Mike Aquilina

Full Text of Ephrem

Wednesday November 28th 2007, 2:14 pm

It’s poetry — and not just the parts that are supposed to be poetry. Here’s an unofficial translation from Teresa Benedetta:

Dear brothers and sisters,

According to common thinking today, Christianity is a European religion, which was later exported with European culture to other nations. But the fact is much more complex, because the roots of the Christian religtion are found in the Old Testament, and therefore in jerusalem and the Semitic world. Christianity haa always nourished itself from its roots in the Old Testament.

Even its expansion in the first centuries took place in both directions: to the West – the Greek and Latin world, where it then inspired European culture; and towards the East, to Persia and as far as India, thus contributing to raise a specific culture, in the Semitic languages, with its own identity.

To show this cultural pluriformity of the only Christian faith in the beginning, last Wednesday I spoke of a representative of this other Christianity, Aphraate the wise Persian, almost unknown to us.

In the same line, I wish to speak today of St. Ephrem the Syrian, born in Nisibi around 306 to a Christian family. He was the most important representative of Christianity in the Syriac language, one who succeeded to reconcile uniquely the vocations of thelogian and poet.

He was educated and grew alongside Jacob, Bishop of Nisibi (303-338), and together with him, founded the theological school of their city. Ordained a deacon, he intensely shared the life of the local Christian community until 363, when Nisibi fell to the Persians.

Ephrem then moved to Edessa, where he continued his activity as a peracher. He died in this city in 373, victim of the plague he contracted from caring for those who had been stricken.

It is not known for certain whether he was a monk, but in any case, he remained a deacon all his life and embraced both chastity and poverty. The common and fundamental Christian identity appears in his specificity cultural expression: faith, hope – the hope which allows one to live poor and chaste in this world, placing every expectation only in the Lord – and finally, charity, up to the gift of himself in caring for the victims of the plague.

St, Ephrem has left us a graat theological legacy. His considerable output can be grouped in four categories: works written in ordinary prose (his polemical works and Biblical commentaries); works in poetic prose; homilies in verse; and finally, the hymns, surely Ephrem’s most extensive work.

He is a rich and interesting author in many ways, but especially in his theological profile. The specificity of his work is that theology and poetry encounter each other.

In approaching his doctrine, we must insist from the beginning on this: that he cast theology in poetic form. Poetry allowed him to deepen theological reflection through paradoxes and images. So at the same time, his theology becomes liturgy, it becomes music. He was, in fact, a great composer, a musician.

Theology, reflection on the faith, poetry, song, and praise of God all go together; and divine truth appears precisely in the liturgical character of Ephrem’s theology. In his quest for God, in his theology, he followed the way of paradox and symbol. He largely favored contrasting images because they serve to underline the mystery of God.

I cannot now present very much of his work, if only because poetry is not easily translatable, but to give at least an idea of his poetic theology, I would like to cite parts of some hymns. Above all, especially in view of the coming Advent, here are some splendid images from the hymn on the nativity of Christ.

Before the Virgin, Eophrem manifests his wonder in inspired words:

“The Lord came to you
to become a servant.
The Word came to you
to be still in your womb.
Lightning came to you
without making any noise.
The Shepherd came to you –
and becomes the newborn Lamb
with his submissive plaint.

The womb of Mary
has changed the roles:
He who created all things
took possession in poverty.
The Highest came to you (Mary)
but he entered with humility.
Splendor came to you,
but dressed in humble rags.
He who makes all things grow
knew hunger.
He who waters everything
knew thirst.
Bare and stripped, he came from you,
he who clothes everything in beauty.”
(Hymn “De Nativitate”11, 6-8).

To express the mystery of Christ, Ephrem used a great diversity of expressions and images. In one of his hymns, he effectively links Adam in Paradise with Christ in the Eucharist:

“It was the cherubin’s spade
that closed the path
to the Tree of LIfe.
But for the people,
the Lord of this tree
gave himself as food –
he himself as offering (Eucharistic).

The trees of Eden
were given as food
to the first Adam.
For us, the Gardener in person
has made himself food for our souls.

Indeed we all left Paradise with Adam,
who left it all behind.
Now that the sword has been taken away,
there (on the Cross), we find it again
in the lance that pierced.
(Hymn, 49,9-11).

To speak of the Eucharist, Ephrem used two images: the ember or burning coal, and the pearl. The ember comes from Isaiah (6.6), in the image of the seraphin who picks up an ember with tongs and simply brushes it across the lips of the prophet in order to purify it. The Christian, on the other hand, takes and swallows the Ember, who is Christ himself.

“In your Bread is hidden the Spirit
which cannot be consumed.
In your wine is the fire
which cannot be drunk.
The Spirit in the bread,
the fire in your wine:
behold the wonder
that we welcome to our lips.

The seraphin could not, with his fingers, touch the ember
which he could only bring close to Isaiah’s mouth.
The fingers did not hold it, nor did the mouth ingest it.
But the Lord has conceded both to us.

Fire descends with ire to destroy sinners
but the fire of grace descends on the bread and stays.
Instead of the fire which destroyed people,
we have easten the fire in the bread
and we have been revived.
(Hymn “De Fide”10,8-10).

Finally, a last example of St. Ephrem’s hymns, where he describes the pearl as a symbol of the richness and beauty of the faith:

“I place the pearl, my brothers,
in the palm of my hand to examine it.
I look at it from one side, then the other –
and it looks the same from every side.

So it is with our search
for the inscrutable Son –
because he is all light.

In its limpidity, I see the Limpid
which does not become opaque.
In its purity, I see the symbol
of the pure Body of our Lord.
And in its indivisibility, I see
the truth which is indivisible.
(Hymn “Sulla Perla” 1, 2-3).

The figure of Ephrem is still fully relevant in the life of the various Christian churches. We discover him, first of all, as a theologian who, starting from Sacred Scripture, reflects poetically on the mystery of the redemption of man by Christ, the Word of God incarnate.

His is a theological reflection with images and symbols taken from nature, from daily life and from the Bible. Ephrem confers a didactic and theological character on poetry and hymns for liturgy, Ephrem used these hymns to spread, on liturgical occasions, the doctrine of the Church. And in those times, they proved to be extremely effective as a catechetical means for the Christian community.

Ephrem’s reflections on the theme of God the Creator are important: Nothing in the world is isolated, and the world, alongside Sacred Scripture, is the Bible of God, but using his freedom in the wrong
way, man overturns the order of the cosmos.

The role of women was very relevant to Ephrem. The way in which he spoke about women was always inspired by sensitivity and respect: Jesus dwelling in the womb of Mary had raised the dignity of all women. For Ephrem, just as there is no Redemption without Jesus, there could be no Incarnation without Mary.

The divine and human dimensions of the mystery of our Redemption are found in the texts of Ephrem: poetically and with fundamentally Scriptural images, he anticipated the theological background and in some way, the language itself, of the great Christologic definitions made by the Councils of the fifth century.

Ephrem, honored by Christian tradition with the title ‘Scepter of the Holy Spirit’, remained a deacon of the church all his life. It was a decisive and emblematic choice: he was a deacon, therefore, a servant, both in the liturgical ministry as, more radically, he was a servant of the love of Christ, which he sung in unparalleled way, and in his charity towards his brothers, whom he introduced with rare mastery to a knowledge of divine revelation.