One of the joys of knowing a bit about liturgical history is that, occasionally, you come across a pebble that proves to be a gem. This happened to me a few months ago in, surprisingly enough, my dentist’s office.

We were chatting about religion, which itself was not unusual: I write about religion, and my dentist takes a friendly interest in many subjects; he is an Assyrian Christian, and I always want to know more about the various branches of world Christianity. I asked him what day his church celebrates Christmas, thinking they might follow the Orthodox calendar. “Oh no,” he said. “Ours is the same as yours.” In the ensuing conversation he mentioned something about an historic agreement between his church and the Catholic Church in 2001.

The penny dropped.

“Forgive me,” I said with some excitement, “I know this sounds strange, but I have to ask: Does your church celebrate the liturgy using the anaphora of Addai and Mari?” (Anaphora means “offering”; it is a term for the Eucharistic prayer.)

He looked at me in blank astonishment; he had no idea. But we turned to the computer, called up a few websites, and confirmed that, sure enough, it was true. The Assyrian Church of the East is the possessor of one of the most ancient, venerable, and fascinating Eucharistic prayers extant in the Christian world.

This Eucharistic prayer is famous among liturgists. Named after the two disciples that their tradition identifies as being among the seventy-two sent out by Jesus (see Luke 10:1–24), the anaphora of Addai and Mari has a unique profile. Dom Gregory Dix, in his 1950 classic tome, The Shape of the Liturgy, pointed out how different it is from ancient prayers that were shaped by Greek influences. According to him, Addai and Mari is the most Hebraic of the surviving ancient Eucharistic prayers. So enamored was he of this liturgical artifact that he closed his monumental work with a long quote from the proclamation of the deacon at the breaking of the bread. Here is a bit of it:

Let us all with awe and reverence draw nigh to the mysteries of the precious Body and Blood of our Saviour. With a pure heart and faith unfeigned let us commemorate His passion and recall His resurrection. . . .
Let us receive the Holy and be hallowed by the Holy Ghost. . .

More recently, the anaphora of Addai and Mari was the focus of attention among liturgical scholars in 2001, when the decision was reached by the Catholic Church to acknowledge this Eucharist as valid. It was a big deal. The eminent American liturgical scholar, Archimandrite Robert Taft, SJ, who taught for many years at the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome, called the statement that announced this “the most remarkable Catholic magisterial document since Vatican II,” and Taft is not one to gush.

For Catholics, what does it mean that we recognize the anaphora of Addai and Mari?

His essay for Worship magazine was provocatively titled: “Mass Without a Consecration? The Historic Agreement on the Eucharist Between the Catholic Church and the Assyrian Church of the East Promulgated 26 October 2001.” In it, Fr. Taft explained the reasoning behind this decision—reached after considerable research and dialogue, and approved by the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, the Congregation for the Oriental Churches, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and Pope John Paul II himself. The fact that the liturgy has been prayed continuously since ancient times, and the undeniable faith of the Christian people it nourished, influenced the decision. When the Catholic Church affirmed the anaphora of Addai and Mari as valid, it was saying that the Eucharist produced by this liturgy is truly the Body and Blood of Christ. This is true despite the fact that there is no institution narrative in the prayer.

Yes, you heard that right. The anaphora of Addai and Mari does not contain the story of the Last Supper. The words “This is my body” and “This is my blood”—words that Catholics have long considered essential—do not appear. Instead, the prayer makes reference to what Jesus has given us, praises God for it, and confesses our unworthiness, using highly eschatological language touched with a kind of spiritual ecstasy. The prayer consecrates the elements in its own way.

Arriving at the point where Catholics could affirm that this is acceptable was not the work of a moment. It was the fruit of a long process of study and ecumenical dialogue pursued following the Second Vatican Council, which made a commitment to seek unity among all the churches. Following the landmark decision, the 2011 International Liturgy Conference in Rome centered on the anaphora of Addai and Mari, and produced a volume that summarized the history of this dialogue and discussed its ramifications for the various churches. The dialogue proceeded in phases. It began with considerations of the Incarnation (this phase concluded in 1994), and then moved on to dialogue about the sacramental life (leading to the agreement in 2001). The third phase concerns church structure and is ongoing.

For Catholics, what does it mean that we recognize the anaphora of Addai and Mari? It does not mean what some hostile Catholic critics have hinted: that the door is now open to an erosion of our definition of the Eucharist. Instead, it means and ought to mean that Catholics acknowledge the authentically Christian character of the Assyrian Church and the genuineness of its liturgical tradition. There are differences between the two churches, of course; neither is about to become the other. But in a very important way we hold something sacred in common because we recognize one another’s Eucharist, or “holy Qurbana,” as the Syriac Churches call it.

Today the Assyrian Church of the East is concentrated in Iraq, Iran, and Syria. I had some vague notion, therefore, that you could only experience the anaphora of Addai and Mari somewhere out on the plains of Nineveh. What I discovered, through a chance conversation in my dentist’s office, was that you could find it down the street, in Yonkers.

Of course I had to go.

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.

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.

Our public sources of information provide us with a picture of the Middle East region washed in blood, but with no keen awareness of what this means for specific religious cultures and peoples.

They are, of course, not the only minority religious population caught in the crossfire of sectarian violence in the region. Yet their losses have been significant and troubling. Indeed, Christians in these areas stand a good chance of being wiped out altogether from their ancestral homes. Aid to the Church in Need, a Catholic relief organization, estimates that Christianity will be effectively eradicated in Iraq by 2020, if current trends continue. From 2012 to 2017, Syria’s Christian population fell by two-thirds. Syria’s second largest city, Aleppo, once home to its largest Christian population, has lost 75 percent of its Christians.

Pope Francis has repeatedly denounced the persecution of Christians in the Middle East. But it is only one example of a broader phenomenon: Christians are being persecuted in China, North Korea, Pakistan, Egypt, and other countries. In 2017, Rome’s Colosseum was lit up in red to call attention to Christian persecution around the world. “We cannot wash our hands of the blood of this injustice as Pontius Pilate did two thousand years ago,” said Alfredo Mantovano, president of the Italian chapter of Aid to the Church in Need, which sponsored the light display.

For American Catholics, however, concern about persecuted Christians is not a priority. A recent survey showed that although Christian persecution was acknowledged as real by a majority of Catholics, it ranked only fifth in concern. About half of the respondents to the survey said that Pope Francis is “very engaged” with this issue, but only 27 percent could say the same of their local bishop, and 24 percent rated their parish as “very involved.”

I think there are several reasons for this. First of all, the media bring us news of violence around the world, but rarely do they focus specifically on the fate of Christian communities under fire, and certainly they do not present this in a systematic way. Our public sources of information provide us with a picture of the Middle East region washed in blood, but with no keen awareness of what this means for specific religious cultures and peoples.

Second, I suspect that the American bishops have cheapened the rhetoric of religious persecution by applying it to trivial cases. If we use the term “persecution” to describe such things as filling out forms to be exempted from providing access to birth control, what words are left to describe what is happening to people who have seen family and neighbors crucified or beheaded for their Christian faith? Atrocities are not the only form that religious persecution takes, obviously, but I think we need to stop over-dramatizing ourselves if we want our co-religionists to recognize the gravity of what other Christians around the world are facing.

Third, it seems that Catholics—particularly those with liberal views—are wary of taking the topic on because they suspect that it represents a form of tribalism. According to this way of thinking, the gospel imperative and, indeed, the moral high ground, are located in the commitment to treat each person equally as a neighbor, regardless of their religion. We have no more moral duty to protect and defend a Christian community than we have to protect and defend anyone else, the reasoning goes. The Good Samaritan did not ask the person bleeding by the roadside what religion he professed before he acted to help him.

What this analysis overlooks, however, is that there are indeed some imperatives and obligations associated with Christian solidarity. What does Eucharist mean if the suffering of one part of the Body of Christ is met with indifference by the other members of Christ’s Body? We have a moral obligation to protect and defend those Christians whose lives and whole religious culture is being uprooted and threatened with extinction. To honor this obligation is not to descend into tribalism; it is to recognize a challenge we are privileged to see clearly precisely because of who we are as Christians.

When Francis met with the Joint Commission for Theological Dialogue with the Assyrian Church in 2017, he made reference to the cross, revered by them as a sacred sign, and he acknowledged the very real cross that the Assyrian community carries during this time of persecution. It is no exaggeration to say that Assyrians in the Middle East have been targeted for genocide because of their Christian faith.

After the liturgy was over, we were talking to my dentist’s father in the back of church, and he asked us if we could follow what was going on in the service. We said yes, though of course we were sorry we missed out on the homily, because we do not understand Aramaic. I had heard the word “Mosul” several times, however, and asked what the bishop was saying—the battle to liberate the northern Iraq city of Mosul from ISIS was much in the news at that time. “Oh yes,” he said, “he told us we cannot seek revenge, because we are Christian.”

Rita Ferrone is the author of several books about liturgy, including Pastoral Guide to Pope Francis’s Desiderio Desideravi (Liturgical Press). She is a contributing writer to Commonweal.

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