The Mar Thoma Church It's Liturgical tradition, Symbols, Sacraments and Important festivals: A Brief Survey

1) Introduction

The Mar Thoma Syrian Church is an independent, reformed Eastern Syrian Church in India. Nationally they are Indians but liturgically they keep Eastern identity through the use of Syriac language in worship and following the Sacraments and practices of the Eastern Church. The Mar Thoma Syrian Church is gifted with a great liturgical tradition. Through this I shall try to present briefly the The Mar Thoma Church It’s Liturgical tradition, Symbols, Sacraments and Important festivals :A Brief Survey and how it plays a significant role in the worship life of its believers.

2) The Important Liturgical Traditions within the Mar Thoma Church

Eastern liturgy can generally be divided into two. They are Antiochene Liturgy and Alexandrian Liturgy. Liturgies of Greek (Byzantine), Syrian, and Armenian churches belong to the Antiochene tradition. Coptic and Abssynian (Ethiopian) liturgies belong to the Alexandrian tradition.

In the Qurbana Taksa of the Mar Thoma Church we can find seven liturgical traditions. They are the Liturgy of St. Dionysius, the Liturgy of St. James, the Liturgy of St. Christos the Patriarch, the Liturgy of St. Peter (popularly known), the Liturgy of St. Juhanon the Patriarch, the Liturgy of St. Thomas Episcopa from Harkkli and the Liturgy of St. Evanios Metropolitan.

Out of this the Liturgy of the St. James is prominent and the commonly used one in the worships.

2 .1) Liturgy of St. James

In the preface of the very ancient liturgy, it is written that ‘the liturgy of St. James, brother of our Lord, Apostle and martyr and the first bishop of Jerusalem.’ During the 4th century C.E Cyril of Jerusalem, in his sermon on Holy Qurbana, quotes from the liturgy of St. James. In some other 4th century liturgies and in the discourse of John Chrysostom, sections from St. James liturgy can be seen. Therefore, it can be concluded that this liturgy was in use in Jerusalem during the 4th century. It is believed that the original language of this liturgy is Aramaic which was spoken by Jesus Christ. But in Antioch it came to be celebrated in Greek. During the 7th century, Jacob of Edessa (640-708 CE) translated this liturgy into Syriac, using the Greek manuscript. Later Moses Bar Kepha (9th century) and Dionysus Bar Salibi (12th century) added several prayers to this liturgy. This liturgy took its present shape during 13th century. Bar Hebreus, the Catholicos of the East shortened this liturgy. Along with the reformation that has taken place in the Malankara Church in the 19th century, the liturgy was also reformed. Such a revised version of the liturgy of the St. James is in use in the Mar Thoma Syrian Church. Today as this liturgy has been evolved in Jerusalem, it has close links with the New Testament traditions and practices of the early church. So St. James liturgy got acceptance in other churches like the churches in Syria, Palestine, Armenia, Georgia, Russia, Greece, and Constantinople.

3.) Symbols in the Mar Thoma Liturgy with Special Reference to the Holy Qurbana

3.1) Materials used in Worships

In Christian worship different types of materials are used symbolically. They are the Temple (Church Building), Madbaha (Sanctuary), Thronos (Seat Throne), Tabaletha (Wooden Table), Kabalana (Cover), Sosappa (Veil), Tharvodo (Spoon) and Gamurtho (Wiping Sponge).

3.2) Symbols in the present day Church

Worship and liturgy in the Syrian Church are full of signs and symbols. Through the visible signs and symbols worshippers believe that they are also participating in the heavenly worship. By performing the sacraments of the Church worshippers recall and remember the salvific acts of Jesus. Cross, incense, candle, curtain etc. are some of the symbols used in the Church. Symbols not only provide a hidden meaning but also reflect the inner feelings of the worshipping community. Some of the gestures used during the worship are bowing our heads, kneeling down, worshipping in standing posture, washing hands of the celebrant etc.

3.3) Sacraments of the Mar Thoma Church

Some necessary changes were made in the liturgy in the light of the Word of God and in accordance with the basic principles of Reformation. The Mar Thoma Syrian Church follows all the seven Sacraments of Eastern Church in its liturgy. They are Holy Baptism, Anointing with Holy Oil / Confirmation, Confession, The Holy Communion, Marriage, Ordination and Anointing the Sick.

Within this Marriage and Ordination are optional because both Sacraments are for those who specially called out.[ Dharma Jyoti Vidya Peeth, At the Master’s Feet (Faridabad: Dharma Jyoti Vidya Peeth, 2007), 42.] For every Sacrament, there are four unavoidable elements. They are (a) Celebrant, (b) matter [liturgy], (c) form and (d) intention. The intention of the Sacrament should be clear to both the celebrant and one who receives it. Sacraments help us to strengthen our belief in Jesus. They are clear witnesses to God’s grace and symbols of God’s mercy.

Every Church year begins with the festival of Kudosh Eetho- Santification of the Church- Beginning of the Liturgical Year and the festivals like Hudos Eetho- Renewal of the Church Festival of Unity of the Communion of Churches in India (CCI)- CNI-CSI-MTC-Unity that is visible in Holy Qurbana, Annunciation to Virgin Mary, Yaldo (feast of nativity/ birth of our saviour) Danaha (Epiphany), Pethurtha (beginning of great lent), Hosanna (Palm Sunday), Easter Sunday, Ascension of our Lord are celeberated with special liturgical orders. And the church also observes certain Sundays as the ecumenical Sunday, medical mission Sunday, environmental Sunday, sacred music Sunday, educational Sunday, day of people with special skills, women Sunday, youth Sunday, family Sunday etc. with the help special worship orders by the approval of the Mar Thoma Metropolitan.

4.) Conclusion

The liturgy of the Mar Thoma Syrian Church of Malabar is unique because of its heritage and historical background. The liturgy is playing an immense role in the sacramental life of the Church. It has an immense potentiality to enable participants / congregation to encounter God through the human imagination, promoting a Christ-centered worldview or mediated reality. Liturgical worship helps the believers to have meaningful communication with God. All the elements in the liturgy express the depth of the meaning of the celebration and its divine character.

Rev. Subin K Jacob