Church incognito; where culture and religion entwine, my experience at an Assyrian Catholic Church

Last Sunday I attended an Assyrian Catholic Church. My father informed me about this denomination, that the services are held in Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke in his day and age. Because of this I had to check it out for myself.

I arrived there a little bit early, and the first person I introduced myself to made it known that I shouldn’t dress casually in church, “in front of the almighty” and while I didn’t know the dress code prior to going to the church I was more than slightly taken aback.

I made my way to the sanctuary and I was greeted more cheerfully and with less baggage by one individual who was helpful in answering my questions. The service started promptly, the curtain was drawn and the priest and the altar men gave way to cantoring in Aramaic; it was beautiful to hear this language in the form of cantoring, it was very much a Middle Eastern way per music I have heard from that region. Now the congregation seemed to be comprised of a lot of old men and women, but after some scanning of the congregation I recognized that there was a large group of young women, they intrigued me because they played an active role in the cantoring; the priest would cantor and the response was given by the altar men, congregation, or these young women at any given time as well as any combination of individuals.
The first hour of the service was nearly continuous cantoring, it only varied when there was a reading from the Gospel and when bells sounded as a signal to stand up or sit down.

After the hour of cantoring, the priest delivered a sermon in Aramaic that was nearly an hour long. When he had finished, it was time for Communion. I initially utilized this time to take time to pray, but I was encouraged by the man who talked to me near the beginning of the service to partake because it was an inclusive table. I waited in line, watching and meditating on what I had witnessed, and when it was my turn I accepted the bread and drank from the communion chalice just as everyone else did.
The service ended once everyone partook of Communion. From there the congregation gathered in their gathering hall to enjoy refreshments and tea. They had a gift shop and so I decided to check it out, unfortunately it wasn’t open in the traditional sense, but I lucked out! The men responsible for counting the offering were very hospitable, and they gave me a run down of some things about the Assyrian Catholic Church:
1. The church is led by a patriarch, in which they trace their church history back to St. Thomas and Nathanael. They make the claim their church started in 33 A.D.
2. The language Aramaic has changed some over the years, but not too much; when The Passion of The Christ came out, they could get by for the most part without the subtitles.
3. The church was founded in Mesopotamia / Babylon / Iran, but it spread from there to India and China.
4. The denomination was once 80 million people strong, but wars and conflicts reduced their numbers to 5 million.
5. The Assyrian Church is historical in nature both from a church history basis, but also an Assyrian history basis. It didn’t strike me as homogenization, but truly an entwining of culture as well as belief system.
6. While there were close to 100 people in attendance that Sunday, on their main church holiday they usually get 1000+ people in attendance.

I thanked these guys for answering my questions, and the ill feeling I had for being corrected for my attire vanished! πŸ™‚ I was wished a good Sunday and I was invited to come back. Once I get some “church clothes” I probably will!

~Nathanael~

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