Mar_Thoma_SlivaFr. Joseph Kalathil M Th


            Signs and symbols are a kind of bridge that bring two realities together. It means one leads to another. Those that are directly accessible need no sign at all. Fire is a reality and smoke is its sign.

            There are two types of signs and symbols. When there is a natural relation between the sign and the signified, it is called a natural sign. The relation between fire and smoke is an example. This relation never depends on human conventions. In the second group of signs the relation is determined by man according to his free decision. National flag is an example for this. This type of sign is abundant in Christian worship. The relation between the sign and the signified in this case is dependent more on human intellect.

            Symbols are the signs fixed by man in his free will because of some basic reasons such as historical, salvific, cultural, social, national, moral etc. It can also happen that a natural relation is discovered and fixed by human intellect. Example is sun and Christ. (Illuminates, warms, gives life: the one in natural order and the other in supernatural order.


            Everything in the field of liturgy works through signs and symbols. These holy symbols that unite God and man bring together heaven and earth. The liturgical assembly itself is a symbol. It is not a crowd, but those who are united in Jesus Christ, united in the name of Jesus.[1] The church alone, in the power of the Holy Spirit, can determine, explain and when needed, change the signs and symbols in the liturgy.[2]

            Symbols in liturgy unite the believers with non-perceptible divine realities. Being directly involved in the history of salvation accomplished by Jesus Christ, They help the worshippers to touch and experience the heavenly life, the ultimate goal of man.


            Sanctuary is the most sacred place which represents the holy of holies. It is the symbol of heavenly Jerusalem. It is the heaven on earth. We can find the sanctuary at the eastern end of a chapel. This is the place for Priests and deacons, the heavenly choir and upper choir. The floor of the sanctuary built three steps above the Qestroma.[3]

            The canons of Ishoyab fourth stress the sacredness of sanctuary in relation to the altar which makes the sanctuary sacred. The sacredness of sanctuary is highlighted by John of Dara who prescribes that the priest and the deacon have to wash their head, hands and feet when they enter the sanctuary. He reminds that those who enter the sanctuary should be free from all worldly passions.[4]

            According to Narsai, in the celebration of the mysteries, the sanctuary becomes the garden of Joseph, which is to provide the burial ground for the Lord. The Commentators generally agree that the sanctuary represents heaven. According to Pseudo George of Arbela the holy of holies is in the place of heaven. John of Dara speaks it as a spiritual mountain i.e. the place of God or heaven.[5]

            In the East Syrian tradition sanctuary is at the eastern end of the church building. The sanctuary has three chambers: the central chamber, a northern chamber and a southern chamber (Baptistery).In the baptistery there is an altar to consecrate the oil with which to sign the baptized. In the central chamber there are two beth -gazze[6].There is a lamp, ‘Tukkuvilakku’ at the entrance of the sanctuary, hung from the roof and lit always. It proclaims the holiness of the sanctuary. This is always known as the sanctuary lamp.[7]


            The altar is the most venerable part of a church. As many scholars point out, in all ecclesial traditions, the first altars were made of wood. The Latin Church in course of time turned to stone altars. In Chaldeo Indian tradition we see the use of wooden altars. The wooden altars always lead us to the last supper table as well as to the wood of the cross.[8]  In our tradition altar is the sepulcher of our Lord and the throne of the Holy Trinity.

            The altar is the empty tomb, the symbol of our Lord’s resurrection, namely the risen Lord Himself. The altar is always made in the model of a tomb and not like an ordinary dining table. In our tradition it is the symbol of the risen Lord, the Messiah, the anointed one. The complete anointing of the altar and the Dapa during their consecration reminds us of this anointed one.[9]

            “The Instruction for applying the Liturgical Prescriptions of the Code of Canons of the Eastern churches” given by the congregation for the eastern churches reminds about the cultic significance of the altar in the Old Testament. It was an important element of worship in ancient Israel. The Christian altar is the fulfillment of the Sancta Sanctorum of the ancient temple, the Golgotha altar of new sacrifice, the table of the last supper, the tomb of the Lord, the place of the resurrection etc.[10]

            The diaconal proclamation after the third G’hantha of the Anaphora of Addai and Mari refers to altar as the glorious throne of Christ. According to Narsai altar at first is the place of death and King Messiah is “mystically slain upon the altar”. The altar is also the tomb of the Lord, the bread and wine being the body of our Lord which was embalmed and buried. The veil over them symbolizes the stone covering the tomb. Theodore also considers altar as the symbol of the tomb of our Lord. Gabriel Qatraya also agrees this tomb symbolism of altar and he sees the veil that is over the bread and wine as in the place of that stone which was placed over the door of the sepulcher.[11]

            In the Syrian tradition we see the attempt of identifying Christ with the altar. For e.g. St.Ephrem considers Christ as the true altar. West Syrian tradition emphasis that altar symbolizes Christ. Traditionally the St.Thomas Christians in Kerala call the altar ‘Sornos’ which is the Malayalam term of ‘Thronos’. It means throne and thus altar is the throne of God in Madbaha which is in fact the heaven on earth.[12] The Gospel Lectionary is the symbol of Jesus Christ and it always kept closed on the northern side of the altar and the St. Thomas Cross is kept on the southern side of the altar. This Cross on the altar represents the Holy Spirit.[13]


            In East syriac tradition, there must be an opaque veil, which separates the sanctuary from other parts of the church or chapel. The Sanctuary is kept veiled and this brings to our mind the real nature of heaven which is beyond our human perception. At appointed times during the Liturgy, the veil is drawn aside so that the liturgical assembly gets a vision of heaven.[14]Sanctuary veil is the symbol which expresses the experience of the heavenly kingdom.

            “The Instruction for applying the Liturgical Prescriptions of the Code of Canons of the Eastern churches” given by the congregation for the eastern churches mentions the veil which separates the sanctuary from the haykla. The ancient Mesepotamean churches had wall screens separating the Madbha from the haykla[15]It is to be noted that the openings of the wall were covered by curtains. The veils are the doors of the sanctuary and of the holy of the holies. Thus we can say that the church buildings of St. Thomas Christians had veils separating the sanctuary.

            The veil is not a simple piece of cloth; it is a symbol, and was in use in the East syriac tradition.Patrologists agree that it is the specialty of the Syrian genius to express profound theological truths in symbolic terms and actions. The Madbha is a symbol of heaven, the heavenly Jerusalem and the place of the heavenly choir. The presence of veil in the church reminds the worshipper of the presence of heaven and heavenly realities. The veil emphasizes the aspect of mystery. According to Robert Taft, the liturgist, for the easterners’ devotion is aroused by concealment as well as by exposition, and the doors and veils are not only to hide, but also to reveal.[16]

            There was a veil in the temple of Jerusalem which separated the ‘ holy of holies’ from other parts of the temple and it was designed and used according to the direction given by God. The Fathers of the church speak about the veil which separates the heaven (sanctuary) and earth (nave) as the symbol of Christ Himself.[17]The sanctuary veil shows that the heaven is hidden from us and not approachable to us. During the singing of resurrection hymn the veil is opened for the first time and it signifies the biblical episode of Jesus’ manifestation in the river Jordan.

            St.Ephrem compares the function of sanctuary veil to the hiding of the glory of the inner tabernacle of paradise. The veils have an important function in the cosmic symbolism. They mark the boundary between the heavenly and earthly space. The anonymous author sees the drawing of the veils of the sanctuary as the figure of the figure of the firmament separating us from heaven. According to Liber Patrum the opening of the veils and the bringing out of the cross is like the removing of the firmament on the day of resurrection when Christ appears.[18]

            There are differences of opinions concerning the use of veil. Some argue that veil hinters the active and meaningful participation of the laity in liturgy. Some opine that the veil overemphasizes the dimension of mystery, which is a residue of Judaism. There is another argument that the use of veil, to cover the Madbha for all the time other than the time of the celebration of the Qurbana is to stop the adoration in front of the tabernacle.[19] The veil separates priest from the people and the people are considered as profane and unworthy to be near the mystery.

            On the other hand those who favor the veil points that the Syro Malabar Church had a tradition of sanctuary veil till the introduction of the 1962 liturgical text. Even if in the incarnation God became man, if we consider Him as equal to us and treat him as an equal that would be a sign of pride or presumption from our part. It is to be noted that only the true experiential knowledge of the symbolized realities will help one to appreciate them. The veil used in the church is an opening to the heavenly realities, and raising our minds towards the heavenly Jerusalem.[20]


It is a part of ancient tradition in the Syrian churches that during the liturgy of the catechumens in the Qurbana and for several other liturgical celebrations the celebrant remains on the Bema. During the Qurbana of the faithful also certain hymns are sung from the Bema. We can understand the presence of Bema in East Syrian church through various excavations and researches that was done in the last centuries.

Bema is a raised platform in the middle of the nave in the chaldeo Indian churches. Chairs of the bishops, priests and ministers are arranged on the Bema. A small table is set on the middle of it. A St. Thomas Cross is placed in the middle of this table amidst two candles.[21] The Old and New Testament readings are kept on this table. Bema is constructed three steps above the floor of the nave.

In the Greek and Syrian tradition we see the use of Bema. In the Greek liturgical tradition Bema is known as ‘Ambo’. In this elevated space Gospel is proclaimed, Homily is made and the ministry of the cantor is performed. Ambo recalls the empty tomb of Lord, from which He was raised. The structure of the East syrian bema with its Episcopal throne, seats for the Archdeacon and Priests and the altar for the Gospel and Cross makes it different from the Ambo of all other Christian traditions.[22]The west Syrian Bema is similar to East Syrian Bema, but with differences. The instruction does not give proper attention to the function and symbolism of the East Syrian Bema which differ much from that of Greek Ambo.[23]

Bema is the symbol of the earthly Jerusalem and the table on it is Gagultha. Gaultha is the ladder to heaven for Christians and the most raised place on earth. It is very important that while the ceremonies in Bema symbolize the earthly ministry of Christ, the ceremonies in the Madbha represent the heavenly liturgy.[24] The liturgical prescriptions of ‘Didascalia Apostolorum’ and the ‘Apostolic Constitution’ testify that the deacon reads from the sacred scripture and makes proclamation from the Bema.[25]

In the East Syriac liturgical tradition we can find many evidences which assert the importance of Bema. The synod of Mar Isaac at Celusia Ctesiphon prescribes (410) the proclamation of  karozutha and reading of gospel by the Archdeacon from the Bema. Pseudo George of Arbela sees the Bema represents Jerusalem. The altar at the midst of Bema implies the place of Golgotha. The seat of the bishop is the place of high priest. The priest is sitting before the sanctuary and towards the East. The place of lectors is on the right and on the left. From there the prophets,[26] Apostles and the gospel are read.

There is also ‘Sqaqona’, the straightway which leads from the Bema to the sanctuary.It is the way of the truth and way to heaven. The interpretation of Gabriel Qatraya, Abraham Bar Lipha, Bar Zobi and Anonymous author reveal that the liturgy of the East Syrian Bema symbolizes more than passion and death of the Lord.[27] The Bema symbolizes the place of the death of Christ and the Golgotha, the centre of the earth.

There is a distinct character of the East Syrian Bema when we compare it with other traditions. Its position in the middle of the haykala is its characteristics. Jerusalem is the centre of earth according to the ancient tradition. The Bema, being the symbol of Jerusalem thus becomes the centre of the earth. Jerusalem being the symbolic centre of the world is the place of divine communication.[28] It is important to note that this type of centre symbolism of Bema in relation to Jerusalem suits well to the liturgical function of communication. The early Christian tradition speaks of Golgotha (altar which is in the middle of Bema)as the centre of the world.

It is important to note that the commentators of the East Syrian liturgy consider the liturgy of the Bema as the celebration of the public ministry of Jesus which climaxed on the cross.[29] It is a fact that in gospel we read that Jesus was in the midst of the people. The liturgical celebration of the public ministry of Jesus becomes significant and symbolically very meaningful when the celebration takes place on the Bema which is literally in the midst of the people.

As the church which uses East Syriac liturgy, the church of St. Thomas Christians also used the Bema .The structure of the Qurbana which have been existing here presupposes the use of Bema among St. Thomas Christians. According to E. R. Hammbey, the most important evidence on the liturgical use of Bema in Malabar is the prostration rite in Raza, which has been conducted in the centre of the hykla where the Bema is supposed to be found by spreading a veil on the floor. The Onita d-bema (anthem of the bema) also refers to the existence of the Bema.[30] Some authors deny the use of Bema among St. Thomas Christians. This is a contradictory argument because the ceremony and prayer would not have existed if the Bema did not exist. The circumstantial evidences also prove the existence of Bema among St. Thomas Christians.

It is a fact that the texts of Syro Malabar Church in 1962 and in 1968 ignored the use of Bema. However in the texts of 1968, there is a mention of using Bema at the time of the liturgy of the word. The instructions and decrees often promote Bema at the centre of the liturgical centres like seminaries and monastic chapels.


            The Beth Gazza means treasure houses are arranged on both sides of the altar. Usually they are made the Northern and Southern walls of the sanctuary. It is also customary to cover them with decorated doors or curtains. The Chalice is prepared in the Beth Gazza on the southern side and the paten in that on the northern side. In ancient days, the holy body of our Lord also used to be preserved in the northern Beth Gazza.[31]

            A small tabernacle set in the northern Beth Gazza or the Beth Gazza itself having a strong door or a tabernacle arranged close to the northern Beth Gazza could very well be used to preserve the few consecrated particles.[32]There are also a custom in Kerala church to make the Beth Gazza in the eastern wall on either side of the altar.


            For eastern faithful incensing is an indispensable element of public worship. It is the symbol of supreme adoration or submission of the whole creation to the creator and also the symbol of forgiveness of sins and human prayer rising up to God.[33]

            Incensing is an act of confessing God as our Lord and our Saviour. During persecution the faithful were asked to offer incense to idols or emperors in order to show that they have changed their fidelity. Incensing was considered to be a symbol of expressing fidelity and commitment to true God.[34]

            It is the sign of forgiveness of sins. Just as the sweet smelling incense destroys the bad smell in the air, so too the sins and debts and their evil effects are destroyed with the incensing rite in the liturgy. Incensing is also the symbol of prayer that raises up to heaven from the faithful. In Ps140, 2 we pray: “Let my prayer be counted as incense before you”. In St. John we see “golden bowls full of incense”, which he has seen in Revelation are “the prayers of saints” (Rev5, 8).Both Old Testament and New Testament testifies incensing as part of human worship to God.[35]

            In the first incensing rite in the Qurbana, the deacon incenses the whole sanctuary with the altar at its centre, the whole church and the faithful assembled there. Incensing before the throne of God in heaven signifies our total surrender to God and confessing his divinity and dominion over all. (Here the sanctuary is the symbol of heaven and the altar that of the throne of God).Incensing the faithful shows the remission of their sins and debts. As ancient records show, deacon incenses the community on both sides. During the time of incense the faithful used to take the fume of incense to themselves with a kind of waving of their hands and pray, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner”.[36] It is known that the faithful ought to serve before God in perfect sanctity and it is achieved through this incensing rite.

            In the beginning Christians were reluctant to use incense because of the persecutions in which they were forced to apostatize by offering incense before the statues of pagan idols or Roman Emperors. They were considered as gods. ‘Thurificati’ became the technical term of those who had apostatized in this way. They were excluded from the communion of the church. Only after the Edict of Constantine incense was introduced in Christian worship.[37] Incense in the east syriac liturgical patrimony has four theological meanings. It is offered as a sign of respect, prayer, sacrifice and forgiveness of sins. Firstly, in the Old Testament incense was offered to God as a sign of honour and it was reserved for God alone. God ordered the construction of a special altar to burn incense. Incense had to be offered continuously before the ark, visible sign of God’s presence. Secondly the rising smoke of incense is considered as a symbol of our prayers going up to God’s throne. Thirdly incense was also used for atonement. Aaron used it for the spreading of the plague among the people after Korah’s revolt (Num 17, 1-13).Fourthly incense was used as a sign of forgiveness of sins. It is intended as a means of purification from sin. Incensing must operate reconciliation between God and man through remission of man’s sins so that man’s sacrifice becomes pleasing to God.[38]

            Concerning the significance of incensing Gabriel Qatraya says: “The incense that is burnt in this hour is the mystery of the aromatic spices with which the body of our Saviour was embalmed” [39].It refers to the death and burial of the Lord Jesus Christ. The incensing in the beginning of Anaphora signifies the embalming of our Lord’s body with perfumes[40] .About the gospel reading Qatraya comments that the presence of incense at that moment signifies the sweetness of our Lord’s words, but the purpose of incense here is embalming our Lord’s body.

            The object of the incensing is specified propitiatory and sacrificial good pleasure. Moses Bar Kepha explains about incensing in the Syrian liturgy: “It signifies the Lord who came down from heaven and was made a sweet savor and an incense of reconciliation; and offered himself for us to God, the Father, and made an atonement for all the world.[41] In the pre-anaphora, there is an incense of Chalice and Paten. The prayer at this context expresses that the incensing is for the honour and the remission of sins.[42]


            The eastern liturgies in general have fostered the spirit of experiential celebration and have developed a structure accordingly. The rich symbolism and repetitive style in the eastern liturgies seem to form part of this experiential dimension of the liturgy. The speciality of eastern liturgies is the expression of the riches of the symbolic theology contained in the Bible. God reveals Himself through signs and symbols. Signs and Symbols are the language of liturgy in which the encounter between God and man takes place. Therefore encounter with the divine in liturgy is to be seen not as a system of rational and moral concepts to be understood, but as a mystery revealed through symbols and signs to be experienced, an economy of grace totally transcending the reach of reason.[43]The omission of symbols which have an important role in liturgical life unfortunately became a fashion in the life of the modern people. Signs and Symbols are very important and are deeply rooted in Holy Bible and studies of the fathers of the church. Therefore to eliminate signs and symbols which are vital in spiritual life are anti-spiritual and anti-ecclesial.



KOLLAMPARAMPIL, A. G., – PERUMTHOTTAM, J., eds., Bride at the feet of the Bridegroom    (Changanassery, 1997).

MATHEUS, R., The order of the third Sanctification, (Kottayam, 2000).

MATHEW. J., Structure and Theology of East Syriac Qurbana (Kottayam, 2012).

PATHIKULANGARA, V., Qurbana (Kottayam, 1998).

THADIKKATT, G., Liturgical Identity of the Mar Toma Nazrani Church (Kottayam, 2004).

VAVANIKUNNEL, G., ed., A Study on the Syro Malabar Liturgy (Changanassery, 1976).

VELLIAN, J., The Pre-Anaphoral of the Chaldeo-Malabar Qurbana-A Liturgico Theological Study, (Rome, 1965).


[1] V. PATHIKULANGARA, Qurbana (Kottayam, 1998)44.

[2] V. PATHIKULANGARA, Qurbana, 45.

[3] V. PATHIKULANGARA, Qurbana, 138.

[4] P.MANIYATT,  “Sacred Space of the Eastern Liturgies” in A.G KOLLAMPARAMPIL-   J.PERUMTHOTTAM eds., Bride at the feet of the Bridegroom    (Changanassery, 1997) 223.

[5] MANIYATT, Sacred Space, 224.

[6] MANIYATT, Sacred Space, 226.

[7]  PATHIKULANGARA, Qurbana, 138.

[8]  PATHIKULANGARA, Qurbana, 139.

[9]  PATHIKULANGARA, Qurbana, 140.

[10] MANIYATT, Sacred Space, 226.

[11] MANIYATT, Sacred Space, 227.

[12] PATHIKULANGARA, Qurbana, 141.

[13] PATHIKULANGARA, Qurbana, 141.

[14] PATHIKULANGARA, Qurbana ,167.

[15] MANIYATT, Sacred Space, 225.

[16] G.THADIKKATT, Liturgical Identity of the Mar Toma Nazrani Church (Kottayam, 2004) 214. Here after, THADIKKATT, Liturgical Identity.

[17] PATHIKULANGARA, Qurbana, 168.

[18] MANIYATT, Sacred Space, 225.

[19] .THADIKKATT, Liturgical Identity, 215.

[20] .THADIKKATT, Liturgical Identity, 216.

[21]  PATHIKULANGARA, Qurbana, 145.

[22]  MANIYATT, Sacred Space, 229.

[23]  MANIYATT, Sacred Spa ce, 230.

[24] THADIKKATT, Liturgical Identity, 202.

[25] THADIKKATT, Liturgical Identity, 203.

[26] MANIYATT, Sacred Space, 230.

[27] MANIYATT, Sacred Space, 231.

[28] MANIYATT, Sacred Space,233.

[29]MANIYATT, Sacred Space, 233.

[30] THADIKKATT, Liturgical Identity, 204.

[31] PATHIKULANGARA, Qurbana, 142.

[32] PATHIKULANGARA, Qurbana, 143.

[33]PATHIKULANGARA, Qurbana, 59.

[34]PATHIKULANGARA, Qurbana, 165.

[35]PATHIKULANGARA, Qurbana, 165.

[36] PATHIKULANGARA, Qurbana,166.

[37] R. MATHEUS, The order of the third Sanctification, (Kottayam, 2000)204.

[38] MATHEUS, The order of the third Sanctification, 206.

[39] G.QATRAYA, Interpretation of the offices, No.64, as quoted by  J. MATHEW , Structure and Theology of East Syriac Qurbana (Kottayam, 2012) 176.

[40] A.BAR LIPAH,  Interpretatio, 163, as quoted by  J. MATHEW , Structure and Theology of East Syriac Qurbana (Kottayam, 2012) 176.

[41] R.H. CONNOLLY, Two Commentaries……, 137, as quoted by J.VELLIAN, The Pre-Anaphoral of the Chaldeo-Malabar Qurbana-A Liturgico Theological Study, (Rome, 1965)76.

[42] J.VELLIAN, The Pre-Anaphoral of the Chaldeo-Malabar Qurbana-A Liturgico Theological Study, (Rome, 1965)77.

[43] M.VELLANICKAL, “Liturgy:  An Interpersonal Experience” in G.VAVANIKUNNEL ed., A Study on the Syro Malabar Liturgy (Changanassery, 1976) 7.

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