SCHOLARSHIP OF SAINT BASIL THE GREAT 2012
Today begins the three day Feast of Nineveh, a feast unique to the Churches of the East. His Beatitude seemed rather excited by it and kept telling me the three days would begin at the cathedral at 7am this morning.
Then I was properly informed as to what the ‘feast’ entailed – three days of fasting from food and water and chanting the psalms for eight hours a day. Feast? I think they should have left out the ‘e’. Then again maybe it is the ‘s’ they should have left out!
Fasting is one of the ancient charisms of the Church of Babylon which was dominated by ascetic monastics and thus their theology. In His Beatitude’s first doctoral thesis he describes the following days of fasting as obligatory:
- The 25 day fast of Soobara
- The 3 day fast of the Ninevite
- 50 days of Lent (Great Fast)
- The Apostle’s Fast (50 days after Pentecost)
- Prophet Eliyah’s Fast (50 days)
- Saint Mary’s Fast (15 days)
- All Wednesdays and Fridays are days of Abstinence
If you add these up you will find that there are 193 fast days in the year! Supposedly only the fifty days of Lent and the three days of the Feast of Nineveh are compulsory for the laity, although he notes that the twenty five day fast is mostly observed. I found it hard to believe that people could ‘find’ the time to take off work or other duties for such an ordeal, but sure enough, when I went this morning the cathedral was packed both inside and out. Outside seating has even been built on both sides of the church to accommodate the overflow that will be needed as more an more people join in over the next two days.
The Feast of the Nineveh, Baoutha d-Ninwaye in Syriac from the word meaning ‘pleading’, occurs in the Church of the East just before lesser Lent. The faithful do not eat or drink a drop of water from midnight the evening before until 3 or 4pm the next day after the Querbana is finished. During the day from early morning until late afternoon the clergy and laity sit in the church praying and chanting the Book of Psalms. I understand from His Beatitude that technically they chant the Book of Psalms twice over, 2/3 on each day. However he has relaxed this practice in India and now they only recite the Psalms once over the three days.
The tunes used to recite the Psalms I understand are Aramaic/ Syriac and thus represent the most ancient form of church music known to the church. It derives from early synagogue worship and is a direct connection to our pre-Christian past.
In the 6th century, a plague inflicted the Northern regions of Nineveh and devastated the city. The populace sought the guidance of the bishop who in term looked to Holy Scripture. The story of Jonah and the great fish provided it.
In the Old Testament story God sent the prophet Jonah to warn the city of Nineveh that they must repent of their sins to avoid being destroyed:
"The word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amathi, saying: “Arise and go to Nineveh, the great city, and preach in it: for the wickedness thereof is come up before me."
Jonah, trying to avoid the task set before him, fled by ship across the Mediterranean. When a violent storm rose up the crew decided that one of the passengers was responsible. Jonah pleaded guilty for attempting to flee from God so they threw him overboard where he was swallowed by a ‘great fish’ in whose belly he fasted and prayed for three days. When he was sparred by being vomited back onto dry land, the prophet went to Nineveh and preached that it would be destroyed in forty days unless it repented. For once in these tales, the king listened and he and the whole city put on sackcloth and ashes and fasted until God repented of his decision to destroy the city.
Not surprisingly the Bishop of Nineveh saw some parallels with the story and so ordered a three day fast to ask for God's forgiveness. After three days the plague ceased.
To this day, the Assyrians church observes these three days. They have been doing so for almost 1500 years.