Over the past few years I've taken an interest in the early history of the ancient Christian churches of the Middle East. One of those groups is the Church of East (sometimes called the Nestorian Church or the Assyrian Church), and it has a rich and fascinating history, marked by a vast missionary expansion in the first millennium AD and then wave after wave of disasters during the second millennium, culminating now with the decimation of their homeland under ISIS. I'm in the process of writing a paper for one of my classes, focusing on the history of the Church of the East in the early 20th century, and it inspired me to compose a poem about that church's story. Here I'll present the first part of the poem (more to come next week), covering the period from the church's founding by the apostle Addai to the advent of Islam in the region.
When Holy Christ Sent Out Addai:
The Church of the East, Part 1
When holy Christ sent out Addai,
Apostle of the Seventy,
Did He foresee what blood and tears
Would haunt the path laid out for thee?
Thou ancient plain of Nineveh,
Where faithless Israel went to die,
Was resurrected with new life
When rang the voice of Mar Addai.
Edessa heard, and Nisibis,
Those cities of the ancient king,
But now they hailed a greater Lord
And let their loud hosannas ring.
Assyria would hold the faith
Through Aphrahat and Ephraim,
'Gainst hostile kings who stormed their gates
And heretics who walked within.
They sent out missionaries, too,
To wander ancient eastern roads;
They took the Gospel worlds away
While Roman Christians stayed in Rome.
They preached the Christ on Persian steppes,
And Zoroaster trembled;
They took the faith beyond the fields
Where Macedon surrendered.
The servants of the Buddha heard
The Gospel of the noble Lord
A thousand years before the West
Would e'er proclaim it on their shores.
They bore the Gospel deep inside
The empire of the eastern sun,
And China heard the call of Christ
From churches Mar Addai had won.
They learned their true theology
From holy monks in Syria,
From scholars like bless'd Theodore
Of ancient Mopsuestia.
And then the West and South took aim
At heresies they thought they saw;
And Eastern ways of phrasing faith
Were claimed to carry deadly flaws.
Chalcedon, triumph of the faith
Became the death of unity
As Christianity was split
By syntax of theology.
Thus torn from brothers they endured,
Then found themselves more distant still
When Islam's wave broke o'er their land
And made them serve the caliph's will.
But still they persevered and prayed;
They met for worship and for praise,
Speaking the tongue that Jesus spoke
And foll'wing Him in all His ways.
(Encaustic painting above: Addai bringing the Gospel to King Agar of Edessa, anonymous, 10th cent., St. Catherine's Monastery, Sinai)