The Restoration Of Assyria



The great trumpet shall be blown, and they shall come which were ready to perish in the land of Assyria, and the outcasts in ttte land of Egypt, and shall worship the Lord in the holy mount at ferusalem.

Isaiah xxvii. 13.

S. Margaret's, Westminster, Sixth Sunday after Trinity, 1888, on behalf of the Archbishop of Canterbury's Mission to the Assyrian Christians.

Assyria and Egypt—the two world-powers in the dawn of history, the two chief sources of ancient civilisation, the twin giant empires which bound the Israelite people on the right hand and on the left— these are familiar names to us in Hebrew history and prophecy alike. Cruel neighbours they are, between whom this ill-fated nation is tossed to and fro in wanton sport like a shuttlecock, cruel friends before whom it must cringe in turns, praying sometimes for help, suing sometimes for very life—alternate scourges in the hand of the Divine wrath. Now it is the fly of Egypt, and now it is the bee of Assyria, whose ruthless swarms issue forth at the word of Jehovah, settling ' in the holes of the rocks, and upon all thorns and upon all bushes,' with deadly sting fatal to man and beast, devastating the land far and wide. Holding the poor Israelite in their relentless embrace, they threatened ever and again to crush him by their grip. Like the fabled rocks which frowned over the narrow straits of Bosphorus, they would clash together and annihilate the helpless craft which the storms of a cruel destiny had placed at their mercy. Nor is it a mere empty threat Israel reels under the successive blows of one or other of these powerful neighbours. As was the beginning, so was the end. As the captivity of Egypt had been the cradle of the nation, so was the captivity of Assyria to be its tomb.

And just as they appear side by side as the instruments of the Divine chastisement on Israel, so also are they coupled together as the objects of the Divine vengeance themselves. One in the pride and insolence of power, they are one also in their humiliation and downfall. Assyria falls first, and Egypt must follow after. The fall of the first is a type and a foreshadowing of the fall of the second. This is the lesson of those magnificent chapters in the prophecy of Ezekiel, 'Son of man, speak unto Pharaoh king of Egypt and to his multitude; Whom art thou like in thy greatness?' Then follows the parable of no doubtful meaning; 'Behold, the Assyrian was a cedar in Lebanon with fair branches, and with a shadowing shroud, and of an high stature. His height was exalted above all the trees of the field; the fowls made their nests in his boughs, and the beasts of the field brought forth their young beneath his branches.' The secret of Assyria's prosperity was the secret of Egypt's prosperity likewise. The rivers of Assyria had their counterpart in the river of Egypt. Thus was he 'fair in his greatness, in the length of his branches; for his root was by great waters.' 'All the trees of Eden, that were in the garden of God, envied him.' The nations shook 'at the sound of his fall, when I cast him down...they also went down into hell with him.' There he lies in the bottomless pit, awaiting the arrival of his companion. 'Asshur is there and all her company; his graves are about him; all of them slain, fallen by the sword.' But he shall not wait long. Already the axe is laid at the root. The Divine fiat has gone forth. 'To whom art thou—thou Egypt—thus like in glory and in greatness among the trees of Eden?' 'Son of man, wail for the multitude of Egypt, and cast them down'— down to the uttermost pit . Truly of Assyria and Egypt it might be said in a sterner sense than of the Israelite princes of old, that 'in their death they were not divided'—not divided in their downfall, as they had not been divided in their exaltation.

Nay, not divided in their later, as they were not divided in their earlier humiliation. For the humiliation of these great world-powers was not ended by these conquests to which the prophet immediately refers. Blow has succeeded blow. Centuries have rolled away and the decree is not yet reversed. Assyria and Egypt—the realm of the great conquerors, Shalmaneser and Sargon and Sennacherib; the realm of the mighty pyramid-builders, of the powerful Pharaohs, the Thothmes and the Rameses —nations of ancient and wide renown when Greece was scarcely a name and Rome was not yet a name —empires of which the younger reckoned a continuous life of not less than twelve hundred years, lie prostrate, both trampled under foot by the same ruthless conqueror, ground down by centuries of oppression and misrule. Truly we seem to read once more the fulfilment of Ezekiel's denunciations, when we contemplate these twin-powers of the ancient world with the heel of the Turk on their neck—crying for help and protection to the people of a far-distant island in the west, whose name in the day of their prosperity their forefathers knew not, but of whose existence haply some Phoenician traders might have told, as a race of fierce barbarians who dwelt beyond the setting sun. How are the mighty fallen!

But again; as we have found them coupled together in Hebrew prophecy, first in their wealth and power, and then in their downfall and humiliation, so also the seer's imagination pictures them united once more in a glorious resurrection. Intimately connected with the destiny of Israel have they been in the past; not less intimately connected shall they be in the future. They have been the great oppressors of God's chosen race; they have enslaved the sons and daughters of His people; they have held them captive in a foreign land. A time shall come when all shall be changed. The great trumpet shall be blown; the exiles shall issue forth at the summons from the land of their captivity. The caravans shall troop homeward across the deserts from Assyria in the North-west and from Egypt in the Southeast. The streams of outcasts shall gather in the long-lost land, and 'shall worship the Lord in the holy mount at Jerusalem.' And not only so. Their masters and gaolers shall be their fellow-disciples and their fellow-travellers. A supreme attraction shall draw them in one. All shall join hand in hand in one common faith; 'In that day shall Israel be third with Egypt and with Assyria, even a blessing in the midst of the land: whom the Lord of Hosts shall bless saying, Blessed be Egypt My people, and Assyria the work of My hands, and Israel Mine inheritance.'

This glorious consummation, what does it mean? How shall it be fulfilled? Hebrew prophecy is a gospel before the Gospel, a message of glad tidings, a presage of joy and hope. Above the deepest wail of despair the psean of triumph is ever heard. The note which lingers latest is a note of hope, of restoration, of renewal, a promise of a new heaven and a new earth. Are Assyria and Egypt then mere types and figures of a glorious future, when the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea—as truly types and figures as the lion and the ox, the asp and the cockatrice, in the mountain of the Lord? Or ought we to expect a literal fulfilment? In some sense this prophecy has already been fulfilled. The Church of Assyria and the Church of Egypt were both conspicuous in the early ages of Christianity. Each did a notable work in the spread of the Gospel. But is the prophecy exhausted by these earlier achievements? Who shall say?

Of the Coptic Christians, the modern representatives of the once-powerful and learned Church of Egypt—the Church of Clement and Origen, of Athanasius and Cyril—I have no commission to speak this morning. It is for the remnant of the Assyrian Church—the Church of the East—that I ask your sympathy and support. Shall not their place in ancient prophecy plead for them, that they appeal not in vain?

Or, if the aspirations of prophecy fall dead on our ears, will not the facts of history enforce attention for this appeal? Need I remind you how large a place this nation has occupied in the records of the human race since that day, of which we read in the earliest pages of our Bibles, when 'Asshur went forth and builded Nineveh?' Need I tell you how much the education of mankind owes to the ancient civilisation of Assyria transmitted through other races—a civilisation attested by those monuments disentombed by your own Layard, deciphered by your own Rawlinson, stored up among your treasures in your own National Museum? Need I further call to your remembrance how this Syriac-speaking people is intimately connected with your most sacred inheritance? A Syrian was the father not only of the family of Israel, but of the people of Christ. The language which Abraham heard in Ur of the Chaldees, which probably was his mother tongue, which certainly his Syrian kinsmen two generations later still continued to speak, was the same which is heard to this day in the services of the humble Nestorian sanctuaries near the shores of the salt lakes of Van and Urmi. Thus their liturgy is a Jegar-Sahadutha—a pillar of witness between us and them, like that cairn erected by Jacob and Laban long centuries ago, a pledge however not of separation but of unity. And, if this speech ministered at the cradle of the old Dispensation, so did it herald in the birth of the new. It is a tradition— not an improbable tradition—of the Nestorian Christians, that those wise men on whom the light of that first Epiphany shone, summoning them by the guidance of a star to the cradle of the Incarnate Word, came from these very regions. At all events the Syriac-speaking races were the earliest to receive the Gospel of Christ. The first Christian sovereign was Abgar, the ruler of Edessa. This at least is a fair inference from the fable of the letters interchanged between him and our Lord. Hence in very remote times the Christian communities in these parts were numerous and flourishing. They had their schools of learning at Edessa, at Amida, at Nisibis. They took an active part in the great Councils of the Church. Then, towards the middle of the fifth century, came the Nestorian schism, which severed the great bulk of Eastern Christianity from the Catholic Church. Whether this rent in the seamless coat of Christ might not have been averted by patience and explanation, whether the difference was not one largely of expression rather than of doctrine I shall not stop to enquire. In the modern descendants of the ancient Nestorian Church, at all events, divines have failed to find any distinct traces of heretical doctrine beyond the name and the tradition. However this may be, the fatal severance was made. The head-quarters of these Nestorians thus parted from the main body were Assyria and Persia. Breaking loose from the great patriarchate of Antioch, they organized themselves under a patriarch of their own, whose see was Babylon and whose proud title was 'Patriarch of the East.' Then commenced a splendid career of evangelistic zeal which it would be difficult to match in any Church at any age. If missionary achievement be the safest test of a living Church, then no Church has ever manifested a fuller life than this. 'Christianity was preached,' writes Gibbon, 'to the Bactrians, the Huns, the Persians, the Indians, the Persarmenians, the Medes and the Elamites; the barbaric Churches from the Gulf of Persia to the Caspian Sea were almost infinite....The pepper coast of Malabar, and the isles of the Ocean, Socotora and Ceylon, were peopled with an increasing multitude of Christians....The zeal of the Nestorians,' he continues, ' overleaped the limits which had confined the S. S. 18

ambition and curiosity both of the Greeks and Persians. The missionaries of Balch and Samarcand pursued without fear the footsteps of the roving Tartar, and insinuated themselves into the camps of the valleys of Imaus and the banks of the Selinga.' Even in farthest China the marks of their footprints have been found. The patriarch of Babylon—the patriarch of the East—was once the head of a vast ecclesiastical organization which comprised not less than twenty-five provinces, each under its own archbishop or metropolitan.

This splendid record of a mighty past the enfeebled remnant of Assyrian Christendom lays at the feet of you English Churchmen to-day. Oppressed through long centuries by alien races of an alien religion, despised and trampled under foot, harried and devastated by barbarian hordes, they have nevertheless retained their ancient faith, and they cry to you to help them. They want not your silver and gold; but they crave your sympathy; they ask for education at your hands; they cry to you to lift them up from their depressed condition, and to reinstate them intellectually, morally, and spiritually.

Can you resist this appeal? It is not the aimless, passionate cry of children, restless and seeking they know not what. It is sustained, and it is definite. The first appeal was made to Archbishop Howley half-a-century ago. It has been repeated twice and thrice. Listen to the language of their earlier petition: 'The prophecy of Jeremiah has been fulfilled in us. My people have fallen into the hands of the enemy, and there was none to help us...Mine eyes,' continues the patriarch, 'are dimmed with tears, my heart is troubled, my glory is poured out upon the earth for the destruction of my people...Our spiritual enemies mock us for having placed our dependence after God upon our English brethren, and taunt us, saying, "The English only laugh at you, nor can they give you any assistance, nor do they keep their promises." I entreat you for the sake of the Lord Jesus Christ that you do not reject our petition.'

Or listen to these words again, addressed by the Assyrian bishops and clergy to Archbishop Tait:

'We implore the Lord Jesus Christ, and cast ourselves at your feet who are His disciples, beseeching you to compassionate the condition of our people, who are wandering over our mountains like sheep without a shepherd, and send us some of your missionaries and preachers to guide us into the way of life: for verily all are gone astray, each following his own device through our utter lack of pastors, instructors, and counsellors. We are in the condition of fatherless and motherless orphans. We are persecuted and have cried aloud for help, but no one has come to comfort us. Woe unto us, for we have erred and are benighted. Therefore we beseech you, O Fathers, to save us from the all-devouring sea which surrounds us; deliver us from its overwhelming billows, and rescue us from the fierce storms which threaten our destruction.' Last of all comes a letter from the present patriarch to the present archbishop, thanking him for sending them missionaries, and concluding with the quaint old-world address, 'Given in the cell of Kochanes, in the mountains of Assyria, on the bank of Pishon, the river of Eden.'

Can you resist the pathos, the directness, the fervour of such appeals? If you turn a deaf ear, others, though uninvited, are ready enough to respond. At this very moment the danger to this ancient Assyrian Church which has shown such zeal for Christ in the past, is that it may be absorbed and swallowed up between two rivals who are awaiting its decease and claim to be its residuary legatees.

On the one hand there is the Church of Rome. True to her tradition, she has striven to fasten her yoke on this venerable Church of the far-East. She succeeded a long time ago in detaching a portion of these Assyrian Christians, and gathering them into a Uniat Church under herself. But they are restless under this foreign yoke. A distant colony of this Assyrian Church—the Christians of S. Thomas at Malabar—broke loose from Rome and re-asserted its independence, as soon as external force was removed. In Assyria itself the Romanised Church has been divided by a schism since the Vatican Council. Papal infallibility was a burden too heavy for its tolerance. Is it too much to hope that the child thus estranged for a time will return to its mother's arms? This depends largely on the help and encouragement that the Assyrian Church receives from you.

On the other hand, the American Presbyterians by the offer of education and other kindly services have drawn away considerable numbers from their ancient Church with its Apostolic ministry, and thus a new schism has been introduced.

Who shall blame either the one or the other? Certainly not I. They both maintain large and effective establishments. They both spend large sums annually. They both make great sacrifices to their convictions and their sense of duty. They may well put us to shame. But the rulers of the old Assyrian Church want neither. They have no wish to subject themselves to the yoke of a foreign domination. They have no desire to surrender their ancient threefold ministry inherited from Apostolic times. They are an independent National Church like ourselves, and they wish to remain so. They will not have as their teachers—I am using their language, not my own—'men leavened with the leaven of the Popes or with the leaven of the American Presbyterians.'

The aim of the Archbishop's Mission is to maintain, to educate, to strengthen, to reunite this ancient Assyrian Church. Its last intent is to proselytize or to form an Anglican Communion. It therefore deserves the best support of all English Churchmen —nay, of all Churchmen belonging to the Anglican Communion in England or America or elsewhere. It demands the sympathy of those who are loyal to the principles of the English Reformation, for the leading principle of that Reformation was the independence of National Churches. It claims the support of all who respect the tradition of Apostolic order and primitive rules in the government and relation of Churches, for its aim is to strengthen and support this rule. Let me speak freely on this point. In other questions affecting the relation of the Anglican Communion to other branches of the Church, there is often a conflict between the claims of truth and of order. It is difficult to reconcile these claims. No such difficulty bars the way here. Here we interpose in defence of order. Here we intervene not as intruders from without, but as friends invited by the authoritative rulers themselves.

Is not this then the very invitation to which we should give a prompt, an unhesitating, an eager response? Surely at this moment we can ill afford to shut our eyes to the grave responsibilities which God has laid upon us as members of this Anglican Communion—at this moment when representatives of our Church are gathered together from all parts of the world, from the great American Republic, from our Indian Empire, from our Canadian dominion, from our colonies in three Continents, from Australia, from the islands of the Ocean. What lesson does this fact read to us? Does it not tell us that we English Churchmen of all Christian communities can least afford to limit our sympathies to merely parochial, merely diocesan, merely insular interests—that we before all men have solemn duties towards the Churches of Christendom far and wide.

Is not this so? And, if it be so, what will be said of us, if the first time, the very first time, when we are asked to fulfil any such obligation, when the call of duty is clear and the question is free from complications, when a poor, down-trodden Church, with an ancient lineage of which we might well be proud, comes to us on bended knee, we spurn them from us; if we in our ecclesiastical self-complacency, we with our bones unbroken and our purse intact, pass the robbed and wounded wayfarer by on the other side, just deigning to throw a look at him and thus piercing him with a fresh pang by our heartlessness.

I cannot pretend that there are no flaws in these Assyrian Christians. If it were so, they would not need your aid. Of heresy indeed—beyond the name and the tradition which clings to them—they have been acquitted by competent judges. But they are weighed down by not a few oppressive traditions inherited from the past. You must help them to throw these off. They are very ignorant. Here is the root of the evil. You must step in and instruct their ignorance. They want to be instructed, but not at the price of their independence.

The Archbishop's Mission, for which I plead, has been working for some time with excellent effect. English Clergy have been found to resign positions of competency at home, and to work there without stipend, receiving board and lodging and nothing more. But the Mission needs greatly strengthening, if it is to fulfil its purpose. More men are wanted; buildings must be erected; the Clergy School, the High Schools, the numerous Village Schools cannot be conducted without considerable expense. Hence the call upon your liberality. Let the response be generous as the cause demands, as your position demands, as Christ Himself demands. Do you not hear—hear even now—the blare of the great trumpet and the stir and trampling of feet; and shall not they who are ready to perish in Assyria, come and worship the Lord in the holy Mount of Jerusalem?