Pope Benedict XVI dedicated his general audience on Nov. 28 to St. Ephrem the Syrian, the most renowned poet of the patristic age. In his lifelong service to the Church as a deacon, St. Ephrem was an example of fidelity to the liturgy, meditation on the mystery of Christ, and loving service to his brothers and sisters.
Dear brothers and sisters,
According to popular opinion today, Christianity is a European religion that has exported the culture of Europe to other nations. However, the reality is much more complex because the roots of Christianity are found in the Old Testament — thus, in Jerusalem and the Semitic world.
Christianity constantly draws nourishment from its Old Testament roots. Likewise, the spread of Christianity during the early centuries was directed both westward — to the Greek and Latin world where it later served as inspiration for European culture — and eastward to Persia and India, where it contributed to the formation of a specific culture using Semitic languages and with its own identity.
In order to show the cultural diversity of the early Christian faith, I spoke about one representative of this branch of Christianity during last Wednesday’s catechesis, Aphraates the Persian sage, who, for the most part, remains unknown to us.
Along the same lines, today I would like to speak about St. Ephrem the Syrian, who was born in Nisibis around the year 306 into a Christian family.
The Life of St. Ephrem
St. Ephrem the Syrian was the most important representative of the branch of Christianity that was Syrian-speaking and, in a unique way, was successful in reconciling the vocation of a theologian with that of a poet. He was brought up and educated with James, the bishop of Nisibis (303-338), and together with him founded a school of theology in that town.
Once he was ordained a deacon, he completely immersed himself in the life of the local Christian community until 363, the year Nisibis fell into the hands of the Persians. At that point, Ephrem moved to Edessa, where he continued his work as a preacher.
He died there in 373 after being infected with the plague while caring for the sick. It is not known with certainty whether he was a monk, but we do know that he remained a deacon all his life and that he embraced celibacy and poverty. In this way, some traits that are common and fundamental to Christianity appear in their specific cultural expression: faith and hope — the hope that allows a person to live a chaste and simple life in this world while putting one’s faith in the Lord — along with charity, to the point of giving one’s own life in order to care for victims of the plague.
St. Ephrem left us a great theological legacy. His extensive work can be grouped into four categories: works written in ordinary prose (his polemical works or biblical commentaries), works in poetic prose, homilies in verses and finally his hymns — which are without a doubt Ephrem’s most extensive work.
As an author, he is rich and captivating for many reasons, but especially from a theological perspective. His work has a unique character insofar as theology and poetry meet together in his work. If we wish to get closer to his doctrine, we need to acknowledge from the outset that he cast theology in a poetic form.
Poetry allowed him to deepen his theological reflections through paradoxes and images.
His theology became both liturgy and music at the same time. Without a doubt, he was a great composer and musician.
Theology, reflecting on the faith, poetry, singing and praising God all go together. Indeed, God’s truth appears with clarity in Ephrem’s theology because of its liturgical character.
In his search for God, in his theology, he followed the path of paradox and symbol. His preference was to use opposing images because they serve to underline the mystery of God.
I am not in a position at this time to present much of his work, partly because poetry is hard to translate. But in order to give some idea of his poetic theology, I would like to quote parts of two hymns. First of all, in view of the coming season of Advent, I would like to present some wonderful images taken from a series of hymns entitled On Christ’s Nativity. Inspired by the figure of the Virgin Mary, Ephrem expresses the wonder he experienced:
“The Lord entered her to become a servant. The Word came into her to keep silence in her womb. The thunder came into her to make no sound whatever. The shepherd came into her and see, the Lamb is born, crying quietly (Inno “De Nativitate”11, 6-8).
“Mary’s womb has inverted the roles: The one who created all things has taken possession of them, but is poor. The Most High came into her (Mary), but entered lowly. Splendor came into her, but came dressed in humble clothes. He who lavishly bestows all gifts knew hunger. He who gives water to all knew thirst. Naked and bare he came forth from her, he who clothes all things (with beauty)” (Inno “De Nativitate” 11:6-8).
To express the mystery of Christ, Ephrem uses a wide variety of themes, expressions and images. In one of his hymns, he associates Adam (in paradise) with Christ (in the Eucharist) in a very effective way:
“It was the cherub’s sword, that closed the path to the tree
of life. But for the peoples,
the Lord of this tree has given himself as food in the (Eucharistic) offering. Eden’s trees were given as nourishment to the first Adam. For us, the gardener of the garden himself became food for our souls. Indeed, we all left Paradise together with Adam, who left it behind. Now that the sword has been removed from up there (on the cross) by the lance, we are able to return to it” (Inno 49:9-11).
On the Eucharist
Ephrem uses two images to speak about the Eucharist: the embers or the burning coal, and the pearl. The theme of the burning coal is taken from the prophet Isaiah (see Isaiah 6:6). It is the image of the seraph who takes the burning coal with tongs and simply grazes the lips of the prophet to purify them.
The Christian, on the other hand, touches and consumes the burning coal that is Christ himself:
“In your bread hides the Spirit that cannot be consumed; in your wine is the fire that cannot be drunk. The Spirit in your bread, the fire in your wine: This is the wonder that our lips welcome. The seraph could not get his fingers close to the hot coal, which was only held close to Isaiah’s mouth; his fingers did not take it, nor did the lips swallow it; yet for our sake the Lord deigned to do both things. The fire rained down with anger to destroy the sinners, but the fire of grace comes down on the bread and remains there. Instead of the fire that destroyed man, we have eaten the fire in the bread and we have been revived” (Inno “De Fide” 10:8-10).
Here is yet another example of St. Ephrem’s hymns, where he writes of the pearl that is a symbol of the richness and beauty of faith:
“I put it, my brothers, upon the palm of my hand, that I might examine it. I began to observe it from one side and then the other: It had but one appearance from all sides. (Such) is the search for the Son, inscrutable, since it is wholly light. In its brightness, I beheld the Bright One, who cannot be clouded; and in its purity, I saw the great symbol of our Lord’s body, which is pure. In its indivisibility, I saw the truth, which is indivisible” (Inno sulla Perla 1:2-3).
St. Ephrem the Catechist
The figure of Ephrem is still very relevant for the life of the various Christian churches. First of all, we discover him as a theologian, who used sacred Scripture as a springboard to poetically reflect upon the mystery of man’s redemption by Christ, the Word of God made flesh. He expresses his theological reflection in images and symbols taken from nature, from daily life and from the Bible.
Ephrem gave an educational and catechetical character to his poetry and to his hymns for use in the liturgy; these are theological hymns that are suitable for recitation or liturgical song. Ephrem uses these hymns to articulate the Church’s teaching during the liturgy on feast days. Over time the hymns proved to be an extremely effective catechetical instrument for the Christian community.
Ephrem’s reflection on the theme of God the creator is important. Nothing in creation is isolated, and the world is, alongside sacred Scripture, God’s Bible.
By using his freedom in a misguided way, man disrupts the order of the universe. For Ephrem, the role of women is very relevant. He wrote about women in a way that was always inspired by sensitivity and respect: The fact that Jesus dwelt in Mary’s womb has greatly exalted the dignity of women.
Just as there is no redemption without Jesus in Ephrem’s eyes, there could be no incarnation without Mary. The divine and human dimensions of the mystery of our redemption can be found in Ephrem’s texts. Using poetry and images that are essentially rooted in Scripture, he foreshadowed the theological discussions and, in some ways, the very wording of the great Christological definitions that emerged from the fifth-century councils.
Ephrem, whom Christian tradition has honored with the title of “the harp of the Holy Spirit,” remained a deacon of his Church throughout his life. This was a decisive and emblematic choice.
He was deacon, in other words a servant, both in the liturgical ministry and, more radically, in his love for Christ, of whom he sang in an unparalleled way, as well as in his love for his brothers and sisters, who, with great skill, he introduced to knowledge of divine revelation.