Seventh Friday of Denha: Holy Syriac Doctors

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This Friday is dedicated to the memory of the Fathers of the Syriac Churches. Formerly many were using the term Syrian in the place of Syriac used here. There is a marked difference between these two. The word Syrian has a political connotation confining persons, institutions etc. to the political Syria. But the word Syriac is more comprehensive and designates the Syriac language and institutions spread over a vast area outside the confines of the political Syria.


The word Syria was coined by the Greeks to designate the territory that is indicated by the word Aram in the Hebrew Bible and its Syriac version. So also the language of Aram called Aramaic was rendered by the word Syriac by the Greeks. But we know from history that Aramaic was the language spoken in Palestine, which was outside the political Syria, during the time of Our Lord. The Jewish exiles in Babylon (597-537 B.C.) began to speak Aramaic which was the language of the Babylonian or Chaldean empire, and they continued it even after their return to Palestine from exile. In Christian times the developed and classical form of Aramaic began to be known as Chaldean Syriac or East Syriac.


Christianity was embraced by many Jews in the regions east of Palestine, in such countries as Assyria, Mesopotamia. Persia, India etc. Such Jewish-Christian communities absorbed non-Jews also into their Christian religion and gave form to the early Syriac Churches and Liturgy. The word Syriac has to be used to designate them because they have the Jewish tradition of Aramaic from the time of Jesus Christ. This Aramaic became their Liturgical language in the form of Chaldean Syriac or East Syriac in the course of time in the countries mentioned above.


With regard to the St. Thomas Christians or Nazranies of India before the arrival of the Portuguese Latin missionaries, the Church was Hindu in Culture, Christian Faith and Oriental in Worship as the renowned Nazrani Scholar Rev. Dr. Placid J. Podipara C.M.I. wrote. By Hindu in Culture he meant the Indian culture of high caste Hindus kept by the Nazranies. By Oriental in Worship he meant the East Syriac Rite which took care to make itself the continuation of the Old Testament with regard to worship in the Christian perspective. They considered the Syriac language as a treasure which the other Rites did not have since it was the continuation of the Aramaic language spoken by Jesus Christ. This continuity with the Old Testament as well as the connection of the Syriac language of the Liturgy with the Aramaic spoken by Jesus kept the Nazranies away from the adoption of Hindu ways of worship in the liturgical rites although they had made ample cultural adaptations in social life and functions. Besides, they were aware of the multifaceted nature of Hinduism having several systems and ramifications that would not give clarity and precision of ideas with regard to the redeeming role of Christ as well as the articles of Faith. The communion of the Nazrani Church with the Syriac Churches of Persia, Mesopotamia and Antioch kept its communion with Rome in the ancient times when communication with Rome was not that much easy.


Even from early times the Syriac Churches had produced holy men who interpreted the teachings of Christ to their fellow Christians in an understandable way and fought against heresies too. Many of their writings have perished. Till the Islamic conquests the Syriac Churches were flourishing and there arose numerous Patristic theologians in early centuries in the theological schools of Nisibis and Edessa, and in later centuries there flourished several writers who wrote about doctrinal matters. But many of these could not gain the halo of saints except Mar Aprem (St. Ephrem) and a few others. Since Syriac theological terminology was not clearly understood by westerners, many of the Syriac theological writers were held under the suspicion of heresy.


In the seventh century A.D. the Syriac Christians of Antioch developed a particular script and pronunciation for the Syriac language they were using. That is called West Syriac/Antiochene Syriac/Maronite Syriac today. But the Patristic Tradition is common to the Eastern and Western Syriac Churches.



Among the Patristic Writers of Syriac Christianity Mar Afrahat (Aphraates), Mar Aprem (St. Ephrem), Mar Yaqob Da’Nsibin(Bishop Jacob of Nisibis) and Mar Yaqob D’Sarug (Bishop Jacob of Sarug) are the prominent ones. Mar Afrahat flourished in Persia in the middle of the fourth century. He is also styled the Persian Sage because of the sublimity of his doctrines. His writings named Demonstrations, twenty three in number, are very famous because they manifest the theological thinking of the Syriac Church in Persia in the early Christian centuries. Mar Aprem (306-373) who was born in Nisibis of Mesopotamia and taught in the theological schools of Nisibis and Edessa is yet another witness to the theological thinking of the early Syriac Christianity along with so many who were his contemporaries  as well as of subsequent centuries. Mar Aprem was a poet and a prolific writer. He is said to have composed several myriads of verses, and written a thousand sermons and several exegetical and polemical works in all of which theology based on Sacred Scripture and not on Greek Philosophy is seen. He fought against the different types of heresies such as Arianism, Gnosticism, Marcionism, and Manichaeism etc. to protect the genuine and orthodox Faith of Syriac Christianity.

Today the theologians who study Syriac Patristic and theological writings acknowledge the great contribution of Syriac Fathers and theologians to Catholic theology. The Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara Churches of India have inherited the Syriac Liturgical, theological and juridical traditions which are very valuable. Remembering the Communion of Saints let us celebrate today the memory of Syriac Fathers and Saints.


The first Biblical reading prescribed for today’s Eucharistic Liturgy is Kings 13:14-21. Here we see the prophet Elisha on his death bed and king Joash of Israel going to him weeping. The prophet foretells him about his three victories over the Arameans. A popular story about the prophet’s sanctity is also recorded here: Some people who were about to bury a dead man saw a band of brigands coming and fearing them they threw the corpse into the grave of Elisha. The touch of the dead body on the bones of the prophet made the dead man stand on his feet alive.


The second reading is Acts 12:25-13:12. Here an incident in the missionary journey of Saul (who began to be called Paul) and Barnaba is narrated. The Roman Proconsul of Cyprus, Sergius Paulus, wanted the hear the Word of God from them. But a certain magician named Bar-Jesus (also known as Elymas) opposed them. Thereupon Paul filled with the Holy Spirit said that the hand of the Lord was against Elymas and therefore he would be struck blind for a while. Seeing that it happened immediately, the Proconsul embraced Christian faith.


The third reading for today is Heb. 13:1-9, 16-21.The author is encouraging Christians to practice the virtues such as hospitality, feeling one with those who are imprisoned and persecuted, keeping marriage fidelity, avoiding avarice, praying for the leaders, keeping the Christian Faith intact, sharing goods with others, being obedient to the spiritual leaders and praying for each other.


Today’s Gospel passage is Mt. 16:24-17:9. At first we see Jesus speaking about the importance of self-denial and a life of sacrifice which are equivalent to the bearing of one’s own cross after Christ. Such people will be rewarded at the second coming of Christ. Next we see the scene of the transfiguration of Jesus.  The sight of the glorious form of Jesus impelled Peter to cry out and suggest the building of permanent shelters on the mount of transfiguration to behold always the transfigured form of Jesus.


Christian Faith promises us that we will behold forever the glorious Christ when we are in heaven. The Syriac Fathers of the Church were deep-rooted in this faith.



Credits: Father Thomas Kalayil, CMI <thomas 'dot' kalayil 'at' cmi 'dot' in>


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