It was always of interest to me, how Christian communities around the world develop their own kind of rituals and ceremonies, while the principles of the Christian liturgy are still closely followed. So on Palm Sunday I decided to visit a morning service of the „Mar Thoma Syrian Church of Malaba“. The church is in my New Delhi neighborhood and as I pass by regularly I see how the church fills up with worshippers twice a week. Every priest in Europe could only wish for a full house like this on a normal Sunday.
Easter approaching, on Palm Sunday, the church even expanded to the Portio outside and large TV screens projected the priests readings of the holy scriptures to the back areas of the church and to the street outside. On this special Sunday before Easter, the Bishop of the Diocese himself was present in New Delhi, leading the ceremonies and speaking to the community. He had also been priest at the „Mar Thoma Syrian Church“ in New Delhi before becoming the Bishop of the Diocese.
The Thomas Syrian Church is one of the oldest Christian communities in India – present until today especially in Kerala, South India. It was active long before the Portuguese and other Europan powers arrived at the Indian shores in the 15th century. It is said to date back to one of Jesus twelve disciples Thomas, who made a journey to India and converted Hindu Brahmins to Christians. Later, members of the Syrian Church migrated from Persia to India and integrated themselves into the Saint Thomas Church.
Christian’s today are the third largest religious group in India after the Muslims, with approximately 30 million members, divided into Roman Catholics, Protestants and Thomas Syrian Christians. Thomas Syrian Christian liturgies are still held in the language of Kerala – Malayalam. Parts of the liturgy are read in Syriac – a dialect of Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke.
Who ever has visited India before knows, there is nothing short in India. Be it a wedding ceremony, a simple tea with the neighbor or a Puja – a Hindu ritual – it takes a lot of time. Europeans need to adapt to the slower rhythm and bring quite some patience with them to endure it. The same can be said for this Palm Sunday. The church service spread out over three hours – with extensive and very active singing – not unlike the Gospels in the US. Not only chorals to praise the Lord are sung, the whole ceremony is chanted between priest and community. The community members are much more involved and participating more actively than in European style liturgies.
On this special Sunday, the community was very much looking forward to the prayers and the interpretation of the scriptures by their Bishop: Reverend Dr. Abraham Mar Paulos. As he started to speak to the attentive community, his voice rose high and higher and he was really getting into it. Temperatures in the church were also rising and the ventilators circling on the ceiling did not add much to cool the situation down. As his sermon was reaching the peak, the Reverend Bishop was forced to sit down, a glass of water was brought quickly and a ventilator put in front of him to blow into his hot face.
As the liturgy went on quietly the first worshippers already lined up for communion and kneeling down on benches, awaited the distribution of the holy bread and wine.
Suddenly there was a murmur raising in the crowd. People stood up to see what was happening in the front. The Reverend Bishop had fainted, just as the central act of the communion had started.
The priests crowded around the Bishop and carried him to the back of the church, into the secluded area. A silent but steady hurrying back and forth of the priests began, while they adapted to the unusual situation and tried to cope with it. The worshippers waited quietly kneeling on the benches. No signs of impatience were felt.
After a while the Assistant Vicar Reverend Jai Varghese took over, to proceed with the communion. Rows of rows of worshippers lined up, there was not one who would want to miss communion on this special day. The Vicar hurried quietly back and forth between Altar and worshippers, preparing and distributing bread and wine among them, supported by the chords of the electronic organ and the community’s patient singing the communion song, in endlessly repeating loops. Finally – the communion ended and with the concluding rites the church service was over. All had passed in complete order, as if nothing unusual had happened.
Later that afternoon, I met the Reverend Jai Varghese on the street, and he smiled kindly at me when I asked him how the Reverend Bishop was. Evidently, he had to be brought to a hospital to recover. He was already feeling better now, Reverend Varghese assured me. The Bishop’s schedule, arriving directly from Kerala the night before, had obviously been a bit too tightly knit. Even a holy man cannot completely surpass the extraordinary climatic conditions of the Indian subcontinent.