerusalem, and heard the angels crying, ‘holy, holy, holy’ before him. In every Syriac church there is a ‘veil’ drawn across the sanctuary, representing the veil in the temple of Jerusalem, and the sanctuary itself is held to be the ‘holy of holies’, the place where God himself appears in the New Covenant with his people, This scene is recalled at the beginning and the end of every office of prayer and the sense of wonder and mystery which inspires it fills the whole liturgy. Together with this sense of awe in the presence of the holiness of God is a profound sense of human sin. As the prophet was led to cry out, ‘Woe is me, for I am man a of unclean lips and I dwell among a people of unclean lips’, so the Syriac liturgy is filled with this sense of human sin and unworthiness. One of the principal themes of the liturgy is that of ‘repentance’. But this sense of sin and the need for repentance is accompanied by, or rather an expression of, the awareness of God’s infinite love and mercy, which comes down to man’s need and raises him to share in his own infinite glory. Thus there is a wonderful balance of dreadful majesty and loving compassion, of abasement and exaltation.
The Syriac Orthodox liturgy, reflecting the Christological history of the Church, places emphasis on the divine nature in Christ. Its Trinitarian doctrine, mostly derived from the Greek and even using Greek terms, is distinctive in the custom of addressing prayer directly to Christ as ‘our God’ and not to the Father through ‘Jesus Christ our Lord’. Immense veneration is paid to Mary as the ‘Mother of God’, or more literally ‘She who brought forth God’. This profound devotion is based entirely on a continued meditation on the fact that the person whom Mary brought forth was truly God. This is the source of endless wonder and at the same time of amazing paradox, which is expressed in poetic terms: ‘in your arms you embraced the flames and gave milk to the devouring fire; blessed is he, the infinite, who was born of you’. This deeply biblical and theological devotion to the Virgin Mary grew up in the Church as a direct consequence of belief in the Incarnation.
Together with devotion to the Mother of God goes a devotion to the prophets, apostles and martyrs, as members of the Mystical Body of Christ, those who proclaimed and those who died for the sake of the Gospel. Here again this devotion to the saints is expressed in one of its purest forms, deeply rooted in a biblical view of life and springing wholly from devotion to the person of Christ and the authentic message of the Gospel. What is most evident throughout the Syrian liturgy is its biblical background. It is as though the liturgy sprang from the very same soil as the Old and the New Testament. The ‘saints’ of the Old Testament, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; Moses and David and the Prophets, and in’ particular Job and Daniel and three holy men in the furnace of Babylon, are as familiar figures as the apostles and are felt as living witnesses to the mystery of Christ always alive within the Church. Even more interesting is the frequent reference to ‘our father Adam and our mother Eve’, which takes the mystery of salvation back to the first man and woman, and sees Christ descending ‘to Sheol, the place of the dead, at the resurrection, to proclaim the message of salvation to all the dead and to raise up Adam and Eve. The feeling for the dead as waiting in Sheol for the resurrection at the second coming of Christ is also a theme which takes us back to early Jewish Christian theology, from which the Syriac theology so largely derives, and helps us to see how devotion to the faithful departed grew up spontaneously in the early Church.
The Syriac Orthodox liturgy is derived from the prolific works of its poet-theologians. Works of Mor Ephrem, Mor Ya`qub of Sarug, Mor Philoxenos of Mabbug, Chor Episcopus Mor Balay, among others figure prominently in the liturgies. Liturgy is poetic in form, being based on a regular syllabic pattern, but still more in spirit. They are, in fact, one of the most authentic expressions of the Christian spirit. All the mysteries of the Christian faith, the Trinity and the Incarnation, the Cross and the Redemption, the Resurrection and the Second Coming, the Church as the Bride of Christ, Mary, the Mother of God and the saints of the Old and New Testament, the dead in ‘Sheol’ and the expectation of the return to Paradise, all these themes are treated with a wealth of poetic beauty. The meditation on the mysteries of faith seems to awake in these writers (who were mostly monks) an inexhaustible flower of poetry, which is both profoundly theological and astonishingly original. The liturgies have long antiphons known as qolos and bo`oothos and the shorter antiphons known as eqbos and enyonos. It is in these songs that the immense poetic beauty of the Syriac liturgy is found.
In accordance with Psalm 119, verse 164, “Seven times in the day have I praised thee for thy judgments, O Righteous One,” the Syriac Orthodox Church set the times for prayer to seven: Evening or ramsho prayer (Vespers), Drawing of the Veil or Sootoro (meaning ‘Protection’ from the Psalm 91, which is sung at this prayer, ‘He who sits under the protection of the Most High’), Midnight or lilyo prayer, Morning or saphro prayer (Matins), the Third Hour or tloth sho`in prayer (Prime, 9 a.m.), the Sixth Hour or sheth sho`in prayer (Sext, noon) and the Ninth Hour or tsha` sho`in prayer (Nones, 3 p.m.). The Midnight prayer consists of three qawme ‘watches’ (literarily ‘standing’). The ecclesiastical day begins in the evening at sunset with the ramsho. Today, even in monasteries, the evening and compline prayers are said together, as also the midnight and morning prayers, and the three, six and nine o’clock prayers, reducing the times of prayer to three.
Each of the hours has its own particular theme or themes and the sense of the natural background of morning, evening or night is often present and often calls forth the most charming poetry. Thus the natural and the supernatural world are marvellously blended and provides a sense of wholeness. It is the whole mystery of Christ which is presented here in all its majesty from the creation of the world to the Second Coming of Christ, from the Trinity in the height of heaven with the angels and the watchers, who surround it, to man on earth, his sin and suffering in this passing world with all its beauty, his redemption by the Cross and his hope of glory with the prophets and apostles and martyrs, who have entered into glory, and to the dead who wait in Sheol for the coming of the Son of Man and the general Resurrection.
Fr. Bede Griffith, The Book of Common Prayer of the Syrian Orthodox Church, Kurishumala Ashram.