"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Friday, January 11, 2013

The Assyrian Church of the East

Since at least 1994, one of the happy effects of living in an otherwise depressing age has been the progressive rapprochement of Eastern Christians with their Western brethren, i.e., Roman Catholics. Perhaps nowhere has this been more evident than in the growing relations between the Catholic Church and the Assyrian Church of the East, about which a number of fascinating scholarly books have been recently published, making this ancient and often mysterious, and grossly misunderstood, Church more widely accessible and easily understood. In the process, we see clearly that any notion of the Church being 'Nestorian' or 'Monophysite' is simply false. 

Of recent books, two merit special attention: 

Daniel Schwartz, Paideia and Cult: Christian Initiation in Theodore of Mopsuestia (Harvard UP, 2013), 200pp. 

About this book the publisher tells us:
Paideia and Cult explores the role of Christian education and worship in the complex process of conversion and Christianization. It analyzes the  of Theodore of Mopsuestia as a curriculum designed to train those seeking initiation into the Christian mysteries. Although Theodore gave considerable attention to teaching creedal theology, he sought to go beyond simply communicating information. His catechetical preaching set the teaching of Christian ideas within the context of religious community and ritual participation. In doing so he sought to produce a Christianized view of the world and of the convert’s place in a community of worship. Theodore’s attention to the communal, cognitive, and ritual components of initiation suggest a substantive understanding of religious conversion, yet one that avoids an overemphasis on intellectual and psychological transformation. Throughout this study catechesis emerges as invaluable for comprehending the ability of clergy to initiate new members as Christianity gained increasing prominence within the late Roman world.
In addition, for those seeking deepened understanding of the sacramental theology and practice of the Assyrians, they could do no better than to consult: Bishop Mar Awa Royel, Mysteries of the Kingdom (The Sacraments of the Assyrian Church of the East) (CIRED, 2011), ix+398pp.

I have just finished reading this clearly written and enormously useful book in preparation for a chapter I am preparing on 'holy orders' for the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of the Sacraments that Oxford University Press is bringing out next year under the editorship of Matthew Levering and Hans Boersma. Royel's book goes into lavish and fascinating detail about the Assyrian understanding of Raza, their preferred Persian-derived term for what Latins call 'sacraments' and Greeks 'mysteries.' Unlike virtually every other apostolic tradition, East and West, the Assyrians do not count marriage as a sacrament nor anointing of the sick. In their place they have other sacraments--the sign of the cross, among others. Debates have taken place down through the centuries as to how many sacraments there are. Today the consensus seems that the number is eight, and 'priesthood' is the most important because without it none of the other sacraments can be brought about. Their understanding of 'priesthood' has nine ranks, from patriarch-catholicos at the top to reader at the bottom, each corresponding to the nine ranks of the angelic choirs, and each having an 'ordination' attached to it, even, uniquely, for the patriarch-catholicos upon his election, notwithstanding the fact that he is already in episcopal orders. Another unique aspect of this Church is that priests and deacons are free to marry either before or even after ordination, and early synods offered stiff resistance to any imposition of celibacy, even on bishops, who were, until at least the mid-sixth century, themselves married.

About this very useful book the publisher tells us:
Mysteries of the Kingdom is a modern-day treatise on the theology of the Assyrian Church of the East regarding the seven holy sacraments. The title is inspired by the words of our Lord to his disciples: "To you it has been given to know the mysteries of the Kingdom of Heaven..." (Matthew 13:11). The sacraments are the visible, material means of God's saving grace, which is itself unseen and immaterial; this he gives to us freely out of his own love and mercy. The theological foundations for the sacraments lay in the fact that the Word of God was Incarnate for our salvation. However, the sacraments become spiritually efficacious and beneficial for our salvation in the power of the Paschal Mystery-the passion, death, burial and triumphant resurrection of Christ Jesus. The faithful must be initiated into the doctrine and theology of the sacraments so that they may know and gain spiritual benefit from those means which God has given us through which he imparts his unseen and uncreated grace. The bases upon which this treatise is written is the Apostolic Tradition of the Holy Church, which exists in both its written (the Sacred Scriptures) and oral forms (the Apostolic and Patristic Teachings).

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