19 Dec 2009

Narsai: Mary, Christmas, Poetry and Theology … Christian faith in Mesopotamia

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Christmas, Church History, Jesus, Kingdom, Ministry, Preaching

Assyrian Scripture


I grew up thinking “Christmas” was utterly irrelevant to genuine Christian faith. I was told it was essentially pagan and Roman Catholic (not any better than pagan in my upbringing). Neither of these are historically true but knowing that fact took learning history.

I did not know just how ancient “Christmas.” I did not know how widespread it was among those that never had anything to do with pagan traditions of Northern Europe nor the Pope of Rome. That is they were not influenced by paganism nor Roman Catholicism which simply did not exist as people imagine it does today.

We north American followers of Jesus can sometimes be very American or European centered in our view of history and of Christianity. But there are large swaths of Christian faith far removed from Europe, the Catholic Church or any western influence. These predate English speaking Christianity by a thousand years in fact.  But “Christmas” was celebrated among these believers (they never heard of Christmas trees or Santa either).  These believers had different terms for what in our cultural environment is called “Christmas.”  They may use words like Epiphany, Nativity or Advent or festival of the birth. (Sadly, it is the case that western Christians are completely unaware of the long history of Christianity in the East that predates most European versions by centuries and sometimes millennia.  See Philip Jenkins and the Lost History of Christianity).

Let me introduce you to Narsai, a Mesopotamian Christian who helps us appreciate both of these truths. He was never exposed to “pagan” traditions of Northern Europe and was not a Roman Catholic. He lived in what we call Iraq today. His life was lived under the Sassanian Empire, not the Roman Empire.

I have shared two early Christian hymns (and more on the way) that focus on the Christmas season but now I want to share an early Christmas sermon by the eastern Syriac Christian Narsai who lived about 1500 years ago. Narsai (ca. A.D. 399-503) has been called “the Harp of the Holy Spirit” for his gift of doing theology in poetry. He did not believe doctrine was dry, boring or irrelevant. Rather doctrine is vibrant and full of life.

I thought it would be appropriate here in light of the hymn that saw Christmas from Joseph’s point of view … Narsai helps us think about Mary.

Narsai had a reputation for his homiletical poetry. That is his preaching, much like Isaiah’s, is in the form of poetry.  His preaching is of the highest order and from a theological standpoint he is regarded as one of the greatest of Nestorian thinkers. There was really a laser thin hair splitting among some of these great thinkers of days gone by, but most today would regard Narsai as “orthodox.”

Narsai was a student of Theodore of Mopsuestia in biblical interpretation and supported Antiochene Christology. He was head of the school in Edessa during the Council of Chalcedon (451), and he bore the brunt of that controversy. He had to flee Edessa and settled in Nisibis outside the Byzantine Empire.

What attracts us to Narsai, however, is not any of that boring stuff. Rather it is his ability to bring poetry and theology together like none other. He was like an ancient Charles Wesley!

Narsai and the Birth of Jesus

Christmas as a season seems to have started during the time of Constantine. However, earlier than this “Epiphany” was celebrated in the East and these two started to get mingled together. Theologically the shift from celebrating Easter to Christmas and Epiphany was a shift from Jesus’ death to incarnation (which also was the hot button issue of the day). Christmas was used to teach theology. “Christmas, as has been often been put before, is the celebration of Nicene orthodoxy every bit as much as it is a celebration of the birth of Jesus” (Hughes Oliphant Old). That Narsai should choose Christmas as a time to make clear one of the central doctrines of the Christian faith is not surprising. Here is part of Narsai’s Christmas sermon.

Edessa on the Euphrates. Mesopotamia was a major center of Christian thinking. This map is of a later period.

Refrain: Blessed be the Messiah who on the day of his birth
gladdened the earth and made heaven rejoice.

My Brothers:

‘The Coming of the Divine Word’

In love and mercy the Creator was pleased to give life to the universe,
And (so) He sent His Son to restore the universe to His knowledge.
There went forth from the Father the Word of the Father – though
He did not depart;
And He came to our dwelling place, though He was in our
Dwelling place and in all things.
There went forth His (good) pleasure, and He came in His love to
Earthy beings
But His Nature remained unchanged in what It was.
(It was) not according to His Nature (that) the Almighty went forth or departed,
because there is no place for the (Divine) Essence to go to within
what It has finished.
For He does not go forth in (the sense of) moving away from what He is,
Because, in what He is, He remains forever unchanged.

In Syriac the lines are perfectly balanced (since I am not a Syriac scholar I will trust the judgment of others on that point); the words are carefully chosen. All the art of the poet is used to make the cadences of the language appropriate to the high seriousness of the thoughts expressed.

Narsai proceeds to set forth the divine plan and recounts the biblical narrative, which seems to have been typical in Syrian preaching. Here we begin the story of Gabriel visiting the Virgin Mary. Mary is pictured as the New Eve who believes and obeys the word given her: she is to become the “temple” of human flesh in which the image of God is to take human form. Narsai, as we can see, is a master at typology.

The annunciation, is to be sure, one of the crucial points of the day. Nestorius had doubts about the propriety of calling Mary theotokos, that is “God-bearer.” Gabriel’s salutation, “Hail Mary, full of grace” is one of the texts significant to those who grant her this title. This passage, as Narsai understands it, has to be understood properly.

A second time our Minstrel picks up the biblical narrative recounting at length the visitation, the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, the announcement to the shepherds, the journey of the wise men, the fear of Herod, the slaughter of the innocents, and the presentation in the temple.

Irony and paradox are used throughout. Narsai calls attention to God’s gracious condescension in revealing himself to the Assyrian astrologers in terms their astrology would understand. One gets the impression that Narsai sees in the “wise men” his own people. Finally the story comes to its conclusion with the presentation of Jesus at the temple. We notice that Mary is once more at the center of the nativity narrative just as she was at the beginning.

With this Narsai begins his conclusion, which is just as long as the introduction (over a hundred lines) and just as theological. Narsai now asks “who” it is that presented Jesus at the temple. The questions so dear to the Nestorians is once more broached: who is Mary? The Nestorians wanted to affirm the confession that Christ is both true God and true Man, but they could not go along with calling Mary the theotokos. The way Narsai tries to solve the problem is by interpreting the whole narrative through the lens of John 1.14. It is not that the eternal Word became flesh in such a way that the Word lost its characteristics or divine nature, but rather that it became flesh in the sense that it dwelt in human flesh, the flesh of Jesus. Let me quote from his sermon at length:

Inside of an ancient Assyrian church in Iraq. It is sad that Mesopotamia almost never enters western disciples minds when the term “early church” comes up.

The Word of the Father has abased Himself by means of His (good) pleasure;
And His power dwelt in the pure body which Mary bore.
(It was) not His (Divine) Essence (that) He abased Himself and came to a birth;
the (good) pleasure of His love abode in another and called him by his Name.
(It was) not the (Divine) Essence which is hidden from all that Mary bore;
a man she bore who is entirely like the members of his race.
(It was) not the spiritual One who has no structure (that) hands have circumcised;
it was a corporal being whom the hands of corporeal beings circumcised.
Mary is a human being from the humanity of Adam’s race;
And like to her is the child who is from her in body and soul.
Mary is equal to (other) females because of her fashioning;
Her offspring, on the other hand, is greater than all offsprings
Of the daughters of Eve.
Her offspring is like to (other) corporeal beings in body and soul, but holier and
More glorious than corporeal beings because of his fashioning.
His nature is like that of his mother from whom he exists,
But he is more exalted than she because it is not from seed (that he has
Acquired) his bodily structure.
He is entirely a man because of the wholeness of (his) body and soul; but he is also
God because he became the dwelling place for the God of the universe.
He is the son of a woman because from her is the nature of his bodily structure
But he is the Son of the Divine Essence because he is equal to this by the power
Of his Assumer.


Narsai was quite willing to honor the Virgin Mary. For him the doctrine of the virgin birth was of major importance. Mary is the second Eve and a key role in the history of salvation. From the standpoint of Christ’s humanity she is the woman who brought the Savior into the world. Besides this Narsai was willing to recognize the biblical types for Mary: Mary is the second Eve, and the temple enshrining the divine presence.

(Quotes taken from Frederick G. McLeod’s translation of Narsai’s Metrical Homilies on the Nativity, Epiphany, Passion, Resurrection, and Ascension, Patrologia Orientalis, vol 40).

Narsai, through his poetic preaching, challenges us to see Christmas as a decisive moment in God’s Plan of Salvation. He also use the occasion to talk about Mary . . . just who was she? He suggests that she is not theotokos and yet she is more than in most Evangelical thinking today. She is the Second Eve. Christmas, for Narsai, was a time to reflect on the most important themes in the Christian faith. I recommend Scot McKnight’s Real Mary for my readers.

The Poet has given us a lot to think on . . . doctrinally . . . this Christmas. May your thinking be blessed.

Of Related Interest

Aurelius Clemens Prudentius: An Ancient Christmas Hymn

Ephraem the Syrian: Another Ancient Christmas Hymn

3 Responses to “Narsai: Mary, Christmas, Poetry and Theology … Christian faith in Mesopotamia”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    Very interesting, and thanks for
    sharing this material. It seems
    that in America there are various
    views on Christmas and no matter
    what a person sees in Christmas,
    the fact is that to many Christians
    it is a time of the year to remember
    Jesus Christ Gods Son, his birth
    and life and also his death and
    resurrection. Even though Christians
    worship God, Jesus, and the Holy
    Spirit every week(minimum) it is
    good to me to set aside a day of
    the year to honor Jesus birthday.

  2. Justin Says:

    Thanks Bobby. It’s always good to learn a little more about our Christian ancestors–particularly those of the Eastern variety.

  3. Stoned-Campbell Disciple Says:

    Thanks Justin

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