I often wonder what a different Christmas might be like, what Christmas in Asia — in Persia, India, or China might have been like towards the end of the first millennium, when the early church in Asia had been active. How much of our understanding might be a relic of missionary and colonial history? How else have others understood the Incarnation in the past, and how might we broaden our horizons today?
The Syriac church originates from the Christians of the Middle East who maintained their native language (Syriac, a variety of Aramaic) in liturgy and who spread eastward into Asia during the first millennium. (The Eastern Orthodox church derives from the church of the Byzantine empire that started off using Greek liturgically, and Roman Catholics – and eventually Protestants – from churches that used the Latin of the Roman empire). They pioneered women’s choirs as a means of preaching from as early as the fourth century. Ranks of women, would sing out long sermons between prayers at major services. None of the gendered Pauline silence here.
In this chanted sermon by Jacob of Serug (5th-6th century; from the Turkish border with Syria) we hear the promises of the beatitudes in the advent of God among humanity. In particular, Jesus’s first contact with his earthly mother is the focus, we hear not only echoes of Mary’s state as unmarried, migrating, colonized, but also Mary representing the stories of earlier Hebrew women — enslaved, barren, incarcerated. Imagine this hymn being chanted as a teaching service by a choir of dedicated women on Christmas morning:
Be awakened, O Church, with your beautiful chantsJacob of Serug, Festal Homily on the Nativity, trans. Kollamparampil, quoted in Harvey, “Including the ‘Despised Woman’: Jacob of Serug at the Nativity Feast”
and offer to the Son gifts of praise on the day of His nativity.
On this day, He drove out Zion who had persecuted Him
and He invited that despised woman who had deserted Him, to enter.
On this day the head of the barren woman is lifted up
because she was cast down in abandonment among strangers.
On this day there is exaltation to the humiliated woman
who had been thrust down, of her own will, in the shrine of demons.
On this day the sorrowful woman who had been repudiated has exulted
because the Bridegroom has come and collected and gathered her from
among the idols.
On this day the lamenting woman has exulted,
because there was the marriage feast at which she has been comforted from
Today freedom has come for the enslaved woman
who had been bound to minister to idolatry.
Today the one who was persecuted for a long time has been released,
because the Mighty One stood up and broke the fetters of her imprisonment.
Today the maid-servant of the demons has obtained freedom,
because the great Lord has put them to flight and led out what belongs to Him.
Today the imprisoned (woman) has gone out of darkness
because the Light has shone out and shattered the gates of the house of
Traditional Syriac liturgy, including verses by Jacob of Serug, is maintained in the churches of South India and the Middle East even today. The tradition of women’s choirs has died out, though it is being revived in diasporic Syriac churches in the Netherlands.
Jacob is often considered the second of the great Syriac hymnographers, pride of place going to Ephrem the Syrian of Edessa (now Urfa, also on the Turkish-Syrian border) from the fourth century. Here are three stanzas from one of his Hymns to the Nativity, still used in Syriac churches on Sundays during Annunciation, the Advent-like period before Christmas in the Syriac tradition.
This is the month that bears utterlyEphrem the Syrian, Hymn to the Nativity 5, stanzas 1-3, trans. McVey
all joys: for slaves — liberation,
for the free — pride, for doors — garlanding,
for bodies — dainties. And purples [garments]
it showers in its love as if for a king
Refrain: Praise to You, fair Child of the Virgin
This is the month that bears entirely
all victories: it frees the spirit;
it subdues the body; it brings forth life
among mortals. Divinity
it showers in its love upon humanity.
In this month slaves recline
upon rugs, and the free recline
upon carpets, and kings recline
upon tapestries. In a manger
the Lord of the universe reclined for the sake of the universe.
I love the vivid images, the poetic power of such a liturgical way of doing theology, hearing these verses being sung year after year. What might the inculturation in Tang China have been like? Today, I still hear prayers chanted to Buddhist-like or Chinese melodies by Catholic faithful walking up to Our Lady of Sheshan in Shanghai during the annual pilgrimage in May.
This is a stone stele dated to the 9th century discovered in 2006 in Luoyang, the second Tang era Christian monument in China found after the Xi’an stele (8th century) discovered in the 17th century. It corroborates texts from Dunhuang caves, popularly known as the Jesus sutras.
The Xi’an stele inscription has two points which are of interest. First, Christians were known in China for not keeping slaves:
They do not keep slaves; all men, of high status and low, are equal. They do not accumulate possessions, but demonstrate their frugality by handing over their possessions to others. They abstain from meat to purify their minds and develop themselves. They hold their passions in check to practise restraint and to strengthen themselves. (trans Eccles and Lieu)
Second, the Incarnation transformed the world for all, reclining “for the sake of the universe” as in Ephrem’s hymn earlier, and in the words from the stele:
The true Lord is without origin, serene, still and unchangeable; with power and capacity to perfect and create. He created the earth and established the heavens. A part of his divided-self entered the world to bring salvation to all without limit. (trans Eccles and Lieu)
fēn shēn chū dài。 jiù dù wú biān
split-self-go-in place of; saving-extent-no-boundary
Chorus: Joining with enslaved womanhood, God lay in a manger to save all
How might plural histories change our assumptions about how we understand God and the world and how we act?
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