Sunday, December 6, 2009

Mar Thoma Church

I wanted to include this when it happened, but it was at the beginning of that very busy week before leaving for Mahabalipuram, Pondicherry, Mysore, and Bangalore. Better late than never. Went on a Sunday morning with the Furman group to a church right near the edge of the MCC campus. It was the Mar Thoma Church, associated with a denomination known as the Malankara Mar Thoma Syrian Church. Both this group and the Syrian Orthodox Church were formed in Kerala, and they both trace their origins right back to the churches founded by St. Thomas (“Doubting” Thomas) when he came to India’s west coast (a chapter my sister Janice might be interested in!!). In the last years of his life Thomas ended up here in the region later known as Madras, and the place where he lived, died (martyred), and was buried (three in all) are still pilgrimage destinations for Christians here. Whether Thomas was really here or not is still a matter of speculation for some, but there is no question that Christianity arrived here not long after Christ’s life on earth. This is, of course, a matter of great pride for Indian Christians, and it is crucial for them to be able to say that Christianity was definitely NOT a British import, though the British certainly put their own stamp on Protestant Christianity here in India. C.S.I. (Church of South India) worship services follow the Anglican rite very closely (some more rigidly than others!).

Mar Thoma Church (and I assume also the Syrian Orthodox Church) is a different matter, however. Their worship style is much closer to Eastern Orthodox practice and has few of the elements one expects from either Catholic or Protestant services (western European Christianity). In fact, it was different enough that Portuguese (and other) missionaries did their darndest to “convert” these Syriac Christians to the one true faith! (Jan, is this John vs. Thomas all over again?) Nonetheless, this was one of the most beautiful worship services I have attended in many years. Fortunately, we were there on the one Sunday of the month when they worship in English, so I could follow along easily! It was a very liturgical service, but unlike C.S.I. services where the liturgy is spoken, here it was sung almost all the way through. Mostly it was chanted on just one or two pitches with an extra note or two for cadence formulas, though there were also full-blown hymns. (Curiously, the hymns were mostly Western style Protestant hymns!) The liturgy itself placed great emphasis on asking God’s mercy and forgiveness, on a sense of our frailty and weakness in the presence of the divinity. In most Catholic and Protestant services, we get the penitence, confession, and words of forgiveness out of the way early on, but here it was a theme throughout. Added to that was an element of real drama. The altar itself was behind a screen, and the opening liturgy took place in front of the screen. About 20 minutes in, with music and incense (another Eastern Orthodox feature) going, the curtain opened to reveal the priest and the altar, and it was like the sun coming out—magical! And at the very end, the final prayer was for God’s mercy on the priest himself. The last thing you saw as the curtain closed was the priest on his knees leaning all of his weight against the altar as if he needed it to support his very life. Many, many years ago I attended a service at the Milwaukee Greek Orthodox Church designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, and while there were a few common elements, this one made a much deeper impression. Perhaps it was due to my deeper knowledge of worship styles (hard to teach music history for 20-plus years and not learn a lot), perhaps this really was a very different service, or perhaps it was the intimacy and the sense of shared experience in this rather small church. Whichever it was, I’m glad I went.