Article of Bishop Francis Kalabat:
Response from Seminary of Mar Abba the Great:
The Misplaced Communion Hymn: Paghreh da-Mshyha
Fr. Ankido Sipo
Academic Advisor, Seminary of Mar Abba the Great
Regarding their liturgical practices, St. Paul commands the Corinthians that “all things should be done decently and in order” (1 Cor. 14:40). Likewise, Sacrosanctum concilium instructs Churches to reform their liturgies to “express more clearly the holy things which they signify; the Christian people, so far as possible, should be able to understand them with ease…” (§ 21; emphasis mine). The supposedly “controversial question” of the placement of the hymn Paghreh daMshyha, which speaks of the Body and Blood of Christ already on the altar, is whether leaving it before the bread and wine are consecrated meets biblical and conciliar standards of order and suitability for the sake of making the liturgy “easily understandable.”
The Tumults of History
A historical note is in order: the hymn we are discussing was originally used for a service called Razanayth. Our Church, historically, did not celebrate Mass daily, but left Mass for Fridays (to commemorate our Lord’s death) and Sundays (to commemorate his Resurrection); other weekdays, our Church would celebrate Razanayth, or the Rite of the Pre-sanctified. In this Service, there is no consecration, but the priest brings the Consecrated Body of Christ to the altar. Hence, the Church proclaimed the Body and Blood of Christ “are on the altar.” This is where the hymn Paghreh daMshyha makes perfect sense as a Presentation Hymn (or ‘Onytha d-Raze).
When a collection of Presentation Hymns was compiled to be used for each Sunday, many hymns for Communion were included, as well as this one from the Rite of the Presanctified, which became the “proper” Presentation Hymn for the first Sunday of Advent and placed before the Quddasha (Anaphora) which consecrates the hosts. Most significantly, this was the hymn that eventually was sung when the Chaldean Church began regularly celebrating daily Mass instead of using the Rite of the Presanctified. Was this a fitting move, or something to be adjusted when the chance arose?
Eastern Mystical Theology or Simple Misunderstanding?
His Excellency, Bishop Francis Kalabat, defends this placement. He quotes the Congregation of the Eastern Churches, which says Eastern liturgical theology allows for “proleptic” language (language that speaks as if a future event has already taken place), and that “Body and Blood” can be used to refer to the gifts before consecration. He quotes Bishop Sarhad Jammo explaining the same in his doctoral dissertation written fifty years ago. He then moves on to give a theology of liturgy as existing in sacred time, meaning the liturgy is transcendent and primarily a heavenly reality, spiritual in nature and not subject to the confines of this material world. Finally, he cites some Fathers of the Chaldean Church to say that the elements of the liturgy are typological (symbolic) so that the ‘Onytha d’Raze, the Presentation Hymn, can be placed before the consecration even if it speaks of the Body and Blood of Christ as already consecrated.
While it is certainly true that the liturgy is a mystery outside of time, our participation in this other-worldly event still has a material reality organized in a sequence of liturgical acts (otherwise we would simply not be there). That is, grace builds upon nature; it doesn’t eradicate it. This sacred time is the meeting place of God’s eternity and our finite existence, the latter of which is still present. Until we are in heaven, the liturgy is heaven on earth. Therefore, the concept of Christian mystery does not justify disorder or negate reason. In other words, while it is true that the Mass takes us to the Last Supper and Golgotha, this does not mean that the ideas of “before” and “after” have no meaning. At the Last Supper itself, Jesus took bread, and then, afterward blessed it, and then, afterward broke it, etc. Doing things in the proper order was important to Jesus, and it should be to us. Most importantly, the Gospel says that Jesus took bread; it is only after Jesus blessed it then gave it to his disciples that he says it is his Body. The Gospel does not conflate reality with symbolism, and it does not insert an artificial or mystical typology into the Last Supper. It speaks quite literally, according to the order of the rite.
Understanding the Hymn
To have a clearer understanding of where this hymn belongs, we should understand the existential reason of the hymn itself. The historical origins of a thing helps us understand the purpose of its existence. Bishop Francis, recognizing the validity of Bishop Sarhad’s analysis, writes that Paghreh da-Mshyha has its origins in Razanayth, which is composed of the Liturgy of the Word and the Communion Rite. The hymn was chanted during the Communion Rite, when the Body and Blood of Christ were already consecrated and on the altar, to tell the people to approach and receive the holy sacrament. Thus, if it is borrowed by the Mass it should be placed in the same context as it is in Razanayth: the Communion Rite, after the consecration. To put it somewhere else opposes the purpose of the hymn and is, simply, a misplacement.
Bishop Sarhad explained the historical usage fifty years ago as a young scholar, so as to defend his liturgy as it stood, but this was the work of a scholar interpreting a factual use, not that of a liturgical reformer with the ability to correct a misuse. Since then, he has updated his position very clearly (Jammo, The Chaldean Liturgy). Moreover, it is one thing to not be “theologically problematic” on the part of someone’s intention, it is another to be objectively correct or fitting within the liturgy. Certainly someone singing this hymn in the pews at an inaccurate time is not committing an evil act; nor is someone praying the rosary during Mass doing something sinful. One might even try to connect the Mysteries of the Rosary to the different parts of Mass, using the same technique of “typology” cited by Bishop Francis. None of this is “theologically problematic” on the part of the person’s intention. But that does not mean it is objectively and liturgically correct. It is one thing to interpret one’s tradition as it is inherited. It is another to see a misuse and fail to correct it.
A linguistic analysis also shows where the hymn belongs. It tells the congregation: “The Body of Christ and his precious Blood are [in the present tense] upon the holy altar…” If this is proleptic language, then what comes after is even more misleading. The word this hymn uses to tell the people to “approach” the Lord in the Eucharist is nithqaraw. In the context of the Eucharist, R. Payne Smith says the word means “to receive Holy Communion” (Smith, R. Payne, A Compendious Syriac Dictionary, p. 517). This hymn is not a typology inserted into the liturgy, but a hymn announcing to the people what is on the holy altar and the command to receive it. Its proper place in the Mass is the Communion Rite.
Catholic Doctrine and Eastern Theology
The fact is, there is Catholic doctrine, and in Catholic doctrine there is a transition point between non-consecrated elements and consecrated ones. This is not by any means a rejection of proleptic or typological language. This specific hymn is simply neither of those things. This is why the same Congregation of the Eastern Churches which rejected the Syro-Malabars for wanting to remove any language of “Body and Blood” before the consecration accepted the transfer of Paghreh da-Mshyha from before the consecration to after in the official 2006 Reform of the Chaldean Mass (in fact, the issue concerning the Syro-Malabars was that they did not know the proper placement of this hymn). Indeed, in the official Reformed Mass of 2006, the Presentation Hymn (which is before the Anaphora) says: “Behold, you are invited to the new life of the forgiving Body and Blood; prepare yourselves…confess the King’s Son…who gave us his Body and Blood…” The placement of this hymn before the consecration, though speaking of Christ’s Body and Blood, is quite fitting because the form of the hymn itself makes it appropriate to be sung before. Its command is to prepare for what will later be received.
On the other hand, if proleptic language, sacred time, mystery, or symbolism can be used to justify any liturgical blunder, then what reason can be given to stop a liturgical reformer from lifting the unconsecrated host before the Anaphora and chanting, “Shabbah l’Alaha hayya” (“Give glory to the living God”)? Would the reason be: “has the marvelous act of God not yet happened?” or “it confuses the people?” If we can justify something this bluntly misplaced with such a clear historical cause without correcting it, then why should the liturgy even be reformed? Perhaps everything that might seem to need correction has a similar typological interpretation.
Bishop Francis cites a number of Eastern Church Fathers, but not one of them speaks specifically of this hymn. There is no doubt that a symbolic or typological interpretation of the liturgy exists within Eastern (as well as Western) spirituality, but a typological interpretation of the liturgy is not the liturgy. Nor are any of our great Church Fathers under the impression that time ceases to exist at the beginning of Mass, or that typology is the primary way to understand the liturgy. Mar Narsai, as one example cited by Bishop Francis, is too clear a thinker and too close to our Lord to limit himself to typology:
“Thus spoke the Lifegiver of the worlds to His disciples: and the bread and wine He named His Body and Blood. He did not style them a type or a similitude, but Body in reality and Blood in verity.” (Narsai, Exposition on the Mysteries, p. 15; emphasis mine).
With all due respect to typology, Narsai understands that typology always is second place to “verity,” that is, objective reality.
Further illustrating that there is no contradiction between Catholic doctrine and Eastern theology, Narsai affirms the difference between bread and the Body of Christ, and indicates a specific time where one has definitely become the other:
“He summons the Spirit to come down and dwell in the bread and wine and make them the Body and Blood of King Messiah.” (p. 18)
There is a particular moment when the bread and wine have definitely become the Body and Blood of Christ, and for Narsai this isn’t some “mysterious” outside-of-time moment, but the Epiclesis, the calling-down of the Holy Spirit. Before that, they are not yet the sacrament. After, they are the Body and Blood of Christ. There is no confusion for Mar Narsai, or for his tradition.
Faithfulness to the Lord
Worship, for St. Paul and the Magisterium, should be orderly. Because the hymn in question properly and historically belongs to Razanayth, a Communion service, and itself tells the congregation to receive the Body and Blood of Christ from the altar, it is most fitting that it is placed in the Communion Rite of the Mass, as it is in Razanayth and where the people receive the Qurbana. This is the most reasonable place; somewhere else is disordered and confuses the people, things the Church wants to avoid.
Our ultimate reference for liturgy, however, is the Lord himself in the Last Supper. Here, the Gospel says that Jesus took bread and only called it his Body when giving it to his disciples after blessing and breaking it. In this regard, the Chaldean Mass is very linear and faithful to Christ: taking the bread corresponds with the Presentation; blessing/thanksgiving/memorial corresponds with the Anaphora; breaking corresponds with the Breaking and Signing Rite; giving corresponds with the Communion Rite, where we proclaim the mystery of his Body and Blood truly present and approach to receive him and where, for Bishop Jammo fifty years ago, this hymn “should obviously be placed.” There is no “controversy” here, and certainly no “ignorant mistake.” It is only clear liturgical thinking, and faithfulness to the Lord.