What is the Qurbana?

The word “Offering” (Qurbana in Syriac) was first used to describe the worship of the Christian Church in the earliest Christian communities. It describes what is done when believers are gathered together for the worship of God. I stress the word “done” because both the Syriac word “teshmeshta” (service, or ministry) and the Greek word “leitourgia” (literally, “work of the people”) suggest doing something. You may sometimes hear people say that they go to church to observe the Qurbana, or that they go to hear the Qurbana, or that they go to receive the Qurbana. In the modern day there are few who feel that they, personally, go to Church to offer the Qurbana. They think this is the priest’s job, and in thinking this way they are not so much wrong as they are limited in their understanding of what is going on. Watching or hearing–or even simply receiving–the Qurbana suggests a person is detached from the experience of offering it–from experiencing the full satisfaction of membership in the living “Body of Christ” which is doing the offering.

Of course, the Qurbana has been understood in different ways by different people at different times and in different circumstances throughout its long history. Believers in Apostolic times met together in the house of one of their fellow-Christians for a common meal, at which they broke bread and shared a cup of wine mixed with water in obedience to our Lord’s command, “Do this for my memorial.” (1 Cor. 11:24; Lk. 24:19) Like the Passover meal of the Jews, in which the participants remembered the experience of the Exodus and made it their own, the breaking of bread and the recitation of the saving acts of God in the passion, death, burial, and resurrection of Christ made the participants in the Qurbana participants as well in the reality of those acts. By recalling that gracious intervention of God in time and among men, they considered themselves one with their Lord, and with one another, participating mysteriously in the most decisive moment of history. This whole experience of oneness with Christ and with one another in the power of his saving acts fortified the faithful, who were a minority in a hostile world, and gave them courage to bear witness to Christ in the face of sometimes brutal opposition.

It is instructive to remember how some of these early Christians provided for this common meal–or, to be more specific, how they provided for the “Offering.” Each family would bring its loaf of bread and flask of wine to the meeting and give it to the deacons. The deacons in turn presented the gifts of the faithful to the presbyter (or bishop) who then led the congregation in presenting them to God as an “offering.” In presenting them he offered, on their behalf, thanksgiving for God’s creative acts and for the new creation brought about through the Incarnation of his Son. He recounted the events of the passion, death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, and proclaimed their relevance to mankind. He prayed for God’s blessing upon the offering of bread and wine, and for the benefits that came to those who had fellowship in faith in the Body and Blood–that is, in the very person and life-of his Son, Jesus Christ. At the conclusion of his prayer, which the people affirmed with their “Amen,” the presbyter and deacons distributed the broken bread and mixed wine to the faithful.

As the Church grew and eventually prospered, the arrangement I have just recounted became unwieldy and impractical. Houses were inadequate for the crowds of worshipers; in those areas where the faithful brought their own bread and wine, this also became impractical; and because of the size and diversity of the people, different forms had to be devised to accommodate the changes. But despite any development that the Qurbana went through, the basic concept of the Offering remained at the core. The people came to offer Christ’s own offering as members of his mystical body, to recall the saving acts of God in Christ, and to participate in his life (and their own shared life together as his bodily members) through their common offering.

Today there are some who feel they have no significant personal part in the Offering of the Qurbana. The clergy are doing that, and they are the audience, looking on and singing psalms and hymns to pass the time until the Communion is distributed. People with this experience and viewpoint often devise their own private devotions, which they engage in simultaneously with the great drama being played out before them. This is the viewpoint that, until recently, had predominated in the West since the middle ages, but it is not unknown in the Church of the East. Others view the Qurbana as a public ritual, necessary for preserving the cultural identity and traditional heritage of a people steeped in Christian values. To such people the Qurbana is an important cultural tool, providing unity and helping to preserve the integrity of the Christian (or Assyrian) community in the face of a hostile and often aggressive world. This view of the Qurbana as a necessary public ritual is widespread in our time.

The two viewpoints listed above are by no means the only ways people view the Qurbana. And they are not necessarily wrong so much as they are incomplete. The Church’s own understanding of its “Offering,” its Qurbana, is rooted in Scripture and in the memory of those first Christian believers gathering together for their common meal and sacred “breaking of bread.” It is rooted in the promise of Christ, that “where two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there among them.” (Mt. 18:20) It is given even more dramatic shape by the words of the Apostle Paul: “Now you are the body of Christ, and members in your own place.” (1 Cor. 12:27) When we gather for our Offering Christ is present–not only among us, as he promised, but within us, binding us together as his own body. Each of us functions as a member in his own place. Christ is present to us and in us in the congregation assembled in his name.

This dramatic insight is Paul’s closing thought in a dissertation on the Body of Christ that begins, “I speak as to the wise. Judge for yourselves what I say: The cup of thanksgiving which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? As there is one loaf, so all of us are one body, for all of us take from the one loaf.” (1 Cor. 10:15-18) Between this declaration and the announcement, “You are the body of Christ,” Paul discusses a number of issues with this as the central insight. Among these issues is one concerning how the believers in Corinth treated one another when they gathered for their common meal and breaking of bread. Weaving together the two images of the Body of Christ in the loaf of bread and the one body in the congregation, it becomes impossible to separate them when at last he declares, “Whoever eats and drinks of it unworthily eats and drinks condemnation upon himself, for he does not discern the body of the Lord.” (1 Cor. 11:29) By this time the reader of the epistle cannot locate the Body of Christ only in the “loaf of bread,” but the “body of the Lord” which we discern must also be located in the assembled believers as well. This was the standard for judging the rightness or wrongness of the Corinthians’ behavior toward their fellow Christians: in their assembly did they discern the body of the Lord in the men and women who surrounded them as well as in the loaf? It all comes round to the words of Christ himself: “Inasmuch as you have done it to one of the least of these, my brothers, you have done it to me.” (Mt. 25:40)

So those early Christians who assembled brought their Offering to God as the Body of Christ. It was quite literally an offering of themselves under the symbols of bread and wine, in imitation of his own self-sacrifice on the Cross, as he had commanded them: “Do this for my memorial.” In this Offering they affirmed–and experienced–their own oneness with their Lord and his self-sacrifice, and their oneness with each other, having participation in his life and in one another’s lives. In it they learned the meaning of his words, “Whoever eats my body and drinks my blood abides in me and I in him.” (Jn. 6:54) In the bread and wine they discerned through faith the power and presence of the Lord himself: in one another they discerned through faith the gracious presence of the same Lord, as well as the opportunity to serve him and share in his life.

The Mystery of the Qurbana, then, is the mystery of Christ present with us: present in the bread and wine which is offered, and present in the assembled faithful, his body, who do the offering–the mystery of Emmanuel, “God with us.” When we fully discern the body of the Lord, then we experience the fullness of the Mystery, “the mystery which was hidden from ages and generations, but now is revealed to his saints, those to whom God was pleased to make known what are the riches of the glory of this mystery among the nations, that is, the Christ who is in you, the hope of our glory.” (Col. 1:26-27)