For Consideration and Reflection

 

1. Saint Thomas Cross

2. Liturgical Vestments

3. The Spirituality of the Syro-Malabar Church

III

The Spirituality of the Syro-Malabar Church

 

Desire and Demand of Vatican II

“The Catholic Church values highly the institutions of the Eastern Churches, their liturgical rites, …part of the divinely revealed, undivided heritage of the Universal Church….” (OE 1)

“…Church wishes the traditions of each individual Church or Rite to remain whole and entire…” (OE 2)

“…these Churches (Eastern and Western) are of equal rank, so that none of them is superior to the others because of its Rite…” (OE 3)

“Provision must be made therefore everywhere in the world to protect and advance all these individual Churches…” (OE 4)

“All members of the Eastern Churches should be firmly convinced that they can and ought to always preserve their own legitimate liturgical rites and ways of life, and that changes are to be introduced only to promote their own organic development.  They themselves are to carry out all these prescriptions with the greatest fidelity.  They are to aim always at a more perfect knowledge and practice of their rites, and if they have fallen away due to circumstances of times or persons, they are to strive to return to their ancestral traditions” (OE 6).

Ecclesial Spirituality

The spirituality of all Churches is centred on their authentic and proper Eucharistic celebration.  The celebration of the “Mysteries” (Sacraments and Sacramentals) and the “Divine Praises” (Liturgy of the Hours) substantially contribute to it.  All these celebrations are becomingly enriched by the arrangement of their own liturgical cycle.  The fasts observed and the feasts celebrated according to the spirit of the proper liturgical cycle also have a prominent role in the moulding of the ecclesial spirituality.  The popular and personal devotions of the faithful which also are helpful ought to be intimately related to the above mentioned liturgical and ecclesial celebrations.

The authentic spirituality of the Syro-Malabar Church, namely, the Mar Toma Nazrani Spirituality, is thus inseparably knit together with the arrangement of her liturgical year.  The nine liturgical periods in this Church are beautifully and fruitfully arranged according to the unfolding of the Mystery of Salvation in its relation to history.  The biblical readings for Sundays and Feast days are assigned accordingly.  As for the week-days the Church encourages a creative freedom of selecting readings which are in some way related to those of Sundays.  Thus the special phase of the mystery of salvation emphasised in each liturgical season is considered very important for the organic and authentic development of spirituality in this Church.  Naturally anything that mars or occults or diminishes this emphasis of the proper liturgical season, however pleasing or familiar or traditional or enthusiastically observed ought to be cut off from practice without any compromise.  If needed, can also make proper rearrangement or restructuring or reordering of the existing practices or even abrogate some and introduce new ones.

The message to the Syro-Malabar Bishops and through them to the whole Church from the S. Congregation for the Oriental Churches in its letter to Mar Antony Padiyara, President, Syro-Malabar Bishops’ Conference on July 24, 1985 appears to be very relevant in this connection.  It reads:

“It is evident that the S. Congregation, in fulfilling its delicate task, and acting within the limits of it official competency, in no way intended, or intends, to depart from the well-established principles that have constantly guided the Holy See in the all-important matter of liturgical reform and renewal.  It has always been the Church’s ideal that the different Rites be preserved in their authenticity and integrity and that they be cherished, observed and honoured with the greatest fidelity.  Nor has the Holy See seen fit to accord authorization to reforms of lawful liturgical rites, whether by undue reduction or amplification or by misplaced imitation of other traditions, that are not consonant with the nature and spirit of the Rite concerned and not compatible with its appropriate and organic development.  The relevant texts of the Second Ecumenical Vatican Council are a confirmation and a particularly authoritative declaration of the long-standing position of the Holy See.  It should be remembered in this connection that the Conciliar Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy is only in its most general principles applicable to all liturgical traditions, not in its detailed prescriptions which hold good for the Roman tradition.  Appeals made to Vatican II to justify certain changes in Oriental texts and usages are in not a few cases simply renewed attempts at latinization”.

Fate of the Syro-Malabar Church

Even after four decades, the above directions of Second Vatican Council are not seriously taken into consideration in the Syro-Malabar Church in her spiritual pursuit.  It is true that in some quarters of the Church, the faithful are engaged in some serious research study of the authentic ecclesial and liturgical sources, and trying to apply the results of their search and study to their practical Christian life.  But because of the strong resistance from the other quarters, the process of restoration, renewal and organic growth of the proper ecclesial heritage goes on always limping.  Although the Synod of the Syro-Malabar Church succeeded to publish the liturgical texts for the celebration of Qurbana (Eucharist), “Mysteries” (Sacraments) and the Pontifical, though in a highly compromised manner, the Church as a whole stands diffident to absorb and imbibe the authentic spirituality behind all such celebrations.  Moreover, most of those texts do not really and duly respect the creative freedom for organic development recognised and promoted in the Church.

As to the other liturgical celebrations such as the “Divine Praises” (Liturgy of the Hours), the Passion Week rites, Sacramentals, Feasts and Fasts of the Liturgical Year, … and the popular devotions, very sorry to state that this Church could in no way work out any change to the pre-Vatican II situation.  Almost all of them still go on according to the rhythm, style, tune and even with literal translations of texts from Latin Church, which mostly belong to the middle ages and colonial period.

Divine Praises

The “Divine Praises” (Liturgy of the Hours) is, in fact, the extension of the life of Qurbana to the other hours of the day and which, together with the Qurbana, really moulds the authentic ecclesial spirituality of any Church.  The Eastern emphasis of its celebration was fully recognised and endorsed by Vatican II.  It is proclaimed “the Church’s school of prayer” (Instruction of the Congregation for the Eastern Churches, January 06, 1996, No. 96).  According to the Fathers of the Church, “it is the real contemplation of the Christian Mystery” (Instruction, No. 97).  It inherits to us “the very rich and inalienable patrimony of authentic spiritual life” (Instruction, No. 97).  Hence the Church affirms: “wherever such practice of celebrating the “Divine Praises” with the people has diminished, if not completely disappeared, the ancient tradition should be restored without delay, so as not to deprive the faithful of a privileged source of prayer, nourished by treasures of authentic doctrine” (Instruction, No. 98).  The Syro-Malabar Bishops’ Synod and the Major Archbishop do not appear to have seen or given any weight to this very important direction of the Church, which directly pertains to the spiritual life of the faithful.

The Code of Canons for Eastern Churches (nn. 199; 346.3; 377; 473) strongly reminds all concerned about the urgent need of popularising the Divine Praises.  According to the ancient custom of the Syro-Malabar Church, it has to become an invariable part of the family prayer too.  Such canonical obligation too is conveniently ignored by even the specialists in Canon Law who are leading this Church.  One can only pray ardently that the authorities in this Apostolic Church may awaken from their deep slumber of ignoring very seriously such authentic sources of ecclesial spirituality.

Very healthy cases, of course, of faithfully and fruitfully encouraging the “Divine Praises”, also as part of family prayer, in this Church are not at all ignored here; and some bishops beginning their pastoral visits in parishes with a solemn celebration of Ramsa, the Evening Liturgy, is to be highly praised.  May the Lord inspire all the leaders of this Church to encourage solemn celebration of the “Divine Praises” at least on Sundays and important Feast days in all parish churches and chapels of religious institutes.

Even the religious institutes for men and women do not appear to have taken seriously the unique role of “Divine Praises” in the moulding of authentic Christian spirituality.  Most of them are even today appear to be governed by a kind of pre-Vatican II mediaeval concept of its obligatory celebration.  Since most of them stopped learning their liturgical language Syriac, they also lost all touch with the authentic sources of this celebration.  They appear to be only on the look out for the shortest text in the mother tongue for fulfilling their canonical obligation and not at all concerned with its relation to the authentic sources of the Church and thus their incorporation to the proper ecclesial and authentic spiritual treasury; they can also easily set it aside for accommodating even some popular devotions!  The emphasis given to this unique “school of prayer” during the early formation stages in several of these religious institutes is to be very seriously reconsidered.  It is amazing to note that the CMI religious congregation, the first and the largest, and in some way the backbone of the Syro-Malabar Church, hasn’t yet begun to mould its members in this “school of prayer” during the initial years of aspirancy and postulancy.  It still continues with the mediaeval concept and practice of praying the “Divine Office” from noviciate onwards.  According to the Vatican II insight and direction, all the religious houses of both men and women must be centres where the “Divine Praises” are always solemnly celebrated and to which the faithful can also freely join.

Popular Devotions and Vatican II

“Popular devotions of the Christian people, provided they conform to the laws and norms of the Church, are to be highly recommended, especially where they are ordered by the Apostolic See.

“Devotions proper to individual Churches also have a special dignity if they are undertaken by order of the bishops according to customs or books lawfully approved.

“But such devotions should be so drawn up that they harmonize with the liturgical seasons, accord with the sacred liturgy, are in some way derived from it, and lead the people to it, since in fact the liturgy by its very nature is far superior to any of them” (SC 13).

This Vatican II direction to every faithful and each individual Church to regularise their private and popular devotions, which are also constituent ingredients of their authentic spirituality, according to the genius of proper liturgical cycle and other liturgical sources, is given only very little consideration in the Syro-Malabar Church.  Almost all popular and private devotions in this Church still continue with the style and diction to which they were forced in during the western colonial period; in some cases even more vigorously.

Monthly Devotions

The Latin Church, in and after the “dark ages”, when the faithful lost to have direct liturgical experience due to several reasons, promoted the monthly devotions and other popular activities of piety which were very distantly in tune with the Latin liturgical cycle.  Such popular devotions and practices were forced upon the Syro-Malabar Church from the 16th century onwards by the western missionaries without duly understanding the spirit and nature of her liturgy and liturgical cycle.  For Oriental Churches, the liturgical piety is the popular piety, not something else extra-liturgical.  The Syro-Malabar Church inherits a beautiful, well-arranged liturgical cycle where the needed popular and personal devotions could be very well imbedded.  Anyway, the monthly devotions are not at all fitting to the nature and arrangement of Syro-Malabar liturgical year.

Marian Devotion

The Marian devotion, in fact, most dear to the Syro-Malabarians, ought to be expressed solemnly during the weeks of Annunciation and through the excellently incultured practice of eight-day and fifteen-day fasting before her nativity and assumption, the several feasts of our Lady and Wednesday observation throughout the year.  The liturgical sources of this Church for these occasions beautifully express her authentic and really very deep sense of Mary the Mother of Jesus.  The May, October devotions and Saturday observation, having totally different background, are alien and contrary to the genius of the Syro-Malabar liturgical heritage and hence ought to be altered.

Rosary Devotion

The rosary devotion, encouraged and recommended by several popes as a popular activity of piety, of course in the context of the Latin Church, is in fact very much in tune with the liturgical genius of the Syro-Malabar Church, with regard to the points offered for meditation.  They are an unfolding of the Mystery of Salvation, which is also the style of liturgical celebration in this Church.  But today, it appears that the meditative aspect of this devotion is very little emphasised.  So with a thorough restructuring of it giving sufficient space and momentum for meditation and with a re-arrangement of the meditation according to the genius of the proper liturgical year in such a way as the glorious mysteries for all Sundays, joyous mysteries for the weeks of Annunciation, luminous mysteries for the weeks of Denha, sorrowful mysteries for the weeks of Great Fast, glorious mysteries for the weeks of Resurrection, and so on, it may be fruitfully adopted to enrich the spiritual life of the faithful in this Church.  In any case it can never serve as a substitute for the “Divine Praises”, also during family prayer.

Monthly Recollection

All the bishops, priests, religious, seminarians, and so on in this Church invariably observe a monthly recollection day as part of their spiritual practices.  Without any difficulty one can understand it as a pet of the monthly devotion style of the Latin Church.  It is very strange to note that even those who are seriously engaged in restoring the authentic liturgical genius of this Church also practically ignore the negative influence of this and similar activities of piety which really fill the daily routine of the Syro-Malabar faithful.  The religious institutes are worst in this regard as most of them have formed their religious rules in the pattern of such institutes in the Latin West.  To be sensitive and faithful to the Vatican II directives, this very fruitful activity of piety must be arranged on the last day of each liturgical season, emphasising on an evaluation also of the liturgical life of the concluding period and a planning for the one to begin.

First Friday Devotion

In the case of this vigorously observed devotion too the Syro-Malabar Church has to make a conscious shift to the first Friday of each liturgical season in order to be faithful to the directives of second Vatican Council.  Then the faithful in this Church will have “nine” first Friday observations in one year!  In the devotion itself one has to concentrate more on the self-emptying love of God expressed in the personality of Iso-M'siha, Jesus Christ.

Special Homage to the Departed Ones

November devotion is, as already mentioned, alien and contrary to the liturgical genius of the Syro-Malabar Church.  The Latin Church has her own special reasons and historical background for this devotion.  The Syro-Malabar Church is in a totally different context and background.  According to her liturgical genius, she celebrates the departed ones on the last Friday of the liturgical period of Denha.  On the Fridays of this season this Church celebrates the Saints, her golden crown, according to their relation to Denha, the Divine Manifestation.  The departed ones appear as the last in the series and thus on last Friday.  Moreover, such a celebration helps every faithful to enter worthily the weeks of Great Fast which emphasise very much the attitude of repentance and reconciliation.  Meditation on death is a very forceful motive for repentance and reconciliation.  Hence, this Church exhorts the faithful to keep alive the memory of dear departed ones all through the weeks of Great Fast.  So there are seven weeks – the whole period of Great Fast – to render special homage to the departed ones in this Church.

Novena Devotion

            Another pious activity, originated in the West in relation to various circumstances is the novena devotion.  The Church always encourages devotion to the Saints as they are excellent models for authentic Christian life; but never at the expense of the centrality of Jesus in the faith expressions or diminishing the uniqueness of authentic liturgical life in the Church.  What exactly is the magical effect of number “nine” in this devotion is not clear!  In most cases, the prayers recited today for this purpose are literal translations of the western texts and very rarely agreeing with the liturgical genius of the Syro-Malabar Church.  In this Church normally special devotions are to be expressed incorporating them either to the Qurbana celebration or to the various hours of the “Divine Praises” (Liturgy of the Hours).  This is done very beautifully adding it to the Karozutha, the proclamation prayer.  If some want to have a number fixed for such expression, the best one appears to be number “seven” which is a biblical number, and one very closely related to the arrangement of the Syro-Malabar liturgical year.

            It is indeed non-Christian and really deplorable that this devotion is currently, in several cases, very much degraded in this Church, practically exploiting the common faith of the ordinary faithful and making it a means for amassing money.  The proper authority in the Church must be always vigilant to intervene immediately in all such instances of deviation and corruption.

Authentic Study

Louis Bouyer, a well-known western liturgiologist, wrote in his famous book, Liturgical Piety: “East Syriac Liturgy is the most ancient and richest in the world”.  The Syro-Malabar Church is one of the real heirs of this liturgical heritage.  Only if one studies in depth the details of this heritage, he/she shall reach at the truth of Bouyer’s assertion.  This Church is in fact blessed with many experts in various levels of specialization.  They are also in the forefront in educational apostolate.  Usually experts in one field give due respect and consideration to experts in other fields and take counsel when matters pertaining to other fields occur.  But very strange to note that experts in liturgical field are only rarely considered for solving the liturgical questions in this Church.  That may be a valid reason that only very few people dare to make researches in this field.  It is amazing to see that those who lead the Church also sometimes appear to show very little familiarity with her very rich authentic liturgical heritage and in a helpless situation to guide the faithful properly.

The East Syriac liturgical heritage is, in fact, a gold mine (A. Mikloshazy, East Syriac Eucharistic Pneumatology, Roma 1968, pp.8-9) and among the Christian heritages, it is the most akin to the Indian situation, precisely because it was moulded partially through the influence of ancient cultures in India.  Of course, isolated individuals have made several researches in this field; but the Syro-Malabar Church as the responsible heir of this heritage, is yet to dare it wholeheartedly and enthusiastically.  Compromised and accommodated solutions will have no lasting effect.  Opinions, suggestions and the like are good and needed; but deeper and unbiased studies are essential and really needed.  To my limited experience, vast majority within the Syro-Malabar Church and outside her lack such deeper study.  We need not turn to or accuse anybody for this special, and I dare to say, pathetic situation of the Syro-Malabar Church.  Through the long years of, almost five centuries, western and Latin influence and over domination, and especially of priestly and religious formation, this Church has almost lost her “Oriental Ethos”.  By trying to find out some compromised solution for one or two problems, nobody can contribute to lasting and organic growth of this Church.  It is the duty of the leaders of the Church to lead the faithful to her genuine ‘ethos’.  They must take serious effort to imbibe fully the authentic ecclesial ethos, live it fully by themselves, give proper and clear guidance to the faithful and encourage them by all means to grow in that.  This is, in fact, the desire and request of second Vatican Council and this is a must, not an option.

The members of religious communities in any Church are expected to display themselves as authentic models of proper ecclesial spirituality.  They are also supposed to dive deeper to it through both knowledge and experience.  In short, they are to be the source and solution for every ecclesial and liturgical activity of the Church.  But today in the Syro-Malabar Church, they appear to emulate each other in almost all other fields except for this one.  We wish and pray that they make a u-turn to this their raison d’etre, if possible not withdrawing themselves from other essential fields.  In fact, all other fields of their action must be infused and enriched with this authentic ecclesial and liturgical spirituality.

Mystagogical and Liturgical Catechesis

                        An authentic ecclesial and mystagogical catechesis in tune with the directives of second Vatican Council is a must for the Syro-Malabar Church as she had been forcefully cut out of her authentic ecclesial heritage for more than four centuries.  The Church has to stress more on the practical dimensions of Christian living in contrast to mere dry doctrinal statements and teachings.  Catechesis is, in fact, the first stage or beginnings of theology.  Theology must return to its patristic form by becoming a biblical and scientific interpretation of Christian living, i.e., a symbolical and mystagogical explanation of liturgical celebration.  Catechesis must, therefore, begin with an explanation of liturgical symbols and practices.  Such a catechesis is essential for everybody in the Church.

            The Syro-Malabar Church has become a Major Archiepiscopal Church in 1992.  It is very strange that the Major Archbishop or the Synod of Bishops could not yet take any serious step to initiate an authentic ecclesial catechesis.  They have to start it from the seminaries, faculties and religious formation centres.  Definite syllabus ought to be prescribed, preferably under the supervision of a special Commission of the Bishops, to various levels of clerical and religious formation with this particular intent and must see that it is strictly followed everywhere so that the emerging leaders of the Church are thoroughly filled and equipped with the proper ‘ecclesial ethos’.  The Synod should also make it sure that the Divine Liturgy, especially the Holy Qurbana and the Divine Praises, be celebrated in proper and integral form in all such formation centres.  Missions and Diaspora communities can in no way be considered as exceptions.  By all means, they are to be definitely trained and built up in the proper ecclesial atmosphere.  Those who impart training in all clerical and religious formation centres, in the missions and Diaspora communities and those who do the ministry there ought to be given clear guidance to this effect.  Then only the emerging generation of this Church will become fully capable of integrating themselves to the various situations given to them in India or outside without compromising or diluting their own ecclesial identity and heritage as it is the case with almost all other Oriental Churches.  Nemo dat quod non habet = Nobody can give what he/she hasn’t got!

Diaspora Communities

            The Diaspora communities are forced to be far away from their proper ecclesial atmosphere and heritage due to several reasons.  Second Vatican Council has opened all the doors wide for the organic growth of all such communities wherever they are.  They are not to plead for the generosity of anybody for this.  This is a fundamental right for protecting, developing and propagating the proper ecclesial heritage of which the most crucial and essential factor is the proper liturgy of the Church.  It must never end as a version of ethnic and linguistic politics.  If there is no earnest desire for imbibing and experiencing the proper authentic spirituality of the Church, clamour for rights guaranteed by Vatican II will naturally end in unwanted power politics and inter-ecclesial conflicts.  Hence the most urgent need for such communities is to fill themselves with authentic ecclesial awareness.  This can be worked out only through proper mystagogical and liturgical catechesis.  The leaders of this Church, therefore, must be always vigilant to have the various forms of liturgy celebrated in those communities in perfect form and sustain them through proper catechesis.

       Ultimately Christians of all traditions ought to have the humility to submit themselves to the mind and directions of the Church in all matters liturgical.  We know for sure that the effectiveness and fruitfulness of all liturgical celebrations depend fully in identifying ourselves to the mind of the Church.

Fr Varghese Pathikulangara, CMI

II

The Liturgical Vestments

Although the liturgical vestments received various shapes and form in different liturgical traditions, we see a kind of marvellous unity among the basic vestments and their symbolism.  In reality they are all leading one to the personality of Jesus Christ.  The important liturgical vestments of the Chaldeo-Indian or Syro-Malabar tradition are the Kottina, Zunara, Urara, Zande and Paina.
ܟܘܿܬܿܝܼܢܵܐ  Kottina [Latin Tradition: Alb]: It is a long tunic type garment of any colour, reaching from the neck to the ankles (In the Latin tradition it is to be of white colour and thus called Alb. "It symbolizes the purity consonant with the celebration of Mass and resembles the white robe with which Herod, in derision, ordered Christ to be covered"(Lk 23,11): J.P.LANG, Dictionary of the Liturgy, New York 1989, p.20.). Kottina is the Syriac term used for the outer garment of Jesus Christ, which according to tradition, was woven as one whole by Blessed Virgin Mary and is said to have grown big with Him. Anyhow, at His crucifixion, the soldiers cast lots for it without allowing it to be torn asunder (Jn 19,23-24). According to Chaldeo-Indian understanding, the one who wears Kottina, puts on Jesus Christ and performs His ministry in His place. The prayer which the celebrant recites while he officially vests the candidate with Kottina is also significant: "Let our Lord and our God put on you the new man who is renewed through the knowledge of the Truth by the grace of Jesus Christ" (Ktaba d'Takse Kumraye [Pontifical of the East Syriac Churches], Rome 1957, p.111).

ܙܘܼܢܵܪܵܐ Zunara [Latin Tradition: Cincture or Girdle]: It is the belt like strip of cloth worn over the Kottina at the waist. It is the symbol of "Chastity" (Cincture or girdle in the Latin tradition is a lengthy cord, usually of linen, tied at the waist. "It symbolizes chastity and is usually white": J.P.LANG, Dictionary..., p.114). The holy Qurbana and all other liturgical rites are to be performed with perfect holiness, keeping oneself away from all kinds of worldly thoughts and emotions. While it is given officially the bishop prays: "Gird your servant, my Lord, with the thread of chastity that he persist in Your ministry with wholeness and sanctity forever" (Ktaba d'Takse..., p.111).

ܐܘܼܪܵܪܵܐ Urara [Latin Tradition: Stole]: Urara is the special humeral vestment worn by bishops and priests in the neck in such a way that its both ends extend beyond the knees in front. The deacons wear on the left shoulder in such a way that its ends fall to the back and front. The sub-deacons wear it around their neck that its ends fall to the back and front on the left shoulder. This sacred vestment is the symbol of ministerial priesthood, namely, the divine authorization to act in the name of God for the people (The Stole in the Latin tradition symbolizes exactly the same: "It is a mark of authority that the bishops, priests, and deacons wear in the exercise of these liturgical functions": J.P.LANG, Dictionary..., p.600). When this vestment is given first the bishop prays thus: "Our Lord and our God, illumine this Your servant with the light of holiness and enlighten his soul with the glittering works of sanctity" (Ktaba d'takse..., p.136).

 ܙܲܢܕܹܐ  Zande [Latin Tradition: Maniple (cf. J.P.LANG, Dictionary..., p.380)]: This Syriac word means gloves or hand-cuffs. They are worn to keep the handcuffs of the Kottina in order. Any particular symbolism is not yet known.

ܦܲܝܢܵܐ  Paina [Latin Tradition: Chasuble]:
Paina [Latin Tradition: Chasuble]:  Paina is the outermost liturgical vestment that the priests put on.  In shape it is similar to the cope or choir dress in the Latin tradition.  Paina is a Greek term and the corresponding Syriac word is ܓܘܼܠܬܵܐ GultaPaina or  Gulta is the garment of justice.  The bishop while giving it to the candidate prays thus: "Let our Lord and our God put on you the garment of justice that you may please Him all through your life on earth by serving Him sincerely, nobly and holily. Amen" (Ktaba d'Takse..., p.159).  It proclaims the fact that a priest is the fount and source of all kinds of virtues (Chasuble in the Latin tradition is the "liturgical outer garment used primarily for the celebration of Mass. ... This garment is the distinctive sign of the priestly office, symbolizing Christ's yoke", see J.P.LANG, Dictionary..., pp.98-99).  Historically Paina appears to be the outer garment of shepherds.  Thus it proclaims the pastoral duty of a priest as well.

 ܫܘܿܫܸܦܵܐ    Soseppa [Latin Tradition: Chalice Veil]
(cf. J.P.LANG, Dictionary..., p.96): Sosappa is a square shaped linen vestment with a Mar Toma Sliba in the middle, made out of the same stuff as that of the Paina. It is big enough to cover the paten and chalice together. It is used in the liturgy as the symbol of the tombstone of our Lord Jesus and as the kerchief with which His head was covered during burial (Jn 20,7).

We were trying to explain a few of the symbols used in the liturgy of the Syro-Malabar Church.  Only when the faithful are thoroughly familiar with the significance of the symbols, can they have a real liturgical experience.  The Syro-Malabar Church as an Eastern one is far behind the expectations in this regard.

 Father Varghese Pathikulangara CMI

I

 

Saint Thomas Cross (Mar Toma Sliba)          

Mar Toma Margam (Thomas-Christian life-style in India) also has its own emblem or symbol and it is the Mar Toma Sliba (Saint Thomas Cross).            

            Ancient documents testify that this typical cross was venerated in all the churches and chapels of the Saint Thomas Christians.  The original model of it is seen in the chapel on Periyamala, Chennai (Madras).  It is a cross, carved on granite stone.

Tradition

According to an ancient local tradition, Saint Thomas the apostle fell dead as a martyr on this particular granite stone.  The faithful kept it sacred and at a later stage the typical cross was engraved on it.  Modern scholars, after scientific searches, fix the date of engraving somewhere around 650 A. D.  The stone, according to them, comes from pre-Christian time. The scholars haven’t yet succeeded to decipher conclusively the content of the Sassanian-Pahlavi inscription around the Cross.

In the 16th century

In the 16th century, as the western missionaries were digging the ground to reconstruct the chapel on Periyamala they happened to come across this special Cross.  When the construction of the chapel was over, they fixed it to the rear wall of the main altar at the eastern end.  It remains there to the present day.

Miracle

On the 18th of December 1558 during the Gospel reading at the Holy Qurbana, this Cross sweated blood and water.  According to the testimony of the missionaries, the miracle was repeated for many years on the same date and in the same manner.  They informed the Pope, of this miracle and obtained permission from him to celebrate December 18th as the feast of this special Cross’s apparition.

            December 18th is a big feast day for the Mar Toma Nazranees.  It is the feast of Mar Toma Sliba, the unique Symbol of Mar Toma Margam, their special Christian life-style.  They ought to celebrate this feast most solemnly wherever they are.

Symbolism

Mar Toma Sliba (Saint Thomas Cross) is the dynamic symbol of the death and resurrection of Jesus in the Indian context.  It proclaims the Theological, Christological, Pneumatological, Eschatological and Ecclesiological specifications of Christian faith as the Thomas Christians practise it in India.
This CROSS is, in fact, an invaluable HISTORICAL DATA of the living faith of authentic Saint Thomas Christians in India.

Empty Cross

Mar Toma Sliba is an empty Cross, namely, a Cross without the dying figure of Jesus Christ.  In imitation of the empty tomb, this empty cross symbolizes the resurrection of Jesus.

Blooming Buds

The four tips of the Mar Toma Sliba are designed like blooming buds.  Bud is a symbol of new life.  New life is restored to man in Jesus’ Resurrection.  Thus the shape of this cross itself proclaims the resurrection of Jesus.

Descending Dove

The Holy Spirit that descends upon the Mar Toma Sliba is yet another symbol of Resurrection.  As Saint Paul teaches, Holy Spirit transforms Jesus’ flesh-body into Spirit-body and thus vivifies the dead Jesus Christ (Rom 8, 11).

Lotus Symbolism

According to most of the scholars, this particular Cross is erected upon lotus.  A Chinese cross, erected on a lotus flower, coming from the same era, is a very good substantiation for the assumption of the scholars.  Lotus, being the symbol of Buddhism, had turned out to be India’s own symbol because of the influence of Buddhism in India, during and immediately after the reign of the great Emperor Asoka.  Thus the Sliba erected on lotus, is a living symbol of faith in the risen Jesus, welcomed wholeheartedly and established firmly in India.

Three Steps

The lotus in the Mar Toma Sliba remains over three steps.  The symbolism of steps is evolved in connection with liturgical tradition.  The three steps signify either heaven or Gagulta, the Calvary.  In our case the stress is on Gagulta and thus they signify the death of Jesus. According to tradition, the Syro-Malabar churches and chapels ought to have three steps for Sanctuary, symbol of heaven and Bema  that of Gagulta.

            Thus Mar Toma Sliba remains as a unique symbol that proclaims the acceptance of Jesus Christ, who accomplished the human salvation through his death and resurrection, in India, the home of sages and religions.

Ancient Models

Ancient models of Mar Toma Sliba are found in the Jacobite churches of Kottayam and Kadamattam, and adjacent to the Syro-Malabar churches of Muttuchira,  Alangad, etc. in Kerala.  Such Crosses are seen also in some places of Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka.  According to the famous Portuguese historian Antonio de Gouvea (in 1606), this typical cross was venerated in all the Thomas Christian churches and chapels before the arrival of European missionaries in India.  He wrote:

            “The old churches (in India) were all built in pagoda fashion, but all with full of Crosses like those of Saint Thomas miracle Cross… Hence one can see how much older than Portuguese time is the veneration, love and shape of the Cross. For, the ancient churches built before, long before the coming of the Portuguese, were all ornamented with them, both painted and graven”.

Self – examination

           Mar Toma Sliba, being the unique and lofty symbol of Mar Toma Margam, and being a perfect expression of one’s own commitment to Jesus Christ, must have a solemn position in every family, institution, church and chapel of the Mar Toma Nazranees.

Some Ancient Crosses

Anuradhapuram Cross           Si-ngan-fou, China, Cross         Kottayam Cross          Ravenna, Italy, Cross

Sri Lanka, 3rd Century                          9th Century               India, 12/13th Century                  5th Century

 

Some other ancient Christian crosses

 

Suggestions and Comments

 

 
 

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