Today is, among other remembrances, the memorial of Saints Addai and Mari. Addai played a leading role in one of the legends most popular among the early Christians — the legend of King Abgar of Edessa (modern Urfa in Turkey). Eusebius tells the tale at length in his Church History, testifying that he found all the documentation in the archives of Edessa. It is recorded in other places as well, including the apocryphal Doctrine of Addai.
The story goes that King Abgar contracted leprosy and was desperate for a cure; so he wrote a letter to Jesus of Nazareth, who was then gaining fame as a miracle-worker in distant Judea. Jesus received Abgar’s messenger and sent word back that the king would indeed be healed, but by one of Jesus’ disciples. Abgar heard the news with joy, and waited.
Time passed, and Jesus, through His dying and rising, accomplished our redemption. Then the disciples of Jesus set out to the “ends of the earth,” as the Lord had commanded. St. Thomas sent a disciple named Addai to Edessa, to preach the Gospel and to complete the task of healing the king. Some versions of the story identify Addai with the apostle Jude, also known as Thaddeus. Addai indeed can be a shortened form of Thaddeus.
Addai healed the king, who, in gratitude, gave him freedom to establish the Church in Edessa. Addai chose priests, taught them the liturgy, and ordained them. He continued his missionary activity throughout Mesopotamia, baptizing many people in the land today known as Iraq. One of his disciples, named Mari, would continue the mission long after Addai’s death…
That’s a bit of a hash of the story, compiled from several sources. The details are indistinct in the mists, but are entertainingly told (and gorgeously illustrated) in my son’s book, Saint Jude: A Friend in Hard Times. It’s perfect for kids middle-school age and younger. (But adults like it, too.)
The spiritual children of Addai and Mari have often been in the news in recent years. Some still live in Iraq, and they still use an ancient Eucharistic Prayer, which they say is based on the one taught by Addai to those first priests of Edessa. It is known as the Liturgy of Addai and Mari, and it was the subject of a remarkable (and very controversial) ruling from the Vatican several years ago. In 2001, Rome permitted intercommunion between Chaldean Catholics and members of the Assyrian Church (also known as the “Church of the East,” descended from the ancient Nestorians). The ruling, which you can find here, allowed Catholics to use the Assyrian Church’s version of the Liturgy of Addai and Mari, which is quite ancient and which lacks the institution narrative (the story of the Last Supper). The great liturgist Robert Taft said that this decision from Rome marked “the most important magisterial teaching since Vatican II.” Three years later, in the Vatican journal Divinitas, theologians hotly debated the wisdom of the decision. (The news story is here; scroll halfway down the page.) But Rome had spoken, and has upheld the decision.
Today’s conditions surely constitute a dire emergency for Christians in the lands of Addai and Mari. Here is the sad story from Catholic News Service this week:
Half of all Iraqi Christians have fled their country since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, said the auxiliary bishop of Baghdad.
Chaldean Catholic Auxiliary Bishop Andreos Abouna of Baghdad said that before the invasion there were about 1.2 million Christians in the predominantly Shiite Muslim state. Since then the overall number has dropped to about 600,000, he said.
“What we are hearing now is the alarm bell for Christianity in Iraq,” the bishop said. “When so many are leaving from a small community like ours, you know that it is dangerous — dangerous for the future of the church in Iraq.”
The bishop said 75 percent of Christians from Baghdad had fled the capital to escape the almost daily outbreaks of sectarian violence.
Since the beginning of the war, the number of Chaldean Catholics, who make up the country’s most numerous Christian denomination, had dropped below half a million from 800,000, he said. Many sought new lives mostly in the neighboring countries of Syria, Jordan and Turkey, he added.
Bishop Abouna said he thought it was unlikely that many of those who had emigrated would return.
Please pray for these spiritual children of Saints Addai and Mari as they wander from their home. May they remain faithful to their rich Christian heritage, nourished by the blood of many martyrs. And may their patrons bring them the grace of Jesus Christ abundantly on this great day.