Some Assyrians have grand churches, but this church building was simple and modern. Inside, a red velvet curtain separated the sanctuary from the rest of the church. There were no icons or sacred images, only the cross—a distinctive cross without a corpus, which is the hallmark of their tradition. Crosses were displayed on stands around the church, so that people can approach the cross and kiss it (much as icons are kissed in the Eastern Orthodox Churches). The priest held a similar cross in his hands during parts of the liturgy. Nineteenth-century Protestants, fascinated by the fact that the Assyrian Christians had no images, proclaimed them “aniconic.” Subsequent historical study showed that they did have images at one time, but lost them due to historical circumstances: first the iconoclast controversy in the Byzantine Empire, and then the spread of Islam. Yet because they had worshiped without images for so many centuries, the term “aniconic” stuck, and is still sometimes used today.
The entire liturgy was celebrated in Aramaic. The church projected the prayer texts on a screen, paired with English translations to help the congregation follow. The anaphora was in ancient Aramaic, while the homily and other spoken parts of the liturgy were in its modern equivalent, but the congregation obviously knew modern Aramaic well enough to sing the songs easily and laugh at the homilist’s jokes even without the translation. I had never heard Aramaic spoken before, and I was intent upon hearing it now because it is the language that was spoken by Jesus. There was something awesome about that for me, a connection to the Incarnation. We all, more or less, assimilate Jesus into our own cultural landscape, and it is fitting because he came for all and belongs to all who believe in him. Yet the slight shock of “otherness” I felt in hearing the Aramaic language called me to encounter him as different, as “the other” whom I do not know.
The peace was solemnly passed from one member of the congregation to the next with a gesture unlike the handshake we typically exchange in the Catholic Church. One person cupped their hands together and extended them, while the next put their hands around the first person’s hands as if to receive what was held out to them. That person then passed it on to the next in the same way—a kind of mime, making an invisible reality visible. We were also doused with incense before communion in a ritual of purification. The worshippers fanned the smoke toward themselves as the thurifer brought the incense up and down the aisle. Communion was offered under both forms, with leavened bread and with the chalice administered by the deacon. Communion in the hand is the ancient practice of the Assyrian Church and the cup is always offered, though communion given with a spoon was mentioned as an option in some medieval texts.
I learned later that the yeast used in the home-baked bread of the Eucharist is always mixed with some yeast from a previous batch. Tradition maintains that due to this practice, the yeast in the bread can be traced all the way back to apostolic times—kind of like your grandmother’s sourdough starter, only more numinous. We Catholics make much of apostolic succession in Holy Orders; the Assyrians have it even in the bread.
We were received with respectful and genuine hospitality, which I understand is typical of Assyrian communities. My dentist and his family couldn’t come that Sunday, so he put his parents in charge of us. My husband and I got turned around on our way to the church and arrived late (“lost in Yonkers” is not a Neil Simon play, it’s an existential condition), yet this lovely couple waited for us at the door until we came, and helped us find our places. They didn’t hover, but they made sure we were settled. After the service, they found us again and told us, with a smile, “You must come for breakfast. It’s required.” And indeed, everyone was at breakfast, including the bishop, whom we had the honor of meeting. We ate a kind of stew made of chicken and barley on which you ladle a spoonful of melted butter—the menu, we learned later, is determined by the saint’s day, though we never found out which saint inspired this particular dish.
It was hard to leave—literally. Late as we were, other people had come in later still (the service lasted about two hours, with people continually arriving) and our car was boxed in at the parking lot. But because everybody knew everybody else, we were soon able to identify the person who was the overseer of parking and he identified the owner of the car, who obliged us, and soon enough we were on our way, amidst smiles and waves and general camaraderie.
As is the case with all warm cultural traditions, I am sure there are people in it for the food, the shared heritage, the sense of family. But for me, as a visitor, I remain haunted by the liturgy itself. The Assyrians hold a treasure in their liturgy—a liturgical gem that belongs to the great, diverse heritage of worldwide Christianity.
They hold this treasure in earthen vessels. In recent years, Assyrian Christians in Iraq, Iran, and Syria have been subjected to mass atrocities, displacement, and exile because of wars and invasion by ISIS. There are diaspora communities in other countries, including the United States and Canada, but those who have remained in their countries of origin have been going through incredible suffering and devastation. Homes and lands have been seized; churches defaced and desecrated; people brutalized, held for ransom, or killed. A great number of Assyrian Christians have been forced either to flee from the regions where their ancestors lived for thousands of years, or to take desperate last stands against their attackers.