Keeper of The Word shares a few
Pope Zakka speaks on preserving the ancient language of Aramaic in a new, modern world
This is the fourth in a series of interviews with spritual leaders in the Middle East by cultural historian Yvonne Seng.
By Yvonne Seng
Special to The [Lebanon] Daily Star
Wednesday, June 02, 2004
DAMASCUS: With the recent release of the film, "The Passion of The Christ," Aramaic has likely been heard by more people in the past months than in it's entire history. Once the vernacular, it is now reduced to subtitles, spoken daily by a few. The man in front of me has a less brutal way of keeping the language alive.
Patriarch Zakka sits in a gold encrusted chair in a fading cathedral in the Old Quarter of Damascus, but the power of this holy man is not contained in a chair. Or in his extensive title: His Holiness Moran Mor Ignatius Zakka I Iwas. The power of Pope Zakka rests in words.
Pope Zakka is the Patriarch of Antioch and All the East and the Supreme Head of the Universal Syriac Orthodox Church, the planet's second oldest church, founded by the Apostles.
As intriguing as the longevity of the institution, is its charge to keep alive Aramaic, the language in which Christ spoke. That is, the words in which The Word spoke.
Words have consequence, but few take words as seriously as Pope Zakka.
We all know one phrase in Aramaic: Abracadabra. Childish magical gibberish to the rest of us, loosely translated from Aramaic it has a vastly more serious meaning: "Create what I speak, or, May my words be brought to life." These are not men who dangle their participles.
I've never heard this about "Abracadabra" and I doubt that it's correct. According to the American Heritage Dictionary it's a "cabalistic" word that probably goes back through late Latin and late Greek to the "Gnostic" magical name "Abrasax." The latter is not only Gnostic, but was found all over the place in ancient magic. Here's another attempt at an explanation.
Whether the Syriac Church was founded by the apostles depends on what to make of much later church traditions. We just don't know very much about what the apostles were up to in the first century, although certainly founding churches was high on their agenda.
"The most important thing is that Aramaic was spoken by Our Lord Jesus Christ," the Patriarch says. "That's why we love it. It has been the liturgical language of our church from the beginning of Christianity and, of course, it was the ancient language of Syria before Islam. That's also why we love it. And we feel it is our duty and responsibility to keep it alive because we can't imagine that, one day, the language spoken by our Lord Jesus Christ will be forgotten. It's something we can't imagine."UPDATE (25 August 2007): In retrospect I think my skepticism about the proposed etymology of Abracadabra was misplaced. The translation is a little loose, but the general idea is plausible. More here.
Monks and holy scholars have kept the flame alive for almost 2,000 years, but can they survive the tornado of Western culture?
The internet, with its disrespect for man-made borders, is his ally.
"Technology has always been with the human being," he states. " Those who believe the world was created by God, they will always be loving God through Our Lord Jesus Christ."
With the help of technology - and the savvy leadership of the Patriarch - Aramaic is undergoing revival among members of the Syriac Orthodox Church connected across the globe and scholars attracted to its cerebral mission.
"We have many scholars here and there," the Patriarch says with enthusiasm. "And they learn the language and they teach it and, of course, we are proud of those people, too. And grateful, too. Yes."
Although he admits he doesn't fully understand the new technology, Pope Zakka visited Los Angeles to bless it.
The Syriac-Orthodox Church of Antioch, formed in the time of the Apostles, has its own website, with libraries, chatrooms, youth groups and CDs of liturgical music for sale through Amazon.com.
Pope Zakka has his own page where you can access copies of his encyclicals and writings. The Syriac-Aramaic language project has a worldwide center that the peripatetic Apostle Peter, first Bishop of the church, would definitely approve of.
For the Patriarch also, globalization and technology are positive developments.