Regis Chair of Theology, Mount Angel Seminary, St. Benedict, OR.
All too often in our Western liturgical and sacramental tradition we neglect the enormously rich contribution of the Syriac fathers. In part this may be due to the difficulties of the Syriac language and scripts for the Westerner. But it is also due to our penchant for prose over poetry, and for a philosophical approach to theology in contrast to a more image driven approach. This modest reflection offers the briefest of tastes of Syriac eucharistic thinking by way of images.
In his ecumenical survey of the Christian sacraments the late John Macquarrie (1919-2007) spoke of the Eucharist as “the jewel in the crown among the sacraments” (John Macquarrie, A Guide to the Sacraments, New York: Continuum, 1997, 101-102). The metaphor of the jewel describes something that is very precious, something to be treasured, something immensely valuable. The Syriac theological and liturgical tradition has a similar way of speaking about the Eucharist. Before describing the approach of the Syriac fathers, it may be helpful briefly to say something about their understanding of the sacramentality of creation. Ephrem of Nisibis writes: “In his book Moses described the creation of the natural world, so that both the natural work and his book might testify to the Creator: the natural world, through man’s use of it, the Book, through his reading of it” (Hymns on Paradise, V.2). In this perception the Holy Scriptures and creation may be said to be complementarily sacramental. Scripture and creation are the means of God’s revealing himself, and this revelation in both is by way of symbols and types, inviting humankind, as it were, to see spiritually beyond the veil of God’s hiddenness.
Perhaps we may say that the sacramentality of both Scripture and creation reaches its unique climax in the Incarnation of the Eternal Word, and he becomes the source of our transformation or divinization in and through the central sacrament of the Eucharist. Thus, the Syrian Orthodox Liturgy of St. James draws a close connection between the Annunciation epiclesis and the Eucharistic epiclesis: “(Send your Spirit) so that he may overshadow and make this bread into the life-giving Body, the saving Body, the heavenly Body, the Body which brings salvation to our souls and bodies, the Body of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ…” As the Holy Spirit overshadowed Mary, so the Holy Spirit overshadows the Eucharistic gifts so that they may become sacramentally who Jesus Christ is. Furthermore, Mary’s receptivity to the action of the Holy Spirit is a paradigm for the cooperation between humankind and the Holy Spirit through the Eucharist. As Mary accepted the Gift of the Spirit, so human beings are invited to accept the Eucharistic gift of the same Spirit, and to be transformed and so to live out of that gift.
Let us now move to the metaphor of the jewel for the Eucharist. In ancient times it was widely thought that pearls came about when lightning struck the oyster in the sea. So, Ephrem of Nisibis thinks of Christ as the Pearl coming to be when the lightning of the Holy Spirit strikes the watery womb of Mary. In a parallel fashion another Syriac author, Jacob of Serugh, writes as follows: “The Holy Spirit goes forth from the Father and descends, overshadows and resides on the bread, making it the Body, making it the treasured pearls to adorn the souls that are betrothed to him” (cited in Sebastian P. Brock, Studies in Syriac Spirituality, Poona, 1988, 36).
These treasured eucharistic pearls make a difference in the life of the communicant. The communicant who is genuinely open to God’s grace and collaborates with the sacramental gifts finds his experience eucharistically aligned. This is how it is expressed by Joseph the Visionary: “May I draw near to you, and you alone be seen by me: may I not perceive anything else that is next to me, but may I walk in the house of prayer as though in heaven, and may I receive you who live in the highest heaven.” Joseph wants to be drawn into close communion with Christ, and to be free of anything that would distract from the intensity of that experience. The house of prayer, that is to say the building of the church, becomes an experience of heaven and so of communion with Christ. He then goes on to speak of the consequences of this communion: “You have revealed to me your hiddenness in the Bread and in the Wine, reveal in me your love, cause a desire for you to shine out in me…” (Sebastian P. Brock, The Syriac Fathers on Prayer and the Spiritual Life, Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1987, 358-359).
These Syriac approaches to the eucharistic presence of Christ arguably have as much to offer, if not in some ways more to offer than medieval scholasticism.