East Syrian Liturgy as an Expression of Christology – With Special Attention to the use of the “Exchange of Predicates”

The Late Chorbishop M. J. Birnie


The question addressed in this paper is whether the Christology reflected in the liturgical prayers and anthems of the Church of the East expresses and nurtures a faith in the unitary person of the incarnate Logos, the Son of God. With attention to the axiom set forth by Celestine I, “The rule of prayer determines the rule of faith,” it will be demonstrated, through extracts from the various offices of the church as contained in the Order of the Hallowing of the Apostles and the Cycle of Offices and Propers, that the official prayers and anthems, when they deal with Christological themes, are directed to, or speak of, a single subject in the person of Christ, and nourish a faith in the undivided incarnate Word.

Since the initial “cause of scandal” which led to the first Council of Ephesus concerned the propriety of the use of the “exchange of predicates” between the divine and human natures of the person of Christ, it will be demonstrated through the above named sources that the exchange of predicates has a distinct place in the worship life of the faithful community of the Church of the East, notwithstanding the suspicion its use has occasioned in the church and among its theologians. The appearance of the “exchange” in these texts, and their long history without revision, testify to its acceptance by generations of worshippers in the church. And with Celestine’s axiom in mind, consideration will be given to the practical consequences this may have for the conceptualisation of the worshipper as he visualises the object of his worship.


The Exchange of Predicates

It is typical in liturgies of the Church of the East for prayers and anthems

to be addressed to God or to the Lord God, including those that are addressed to Christ and contain Christological descriptive matter. The divine Logos, the Son of God (though not conceived apart from His humanity), is intended as the one to whom those prayers and anthems are addressed. And though the exchange of predicates is seldom employed directly to express the unitary person of Christ, its use has acquired a qualified synodical approval, that is, it may be employed occasionally “and by way of the economy”1. This official qualified acceptance of the propriety and practical use of the exchange is evidence that the Church of the East finds it useful as a legitimate, if sometimes controversial, means of addressing and confessing the unitary person of Christ, and its use in liturgical settings, though limited, is nonetheless significant.

When we look for a striking and obvious use of the exchange of predicates in prayers of the Church of the East, we must confess that it is rare. But it does occur, and its occurrence is sometimes startling. One may consider this example from the Evening Office for Wednesday, which the rubrics emphasise must be said every Wednesday of the year:

Equip us, O our Lord and our God, with mighty and invincible armour, by the prayers of Your blessed Mother, and give us  portion and fellowship with her in Your heavenly bride-chamber. . .2

Because the Nestorian controversy emerged in the first instance over the propriety of the term Theotokos, and because the Church of the East eventually aligned itself with those who questioned its use and its implications for Christology, when this anthem is singled out it usually provokes scepticism and a scurrying for verification. In fact, though, the veneration given the holy Virgin among members of the Church of the East is intense and proportionally similar to that given her among other Christians and Christian bodies, and the historical survival of a prayer such as this should not be surprising to those familiar with the piety of the Assyrians. The unique place of the mother of Christ in salvation history, and her singular relationship to her Son, the “Son of the Most High”, are the subject matter of much hymnody in the Church. The placement and emphasis given to this prayer make it to stand out all the more.

Furthermore, as a frequently overlooked but useful example of the use of the exchange of predicates one may note the Litany of the Eucharist. A series of

petitions begins with the address, “O merciful God who in mercies governs all, we beseech you.”3 The following petitions, all beginning with the relative pronoun “who” or “to whom”, requiring an antecedent referent and contemplating no change of subject, without distinction speak of divine and human attributes or experiences:

Who is rich in His mercies and overflowing in His compassion, we beseech you . . . Who in His nature is good and the Giver of all good things . . . Who is glorified in heaven and worshipped on earth . . . Who by His birth (or epiphany, etc.) gladdened the earth and cheered the heavens . . . To whom immortality belongs naturally, and who dwells in gladsome light . . .

The sequential petitions which begin, “who by His birth, etc.” and “to whom immortality belongs naturally”, address their antecedent, “merciful God”, as the subject appropriate to both descriptions, and generations of worshippers in the Church of the East have comfortably and piously joined their voices and sentiments to them without compunction. An intellectual distinction of the divine and human natures of the “merciful God” to whom they make petition is possible, of course, as it is in any use of the exchange of predicates, but this is not, I believe, very likely to happen in the course of common prayer.

But it is not only in Marian references or in the above-named deacon’s litany that the Church of the East makes use of the exchange of predicates, but also in other Sacramental contexts. In the Anthem of the Bema4 for Epiphany we find this example:

Through water and the Spirit we have been sanctified; by Your body and blood we have gained life. O Good One who fashioned us from dust, You renewed our image through water and the Spirit; through water and the Spirit You fashioned us anew. Glorious is Your renewal, and lovely is Your coming.5

The words “Your body and blood” can have no other referent than the “Good One who fashioned us from the dust.” And here, as above, the subject of address is the second person of the Holy Trinity, incarnate in the manhood He took from us. The adoration is of the Word made flesh who gave us His own sanctifying body and blood, not another’s.

The evocative power of the singing of the Anthem of the Bema is significant in its formative influence on the worshippers’ faith and conceptualisation. The familiar tunes and rhythms of these relatively short and easily remembered hymns aid in fixing them in the memory of the worshipper, who is apt to sing them at home and at work as well as in church and, in times past, to understand and assimilate their message as well6. On the memorial of St. Stephen the Protomartyr the worshipper intones: “Let us sing glory and receive the body of the Son of God and His living blood.”7 On the memorial of the Syrian Doctors: “Come, let us take delight in the glorious Mysteries of the body and blood of the Son of God.”8 On the second Sunday in Lent: “Come, let us receive the body and blood of the First-born9 of the Godhead. . . . Come, let us receive the body of the Son who was sent from above.”10 And decisively, from the Anthem of the Bema for Thursday after Easter:

The eternal and everlasting Son, begotten of God and coessential with him, who gave His own body, which wicked men sacrificed upon Golgotha, that He might give life to all, died as He willed, revived as He sought, and gave His body and blood to His church. Hallelujah!11

In the latter anthem the subject, the Son, begotten of the Father and of the same essence, is described as not only willing death and resurrection for His own body, but dying and rising in the same.

These examples all refer what is characteristic of the human nature of Christ to his divinity, but in some cases of prayer the name of the addressee to whom the exchange of predicates refers appears reversed. In the first of a series of “sealing” prayers at the conclusion of the evening office for ordinary days, the opening sentence reads as follows:

Glory to you, Jesus, our victorious King, the Effulgence of the eternal Father, begotten without beginning beyond times and origins, for we have no hope and expectation except for You, the Creator.12

The significance of this prayer to our discussion is the typical way that names are viewed and commonly used in the Church of the East. In his Book on the Union Babai the Great has this to say concerning the name Jesus:

The Son of God is called “Christ”, both according to the series of [divine] names which we previously set down above . . . and according to the name which Gabriel ordained beforehand for Him, that is, “Jesus,” which indicates the special title of His human qnoma in the Union, which was taken from the nature of the blessed [and] holy Virgin, Mary. . . . Although this name Jesus, “Saviour,” makes known what He is going to become, yet it is the name of the qnoma of His manhood.13

This standard explanation, applying the name “Jesus” to the human nature of Christ, makes it all the more noteworthy that the address to Jesus should describe Him as the Effulgence of the eternal Father, begotten without beginning beyond times and origins, and the Creator. Thus, while the previous examples I have given ascribe human attributes to the Godhead in the economy, here the reverse takes place, as the properties of the divine Word are referred to the “human” name, Jesus. A unitary subject is contemplated, here under the name of His manhood. Both the human nature and the name which it bears belong to the subject of the Incarnation, the divine Word, the “Effulgence of the eternal Father”.


The Language of Prayer and Praise, and the Faith It Expresses or Evokes

The language of prayer and praise is formative in the worshipper, both through the images and sentiments it evokes, and through the faith it builds upon and reinforces by its repeated expression. In the liturgies of the Church of the East, in prayers specifically addressed to God or the Lord God, where Christ is meant, the language employed to describe His human experiences directs the worshipper’s mind to the Deity as antecedent. The subject of those experiences is conceptualised as one and not as one and another. Whatever “duality” may emerge in the course of polemic discussion or theoretical contemplation disappears in hymnic wonder and prayerful certitude in the Assyrian Christian as he, in his ordinary worship, addresses his Lord and God, the Word become flesh. The relationship thus conceived and acknowledged between worshipper and Worshipped is one to one. The suggestion of an internal, independent relationship of the divine nature to the human in the united Christ is absent from the worshipper’s adoration, who acknowledges only the ontic unity which the Incarnate One is perceived to be in His person and in His relationship to His people.

To approach the divine Son of God through the veil of his flesh; to honour His mother because of the relationship of His flesh to hers, and therefore His own relationship to her; to adore Him and receive Him intimately through the mediating elements of the sacraments—His own body and blood—these acts of devotion, through cumulative effect on the worshipper, leave not the slightest room for separation to be contemplated, either by implication or through inference, in the unique and absolute union of humanity and divinity in the person of Christ. The language of worship and adoration in the liturgies of the Church of the East does not lead the worshipper to conceptualise a human person existing by Himself in relationship with the Logos. The personal identity of the complete and undiminished manhood taken by the Logos is that of the eternal Son of God, “begotten without beginning beyond times and origins”, who is the sole object of petition and praise. Like the worship of his Christian brothers and sisters who have been taught to confess the union in philosophical terms foreign or suspicious to him (or to his ancestors), his own worship is of the one Son of God incarnate, both Suffering Servant and King of Glory.




1 Synodicon Orientale, ed. J. B. Chabot, (Syr. text) p. 136.

2 Khudra, p. 22.

ܙܲܝܸܢ ܠܲܢ ܡܵܪܲܢ ܘܐܲܠܵܗܲܢ ܒܙܲܝܢܵܐ ܚܲܣܝܼܢܵܐ ܘܠܵ‍ܐ ܡܸܙܕܲܟ̣ܝܵܢܵܐ: ܒܲܨܠܵܘܵܬ̣̈ܵܗ̇ ܕܐܸܡܵܟ̣ ܡܒܲܪܲܟ̣ܬܵܐ: ܘܲܥܒܸܕ ܠܲܢ ܥܲܡܵܗ̇ ܡܢܵܬ̣ܵܐ ܘܫܵܘܬܵܦܘܼܬ̣ܵܐ ܒܲܓ̣ܢܘܿܢܵܟ̣ ܫܡܲܝܵܢܵܐ: ܡܵܪܵܐ ܕܟ̣ܠ.

3 Ktaba dTurgame, pp. 84-85.

4 An anthem sung at the time of the reception of the Sacrament during the Eucharist.

5 Khudra, p. 424.

6 The modern Assyrians’ lack of understanding of the classical Syriac language is a barrier to understanding and a problem yet to be addressed.

7 Khudra, Vol. 1, p. 740.

8 Khudra, Vol. 1, p. 778.

9 ܒܘܼܟ̣ܪܵܐ ܕܐܲܠܵܗܵܐ

10 Khudra, Vol. 2, p. 194.

11 Khudra, Vol. 2, p. 570.

12 Khudra, p.13.

13 CSCO, “Book on the Union,” Paris, 1915, ed. A. Vaschalde, pp. 208, lines 25- 26,28-31; 209, lines 11-13.