Narsai of Nisibis
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Narsai of Nisibis (399-502), often referred to simply as Narsai, was one of the foremost of Assyrian/Syriac poet-theologians, perhaps equal in stature to Jacob of Serugh, both second only to Mar Aprem of Nisibis. He is the most important writer of the East Syriac Christianity after Mar Aprem. Narsai is highly venerated in the Churches that descend from the Church of the East which are the Chaldean Catholic Church, the Assyrian Church of the East, the Ancient Church of the East and the Syro-Malabar Church, in which he is known as the ‘Flute of the Holy Spirit’. Although many of his works are likely lost, around eighty of his mêmrê (ܡܐܡܖ̈ܐ), or verse homilies are extant.
Works in modern translation:
- Six memre on creation — Narsaï (1968). Philippe Guignoux (ed.). Homélies de Narsaï sur la création: Édition critique du texte syriaque. Patrologia Orientalis 34, fasc. 3–4 (in French). Turnhout/Paris: Brepols.
- Four memre on baptism and eucharist — Narsai (1909). Richard Hugh Connolly (ed.). The liturgical homilies of Narsai. Texts and studies (Cambridge, England) vol. 8, no. 1. Cambridge University Press..
- Five memre on dominical feasts — Christmas, Epiphany, Passion, Easter, Ascension — these show Narsai’s christological opposition to Cyril of Alexandria in a few places — Narsai (1979). Frederick G McLeod (ed.). Narsai’s metrical homilies on the Nativity, Epiphany, Passion, Resurrection, and Ascension: critical edition of Syrica text. Patrologia Orientalis 40, fasc. 1. François Graffin. Turnhout: Brepols.
- Six memre on Old Testament topics — Enoch and Elijah, Flood, Blessings of Noah, Tower of Babel, Tabernacle, Brazen Serpent — J Frishmann (1992). “Narsai’s Memre on Old testament Topics”. University of Leiden (dissertation).
- Five memre on Parables of Jesus — Ten Virgins, Prodigal Son, Rich man and Lazarus, Workers in the Vineyard, Wheat and Tares — Narsaï (1984). Emmanuel Pataq Siman (ed.). Cinq homélies sur les paraboles évangéliques (in French). Paris: Cariscript.
- Memra on the Three Doctors (Diodore of Tarsus, Nestorius and Theodore of Mopsuestia) — Martin, F (1900). “Homélie de Narsaï sur les trois Docteurs”. Journal Asiatique. 15: 469–525.
- mêmrê (ܡܐܡܖ̈ܐ) or “verse homilies”
Quotes and Excerpts:
THE LITURGICAL HOMILIES OF NARSAI
Translated into English with an introduction by
DOM R. H. CONNOLLY M.A. OF DOWNSIDE ABBEY
Texts and studies (Cambridge, England) vol. 8, no. 1. CAMBRIDGE AT THE UNIVERSITY PRESS 1909
HOMILY XVII (A).
AN EXPOSITION OF THE MYSTERIES.
The Church performs her Mysteries in secret away from those that are without; and the priest celebrates privately within the sanctuary. Only her children and her sons, the baptized and the signed, does she allow to enjoy communion in these adorable Mysteries which she performs. Wherefore she cries out before the hearers through the deacons to bow the head and receive the blessing from the priesthood:
‘ Bow your heads, o ye hearers, believers, baptized and receive the blessing from the laying on of hands by the bright robed priest.’
And when they have been blessed, another proclamation is made to them : Let every one that has not received baptism, depart hence.’
“To this effect did the Son of the Most High make confession to His Father, and these words He spoke when He gave His Body and His Blood. ‘This,’ said He, ‘is my Body, which I have given for the debts of the world ; and this, again, is My Blood, the which I have willed should be shed for sins. Whoso eateth with love of My Body and drinketh of My Blood liveth for ever, and abideth in Me, and I in him. Thus be ye doing for My memorial in the midst of your Churches ; and My Body and My Blood be ye receiving in faith. Be ye offering bread and wine, as I have taught you, and I will accomplish and make them the Body and Blood. Body and Blood do I make the bread and wine through the brooding and operation of the Holy Spirit.’”
“Carefully did the apostles take up the command- ment of their Lord, and with diligence did they hand it on to those that came after them. Even until now has this (command- ment) been observed in the Church, yea, and is observed, until He shall cause His Mystery to cease by His shining forth and by His manifestation.”
“The Mysteries of the Church are not celebrated without a priest, for the Holy Spirit has not permitted (any other) to celebrate them. The priest received the power of the Spirit by the laying on of hands ; and by him are performed all the Mysteries that are in the Church. The priest consecrates the bosom of the waters of baptism ; and the Spirit bestows the adoption of the sons on those that are baptized. Without a priest a woman is not betrothed to a man; and without him their marriage festival is not accomplished. Without a priest the defunct also is not interred ; nor do they let him down into his grave without the priest. Common (lit.’unclean’) water is not consecrated without the priest ; and if there were no priest the whole house would be unclean. These things the Holy Spirit celebrates by the hands of the priest, even though he be altogether in sins and offenses.”
… on behalf of all orders deceased from holy Church, and for all those who are deemed worthy to partake of this oblation : on behalf of these and Thy servants in every place receive, Lord, this gift which Thy servant
The priest first of all blesses the people with the Canon…The grace of Jesus our Lord, the love of the Father,’ etc.
‘Let your minds be aloft.’
Answer ‘Unto Thee, Lord,’ etc.
‘This… oblation is offered to the Lord’
Answer: ‘It is Meet and right.’
Then the priest takes in his hands the living bread, and lifts up his gaze to the height…. He breaks the bread in the name of the Father, Son, and Spirit He signs the Blood with the Body and makes mention of the Trinity ; he signs the Body with the living Blood
with the same utterance.’
Then, the ceremonies having been completed, blesses the people with that formula with which our Lord gave blessing. He now begins to break the Body little by little, that it may be easy to distribute to all the receivers.’
The people answer: ‘0 Lord, pardon the sins of Thy servants, and purify our conscience from doubt and
Then the priest prays, and begs of God that He will sanctify us and blot out our sins by His grace, and make us all worthy to stand before Him without blemish, and call Him, all of us, with confidence, “Abba, our Father.” Then the people answer and say earnestly the prayer which the Living Mouth taught His beloved sons (The Lord’s Prayer).
HOMILY XXII (B). ON BAPTISM.
“The cause of the signing on the forehead is that it may be for the confusion of the devils ; that when they discern it on the head of a man they may be overcome by it.”
HOMILY XXI (C).
ON THE MYSTERIES OF THE CHURCH AND ON BAPTISM.
The priests of the Church have grasped authority in the height and the depth; and they give commands to heavenly and earthly beings. They stand as mediators between God and man, and with their words they drive out iniquity from mankind. The key of the divine mercies is placed in their hands, and according to their pleasure they distribute life to men. The hidden Power has strengthened them to perform this, that by things manifest they may shew His love to the work of His hands. He shewed His love by the mystery which He delivered to them of earth, that men to men might be shewing mercy by His gift. The power of His gift He delivered into the hand of the priests of the Church, that by it they might strengthen the feebleness of men who were in debt by sin.”
“The defilement of men he cleanses with water : yet not by the water, but by the power of the name of the Divinity which there lights down. The power of the Divinity dwells in the visible waters, and by the force of His power they dissolve the might of the Evil One and of Death. The Evil One and Death are undone by Baptism; and the resurrection of the body and the redemption of the soul are preached there in.”
HOMILY XXXII (D).
ON THE CHURCH AND ON THE PRIESTHOOD.
“To this end He gave the priesthood to the new priests, that men might be made priests to forgive iniquity on earth. For the forgiveness of iniquity was the priesthood (set) among mortals ; for mortal man has need every hour of pardon.”
“The greatness of the title and the order of the priesthood I desired to praise ; and anguish goaded me when I saw how it has been degraded by ignorance. I wondered to see the greatness of the glory of those who triumphed; and I was pained and grieved at the disgrace of those who played the coward. By how much their office was greater than all orders, even so is it become immeasurably less than all grades. The treasury of the Spirit He delivered to them to administer, and fools who have not known how to discern the power of its greatness have despised it. The hidden nod gave into their hands the keys of the height ; and wicked priests have shut the door before those that would have entered in. It was granted to them to pardon the iniquity of men; and the iniquity of them that should
have given pardon has surpassed that of the defiled.”
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