Sunday, April 01, 2007

The Holy Qurbana

Palm Sunday Service at St. George Orthodox Syrian Church (Malankara), Mulund, Bombay. The liturgy of St. James, the brother of the Lord.

[::UPDATE:: I've put up a few short clips from the service at YouTube.]

A long time coming (we've been trying to do this for nearly a year now), I finally managed to accompany a friend who is Syrian Orthodox, to his parish church in the northeastern suburb of Mulund, for the Holy Qurbana this morning. I've never participated in any Syriac liturgy in India (or anywhere else for that matter), so this was a first.

I'm not very familiar with this part of Bombay (most of my interactions were on the Western side of the city, with frequent incursions to the east, around Chembur). And though Mulund is within the municipal limits of Greater Bombay (the city officially ends just to the north, at Thane), and, like every other part of the city, is becoming even more crowded, it feels as if one is out in the country. The suburb is surrounded on three sides by large flat salt pans and swamps that extend to Thane Creek, and on one side by the ridges of the central spine of hills that runs down the northern part of Salsette Island (the northern, and by far much larger island that forms the bulk of Bombay), on which are located the three lakes that supply drinking water to the city, and also the Borivili National Park (near 100 sq. km of preserved forested land right in the middle of the city, home to some rare panthers that occasionally stray beyond the confines of the park and make off with a stray goat or dog or child).

In another important respect, Mulund is outside Bombay. It gets its power from the MSEB grid (which supplies the rest of Maharashtra), and not the privately run grids that supply the power hungry metropolis. MSEB is notoriously inefficient and has a huge power deficit. This means that for about four hours in the morning there are rolling blockouts in most parts of the state.

So, a few minutes after we pulled up to the church (taking up the first and second floors [by US reckoning] of a tall block of apartments), the power went out, and the rest of the approximately 4h45m service (yep, you read that right) was spent in a sea of perspiration. [The church does have a power generator, but this was used to light the altar. Appropriate.]

Morning prayer (which precedes all Eastern liturgies on Sunday) had just begun when we arrived, a little after 630 am. There were few worshippers present, men on one side, women, heads covered, on the other. The chancel was veiled by a bright red curtain. The most immediate thing one notices, however, is the singing. The entire service is chanted and sung, and I still have the cadences and lilts and the retroflexive liquid sounds of Malayalam ringing in my head. And the entire congregation (which swelled considerably once the actual Qurbana had begun. I'd say some 700 or so people, most outside the sanctuary, following along on TV screens) sings. Loudly and beautifully. Full-throated, powerful, rising to the heavens. The singing at Catholic congregations (Latin-rite) that I have worshipped at in India is reduced to anemic bleating by comparison.

I don't speak a lick of Malayalam (well, I can count to 29. Don't ask), and I certainly don't read it. (The Malanakara church actually encourages the congregation to bring hymnals and service books to church so as to chant the service properly) ... my friend had provided me a with useful English-Malayalam guide to the service so I could follow long. For the most part, I just listened to the sound and tried to get as prayerful as I could in the sweltering heat, smiling at the occasional Sanskrit word (Malayalam has the most Sanskritized vocabulary of the Dravidic languages) I caught. I also increased my Syriac vocabulary (it was almost nil to begin with) a lot -- the phrase "Barekmor" ("Bless me Lord") occurs almost as frequently as "Amin" -- and, of course, there were tons and tons of "Kurielayisons" all throughout, along with the sign of the cross everywhere (the Malankaras follow the Latin custom. They also use the Gregorian calendar, though this year, both lungs of the Church are celebrating Easter on the same date.)

There was a procession with Palms in the middle of the liturgy, circling the surrounding grounds. And several humorous moments when the kids (well really only the boys, who were standing right up front. The girls on the other side were much better behaved!) got a bit rowdy and had to be scolded by the priest or the deacon. (At several points in the service, to chants of "Oshanna" the congregation threw handfuls of gold and yellow marigolds up in the air. The boys, as one can imagine, got a bit carried away. I found myself wondering if I'd be thoroughly bored, but for such interludes, had I grown up with long chanted services regularly. More on that some other time.)

One stands through the bulk of the service -- sitting for the Old Testament readings (which occur, somewhat hurriedly, between Morning Prayer and the Qurbana), and for the sermon (which the priest gives from behind the veiled chancel, and which, of course, I didn't follow at all). Periodically, the priest reminds the congregation, "sthoumen kalos." Let us stand well!

The bread is, following Eastern custom, leavened, and today, the Precious Blood was poured over the Host. I'd say maybe a third of those present received. After receiving, each communicant takes a drink of water from about half a dozen plastic bottles placed on the table in the middle of the nave. According to my friend, this is to facilitate the swallowing of the leavened bread (I guess one doesn't chew?). And, given the heat and lack of functioning fans, I'm sure most took more than the symbolic needful. :)

The offering is given at the end of the service, when everyone present lines up and goes and gets an individual blessing from the priest, and drops his offering in a basket.

As with all Eastern liturgies, everything is repeated, the prayers are long and elaborate, and every gesture drips with meaning. In this rite, particularly interesting was the gestures the priest makes when invoking the Holy Spirt, waving his hands up and down over the chalice and paten. There's the bell ringing and the incense, the colors of the vestments and the altar, the layout of the church, the veiling and unveiling. Everything has biblical roots, and focuses on the central mysteries of the faith. The Mother of God is honored everywhere, as are the Fathers of the Church (one of the post-consecration intercessions, called "Thubden" or "Diptychs" honors 23 Fathers), the saints and martyrs, the faithful departed, the church universal.

If there is one thing that comes through clearly it is this: this is heavenly worship. This is the "living sacrifice" that St. Paul speaks of. One isn't creating something down here, on one's own authority or following one's own whims and fancies. One is entering into something that transcends space and time.

[I took several short video clips which will be uploaded once I have broadband access are up on YouTube. And a few more thoughts, which will be shared in due course.]


Matthew said...

I can't wait to see the videos

Mac said...

How wonderful! You made it!

I confess that I had been about to be tricky about your not having gone -- our Syrian Orthodox friend had been mildly put out about your not having made contact.

And isn't it wonderful. And aren't you glad that I nagged and nagged!

Mac said...

Our friend provided me also with a Malayalam/English service book. And also provided a running commentary: "This is the 'Holy God, holy and mighty..." I gather that in this place in a Western liturgy it would be the Gloria..."

Ummm...yes, I know.

And then, during the Creed: "Apparently there is some one word that divides us Orthodox from you Westerners..."


"I wonder what that word could be, and why..."


"Why do you keep saying that?"

"That's the word."

Was it not utterly thrilling? The two most exciting religious experiences I have had in my life were (1) the village prayer service in rural Sindh, when all the men were in attendance and solemnly chanted the Muslim hymns of Lal Qalandar Shabaz and (2) the self-same service at St George's that you finally -- finally! -- attended.

I am so glad.

I look forward to hearing from our friend about his reaction to your reaction!

Mac said...

Not one year, Gashwin! More like five.

I am so glad you finally made it, and that you made bold to take photos.

Was it not utterly thrilling?

I have seldom been so glad to be a Christian as when our friend took me to Mar Varghese: "This is me, and God is for once properly honoured!"

(Well, as my Palestinian friend Nizar points out, they did make me sit up in the balcony so as not to corrupt the proceedings with my Western-ness, but never mind...)

suraj said...

Dear "Gashwin",

I am one of the Malankara Orthodox who lurks on your blog.Fellow mumbaite too. Good to see you made it. Sorry about the power supply though.

I have an affection for the Latin Rite, since I went to Catholic Schools and the old Irish redemprotists celebrated the NO most reverently. Although now liturgy wise the Orthodox will beat you guys hands down.


Gashwin said...

Suraj ... I am totally with you! I love the Eastern liturgy (both Catholic and Orthodox). And we could learn a lot about reverence in the celebration of the NO from our brothers and sisters in the East. :) Glad to have made it finally as well!