An old term for Advent’s Lord

“What does that mean: ‘Maranatha’?”

A man asked the question after an Advent season Mass last year. The deacon looked at me and said to him: “Ask her.” Talk about trying to remember one’s minimal training in Aramaic quickly!

Yes, like the words “Amen” and “Abba,” “Maranatha” is Aramaic, though it is transliterated into Greek in the New Testament. (This means it is not a translation, but simply uses Greek letters to record an earlier Aramaic phrase.)

And Maranatha really is a phrase, consisting of two words. Each has a slightly different meaning, depending on how you use the words:

  • It can mean “Come, Lord,” as in an order or prayerful request;
  • It can also mean “the Lord has come.”

That’s the basics and all most people need to know.

Found in 1st Letter to Corinthians

The Maranatha Acclamation is found in Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians: “If anyone does not love the Lord, let him be accursed. ‘Marana tha.’ The grace of the Lord Jesus be with you (16:22-23).”

Admittedly, this sounds harsh — talking about cursing and such — but also see how, overall, Paul is stressing the love of the Lord, the grace of Jesus and the ready presence of the Lord, ready to come at a call — even if it is a call to deal with a unloving person. And Paul uses “Lord” three times here: twice in our translated English and once in Aramaic. (More about that in a bit.)

Book of Revelation

There is also an allusion to the Maranatha Acclamation at the very end of the Book of Revelation: “The one who gives this testimony says, ‘Yes, I am coming soon.’ Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!” (22:20). Bible scholars agree that, while “Come, Lord Jesus” is in Greek in the original text of Revelation, it still refers to the Aramaic Maranatha Acclamation. The point here is the acknowledgement of Jesus as Lord.

The original Aramaic word “Mar” means “Lord.” Adding the Aramaic “na” makes it “our Lord.” “Tha” is an Aramaic verb related to the action of coming.

As Scripture scholar Dr. Mark Giszczak of the Augustine Institute in Denver, Colo., notes, this leaves us with three ways to approach the acclamation, which is a phrase:

  • Marana tha, which makes it a plea: “Our Lord, come!”;
  • Maran atha, which becomes a statement meaning either “Our Lord comes,” or “Our Lord will come”; or
  • Maran atha, which is split the same way as above, but now is used as a plea: “Our Lord, come!” (The stress falls on the end of the phrase here: “Come!”)

In the earliest days of the church, as noted in the Catholic Encyclopedia, leaders tended to favor the use maran atha, as a statement: “Our Lord has come.” As James DeFrancisco, professor of biblical studies at St. Elias Orthodox Seminary in Hamilton, Va., notes, this gave the acclamation “an apocalyptic character.”

More recently, Dr. DeFrancisco added, scholarship tends to favor the marana tha (Come, Lord) as more in the “presence sense” that “the Lord’s Spirit is with us,” or “the Lord has come.”

Faith, creed, hope

So we can see that, while Maranatha Acclamation can be a prayer asking Jesus to return, or a statement of fact — “Jesus has come.” It is also a statement of belief in Jesus as the Lord. The “Mar” of the phrase — a word that clearly acknowledges Jesus as Lord of all things — is consistent in all the usages.

The Maranatha Acclamation can also be found in one of the earliest Christian teachings: the first century, Greek text known as The Didache (The Teachings of the Lord through the 12 Apostles to the Nations.). This multi-chapter book covers the life of the early church: how to pray, how to celebrate the Eucharist and sacraments, and also talks about the Second Coming.

In the Didache, the Maranatha Acclamation appears at the end of the Liturgy of the Eucharist as part of a prayer of praise after receiving Communion. It reads: “Let grace come and this world pass away. Hosanna to David’s God. If anyone be holy, come! If anyone not be holy, repent: Maranatha, Amen.”

Present and coming

So we can see how the Maranatha Acclamation addresses the reality of Jesus as Lord and as both present and coming. That makes the acclamation a great tie to Advent, the season when we look to the coming of the Lord in Bethlehem (fact), at the end of time (a creed) and into our own lives (a plea).

During Advent, 2013, Pope Francis used the Maranatha Acclamation to address the time of final judgment. He noted how “the first Christian communities” often used this acclamation during prayer and celebrations. He added that, by using it at the end of the Book of Revelation, John meant the church to anticipate being “enfolded in his embrace: Jesus’ embrace, which is the fullness of life and the fullness of love.”

This sounds much better than worrying about someone being accursed. It focuses on anticipation and coming joy.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church addresses the Maranatha Acclamation using both the translations of “Our Lord, come!” and “Come, Lord!,” and calls the acclamation an “exclamation full of trust and hope” (n. 451).

Advent is a season of trust and hope, so saying “Maranatha” helps remind us of that.

 

Sources: The Didache; The Dictionary of the Liturgy; The New Jerome Biblical Commentary; the Catholic Encyclopedia; w2.vactican.va; catholicbiblestudent.com; aramaicbibleperspectives.com; and firstthings.com