Theology of Marriage
in the East Syriac and St. Thomas Christian (Syro Malabar) Traditions
Fr. Dr. Dominic Vechoor
Dn. George Ponnumvarickayil
Pastoral care of marriage and family is a top priority concern for the entire Church. As Pope Francis observes at the beginning of his post-synodal apostolic exhortation, “the joy of the family is the joy of the Church”. A fruitful and genuinely effective pastoral care of family needs a sound theology of marriage. It is a fact that the traditional Catholic understanding of marriage and family is much influenced and determined by the Western theological categories, especially by the Augustinian perspectives. But it is high time that we need to become aware of and get familiarised with the other legitimate and authentic theological traditions as well. This article is an attempt to shed light on the East Syriac and St. Thomas Christian (Syro Malabar) understandings of marriage, based on their liturgical rites of matrimony.
1.Historical Development of Marriage in the Christian Tradition
Christian understanding of marriage is closely interwoven with Jewish faith. For Jews, marriage is a religious duty as the biblical commandment suggests, ‘be fruitful and multiply (Gen. 1, 28). The married life of several exemplary couples of the Old Testament bear witness to the sacredness and duties of vocation to married life. The rite of marriage in Jewish religion consisted of two parts, betrothal and wedding, which were celebrated independently. The initial ceremony part took place in the house of the bride and was presided over by the bride’s father. The main element of the betrothal ceremony was the custom of giving a marriage price by the groom to the bride’s father as a guarantee for the marriage. Later, it was replaced by a ring. The second part of the ceremonious function was held in the groom’s house, presided over by the groom’s father, which culminated in the wedding feast. We find close links between the Christian and the Jewish liturgies of marriage, especially in the case of customs like the gift of money, document of the contract of union, ceremony of betrothal, crowning of bride and bridegroom, custom of the bride veil, glass of wine etc.
The Christian understanding of marriage has its basis in the teachings of Jesus Christ, which is closely related to his teachings on the kingdom of God and the indissoluble covenantal nature of marriage (Mt. 19, 1-6). St. Paul is an important exponent of Christian understanding of marriage in the NT (Eph. 5, 21-33; 1 Cor. 7, 1-11). Initially, marriage was a domestic affair, organised by the two families and celebrated in the two households. In this domestic ceremony, the head of the family officiated the ceremony and passed over the blessing of Yahweh to the man and woman joined in matrimony. Each family had its own household liturgy with its own rites of prayers, hymns and sacrifices. However, they considered marriage more as a religious act rather than a mere civil act. Already in the early centuries, marriage was considered as a sacred institution that required the ecclesiastical sanction from the bishop, the head of the Christain community. Ignatius of Antioch (ca. 35-107) suggested that ‘the marriage should be blessed after the bishop’s approval’. Tertullian (ca.160-225) also considered marriage without the knowledge of the bishop as unfavorable. From the fourth century onwards, it became customary for marriage to be blessed by a priest. In the fifth century, Narsai of Nisibis (+500) affirmed that without the presence of a priest, marriage cannot take place in the Churches. In the East, the solemn nuptial blessing for the rite of matrimony was accompanied by the crowning, priestly prayer and final blessing. In the Roman Church, the first example of a nuptial mass for the celebration of wedding dates back to the fourth and fifth centuries.
East Syriac liturgy and theology of marriage are closely related to the Jewish culture and theology.
Tatian the Syrian (130-185) is an important ecclesiastical writer of the early Syriac tradition. Though he is sometimes accused of the Gnostic teaching of the rigorist encratites, who denied marriage and sex, he highlights the unity of marriage and the need for union with God.
Bardaissan of Edessa (154-222/3), another well-known writer of the early Syriac tradition, tries to explain marriage in the context of freedom, which is associated with the Spirit and is a divine gift. According to him, one can lead a good life through the right use of his own freedom. The right use of the freedom of will in conjugal sharing is considered as the most effective means of fostering the interpersonal relationship between husband and wife. There existed a strong trend, favouring sexual asceticism during the second century in the Syriac world. But among the Syriac fathers, Bardaissan wrote positively about the sexual intimacy. A gradual transition in the attitude towards marriage is seen from the writings of Bardaissan.
Odes of Solomon, another outstanding early Syriac source, probably written in Edessa in the second century within a Judeo-Christian milieu, makes use of the imagery of marriage and family in the context of baptism. The nuptial imagery is used to describe the relationship between Jesus and the believer. In the Odes, we see the use of nuptial metaphors such as “bridegroom”, “bridal chamber”, “wedding feast” and “betrothal”. Syriac Didascalia of the Holy Apostles, composed in North Syria in the third century, expounds the sublimity of marriage based on its unity according to the natural law. The second and third chapters of this book are specially meant for husbands and wives. It instructs the husband to be merciful to the wife because the conjugal communion is indissoluble and advises the wife to be subjected to the husband. This subjection is not the offshoot of slavery but emerges out of the freedom and trust of love. In addition, the role of parents in marriage and the interior purity of marriage are beautifully articulated here. The book considers Church as the perfect bride of Christ.
The Acts of Judas Thomas, an apocryphal work of the third century, seems to affirm sexual union as an obstacle to spiritual growth. Here sexual intimacy is considered as a veil of corruption, which hides the human person from holiness, chastity, love and faith in God. The purification of our body is possible only when we cast away this veil of corruption. The content of the book considers procreation as a bondage and present virginity as the most effective way to holiness. The book gives greater importance to virginity and considers it as a foretaste of eschatological life. It instructs the faithful to refrain from unclean, heinous and unspiritual bondage of marriage. Those who reject marriage and take a life of virginity here on earth never loses the ends and properties of marriage but postpones it to the eschaton, when the wedding feast with Christ the bridegroom would take place. On earth, they are betrothed to Christ through the baptism. We read in Acts of Thomas:
Remember my children… as soon as you preserve yourself from this filthy intercourse, you become pure temples and are saved from afflictions, manifest and hidden and from the heavy care of children, the end of whom is bitter sorrow… But you will be persuaded by me to keep yourselves pure unto God; you shall have living children to whom not one of these blemishes and hurts come and you shall be without care, grief and sorrow and you shall be hoping for the time, when you shall see the true wedding feast and you shall be the praisers of God and shall be numbered with those who enter into the bridal chamber.
Even though priotity is given to virginity, the book of Acts also speaks about marriage as the union between Christ and the Church in nuptial imagery. In the light of faith, sanctuary is considered as a type of heavenly bridal chamber (nos. 21-28). If the groomsmen are entitled to conduct the marriage ceremonies, ecclesiastical ministers are the bridal friends in the marriage of the Church (nos. 30-33). Special mention is also made of angels, heavenly attendants, parousia, eschatological union, the garment of grace etc. as expressions of the bliss in marriage (nos. 34-54). Finally, it speaks about the apostolic blessing that gives a royal tinge to the celebration of marriage.
Liber Graduum, a product of the fourth century and the last among the important sources of ancient East Syriac tradition, connects the primordial state of purity with the marriage of Adam and Eve. The main feature of this primordial stage was that they were free from the flux of concupiscence. Due to the fall of Adam and Eve, man and woman were denuded of the primordial state of perfection. The author speaks of the possibility of attaining perfection in marriage through the conjugal life through moral prescriptions such as just and monogamous marriages but only in a limited manner.
Aphrahat (+345) affirms the equality of woman and man by presenting great women (Rebecca and Debbora), humble women (Rachael and Esther), prophetesses (Anna and Elizabeth) and Mary as the mother of the great prophet. As a student of scripture, he presumes the goodness of marriage but is totally against adulterers. Even though he considers marriage as desirable, he gives priority to virginity. Because to him, virginity is an eschatological divine gift. Joshua, Jeremiah, Elijah and Elisha are the excellent models of celibacy in life. Thus, he considers sexual abstinence as the most sublime charism. He relates celibacy as a necessary requirement for baptism. However, by referring to Gen. 1, 28, procreation and multiplication are presented as good.
We can easily observe a conspicuous change in attitude during the period of St. Ephrem (+373) from his reflection of Gen 2: 18-24. Here he tries to present the complementarity of sex. Though virginal life is perfect and ideal, he considers marriage as sacred. In order to substantiate the indissolubility of marriage, he correlated Mt. 19, 3-12 and Mk. 10, 2-12. The relation between marriage, the Eucharist and the Church are succinctly explicated in his writings. He visualizes Eucharist as the nuptial banquet, wherein the faithful partakes in the wedding feast of the Church with Christ. The Eucharist is offered as the dowry to the Church, his bride. In this way, the Church becomes the bride of Christ. The prefiguration of this celebration is seen in the wedding at Cana. Baptism at Jordan is the manifestation and celebration of the betrothal. For St. Ephrem, marriage is a legitimate state of life, enabling man to attain union with God. St. Ephrem admonishes men to keep away from every occasion of adultery and thus to maintain the divinely prescribed unity with their wives. He exhorts women to be faithful to the sacrament of marriage by maintaining relationship exclusively with their husbands because this unity was designed by God from the beginning of humanity.
The liturgical season of the dedication of Church in the East Syriac tradition presents Church as the bride of Christ. In eschaton, the time of our final glorification, all the faithful will be united with Christ through the medium of Church. The Church is the vehicle for us and when the Church is dedicated to heaven we are enabled to partake in the heavenly union.
Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan waters marked the betrothal between Christ and the Church. East Syriac liturgical tradition sees baptism in the Jordan as the celebrative model of Christian marriage. Here we see the role of the groom’s friend through the mediatorship of St. John the Baptist. Christ sanctified and vested the Church with the robe of glory by giving his whole life as the bridal price. By giving his own body and blood on the cross, he bought the Church as his bride. Thus, the river Jordan symbolically anticipates the sacrifice on the cross. In the betrothal ceremony, we see the purificatory and sanctificatory role of the Holy Spirit. Clothing and crowning symbolizes adorning, beautifying and inviting the faithful to the mystical body of the Church. The active role of trinity is rightly expressed in adorning and beautifying. Mutual love between Christ and the Church hides the unworthiness of the Church and makes her worthy enough. Exchanging of the ring is the sign of mutual love and trust. This ring is identified with love. To the event of wedding feast, heavenly guests are also invited. Apostles, prophets, martyrs, teachers and shepherds (bishops), angels, previous generations come together with the present generations as guests to the marriage banquet. In the earthly marriage, the bridal chamber is visible but in the case of marriage between Christ and the Church, the invisible bridal chamber is eternal and spiritual. Thus, the season of dedication of the Church leads all the earthly bridal chambers into the heavenly bridal chamber in which we enjoy the eternal bliss.
3. Rite of Marriage in the East Syriac Tradition
In the East Syriac tradition, the rite of matrimony is generally known as Taksa d’al Raza Qadisha d’Zuwaga (The Order of the Holy Mystery of Joining Together). In the rite of marriage, first comes the rites preceding the wedding, namely, the order of carrying the ring by two wise women to the future bride and exchange of the right hands of the guardians of the groom and bride. It is followed by the blessing of the chalice, garments, colours and crowns. Blessing of the chalice and the drinking from the chalice are important rituals in marriage blessing. Liturgy of the word, prayers of crowning and blessings are also included in it. The priest’s benediction of the groom and the bride, benediction of the groomsman and bridesmaid and the benediction of the entire assembly is also included here. Finally comes, the rites subsequent to the celebration of wedding. They interweave, bless and dismantle the bridal chamber.
4. The Rite of Marriage in the St. Thomas Christian (Syro Malabar) Tradition
The St. Thomas Christians were following the Chaldean matrimonial rite with adaptations. The marriage ceremony of the Thomas Christians has been developed through a long process over the centuries. The present liturgy of the marriage ceremony has been influenced by Jewish, East Syriac and Hindu customs. They adopted some Hindu customs such as tying of the thali (minnukettu), use of the wedding garment (manthrakodi) etc., but always remaining faithful to their distinctive faith, liturgy and norms of morality. Christian marriage went beyond mere simple practices and social customs. It was regarded as a sacred institution, a sacrament whose holiness demanded unity and indissolubility. The parents chose the partners. Maternal uncles exercised a key role in conducting their marriage.
In the fourth century when the Latin Church adopted the Roman customs, Syriac Churches generally structured their liturgies after the Jewish customs. The St. Thomas Christian community in India historically maintained the Jewish cultural and theological heritage. The roots of Syrian Christianity are found in Judeo-Christian groups of sub-apostolic period. We have very few extant documents on the matrimonial practices of the early Malabar Christians. But the existing traditional customs and the indications in the reports of the missionaries and in the decrees of the synod of Diamper shed sufficient light on the matter. Among the Thomas Christians, marriage was obviously a familial and social celebration and was conducted with elaborate ceremonies. There were ceremonies prior to the formal celebration of marriage, conducted in the house of the couple. Even though the children were grown up they were expected to comply with the wishes of their parents. Following the Jewish tradition, a premarital investigation was made by the parents and by the parish priest. The purpose of this enquiry was to ensure that no one with impediments would receive the sacrament of marriage. The responsibility of conducting the rite of joining the hands rested upon the senior members of the family. Granting a share of the father’s property to the bride was practised among the St. Thomas Christians. This custom was derived from the tradition of the Kerala Brahmins. The official celebration of the marriage is preceded by the blessing of the elders and the solemn procession to the church.
In the early period, the blessing of the marriage was not during the Holy Qurbana. Blessing of the chalice with wine mixed with water does however belong to the marriage ceremony. The Portuguese missionaries tried to introduce the Latin ways of administering the sacraments in the Syro Malabar Church. The second council of Goa (1585) enacted that the Latin ritual should be rendered into Syriac for the use of Malabar Christians.. After Vatican II, marriage is made more juridical with an oath of fidelity made while both the partners touch the Bible, implying that marriage is a divine act and the oath is made to God. An exchange of rings in the presence of the priest has been introduced, although the tying of the thali and the clothing of manthrakody are retained.  In the case of the restoration of the marriage rites, Rome tried not to lose the richness of the East Syriac tradition. But the Malabar Church was not prepared to accept as such the whole text given by Rome at the time. After years of studies and consultations, the Synod of the Syro Malabar Church published the revised text of sacramentary with the approval of the Holy See in the year 2005, which includes also the revised rite of matrimony.
5. Theological Reflections on Marriage in the East Syriac and Thomas Christian (Syro Malabar) Traditions
East Syriac and Thomas Christian (Syro Malabar) understanding consider marriage as a call to holiness and a sacred sign and covenant.
The early East Syriac sources describe the complimentarity of the sex in the light of Gen. 1, 27 and 2, 18-24, which emphasize the equal dignity of man and woman. The sacredness of marriage is determined by the complementarity of sex and marriage as a divine institution. The expression of love amidst the complementarity of sex is a sign of the salvific will of God. The basis of substantial unity between the spouses in the conjugal life is vested as the joint heirs in the life of grace. The personal dignity of man and woman is important in the East Syriac tradition. East Syriac tradition stresses the aspect of communion (sautapoosa) in marriage and conjugal life. The same Syriac word is used also to refer to communion in the Holy Trinity and in the Holy Eucharist. The bond of communion is the Holy Spirit. Marriage is the sacrament of communion. It is God himself, who unites the couple through the mediation of the priest.
Marriage becomes a sacred sign through its mystical perspective. The East Syriac Fathers consider 1 Cor. 7: 11-14 as the requisite for marriage as a union in faith. The covenantal attitude toward marriage was prevalent from the early East Syriac tradition. We see an initiative of love in the covenant. The uttering of the formula of consent is the sign of oath in the covenant. Mutual love and becoming one flesh make it an unconditional relationship. Blessing in the covenant is a sign of power to keep the commandments. And the sealing of the covenant gives validity to it.
In the Syro-Malabar rite of matrimony, we see several examples of marriage as a sacred sign and covenant. In two places of the initial hymn, we sing marriage as a covenant: “covenant in the beginning is made with Israel, my beloved” and “the new family is Church through covenant with Christ”. In the proclamation of the deacon after the prayer of the faithful also, we come across the reference for the covenantal nature of marriage. Marriage becomes a nuptial covenant through the consent of the spouses in the Trinitarian formula. Joining of the hands of the spouses is the sign of their covenant. In the prayers for the blessing of the thali, the Church prays for faithful love and fidelity. The same love and fidelity also becomes a hallmark in the prayers for the blessing of the ring. In the prayers for the blessing of the wedding garment, it becomes a sign of mutual love and self-giving and along with this they are facilitated to put on the robe of glory in heaven after a life of marital fidelity and sanctity on earth. In the solemn pledge of marriage, both the spouses vow themselves to a life of oneness of mind and heart in all their joys, sorrows, in wealth and want and in health and sickness. Through the final prayers, the officiating priest wishes them to live in perfect love and dedication to each other.
5.3. Marriage as a Vocation to Holiness
Marriage is a vocation as well as covenant to be co-participants in the creative work of God and therefore, it is serious and sacred. St. Thomas Christians view the sacrament of marriage as an image of the love of Christ for the Church. The various hymns chanted at the celebration of marriage convey the theme of union of Christ with the Church. The perfect union of Christ and the Church is the sublime ideal to be followed by the spouses in their onward journey to the heavenly Jerusalem. The spouses are married for the kingdom of heaven and they are witnesses to the mystery of Christ’s redemptive love. The rite of matrimony of the Syro Malabar Church beautifully highlights the ‘vocational’ character of marriage in the first prayer of the priest after the Lord’s prayer: “Lord God, you have called these servants to be united in holy matrimony and to live in union of hearts…”. The rite of matrimony as a whole invites the couples to be aware of the sanctity of their vocation especially through the liturgical homily and through the karozutha prayer. The prayers related to the ceremony are paranactic in nature and reminds the couple about their vocation to live a life of sacrifice in mutual love and unity, to live an exemplary family life according to God’s precepts and to live a happy married life of chastity and fidelity. Marriage is the work of God. It is God himself, who joins the couples. Human beings are only the agents and participants of God’s work. In this way, the sacrament of matrimony is sacred. The invocation of God’s grace, angels and saints by the officiating exemplify this. In addition to this, the presence of the cross, Sacred Scripture, crown, lighted lamp, thali etc. are also evocative of the divine blessing. The cosmic symbolism of turning towards the East also proves the divine presence in marriage. It is also an apt and suggestive reminder to ‘the getting married’ that then onwards thy are bound to be supportive to each other as they traverse together to the heavenly abode.
The East Syriac tradition has always attributed great esteem and sanctity to the unity of marriage. The main reason for the indissolubility of marriage is to be found in its connection to the mysterious and indissoluble relation between Christ and the Church. In the rite of joining the hands the priest exhorts the couple, stewards and the assembly on the indissolubility of marriage.
In the ceremonious prayers of the holy matrimony in the Syro Malabar rite, the first reading itself shows the unitive nature of marriage: “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife and they become one flesh…. “ The reading of the Gospel emphasizes the indissolubility of marriage: “…. Therefore, what God has joined together, let no one separate”.  The fourth prayer in the prayer of the faithful reads: “ … O God, who taught the indissolubility of marriage, bless these couple to live in mutual fidelity and chastity….”. In the nuptial covenant, the main celebrant blesses the couple and sprinkles holy water on the joined hands and prays: “… may our lord Jesus Christ bind you in the holy matrimony to a family life of love and oneness of minds….”. The rite of joining of the hands, tying of thali and mutual exchange of rings show the rich theology of unity and indissolubility of marriage. The thread for the thali is taken from the wedding garment. Twenty-one threads are taken. Each three threads are combined together as one and such seven threads are formed. Three symbolizes the holy trinity and the number seven stands for perfection. An important rite of marriage is to bind this thali around the neck of the bride by the bride groom. In the concluding prayer, the priest offers thanks to God for the providence that bound them in indivisible unity: “…. we thank you for the providence that bound them in indivisible unity….”
In the East Syriac matrimonial liturgy, there are prayers invoking the blessing for good offspring for the spouses. In one of the priestly prayers at the rite of betrothal, the priest prays for the blessing of the fertility of the spouses. The ultimate goal of marriage is glorification of God and the good of humanity. In the Syro Malabar marriage ceremony, the initial prayer invokes the grace of God to enable him to administer the sacrament worthily for the glorification of God and for the goodness to entire humanity. In the first readings from the book of Genesis, we read …God blessed them, and God said to them: “be fruitful and multiply….; “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner”.  In the matrimonial pledge, the couples recite: “we solemnly pledge … to live in love and fidelity and with oneness of mind….till our death”. The celebrant extends his right hand over the couples and prays “…….may he help you to receive gladly the children God… to lead them in the path of holiness….”. The unitive dimension is stressed in the concluding prayer as well. The celebrant prays: “…..God who blessed Abraham and Sarah, we thank you for the providence that bound them in indivisible unity….” The final blessing expresses the procreative dimension of marriage: “….. God Created humankind as male and female, and made them to participate in the work of creation…..May God bless you with the gift of children….”.
The Church as the bride of Christ is a recurring theme in the East Syriac tradition. Regarding the Oriental concept of marriage, Alexander Schmemann writes: “The ancient Christian tradition of the East converges with the belief of the Catholic West in a common affirmation of the sacramental holiness of marriage. In the divine plan of redemption, the earthly reality of marriage has been transformed in Christ into an image, union of Christ with the Church”. This concept is seen in the theology and liturgy, especially in the liturgical seasons of Epiphany and Dedication of the Church, as well as in the sacraments of baptism and marriage.
The rite of matrimony very well speaks of the union between Christ and the Church. In the first psalm, there is an allusion to Christ – Church union. “……Rejoice, O Church, the spouse of our Saviour, God the eternal has chosen you as his spouse by love”. The letter of St. Paul to Ephesians clearly presents this idea: “…. For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ as the head of the Church. Husbands, you love your wives just as Christ loves the Church….”  Through the prayer of the faithful, the same idea is being presented “…bridegroom who offered his life for his bride, Church, bless this couple to live a life of sacrifices in mutual love and unity….” In the blessing of the thali the celebrant prays: “…your death on the cross, have earned the Church as your bride….”. This is the sacrificial dimension of marriage because Christ married Church at Calvary on the cross. The nuptial garment is an important symbol in the celebration of marriage. For the St. Thomas Christians, the nuptial garment with which the groom clothes the bride is a symbolic gesture of his commitment to look after her. The nuptial crown symbolizes their victory over themselves by remaining faithful to the promise they made on the day of betrothal. In the East Syriac tradition the mystery of marriage revolves around the marriage symbolism of Christ and the Church.
All sacraments are the celebrations of the paschal mystery of Christ. The blessing of cross and its putting in the chalice in the original East Syriac text shows that this tradition gives stress on marriage as the participation in the paschal mystery of Christ. This cross is seen as the sign of salvation of the entire world. The prayer locates the cross in the whole context of the history of salvation. Chalice and the cross (sleeba) symbolizes this idea of paschal mystery.
In the East Syriac tradition, marriage is basically a covenant between the two spouses and two families. So the family in the East Syriac tradition exercised a key role in selecting suitable partners for their children. It is quite evident in the rite of betrothal, in which the consent of the guardians is sought indicating their moral responsibility in guiding and assisting the spouses. Thus, the two families grow further in co-operation and mutual help.
Marriage necessarily involves familial and ecclesial roles. Initially, it was only a family celebration presided over by the head of the family. But gradually assumed an ecclesial dimension. When it became the part of religious celebration, the presence of the bishop or a priest was necessitated. The community of the faithful blesses the newly wedded spouses. The presence and participation of the entire community in the celebration expresses the social aspect of marriage. The senior most member of the family, seeking the permission of the assembly at the time of dowry transaction should also be considered as a sign of social aspect of matrimony.The prayers of blessing show the ecclesial dimension of marriage. It is seen as an enterprise of the family at large. The whole family is taken into consideration. Even the marriage consent is not considered an exclusive affair between the couple. Marriage is viewed as a great event not just for the family and the Church but for the whole society and the entire world. The witnesses of marriage are God, the holy angels, apostles, the priests’ deacons and the faithful and so on.
The ultimate aim of Christian life is the eschatological union with the God. Theodore of Mopsuestia, commenting on 1Cor. 7:29-30, says that it is expedient for the married, with the hope of eschatological bliss, not to be entangled by the cares of this world. Commenting on Eph.5:32, Isho Dad of Merv explains the mystery of marriage in relation to resurrection.The liturgical rite of matrimony stresses the eschatological implications of marriage. The third prayer of prayer of the faithful speaks of the eschatological meaning of marriage. “….. Bless this couple to be partakers of the heavenly banquet, having lived an exemplary family life….”In the concluding prayer of the prayer of the faithful, the celebrant says “….fill them with your grace and make them worthy to obtain the everlasting crown you have promised your servants”. In the final blessing, the celebrant’s prayer for the couple is worth quoting in this context: “….may he make you worthy to offer him praise, honor and thanksgiving in the heavenly bridal chamber….”
The ceremonies that precede the official celebration of marriage are premarital investigation, the rite of joining the hands, the transaction of the share of the father’s property for the bride and preparation of the entire family for the marriage day. There are separate ceremonies of beautification, purification and blessing, conducted in the houses of both the bride and the bridegroom on the eve of marriage, like chandam chartal and mailanchiideel and other festive celebrations. On the day of the celebration of marriage, there is the ceremony of blessing by the elders at home, followed by the solemn procession to the Church. The solemn celebration of marriage in the Church is the most significant phase, when the betrothed are united in an indissoluble covenant. After the liturgical celebration, the newlywed couple is led to the house of the bridegroom. In front of the house, the couple stand facing the East, then the mother of the groom leads the couple into the house with the sign of the cross. After two days, the newly wedded go to the house of the bride and her mother receives them with a vessel of paddy and water.
The early family life of St. Thomas Christians in India was an inculturation of Hindu family structure. Like the Hindu Brahmin family lineage, the most senior male was the head of the family. Moreover, they also followed the joint family system. There they gathered together under one roof and lived together in solidarity and harmony. Thus, the father was the supreme head of the family. Men and women never sat together to eat. During the meal time wives served their husbands at the table. They usually had their food only after their husband’s. There were differences between man and woman in their degrees of status in order to show the privileges of the male in the patriarchal family system.
In the early times, the houses were built of wooden walls and roofs were thatched with palm leaves. A mixture of cow-dung with powdered charcoal was used to furnish the floor. The houses faced either to the east or to the north. The well and the cowshed were very close to the houses. It was a sign of prosperity. Malikappura (the main building of living rooms with pumukha or entrance hall, natayilakam or main room, prarthanamuri or prayer room, bedroom etc…), arappura (granary), uttupura (dining room with kitchen), thozhuthu (cowshed) and kulam (tank or well) were the important portions of these constructions. These varied structures added beauty to their houses. They had no habit of buying the food items from outside. Instead, they cultivated themselves whatever they needed. The plantations of different kinds also were there, adjacent to the houses for the sake of preserving them from the attacks of enemies.
The St. Thomas Christians were conscious of the need for a temple to offer worship. This is how they began to get engaged in the construction of churches. The people converted to this religion were men and women of noble caste, who considered themselves superior to other castes. Thus, they usually built their houses, somewhere near the Church. This set up gradually developed into a kind of city-cantered life. Naturally, it necessitated the people to depart from the rural areas.
In the rites related to the birth of a child, adaptations of some Hindu practices are quite discernible. The Brahmin way of naming the child ‘jatakaranam’ was changed into ‘namakarana’. 36 hours after the birth of a child, the words ‘Our Lord Jesus Christ’ (Maran Iso Misiha) and the child’s name were whispered into the ear of the new born. After 28th day after birth, there was a ceremony of tying black thread, ornamented with panther toenails and mongoose teeth around the waist. After delivery, the mother was permitted to enter in the church only after 40 days, if it is a boy child and 80 days, if it is girl child. Similar to the Brahmin tradition, a sacred thread was put on in a male child. It was removed only when he attained the boyhood. The boy is fed with boiled rice after six months of his birth. On the day when he first goes to the school, he is provided with the ceremony of writing with finger the name of Jesus Christ and the first letters of the alphabet in rice. St. Thomas Christians were baptized in accordance with the East Syriac rite. It was mainly done on the 7th day after birth. The names were mainly Biblical but special consideration was given to the names of paternal and maternal grandparents for the first and second child respectively. Adult baptism was also administered and when priests were not available during the scarcity of priest, it was administered once in a year. St. Thomas Christians practised the administration of Chrismation and Holy Qurbana along with baptism. The priest anointed the person concerned with prayers and imposition of hands. They used pure coconut oil also for Chrismation.
When death secured quite imminent, the priest gave the sick the holy water mixed with soil taken from the tomb of St. Thomas at Mylapore. When a person passed away, the body was washed in warm water and till the burial of the dead, no kind of food was prepared at home. There was no practice of cremation of the body among them. The priest blessed the house of the deceased after the funeral service and the relatives of the dead mourned the loss of the dear departed for seven days and sometimes over a yearlong mourning was observed. There was a special kind of practice of pula adiyanthiram and chatham for mourning for the dead. The relatives of the dead break their fasting by drinking coconut water given by the priest. During this special occasion, they also prepared neyyappam and kozhukotta.
St. Thomas Christians were basically traders and farmers. They produced everything for their livelihood by cultivating varieties of crops. The main dishes of St. Thomas Christians were boiled rice and curries. Vegetable curries with the mixture of herbs and spices were their food style. The use of meat was reserved to certain special days. They ate with fingers and the food was served in the plantain leaves. They usually sat on the floor for eating food. They crouched on long mats in order to take their food. They also prepared special kinds of edibles. neyyppam, and kozhukkotta were the main special edibles of the Syrian Christians.
Their notions of cleanliness were related to their participation in the ritual ceremonies. The Sunday Eucharistic celebration had a great impact in their faith life. All men and women smeared their head with oil and washed themselves in river water on the eve of all Wednesdays and Sundays. The practice of ablutions and purifications were part of their ascetic life. St. Thomas Christians strictly observed the custom of taking bath and wearing new clothes when they went to church. It is an evidence of the awe and reverence they had to the Holy Eucharistic celebration.
The dress patterns of St. Thomas Christian men were glaringly similar to but also distinct from Hindu style. They used to wear a special cloth from waist downwards to the knee. Those clothes were beautifully decorated with ornamented pieces. There were also ornaments on their head and arms. Use of ear lobe added to their concept of beauty. It was a practice prevalent among the nobles in the society. A tuft of hair was also kept in their head. There was a distinctive sign of St. Thomas Christians, a gold or silver cross around their neck or on the tuft of hair.
The dress patterns of St. Thomas Nazrani women were conspicuous signs of their nobility and modesty. They used to call the upper garments of women as kuppayam. While they enter the Church, they covered their head with a veil of outer garment of seven yards long and one and quarter yard broad. It was almost similar to the practice of Hindu Nambutiri women. Various kinds of necklaces, bracelets, anklets, loin ornaments, girdles and rings were also used by St. Thomas Christians. But, they had no nose ornaments. The widows were banned from wearing any of these ornaments.
Family was the cradle of the moral formation for St. Thomas Christians. It helped them to mould a good personal, political, social, ecclesial, religious and sacramental life. Transmission of traditional values from the elders of the family to the successors was always seen in the life of the new generation. In this manner, each family had their own life style. They were closely and even emotionally attached to their parish community. Priority extended to the concerns of the parish community than their family affairs motivated them to inculcate their religion among people belonging to other religions. Hence it is quite natural that welfare of the family was reflected in the welfare of the Church.
St. Thomas Christians followed patriarchal set up but women occupied a significant role in family and society. Both men and women were equally partakers in the growth and welfare of their household. The Syrian Christian women were known for their nobility, modesty, chastity, selfless love and commitment to the family. The marriage of a woman among St. Thomas Christians was held when she reached adulthood. Woman was considered not only as a physical guardian but also as a custodian of the spiritual and emotional life of everyone in the family. The mother of the house exercised a unique role in the faith formation of her child. The role of a woman was not limited merely to the family atmosphere. The image of a woman was also extended to the Church and the society. In the Church, she was a messenger through persuasion and promotion of life. She was an evangelizer through theological and catechetical endeavours. Among St. Thomas Christians, there were women writers, poets and musicians. Marthomann pattu, mayilanchipattu, vattakkalippattu were mainly reserved to women. Female monasticism and examples of the the consecrated from the St. Thomas Christian women are the clear evidence for their solid role in family and the Church.
7. Family and Parish Centered Faith Formation as a Pastoral Response to the Contemporary Challenges in Marriage and Family
Many of the problems challenging the basis of the entire Church, society and culture today can be traced back to the disintegration of family life, which is a direct offshoot of the erosion of values regarding the nature and purpose of marriage. Innumerable are the challenges of marriage and family today. We just cite a few of the vital issues in the contemporary world scenario: they are increase in the number of ‘irregular situations’ like living together, divorced and remarried and homo unions and ‘difficult situations’ like materialistic and naturalistic world view, crisis in faith and ecclesial life, negative and demoralising influence of social media, communication gap and mal adjustment issues, family conflicts, separations, divorces, mixed marriages, various kinds of addictions, artificial family planning and artificial reproductive methods, abortions, violence against women and children, abuses of the minor, new generation gap, global migration, menace of terrorism, plight of refugees and related issues.
The faith of the members of the family is either weak or non-existent. Often, the tension emerges because of the great distance between the ‘ideal’ family and the ‘non ideal’ family, which may be ‘partial and analogous’. In order to face the contemporary challenges, we need to give an effective ‘pastoral accompaniment’ and a sound ‘catechetical formation’ to the families. The intimate relation between the Church and family is very clear in the celebration of marriage. The wedding lamps are lit both in the church and at home. Home, like the Church is also a ‘school of faith and prayer’. Family becomes a centre of living the radiant faith and evangelization. The sanctity of family life is possible through the sanctifying presence of Christ. The moral and ethical formation is possible only through a properly disciplined life style, corresponding to the adulthood education and moral and spiritual stability in their society. Thus, family fulfils its role as a socializing agent. Following are some of the suggestions, which we may propose from the Thomas Christian background.
The fathers of the Vatican II have defined family as “the domestic church.” (LG, 11). The family has been always the school of faith, the training ground for human and civil values, and the hearth in which human life is born and is generously and responsibly welcomed. The initial prayer of the rite of marriage reminds the spouse of their mission. “…Graciously enrich this bride and bridegroom with your heavenly gifts, and help them to form an ideal family that observes your commandment”. Family prayer offered in common, husband and wife together, parents and children together will keep the family united. Christian parents have the ultimate responsibility of educating their children in prayer and introducing them to a gradual discovery of the mystery of God and to a personal dialogue with Him. Liturgy of the hours, rosary devotion, reading the Word of God, singing hymns etc are the strength of a family. The entire sacramental life of the Thomas Christians was a constituent element of the law of Thomas. Our forefathers knew that “public worship is the heart of the ecclesial life”.
The foundations of Christian education in the family is first laid, when the children see their parents’ witness to the faith. Some of the methods of transmitting the faith are namely, family prayer, personal prayer and regular times for prayer in families, listening to the Word of God and witness of family charity. A pastoral letter of St. Chavara Kuriakose speaks to the parishioners of Kainakary, “relationships are to be established only with Godfearing and disciplined families, money or riches cannot be valid norms.” The greatest wealth a family can have is fear of God. A Godfearing family will enjoy the fruit of the blessings of God in this world and in the world to come. The familial communion of persons is founded on the self-giving of each spouse and in this way is an imitation of the Holy Trinity. In the family, the adult ones are encouraged to marry and to have more children, to keep their marital fidelity and permanent commitment.
Asceticism is self-abnegation in the true sense, a renunciation of something positive and good in normal life for a greater good. Therefore, it is essential for the purity of marriage and family life. Among the St. Thomas Christians fasting was never considered to be an act of private devotion but it was a part and parcel of the public worship of the God. It will surely foster a spiritual atmosphere in the modern family life. There was a tradition among the St. Thomas Christians’ great celebration of Pesaha, which was really a family meet. It contains sharing, prayer, respect towards elders, etc. such kind of celebrations will surely develop the family relations of our time, which is an urgent need of our time.
7.2. Ongoing Catechetical Formation
Constant christain formation is to be given to the entire people of God from birth to death, from womb to tomb. Giving catechetical formation to children and teenagers is of vital importance and is the main duty of the parents, elders and teachers. But it is also the duty of the Church to morally and spiritually instruct the younger generation, because the future of the Church is in their hands. Each individual Church is well aware of the fact of giving catechesis to their children. It is her duty and mission to teach the faith and morals. It is the duty of the children to learn the common prayers and basic moral principles before reaching the marriageable age.
The Church gives a proper religious instruction as an immediate preparation for the marriage. This system is generally known as hearing of catechism by the parish priest. The boy and the girl are expected to learn the basic prayers of Christian faith and basic moral principles. The presence of the parish priest in the family on important occasions is a blessing to the family. All the different means, both traditional and modern, can be made use of for the catechetical formation
The proclamation of the ‘beauty of the gospel of marriage and family’ is an integral part of the mission of the Church. The Church needs to provide pastoral care for families living in ‘irregular and difficult situations’, ensuring that the family be attended in it’s entirely. Initial support originates in a parish, which is the family of families. It is the principal center of a renewed pastoral care which receives and guides people and is animated by sentiments of mercy and tenderness’.As Pope Francis always says, pastors should have the attitude of mercy and patience towards families in crisis. The supportive actions and presence of the pastor lead to the healing of wounds in people. Pope Francis speaks of the motherly attitude of the pastor. Church is a mother, who speaks to her child, knowing that the child trusts that what she is teaching is for his or her benefit.
In this article, we were trying to bring out an example of ‘breathing with two lungs’ in the Catholic moral theology. Diversity is no longer seen as threat but as a source of enrichment for the undivided heritage of the universal Church. We hope and pray that a pluralistic understanding of marriage will surely add to the beauty of the Catholic theology of marriage. The theology of the marriage in the East Syriac and St. Thomas Christian (Syro-Malabar) traditions goes in complementarity with the Western theology of marriage. There are no differences in the basic understanding of marriage such as marriage as vocation, indissolubility of marriage, unitive and procreative dimensions of marriage, etc.
Francis, Amoris Laetitiae (19 March 2016), n.1.
 We believe that liturgical texts are a primary and rich source of theology (primus locus theologiae), especially in the Eastern tradition.
 For a detailed understanding of the historical development of marriage in the Christian tradition, see, E. Schillebeeckx, Marriage: Human Reality and Saving Mystery (London, 1976).
 Cf. I. Parapallil, Ecclesial Dimension and Symbolism of Marriage (Trivandrum, 2012) 16.
 Cf I. Parapallil, Ecclesial Dimension and Symbolism of Marriage, 20.
 Cf. I. Parapallil, Ecclesial Dimension and Symbolism of Marriage, 18.
 J. Vellian ed., Crown, Veil, Cross, Marriage Rites (Poona 1990) 8.
 Cf. I. Parpallil, Ecclesial Dimension and Symbolism of Marriage, 21.
Cf. L. Edakalathur, The Theology of Marriage in the East Syrian Tradition (Roma, 1994) 5-8.
Cf. L. Edakalathur, The Theology of Marriage in the East Syrian Tradition, 8-9.
Cf. L. Edakalathur, The Theology of Marriage in the East Syrian Tradition, 9.
Cf. L. Edakalathur, The Theology of Marriage in the East Syrian Tradition, 9-13.
Cf. L Edakalathur, The Theology of Marriage in the East Syrian Tradition, 13-15.
Cf. L. Edakalathur, The Theology of Marriage in the East Syrian Tradition, 15-17.
Cf. L. Edakalathur, The Theology of Marriage in the East Syrian Tradition, 20-23.
Cf. Dominic Vechoor, “A Moral Theological Reading of the Acts of Thomas”, Christian Orient xxxv/3, 122.
Cf. S. Brock, Syriac Fathers on Prayer and Spiritual Life, XXV.
 Cf. Acts of Thomas, V, 43; VI, 52; IX, 84, 88.
Cf. L. Edakalathur, The Theology of Marriage in the East Syrian Tradition, 22-29.
Cf. L. Edakalathur, The Theology of Marriage in the East Syrian Tradition, 17-20.
Cf. L. Edakalathur, The Theology of Marriage in the East Syrian Tradition, 38-39.
Cf. L. Edakalathur, The Theology of Marriage in the East Syrian Tradition, 39-44.
Cf. L. Edakalathur, The Theology of Marriage in the East Syrian Tradition, 44-54.
 L. Edakalathur, The Theology of Marriage in the East Syrian Tradition, 192.
Cf. L. Edakalathur, The Theology of Marriage in the East Syrian Tradition, 110-112.
Cf. L. Edakalathur, The Theology of Marriage in the East Syrian Tradition, 113-121.
Cf. L. Edakalathur, The Theology of Marriage in the East Syrian Tradition, 121-126.
 For a detailed understanding of the rite of marriage in the East Syriac tradition, see, L. Edakalathur, The Theology of Marriage in the East Syrian Tradition (Roma, 1994); K. M. Jomon, Taksa d’al Raza Qadisha d’Zuwaga: A Textual and Theological Analysis of the Order of Marriage in the East Syriac Tradition (Ph.D. Thesis, submitted to the M.G. University, Kottayam), July, 2014.
Cf. L. Edakalathur, The Theology of Marriage in the East Syrian Tradition, 126-140.
 Cf. L. Edakalathur, The Theology of Marriage in the East Syrian Tradition, 140-150.
 For a detailed understanding of the rite of marriage in the East Syriac tradition, see, P. Pallath,.Matrimonio tra Cristiani Indiani (Roma, 2009).
 Cf. J. Vellian ed., Crown, Veil, Cross, Marriage Rites, 21.
 Cf. T. Aerthayil, The Spiritual Heritage of St. Thomas Christians (Bangalore, 2001) 46.
 Cf. I. Parapallil, Ecclesial Dimension and Symbolism of Marriage, 31.
 Cf. J. Moolan, Introduction to Oriental Liturgy and Its Theology Syro- Malabar Chruch (Kottayam, 2012) 147.
 Cf. I. Parapallil, Ecclesial Dimension and Symbolism of Marriage, 28.
 Cf. L. Edakalathur, The Theology of Marriage in the East Syrian Tradition, 150.
 Cf. L. Edakalathur, The Theology of Marriage in the East Syrian Tradition, 150-151.
 Cf. L. Edakalathur, The Theology of Marriage in the East Syrian Tradition, 151.
 Cf. L. Edakalathur, The Theology of Marriage in the East Syrian Tradition, 152.
 Cf. L. Edakalathur, The Theology of Marriage in the East Syrian Tradition, 152.
C. Payngot, “The Syro-Malabar Marriage” in FARNEDI G., ed., La Celebrazione Cristiana Del Matrimonio: Simboli e Testi, Studia Anselminana, 93 (Roma 1986).263.
C. Payngot, “The Syro-Malabar Marriage”, 264.
C. Payngot, “The Syro-Malabar Marriage”, 268.
 Vellian ed., Crown, Veil, Cross, Marriage Rites (Poona 1990) 21.
 For a detailed study on this revised text, see, P. Pallath,.Matrimonio tra Cristiani Indiani (Roma, 2009).
 Cf. L. Edakalathur, The Theology of Marriage in the East Syrian Tradition (Rome, 1994) 166-167.
Cf. L. Edakalathur, The Theology of Marriage in the East Syrian Tradition (Roma, 1994) 165-167.
 Cf Vivahakarmam (for study only) (Kottayam), 4-5.
The Sacramenst of the Syro-Malabar Church, 126.
Cf. The Sacraments of the Syro-Malabar Church, 145..
Cf. The Sacramenst of the Syro-Malabar Church, 149-150.
Cf. L. Edakalathur, The Theology of Marriage in the East Syrian Tradition, 161.
The Sacraments of the Syro Malabar Church,129.
The Sacraments of the Syro Malabar Church,140-141.
Kizhkintae Suriani Sabhayudae Vivahakramam (Trichur, 1960) 30.
Cf. Louis Edakalathur, The Theology of Marriage in the East Syrian Tradition, 167-168.
L. Edakalathur, The Theology of Marriage in the East Syrian Tradition, 193.
The Sacraments of the Syro Malabar Church, 156.
The Sacraments of the Syro Malabar Church, 169-170.
The Sacraments of the Syro Malabar Church,141.
The Sacraments of the Syro Malabar Church, 145.
Cf. P. Podipara, “Hindu in Culture, Christian in Religion, Oriental in Worship”, ed., H.C. Perumalil, The Malabar Christians (Ernakulam), 49.
Cf. C. Payngot, “The Syro-Malabar Marriage”, 266.
The Sacraments of the Syro Malabar Church, 49.
 L. Edakalathur, The Theology of Marriage in the East Syrian Tradition, 191.
Vivahakarmam ,7, 30.
Syro-Malabar Sabhayudae Kudasakal (Kakkanad,2005), P. 147. See also pages:149, 152, 181, 183.
The Sacraments of the Syro Malabar Church, 155.
The Sacraments of the Syro Malabar Church, 155.
The Sacraments of the Syro Malabar Church, 148.
The Sacraments of the Syro Malabar Church, 148.
The Sacraments of the Syro Malabar Church, 149.
The Sacraments of the Syro Malabar Church, 149.
L. Edakalathur, The Theology of Marriage in the East Syrian Tradition, 176.
As quoted in L. Edakalathur, The Theology of Marriage in the East Syrian Tradition, 176.
J. Vellian ed., Crown, Veil, Cross, Marriage Rites, 8.
The Sacraments of the Syro Malabar Church, 129-130.
The Sacraments of the Syro Malabar Church, 163-164.
The Sacraments of the Syro Malabar Church, 140.
The Sacraments of the Syro Malabar Church, 145.
 Cf. L. Edakalathur, The Theology of Marriage in the East Syrian Tradition, 179.
 Cf. L. Edakalathur, The Theology of Marriage in the East Syrian Tradition, 179.
 Cf. Vivahakarmam, 26-28.
 Cf. Vivahakarmam,16-17.
Cf. L. Edakalathur, The Theology of Marriage in the East Syrian Tradition, 198.
Cf. L. Edakalathur, The Theology of Marriage in the East Syrian Tradition, 198-199.
 Cf. Vivahakarmam, 16-20.
L. Edakalathur, The Theology of Marriage in the East Syrian Tradition, 173.
L. Edakalathur, The Theology of Marriage in the East Syrian Tradition, 173.
The Sacraments of the Syro Malabar Church,140.
The Sacraments of the Syro Malabar Church, 142.
The Sacraments of the Syro Malabar Church, 150.
 Cf. A. Thazhath, The Juridical Sources of The Syro – Malabar Church (Kottayam, 1987) 30.
 Cf. A.Thazhath, The Juridical Sources of The Syro – Malabar Church, 31.
 Cf. A. Thazhath, The Juridical Sources of The Syro – Malabar Church, 31.
 Cf. J. Puliurumpil, History of The Syro – Malabar Church, 170-171.
 Cf. J. Puliurumpil, History of The Syro – Malabar Church (Kottayam, 2013) 170-171.
 Cf. A. Thazhath, The Juridical Sources of The Syro – Malabar Church, 52.
 Cf. A. Thazhath, The Juridical Sources of The Syro – Malabar Church, 52.
 Cf. A. Thazhath, The Juridical Sources of The Syro – Malabar Church, 53.
 Cf. J. Puliurumpil, History of The Syro – Malabar Church, 170.
 Cf. J. Puliurumpil, History of The Syro – Malabar Church, 170.
 Cf. A.Thazhath, The Juridical Sources of The Syro – Malabar Church, 29.
 Cf. A. Thazhath, The Juridical Sources of The Syro – Malabar Church, 29-30.
 Cf. P. Vazheeparampil, Role of Women among the St. Thomas Christians in Andrews Mekkattukunnel eds., Marthoma Margam; the Ecclesial Heritage of the St. Thomas Christians (Kottayam, 2012) 526-531.
 Cf. P. Vazheeparampil, Role of Women among the St. Thomas Christians, 532-539.
The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangalization – Instrumentum Laboris (Trivandrum 2014) 62-63. Here after Instrumentum Laboris.
 Cf. A. Chundelikkat, Role of Family in the Transmission of Faith and Morality in Andrews Mekkattukunnel eds., Marthoma Margam; the Ecclesial Heritage of the St. Thomas Christians (Kottayam, 2012) 696-701.
 Cf. A. Chundelikkat, Role of Family in the Transmission of Faith and Morality, 701.
T. Aerthayil, The Spiritual Heritage of St. Thomas Christians (Bangalore, 2001) 33.
T. Aerthayil, The Spiritual Heritage of St. Thomas Christians, 76.
Instramentum Laboris No.115.
L. Vithuvattickal. ed., Chavarayachante Kathukal (Mannanam 1982) Vol iv, p.18.
 Cf. Instramentum Laboris No.50.
Instramentum Laboris No.50