The Significance of Red in the Syriac Orthodox Church Tradition

Colours are very important in everyday life. Now a days, people choose favourite colours for their attire, cars, houses etc., so, we can say that colours have at least some importance or significance in our life. Red is the colour of fire, passion, love, and of victory over death. Red represents courage and bravery. So, it is used in shields, flags, 

and achievement awards. When we look at the Bible, we can observe the importance of different colours, especially of red (including scarlet and crimson); these have some significance in the Christian liturgy and traditions as well. 

Biblical Narratives

Red is a very powerful colour in the Bible. In the books of the Old Testament, Saul dressed the daughters of Israel in red garments: “Daughters of Israel, weep for Saul who gave you scarlet clothes, as your dyed raiment, set golden embroidery on your apparel” (2 Samuel 1: 24).

In the book of Exodus, the Israelites were told to kill an unblemished lamb and put the lamb’s red blood on their doorposts. It reads, “And they shall take some of its blood and sprinkle it upon the two doorposts, and upon the lintels, and upon the houses in which they will eat it” (Exodus 12:7). This was so that the spirit of God would pass over the houses and spare them from death. We can interpret the blood in two different ways – firstly as death, because the lamb shed its blood. Secondly as redemption, because it spared those who had it on their doorposts. 

In the Old Testament the colour red is used to describe sin. In Proverbs red is mentioned in the passage, “She is not afraid of the snow for her household, for all her household are clothed in scarlet”(Proverb 31: 21). Prophet Nahum says in 2:3, “The shields of their mighty men are reddened…”. In Isaiah 1:18, “Come, let us speak with each other, says the Lord: if your sins should be as scarlet, they will be made white as snow; if they should turn red as scarlet dye, they will be like wool”. It shows that God has the ability to blot away sins and purify the person.

Theological Narratives

The colour of blood is red, and it is a very powerful colour: it speaks of the sin that all mankind holds. At the same time, it is also pointing to the redemption that everyone has access to, because of Jesus’ shedding His blood on the Cross. In the Old Testament, people slaughtered goats and other animals to perform a sacrifice. Christ, through the shedding of His blood, made the final sacrifice, once and for all. So the colour red in the Bible can symbolize both sin and redemption. Either way it point to some type of blood sacrifice and the need for redemption. Those who trust and partake of Christ’s blood can be sure that they have eternal life with Christ because the blood of Christ guarantees everlasting life. Christ’s blood has transformed us into new creations; those who are covered by His blood will certainly live forever.

Red also symbolizes fire, and therefore is the colour of the Holy Spirit. “You had put on the scarlet robe, with humiliation and mocking of the Jews in order to clothe us with the Holy Spirit, from whom we were stripped off in the woods by the jealousy of the serpent”. So, the red garment symbolizes the Holy Spirit which Adam and Eve discarded in the Garden of Eden. 

In Christian tradition, martyr’s clothes are red and red is also considered as the colour that depicts health, fire and the final judgment. Red evokes the colour of the blood of Christ, shed for our sins and therefore it is the colour used to represent martyrs. This colour foreshadows Christ’s death on the Cross which the Church calls Great Friday or Good Friday. 

Liturgical Narratives

In the Syriac Orthodox liturgy, red is mentioned in different ways which are connected with the Bible and the redemptive works of Christ. In St. Matthew 27: 28, we read, “And they stripped Him and put a scarlet robe upon Him”. In the Sedro of the Holy Week it is stated, “They clothed You with a red garment, and You have clothed us with the garment of glory which we have stripped off by the transgression of the commandment”.Here red represents royal power and the garment of glory.

A wooden Cross is usually placed on the altar in the middle of the eastern edge of the top tier of the altar. The Cross may be plain or ornamental, but not with a image on it because it represents the Cross on which Jesus was crucified. In the Syriac Orthodox 

Church tradition, a red uroro (red stole) is not put on the Cross which is placed on the altar because we focus on the risen Christ, represented by the empty Cross. This is the key which opens the gate of the Paradise. Mor Ephrem writes, “Blessed is He who through His Cross has flung open Paradise”. Christ the King is carrying the Cross, which is the key to the gate of Paradise and He will open the great gate, by the sign of the Cross. 

The raising of the Cross elevated in the middle of the church on the mid-lent day of the Great Lent is symbolic of the raising of the bronze serpent by Moses in the middle of the Israelite camp. In John 3: 14 we read, “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man is going to be lifted up”. The relationship between the bronze serpent and Jesus is evident here. Just as Moses pleaded for the Israelites, Jesus pleads on behalf of us. A red cloth covers the wooden stand and a red uroro (red stole) is 

put on the Cross from the mid-lent day until Palm Sunday. This represents the hanging of the slaughtered lamb on the wood while skinning it. The Cross here symbolizes firstly, the wood of which the Cross of Christ was made, and secondly, the lamb which is a symbol of Christ, who is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world through His precious blood (St. John 1: 29 and 1 John 1: 7).6 The uroro represents the loin cloth that Jesus was covered with while on the cross.

On the day of Resurrection, the Church uses a red scarf to symbolise the prophesy of the Prophet Isaiah, saying, “Who is this who comes from Edom, his garments blood-red from Bozrah, adorned by his clothing, mighty in his great strength?”(Isaiah 63:1). Jesus was wrapped with a cloth when He was buried. So, after His resurrection, Hisgarments – were red or dipped in blood because it reminds us that He sweated great drops of blood in the Garden of Gethsemane and later when He suffered for the sins of humanity on the Cross. Similarly St. John says of the Heavenly Warrior who defeats the beast in the Book of Revelation 19:13, “And He was clothed with a garment soaked in blood, and His name is called ‘The Word of God’”. The Great Warrior Jesus Christ, the one who has supremely witnessed to the truth of God in His life and death, and who is the Word of God in person.

In the Syriac Orthodox Church, the different utensils and things are of red colour. Some of them are listed below. 

1. Chithol: This is the cloth decorated with red and green colours that is used to cover the altar. The altar cloth is of fine high quality linen, with a lot of artwork on it; it is usually divided into three sections representing the Holy Trinity, each of which has artwork on it.

2. Tricolour Spread (Virikoottu): This rectangular piece of cloth covering the tablito(altar stone) is made of red, green and white parts. Red represents the universe, green the world and white the Holy Church. The paten and chalice are placed on this three coloured spread. 

3. The Cushion (Gmurtho): This small cushion covered with red cloth is a substitute for the sponge which was used originally in the Church. It is used to wipe the paten and chalice, and the celebrant dries his fingers with it after touching the Holy body. This sponge symbolizes the sponge which was dipped in vinegar and given by the soldiers to Jesus while He was on the Cross (St. Matthew 27: 48).

4. M’kablono: The decorated square-shaped covers for the chalice and paten are made of fine red silk. The covers of the Holy vessels were foreshadowed by the clouds that shadowed the Tabernacle and also represent the Ark of the Covenant with the Manna jar (Exodus 16: 33).

5. Veil (Curtain): Syriac Orthodox churches have a red veil (curtain) covering the Sanctuary. The veil is made of smooth red linen and can be likened to one of the colours of the veils of the tabernacle. “And you shall make the tabernacle ten curtains of fine woven linen – blue, and purple, and scarlet yarns” (Exodus 26:1).

6. The red robe of the Prelate: The Prelate wears a red robe with a red belt. The red colour of the robe represents the scarlet robe which the soldiers made Jesus wear during His trial. 

7. The kerchief of the Hand-Cross: The Prelate holds in his right hand a Cross to the 

bottom of which a red kerchief is fastened which represents the Holy Church.

8. The Flags, Umbrellas and Canopy: Church festivals are beautified with colourfully decorated flags, umbrellas and canopy. The different coloured flags including red represent the martyrs of the Church and especially John the Baptist. This is the reason why these flags are similar to the shape of the English letter ‘M’. This letter doesn’t have a ‘head’. The umbrellas are also in different colours including red representing the clouds as described by St Mark, “Then they will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds, with great power and with glory” (St. Mark 13: 26).

9. Wedding Saree or Manthrakodi of the bride: The Syriac Orthodox Church in India adopted two Indian customs which are incorporated during the wedding ceremony. First, is the tying of ‘Thali’ (Minnu) by the groom around the bride’s neck. Thali (Minnu) is a small heart shaped gold pendant with a cross embossed on it. Second one is draping the bride’s head with a colourful bridal saree  known as the Manthrakodi.

The white bridal dress popular today originated from Great Britain, many years ago. However, red was the most usual colour for wedding dresses before this, connecting with the groom (Christ) who weds His Church and cleanses her through His blood. Red is considered auspicious and the bride and groom are united by it in a sacred bond of love. The colour of the post-wedding saree (the Manthrakodi), that is today worn to the wedding feast, has to be red. It is also a common practice among the faithful that the Manthrakodi is worn by the person at her funeral. (Manthrakodi: This is a saree that is presented by the groom’s family to the bride. The saree is a garment consisting of a length of cotton or silk elaborately draped around the body, traditionally worn by women from India).

The liturgy of the Syriac Orthodox Church is one of the most ancient, and it has been handed from one generation to another. The Church believes that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, came into the world and died for humanity to save us from the bondage of Satan and to lead us to eternal life. For Christians, red is a propitious colour. It shows the importance of the Blood of Christ which was shed during His Passion, and which was the price paid for the redemption of mankind. The Syriac Orthodox Church has given it great respect and awe, such that several of the vestments used in the services and several of the prayers during Lent time and Holy Week reference the ‘heaven-sent’ red colour. The Church believes in the Second Coming of Christ, when He will come with His garment soaked in blood, for the redemption of those who believe in Him. Kyrie eleison! Lord Have Mercy!

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Ayub Silvanos is the Metropolitan of the Knanaya Archdiocese of the Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch. H. E. is currently serving as the Metropolitan of the North American & Europe Region of the Knanaya Archdiocese since 2009.

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