Saturday, November 25, 2006

The Holy Qurbana in Oxford

'Qurbana' is the Syriac word for 'Offering' and this evening in Keble College chapel, with the kind permission of the chaplain, the Divine Liturgy in the Syro-Malankara rite was offered. I managed to discretely take a few photographs during the first parts of the Liturgy but there was such a palpable sense of holiness during the Anaphora (of St Xystus) that I could not bring myself to photograph those sacred moments.

In the photograph above, the gifts are prepared and offered up in the sight of God.

The Syro-Malankara Church is the third hierarchy of the Catholic Church in India. You may read more about its origins and history here. It is granted all the rights and privileges and its own liturgy and legitimate customs of the Antiochene Rite, and also administrative autonomy.

The Antiochene Rite is the Liturgy of St. James of Jerusalem, which was itself based on the traditions of the ancient rite of the Early Christian Church of Jerusalem, as the Mystagogic Catecheses of St Cyril of Jerusalem imply. This parent (Antiochene) rite includes the the Malankar Rite which is located in India, (some members of whom) reunited with Rome in 1930, and uses the Syriac and Malayalam languages in its liturgies. It is this rite which was celebrated in Keble this evening.

The Holy Qurbana was entirely sung and celebrated in Syriac, Greek, English and Malayalam. It was beautiful to hear the epistle sung expertly in Greek and especially to hear the priest sing the Lord's Prayer in Syriac, which we regard to be the closest extant language to Aramaic.

One stood throughout the liturgy, although at moments the priest performed the most profound prostrations before the altar, asking the Lord to accept his offering. Incense played a major part in the liturgy and the thurible was swung throughout for almost two hours, creating a 'veil' of smoke. At one point, the priest blessed the thurible and this is a distinctive part of Syrian liturgy. As one commentator explains:

"The blessing of the Censer is considered to be one of the important moments in the Holy Qurbana. This is the time when the Priest blesses the censer three times in the name of each persons in the Holy Trinity which is an another version of the thrice-holy hymn."

Indeed, the prayers for the blessing of the censer are proclamations of the faith in Trinity and the chains on the censer represent the Holy Trinity: The first chain stands for God the Father, the second and third chains represent the human and divine nature of the Son and the fourth chain represents the Holy Spirit.

The priest puts incense in the censer and grabs one of the chains and makes the sign of the cross over it and says: "Holy is the Holy Father". Grasping two more chains the priest proclaims: "Holy is the Holy Son" and finally he grasps the last chain and says "Holy is the Holy Spirit".

At the most solemn parts of the liturgy, a gentle ring of bells and the shaking of a liturgical fan symbolized the presence of the seraphim around the altar and the sound is likened to the fluttering of their wings.

At the epiclesis, the priest waved his hands over the bread and wine with a fluttering motion, signifying the descent of the Holy Spirit and the deacon admonished the people to stand in awe as the Holy Spirit is descending and hovering over the mysteries.

It was a great privilege to assist at this ancient liturgy which was celebrated simply but still filled me with awe and wonder at the Holy Sacrifice that was being offered.

Below are some more photos from the Holy Qurbana.

1. The priest offering of the chalice at the beginning of the Liturgy,
2. The priest at the altar and
3. The priest humbles himself before the altar as he prepares himself to offer the august sacrifice.

UPDATED: 25 Nov - a very short clip was uploaded to give you a sense of the atmosphere - the chant, the clink of the thurible, etc. I wish I'd recorded the Lord's Prayer in Aramaic but was just too entranced!

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