The Light from the East: the Assyrian Church of the East and her Sacraments

By Chris Barber

The world is full of Christian communions aplenty, and when the average Anglican looks to faith traditions that are similar to the Western patrimony, Churches such as the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Roman Catholic Church, and the various Protestant confessions immediately come to mind. But is it possible that there is a communion that is strikingly similar to the Western tradition, but is virtually unknown to even the most learned churchmen? One such Church that has passed into obscurity due to its relative isolation and manifold sufferings is the Assyrian Church of the East, known officially in her own ecclesial documents as the Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church of the East.

This Church is a controversial one in church history, as it is often referred to as the “Nestorian Church” as an epithet for its inheritance of the Antiochene school of Christology after the condemnation of Nestorius and his Christology at the Council of Ephesus in 431 AD. Nestorius is often regarded as heretical for supposedly having taught that there are two distinct hypostases (Greek for person) in Christ, and thus amalgamating the unity of Christ's person into "two Sons". Nestorius' personal teachings will not be delved into here, but a mention of his controversial role in the Christological controversies of the 5th and 6th centuries is germane to understanding the theology of the Church of the East as regards the person of Christ.

Historically, the first Christological confession of the Church of the East occurred in 486 AD, 45 years after the Council of Chalcedon. The Church of the East was not represented at the Council of Chalcedon, and yet anyone who knows the Chalcedonian formula of the hypostatic union of Christ would be astonished at the theological orthodoxy of the Christological formula of the Synod of Seleucia-Ctesiphon in 486! It reads as follows:

"Let our faith in the dispensation of Christ be in the confession of two natures, of the divinity and humanity, while none of us shall dare to introduce mixture, mingling, or confusion into the differences of these two natures; rather, while the divinity remains preserved in what belongs to it, it is to a single Lordship and to a single object of worship that we gather together the exemplars of these two natures, because of the perfect and inseparable conjunction that has occurred in the divinity in respect to to humanity. And if someone considers, or teaches others, that suffering and change have attached to the divinity of our Lord, and if he does not preserve, with respect to the union of the prosopon of our Savior, a confession of perfect God and perfect man, let such person be anathema."(Suha Rassam, Christianity in Iraq, Balwyn, Victoria, Australia, Freedom Publishing Party ltd, 2010)

This formula clearly expresses the perfect union of Godhood and Manhood in Christ, and seeks to preserve the integrity of Christ's person in a faithful and orthodox manner. However, many will dispute the usage of two different Syriac terms that the Church of the East has used to describe her Christology: kyana and qnoma. Dr. Suha Rassam, author of the work Christianity in Iraq clearly treats the usage of both of these terms as it relates to the Church of the East and the Christology that developed in the seventh century under one her greatest saints, Mar Babai the Great.

“Babai the Great was one of the most outstanding figures of the Church of the East, who led it during a period of vacancy of the patriarchate from 608-28...In the formulation of Trinitarian theology, the Syriac term Qnoma was equated with the Greek term hypostasis. However in the Christology of Babai, qnoma did not denote a self-existing hypostasis but, as he described in his book The Book of Union, each Kyana or Physis, or the abstract nature, in order to concretely exist needs a Qnoma. Here Qnoma points to a concrete existence which the abstract nature needs in order to exist concretely. And that these two natures with their two Qnome unite in one parsopa. Thus the misconception regarding the theology of the Church of the East, that Christ exists in two natures and two persons, because Qnoma was initially used to denote ‘person’. For the Church of the East, Christ exists in two natures with their two Qnome, but there is only one person.” (Rassam, Christianity in Iraq, p.47)

As noted above, the Syriac term kyana means nature, and while qnome typically means hypostasis or person, and when the Church of the East uses qnome when speaking of Christ, it essentially means the concretization of an abstract nature. Parsopa would be the term used to mean ‘person’ in this case. 

Thus, when the Church of the East states that Christ has two kyana with two qnome united in one parsopa, they do not mean that Christ has two natures and two persons, but that Christ has both fully human and divine natures with corresponding concretizations that are forever united in His one person without mingling, separation, or confusion. This manner of speaking about the hypostatic union of humanity and divinity in Christ may be entirely foreign to those who don't understand how the Church of the East thinks about Christ in its ancient linguistic terms, but if the aforementioned terms are properly defined and understood in their native language and context, little doubt can be had as to the doctrinal orthodoxy of the Church of the East as regards the Lord Jesus Christ.

Bishop Mar Awa Royel and his work Mysteries of the Kingdom

The Church of the East is full of scholars aplenty, and a light that shines in their midst is Bishop Mar Awa Royel, who is the Bishop of the Diocese of California. He has written an incredible work on the sacramental tradition of the Assyrian Church called Mysteries of the Kingdom: The Sacraments of the Assyrian Church of the East. This book provides immense insight into how the Assyrians view the world of the sacrosanct, and its contents contain many pearls of theological and historical brilliance. The work is broken down into eleven chapters with a detailed treatment of each sacrament of the Church of the East, and this article will follow the general structure of the book and give clarity and summation to the sacramental theology of the Assyrian Church.

Apostolic Tradition and Scripture

Every church has a communal setting in which their native origins and ancient memories are transmitted, often in an oral and storytelling-esque context. Such is the case with how tradition is considered in the Church of the East, and the Holy Scriptures may be understood to be a keynote of their tradition. Mar Awa defines tradition in the first chapter of his work as: “That is what defines tradition, namely: ‘a long-standing custom that is widely practiced and handed down from one generation to another.’” (Bishop Mar Awa Royel, Mysteries of the Kingdom: The Sacraments of the Assyrian Church of the East, Modesto: Edessa Publications, 2018)

In the very next paragraph Mar Awa also states that tradition is both oral and written, supporting the idea that that the Assyrian tradition is one of ancient pedigree with a memory extending back millenia: “Tradition, whether in the profane or sacred sense, can be expressed in either an oral manner (i.e., given or handed down by word of mouth) or a written manner (i.e. the words are penned down and recorded). In both manners, it is one and the same truth being conveyed, and handed down for later generations.” (Royel, Mysteries of the Kingdom, p. 3) With the understanding that the Church of the East has an ancient ecclesial memory, the question must be put forth: if the Assyrians claim to have a tradition that is authoritative for teaching the dogmas of the faith and administering the holy mysteries to her faithful, from whence does this tradition come? 

Mar Awa’s resounding answer would be that the Church of the East’s tradition comes from the apostles themselves, with the Holy Spirit enlivening every successive generation to Jesus Christ and the Father in a union of transformative grace that takes place in a context that is intrinsically biblical and sacramental! His Grace’s thought could not be more succinctly expressed than in the following explication:

“The Apostolic Tradition exists and lives in the present, as well as in the past; it is what we may call charismatic, and it has to do with the spirit and ethos of the Church, rather than just what happened in the Church’s past, 2,000 years ago. It is, in a word, a living experience which began with the blessed apostles of Christ at the Pentecost and which continues to live in the Church down these 21 centuries, and will continue until the Second Coming of Christ. Specifically, the Apostolic Tradition refers only to those elements which concern the faith and salvation of humanity, and have come to us from Jesus Christ and his apostles.” (Royel, Mysteries of the Kingdom. p.4)

As seen above, Mar Awa refers to the tradition of the Church as ‘Apostolic Tradition’. For those who may not be familiar with this terminology, apostolic tradition may simply be understood as the content of the faith (i.e. doctrines and practices) which was delivered by Christ to His Apostles, and then by the Apostles to the Church throughout all ages. The preservation of this body of tradition is absolutely integral to the Church of the East’s claim to be connected with Christ, the apostles, and the Church down to the present day. However, this understanding of tradition is not something that may be understood as something that is static: it is a living tradition, and one that gives to the faithful the liveliness of the faith that comes down to them from ages past. It is the life of the Holy Spirit within the Church, hence the term ‘charismatic’ is used by Mar Awa to denote how tradition is handed down. 

In the aforementioned context, therefore, if tradition can be seen as the divine life of the Trinity communicated to all the members of the Church since Pentecost, and continuing until Christ’s return, then tradition may be understood not to be the burning embers of bygone ages, but rather as the all-consuming fire of God that lives in the Church, which is the light of the world and salt of the Earth. Christ gave His life for the life of the world, and because He destroyed death at His resurrection, the life of the Spirit in the Church will never be extinguished, and the eternal effulgence of God will overcome darkness whenever it appears to attempt to trouble the Church. Thus is the Church of the East’s faith in her God-given tradition.

The oral aspect of the Church’s tradition has been expounded, and now it must be shown how the Scriptures are the key component of tradition in relation to oral tradition that delivers to all Christians the necessary doctrines for life and salvation. All Christians love the Holy Scriptures, as they are God’s words of specific revelation to mankind as relates his fall from paradise, God’s subsequent covenants with Abraham and his descendants, the Israelites and their periods of faithfulness and apostasy, and the coming of the Son of God in the fullness of time, culminating in the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. 

For the Church of the East and Mar Awa, the proper place to read and interpret the Scriptures is in the Church as the Body of Christ, with the Scriptures being the center of the tradition of the Church. “Further, it must always be remembered that the divine Scriptures are always read and interpreted in light of the Apostolic Tradition; hence Tradition may be referred to as ‘Scripture correctly understood.’ If we do not read the Scriptures in light of the Church’s own understanding and Apostolic Tradition, then we cannot have a correct reading unto our salvation.” (Royel, Mysteries of the Kingdom, p.23)

With the tradition of the Church passed down through the ages, both orally and as expressed in the written crown of tradition, the sacred Scriptures, the Church of the East has remained faithful to the “faith once delivered for all to the saints” (Jude 3). The Scriptures are the fountain of sacred doctrine in the Church, and with God’s words the Church gives to men the honey of the divine word, which implants in them loyalty to Christ and the apostolic faith. When the Church reads the Scriptures communally and interprets them with one mind and unity of faith, God is in all and over all in Christ, by the power of the Spirit, who adopts Christians and grants them the grace of salvation. 

It is this salvation that is contained in the Scriptures, and the Church guards this by her authority of interpretation, and tradition safeguards the Scriptures, which in turn safeguards our salvation, and keeps us connected with the Christ, the Apostles, and the Church. With this proper understanding of how the Church of the East understands tradition, her sacraments, which spring out of that very tradition, may now be expounded upon in their proper context and ecclesial setting.

Sacraments and the Terms used to Define Them

There have been different terms that both the Eastern and Western Churches have used to define a sacrament. The term used by the Latin West to denote a sacrament is the word sacramentum, which was generally understood to mean a sacred oath, or more generally, an oath that Roman soldiers swore to the Emperor upon entering into the Roman military. The Greek East used the term mysterion to identify a sacrament, which is a term meaning ‘mystery’ that originated in Greek mystery cults (Royel, Mysteries of the Kingdom, p.31). 

However, given that the cultural and ecclesiastical context of the Church of the East was neither Latin or Greek speaking, they defined what a sacrament was using the term raza, which has roots in Old Persian and means something that is concealed or hidden (Royel, Mysteries of the Kingdom, p.32). In a brief exposition, Mar Awa relates to the reader in palatable language both how the Church of the East uses the term raza to denote a sacrament, and what a sacrament is understood to be in the Assyrian tradition. 

“A raza, or sacrament, is essentially a mystery through which God acts to depart to us his grace, but we don’t know how this happens. However, we do feel the effects of the operation (i.e. working) of the Holy Spirit in us through these signs of God’s love and mercy. In essence, the sacraments are 'outward signs of God’s inner grace'. We may further define the sacraments as being material means through which God communicates to us his divine grace, of which we are in need in our lives on a daily basis, for our edification, sanctification and utter salvation, and a share in everlasting life.” (Royel, Mysteries of the Kingdom, p.32)

From Mar Awa, it is plain that sacraments are understood to be outward signs of an inner and spiritual grace given through material means. These means are things such as the water in baptism, and the bread and wine of the Eucharist. This understanding of the sacraments helps to remind us that as God’s creatures, we are not mere souls with fleshly entrapments, as some ancient heretics (i.e. the Gnostics, Docetists, and Ebionites) taught, but that just as Christ, God the Word from all eternity, took on human flesh in the Incarnation and really suffered in our fleshly nature and was raised in that same humanity, so it is that God works to redeem us by entailing spiritual grace through physical means, enlivening our bodies and souls.

As the given definition of a sacrament is in this case rather broad, it is important to note that the Church of the East lists the number of the sacraments in a way that is unique to their tradition alone. They, like the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches, number the sacraments at seven, but those seven aren’t identical to Rome or the East’s list. Mar Awa gives the list of the church of the East’s sacraments as follows: 1) Priesthood, 2) Baptism, 3) Oil of the Apostles, 4) Eucharist, 5) Absolution, 6) Holy Leaven (Malka), and 7) Sign of the Cross. This list is taken from Mar Abdisho of Nisibis (a fourteenth century Church of the East father) in his Marganitha, or Pearl (Royel, Mysteries of the Kingdom, p.43).

These seven sacraments are a key part of life in the Church of the East and her native tradition of faith. With the proper understanding of how the Church of the East defines what a sacrament is, clarity may be brought to bear on these sacred mysteries that the Assyrian Church gives to her faithful.

The Priesthood

The Priesthood is the first in the septenary list of the sacraments of the Church of the East, with the reasoning behind its place on the list being salient for the ministry of the Church. Mar Awa clearly articulates both why the priesthood is the first listed sacrament of the Church of the East and what the sacrament is understood to be in the Assryian tradition:

“In fact, for the Church of the East the ordained (ministerial) priesthood is counted first of the seven sacraments of the Church, for by it all of the other sacraments are perfected and administered.” (Royel, Mysteries of the Kingdom, p.59) 

The clear meaning of Mar Awa’s premise is that the priesthood is counted first among the sacraments of the Church of the East because in order to have valid and spiritually effectual sacraments, a Church must have an apostolic succession that goes back to the Apostles through the laying on of hands and the invocation of the Holy Spirit. This ensures that the taxis (i.e. structure) of the Church is truly built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets (Eph. 2:20) in both its ministerial succession and sharing in the teaching of the apostles through the gift of the Holy Spirit, who grants to all bishops, priests, and deacons a special dispensation of His grace to stay in the orthodox (i.e correct or right) faith.

The Church of the East, in consequence of its viewing the priesthood as a sacrament, holds steadfastly to the threefold office of bishop, priest, and deacon as the hallmark of apostolic succession and ecclesial continuity. “They [the apostles] in turn instituted, according to the New Testament, the ministries of bishop, presbyter (later called priest) and deacon to sanctify the People of God, the New Israel--the Church.” (Royel, Mysteries of the Kingdom, p.77) The importance of the threefold office in the Church is that the Church, through the oversight of Bishops, grants to the priests and deacons of the Church the authentic spiritual calling and authority to preach the Word and administer the sacraments (or raze) to the people of God as their spiritual shepherds, guiding the Church into all truth through the same Holy Spirit who was given to the Apostles to exercise their ministry in the Church (Jn. 16:13). The shepherds of the priests and deacons are the bishops, who function as the icon of God’s fatherhood in their local diocese (or province), and bear the authority to forgive and retain sins in their dioceses (Jn. 20:23) and exercise spiritual headship over their people, being the successors to the apostles.

The role that the priesthood plays in the life of the Church of the East is a critical one. Being the sacrament of sacraments, it opens up the doorway for the faithful to receive the spiritual graces of the heavenly mysteries, that God may be in all through Christ, who gives to Christians the gift of everlasting salvation through the ministry of His Church.


All Christians enter into the life of God and the Church through the sacrament of baptism. It is the entrance of the soul and the whole human person into the mystical Body of Christ, and the mark that sets Christians apart from unbelievers. In the theology of the Church of the East, baptism is known as a ‘sacrament of initiation’ in which recipients of baptism are granted adoption into the Body of Christ, in which Jesus Christ gives life and salvation (Royel, Mysteries of the Kingdom, p.131).

For Mar Awa and the Church of the East, baptism is essential for the new birth. “Therefore, the correct understanding of ‘being born anew’ (Mawlada d-mindresh) is that one must be born of two things: 1) water and 2) the Holy Spirit; this comes about and is made possible only in the sacrament of baptism.” (Royel, Mysteries of the Kingdom, p.140) 

This teaching is consonant with the teaching of Jesus in his discourse with Nicodemus (John 3:5), St. Paul’s understanding of our baptism as a sharing in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (Rom. 6:1-4) l, and of St. Peter’s proclamation that baptism is where one receives the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38). In holy baptism, as our bodies are washed with the water, our souls are given life by the Holy Spirit and the forgiveness of all of our sins in Christ. This washing of regeneration and renewal by the Holy Ghost (Titus 3:5) marks us out from the world as God’s chosen ones in Christ, and clothes us in Christ Himself so that our participation in Christ through the Holy Spirit might be a wellspring that amounts to eternal life with the Father.

Baptism, therefore, is the beginning of one’s life in the Church of the East, and while the priesthood may numerically be first in her list of sacraments, baptism is the first one that is subjectively (by the individual) experienced by the faithful (Royel, Mysteries of the Kingdom, p.131). Oil of the Apostles Following baptism, the second sacrament that the faithful receive in the Church of the East is the ‘Oil of the Apostles’, or Chrismation. The equivalent of this sacrament in the West is known as confirmation. 

Mar Awa clearly states what chrismation is and what it means for the Church of the East as follows: “The sacrament of the Holy Chrism is also known as the ‘Oil of Unction’ (Mishka dam-Mesheekootha). Being one of the seven sacraments, it is used exclusively in conjunction with the sacrament of baptism. By this oil, both the fresh oil consecrated for the anointing of the body of the baptismal candidates before they are immersed in the font (at the second baptismal anointing) and also the water contained in the font are signed in the form of the Cross and perfected. The reason for this is that the Holy Chrism ‘perfects’ or completes baptism, and it is from this concept that the name of ‘Confirmation’ is spoken of in the West.” (Royel, Mysteries of the Kingdom, p.229)

The Church of the East’s theology of Chrismation is clearly seen above to be a liturgical and sacramental one, as Chrismation is done along with baptism in one rite. This is because the Chrismation ‘perfects’ and completes the baptism. As soon as one receives baptism in the Assyrian Church, then they are anointed with oil, which can be understood as the coming of the Holy Spirit into the life of the recipient. This sharing in the Holy Spirit through baptism and its completion in chrismation gives one full membership in the sacramental life of the Church of the East, and marks the soul of the recipient with the sign of the Cross as belonging to Christ forever.

For the Assyrian Church, there are two key components in this sacrament (and every other sacrament) that makes it what it is. These are matter and form. Matter is what a sacrament is comprised of materially speaking. The matter of chrismation is pure olive oil (Royel, Mysteries of the Kingdom, p.241). Form may be understood to be the ritual attached to the material element of the matter of the sacrament. The form is the benediction that is prayed by the priest or bishop over the baptizand as they are anointed with the oil (Royel, Mysteries of the Kingdom, p.242). The matter and form of this sacrament go hand in hand with one another, and demonstrate how the Holy Spirit works in and through the Church to bring all of the faithful into the dominion of Christ.

Chrismation, then, is the sacrament that completes and confirms the grace of baptism, and assures believers of their adoption into Christ and membership in the Church, the mystical and eternal communion of the saints in all times and places. The Church of the East considers this sacrament to be precious, and should be held dear by all who are in communions that bestow this sacrament on their faithful.

The Holy Qurbana (Eucharist)

When speaking of matters of sacraments and the mysterious invasion of the temporal world by eternal realities that happens in the sacraments, no sacrament lifts the mind up to the contemplation of heavenly glories like the Eucharist, or as is it known in the Church of the East, the Holy Qurbana. Mar Awa makes this abundantly clear when he says, “When speaking about the seven sacraments of the Church of the East, the Eucharist is the sacrament, par excellence.” (Royel, Mysteries of the Kingdom, p.255). The reason that the Eucharist is the summit of the sacramental life of the Church is because through the prayers of the celebrant (whether priest or bishop), the most holy Body and Blood of Jesus Christ become present in the bread and wine to all who receive the elements. 

The Assyrian perspective on the Holy Qurbana is a unique one, as it is considered one of the three ‘Sacraments of Initiation’ in the Church of the East, along with Baptism and Chrismation, which are all received in one ancient, liturgical rite (Royel, Mysteries of the Kingdom, p.255). Not only is the Eucharist the sacrament that completes the initiation of recipients in the Church of the East, but according to Mar Awa, “...the Eucharist is singularly constitutive of the Holy Church itself. That is, the Eucharist constitutes the very essence and being of the Church as the gathering of many members into one body.” (Royel, Mysteries of the Kingdom, p.256). 

What Mar Awa is illustrating for the reader above is that the Eucharist both fulfills the sacramental communion of individuals with the Church and also makes them the Church itself in its most essential gathering. This communal understanding of the Eucharist is derived from St. Paul’s teaching when he says, “For we being many are one bread, and one body: for we are all partakers of that one bread.” (1 Cor. 10:17) The Church as the mystical body of Christ, as understood in St. Paul’s theology above exhibited, becomes the body of Christ by eating the Body and drinking the Blood of Christ.

This unique view of the Eucharist is reiterated in even stronger terms when Mar Awa states the following:

“The most important form of spiritual nourishment for the daily life of the Church is the precious Body and Blood of Christ, the Eucharist. Indeed, the Church itself (as the communion of the baptized faithful in Christ and the gathering together into one body) is identified with the Eucharist itself--therefore, it is called ‘Body of Christ;’ why? Because the Church is what it eats--the Body of Christ!” (Royel, Mysteries of the Kingdom, p.278)

These striking words communicate to Christians that the old adage ‘we are what we eat’ is the most true when speaking of the spiritual nourishment that the Eucharist gives to all who receive the Body and Blood of Christ with lively and repentant faith! The Eucharist is the spiritual (but truly real) food that sustains Christians in their earthly sojourn on earth, and the Church of the East’s sacramental diet is the Eucharist, which is the Body and Blood of Christ, which grants to her faithful the Bread of Heaven and the Cup of Salvation.

Absolution (Khusaya)

All Christians are sinners, and St. James tells Christians in his New Testament epistle to confess their sins to one another that they may be forgiven (James 5:16). In the context of the sacramental life of the Church of the East, the confession and absolution (i.e. forgiveness) of sins takes on a beautiful shape in the sacrament of Absolution, or Khusaya.

Mar Awa begins his discourse on this sacrament by reminding the reader that all sins, both those according to nature (i.e. original sin) and daily sins committed before baptism are forgiven in baptism (Royel, Mysteries of the Kingdom, p.303) He then, however, poses the following question: “The question remains, though, what about sins committed after baptism? If one’s baptism is the ‘cut-off point’ for engaging in sin, if you will, then what happens if one were to sin after having received baptism?” (Royel, Mysteries of the Kingdom, p.303) This is where the sacrament of absolution comes in. Mar Awa is also sure to remind everyone that repentance for sins committed after baptism is key in order to approach the sacrament rightly: “The Christian life is one of continual repentance, or inner conversion of the mind and heart. This conversion consists in a change of mind, heart and way of life. As one prepares to receive absolution for his/her sins, the first and foremost step is repentance.” (Royel, Mysteries of the Kingdom, pp.311-312) 

Mar Awa even likens the tears of repentance to being a ‘spiritual baptism’, with the penitent believer’s tears becoming to them a washing of grace (Royel, Mysteries of the Kingdom, p.312). With the understanding that a turning away from sin (essentially a changing of mind or path) and back to God is essential for receiving absolution, Mar Awa then goes on to demonstrate that the Church of the East has two forms that the sacrament takes: 1) Oral confession (to a priest for grave sins) and 2) General confession (a confession of sins by the faithful in a liturgical context before receiving the Eucharist) (Royel, Mysteries of the Kingdom, p.319). Regarding private confession, however, Mar Awa clarifies that, “Although the Church of the East does not practice confession as it is observed in the Latin West (i.e. the priest and penitent stepping into a ‘confessional’, where the two individuals are separated by a screen), nevertheless confession as such is sacramentally observed and practiced by the Church.” (Royel, Mysteries of the Kingdom, p.320)

What makes the Assyrian approach to the sacrament of absolution is that the Church of the East both practices private confession to a priest and a corporate confession of sin in the liturgy, truly fulfilling the biblical mandate of confessing sins to one another as recorded in the epistle of St. James. Anglicans have historically used this practice as well, with a corporate confession being prominent in prayer book liturgies such as the 1928 Book Of Common Prayer’s Holy Communion Office, and the presence of a sacramental rite of private confession being an option for those whose sins are of a more grave nature and require the care and healing that comes from absolution given in a one-on-one setting with one’s priest.

The sacramental confession and absolution that the Church of the East offers is holistic, as shown by Mar Awa’s thorough treatment of the subject, and provides her faithful the opportunity for the forgiveness of offenses that have been committed against their neighbor (corporate confession) and sins that require the special pastoral attention of a private confession. This sacrament is a Christian’s lifeline for post-baptismal sin, and the Church of the East is a hospital for sinners, bringing the forgiveness and healing of the Great Physician to the penitent, who exchanges their sins for the balm of everlasting life in Christ.

The Holy Leaven (Malka)

There are two sacraments that are unique to the Church of the East among the apostolic Churches-- the Holy Leaven (Malka) and the Holy Cross (i.e. Sign of the Cross) (Royel, Mysteries of the Kingdom, p.331). The Malka (King in Syriac) has to do with the setting aside of the Eucharistic bread for the use of the Liturgy, and is considered to be a living connection that the Church of the East has with the first Eucharist that our Lord celebrated with the apostles on the night He was betrayed. Mar Awa explains how the Holy Leaven is understood to be both passed down by Apostolic Tradition and how the Malka operates within the broader sacramental context of the Church of the East:

“The important thing to remember is that for each of the two ‘Sacraments of Initiation’ (i.e. baptism and the Eucharist), in the Church of the East there is a ‘leaven’ (khmeera) that comes down by Apostolic tradition and has been handed down from the apostles of our Lord themselves. The reason for this ‘leaven’ for these two essential sacraments is for two reasons: 1) in order to connect the sacramental act of the Church with the Lord of the sacraments, Jesus Christ and his first institution of these two sacraments; 2) in order to perfect (complete) the consecration of these two sacraments by the priesthood in the liturgy of the Church.” (Royel, Mysteries of the Kingdom, p.334)

Mar Awa’s overarching premise about the Holy Leaven is that it is a sacrament which the Church of the East unwaveringly believes is of apostolic origin, and that this sacrament involving the Eucharistic bread intimately connects the Eucharist of the Church of the East with the the broken body and shed blood of Christ given for the life of the world. Mar Awa also points out what specifically happens to the Eucharistic loaf when the sacrament is performed: “In like manner, the ‘leaven’ for the other ‘Sacrament of Initiation’ (both of which were established by the Lord Jesus Christ himself) is the Holy Leaven, or Malka, for by it the Eucharistic bread that is baked for consecration in the Liturgy is signed and ‘confirmed’, or perfected.” (Royel, Mysteries of the Kingdom, p.335) As Mar Awa again mentions the idea of a sacramental act ‘completing’ or perfecting something, this same understanding found in both Chrismation and baptism may be rightly applied to the Holy Leaven.

In the liturgical tradition of the Church of the East, Mar Awa says that the Holy Leaven is rightly understood theologically as an ‘extension of the Eucharist’ (Royel, Mysteries of the Kingdom, p.342). His strongest discourse on the unbreakable connection that the Malka has with the first Eucharist brings home the idea of a holistic communion with Christ that the Church of the East has possessed since apostolic times:

“The Malka is the link between the Church’s Eucharist today and the first Eucharist of the Lord Jesus himself, and where does that link come from to us? Again, from the apostles who are the authentic witnesses of Jesus Christ, his holy doctrine and his suffering, death and resurrection. The presence of the sacrament of the Malka as a ‘leaven’ for the Eucharist takes us back to the first Eucharist, instituted by Jesus himself. Thus, we truly believe and hold that we are observing the same Eucharistic celebration which Christ and his holy apostles observed first, and handed down to the generations of believers in the Church.” (Royel, Mysteries of the Kingdom, p.343)

With this striking sacrament the Church of the East liturgically and sacramentally commemorates the Eucharistic celebration that Christ and his apostles first celebrated, and by the life of the Holy Spirit in the Church sets aside a special ‘leaven’ for the Liturgy, which will become in the divine service for the people of God the most holy body of Christ, maintaining Christ’s incarnational tabernacling with all of humanity through this ‘extension’ of the Eucharist.

The Holy Cross

The last sacrament in the septenary list of the sacraments of the Church of the East is the Holy Cross, more commonly known among Western Christians as the Sign of the Cross. The sign of the Cross, which the faithful of the Church of the East makes upon themselves frequently, is far more than a bare sign or symbol. Mar Awa notes of the Holy Cross’ central importance in the sacramental tradition of the Church of the East:

“The Cross, in the sacramental theology of the Church of the East, denotes the real and true presence of Christ among us. It is not merely a ‘symbol’ of Jesus’ suffering and death, rather it is the instrument of our salvation and the powerful and life-giving sign of God’s present and ultimate triumph over sin, death, and Satan.” (Royel, Mysteries of the Kingdom, p.351)

Mar Awa states emphatically that the Holy Cross constitutes a ‘real and true’ presence of Christ among the faithful. This may seem confusing to some, but the presence of Christ through his Cross is something that can be found in scriptural teaching, especially in Galatians 6:14 when St. Paul says that he won’t glory in anything save the Cross of Christ. The Holy Cross of our Blessed Lord is indeed life-giving, and when Christians cross themselves with this sacred sign, the Spirit of Christ endows us with spiritual graces for prayer, fasting, and all forms of devotion to God. The presence of Christ that the Holy Cross brings to the Church of the East isn’t only found in the private prayers and devotions of the faithful, but in the sacramental and liturgical action of the Church! Mar Awa weaves a beautiful tapestry about the Holy Cross in the Church of the East’s sacramental and liturgical practices when he says:

“The Cross of Christ, therefore, has a central place in the theology (dogmatic, sacramental and liturgical) of the Assyrian Church of the East. In fact, it is so important that it has a feast in its own honor, not to mention that it is found in all the prayers, liturgies, and rites of the Church. As Mar Abdisho states in the quote above, all of the rites and sacraments of the holy Church are ‘perfected’ (i.e. completed) with the sign of the Cross.” (Royel, Mysteries of the Kingdom, pp.358-359)

The Sign of the Holy Cross, therefore, is the very sign and seal that perfects and adorns all of the sacraments of the Church of the East, allowing the holy mysteries to participate in the salvific work of Christ. The presence of Christ that this most holy sign brings into the Church is what gives the faithful the capacity to draw near to the Cross of Christ and offer up spiritual sacrifices of thanksgiving and praise to God, which are sanctified by Christ’s own perfect sacrifice, which is both signified and effected by that very sign, bringing Christians into God’s eternal kingdom by grace.


The Church of the East is an ancient and apostolic Church, and this study has revealed to the reader that the sacramental tradition of the Assyrian Church is one that is both inherently biblical and faithful to the faith that Christ handed down by tradition from His holy apostles to the Christians of this communion. The holy raza of the Church of the East are sacraments that bring into reality the work that Christ accomplished for His holy Church by his Incarnation, Ministry, Suffering, Death, and Resurrection, and allow the faithful to have a communion with the Blessed Trinity that starts in the Church and will be consummated when Christ comes again in glory. This Church, her holy traditions, and the sacraments which nourish her faithful, may therefore be rightly referred to with reverence and Christian love as the “light from the East”.

The author will leave the reader with this final quote from Mar Awa that sums up all that has been said, and is truly the marganitha (i.e. pearl) of his work on his Church and sacraments:

“The aim of the septenary list of the sacraments (i.e. that there are specifically seven holy sacraments) does not in any manner exhaust or limit the almighty power of God to act in and through the Church for the salvation of mankind. The Church by discerning seven sacraments has deigned to follow the significance and understanding of the Sacred Scriptures, where seven denotes a number of completion (i.e. the seven days of the week, the seven deacons of the early Church, etc.). The grace of God, therefore, truly and efficaciously acts through the sacraments to perfect and sanctify us unto salvation. As signs of the Kingdom of Heaven and of the presence and activity of God’s grace among us, the sacraments reveal the mystery of Christ, '...which was hidden from the worlds and generations, but is now revealed to his saints.'” (Royel, Mysteries of the Kingdom, pp.416-417)


1. Suha Rassam, Christianity in Iraq, Balwyn, Victoria, Australia, Freedom Publishing Party ltd, 2010

2. Bishop Mar Awa Royel, Mysteries of the Kingdom: The Sacraments of the Assyrian Church of the East, Modesto: Edessa Publications, 2018

Chris Barber is an Anglican layman, he lives in Texas.

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