“Cherubim with sleepless eye”

Abba Bessarion, at the point of death, said, ‘The monk ought
to be as the Cherubim and the Seraphim: all eye.’

Sayings of the Desert Fathers, Bessarion 11 (trans. B. Ward)

Today is the Feast of St Ephraim the Syrian, of whom John Wesley wrote, ‘the most awakened writer, I think, of all the ancients’ (Journal 12 October 1736), and ‘the greatest poet of the patristic age, and, perhaps, the only theologian-poet to rank beside Dante’ (quotes found here).

Cherub from the Cathedral of Cefalu, Sicily (c. 1200)
Cherub from the Cathedral of Cefalu, Sicily (c. 1200)

I thus felt it quite fitting that my iPod Shuffle got around to ‘Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence‘ (whence comes the title of this post) this morning as I prepared to work — for that hymn is taken from the Divine Liturgy of St James, an ancient Levantine liturgy. There is something in the fecund soil of Syria-Judaea that expresses Christian truth in a particularly way when writing poetry.

And St Ephraim is one of the greatest patristic poets.

For some reason, Cherubic imagery always makes me think of St Ephraim — perhaps it’s the combination of the saying of Abba Bessarion quoted above with the title of Sebastian Brock’s book about St Ephraim (which I’ve yet to read), The Luminous Eye.

It is worth thinking of, for St Ephraim’s highly-charged, deeply theological poetry is, in fact, hymnography. Hymns are meant to be sung — to be sung, in fact, in praise of Almighty God. While Bessarion’s reference to the Cherubim is most likely a reference to the need for vigilance (a la St Isaiah the Solitary, d. c. 470), I think it is more appropriately, in fact, praising Almighty God without end.

For this is what the Cherubim with their sleepless eye do, is it not?

Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of Hosts! Heaven and earth are full of the majesty of thy glory. Hosanna in the Highest!

St Ephraim, then, could be called Cherubic in this truest and highest sense of the word.

In his Hymns on Paradise, number XI, Ephraim writes in the first stanza (trans. Sebastian Brock):

The air of Paradise
is a fountain of delight
from which Adam sucked
when he was young;
its very breath, like a mother’s breast,
gave him nourishment in his childhood.
He was young, fair,
and full of joy,
but when he spurned the injunction
he grew old, sad and decrepit;
he bore old age
as a burden of woes.

The response: Blessed is He who exalted Adam / and caused him to return to Paradise.

Paradise for Ephraim is not a physical place. Ephraim’s Adam is like George Herbert’s:

For sure when Adam did not know
To sinne, or sinne to smother,
He might to heav’n from Paradise go,
As from one room t’another.

from ‘The Holy Communion’

In the third stanza of St. Ephraim’s hymn we meet the Cherubim:

The fence which surrounds it
is the peace which gives peace to all;
its inner and outer walls
are the concord which reconciles all things;
the cherub who encircles it
is radiant to those who are within
but full of menace to those outside
who have been cast out.
All that you hear told
about this Paradise,
so pure and holy,
is pure and spiritual.

With this spiritual reading of Paradise, the Cherub is no longer solely ‘full of menace’ as at the end of Genesis 3, but now ‘radiant to those who are within’. We can encounter this Paradise; it is the telos of the Christian life, where we hope to abide for Eternity with our Lord Christ.

For now, let us seek to hymn our Lord, being vigilant not merely to avoid sin, but to praise God at all times — perhaps St Ephraim can be an entry into praise for you today (read him here)!

Let us, then, praise our holy, holy, holy God like the Cherubim — with sleepless eye.

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‘his mother, in her maiden bliss’: Christina Rossetti and Ephraim the Syrian

This past Sunday was my church’s carol service, and the choir sang ‘In the Bleak Mid-Winter‘, apparently Britain’s favourite Christmas carol this year. In this beautiful hymn-poem by Christina Rossetti, most people are moved, it seems to me, by the final verse: ‘Yet what I can I give him — / Give my heart.’

This time, however, I was moved by the third verse:

Angels and archangels
May have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim
Thronged the air;
But only his mother,
In her maiden bliss,
Worshipped the Beloved
With a kiss.

What is moving is not simply the tenderness of the moment but the theology that underpins it, stretching back to the second verse beginning, ‘Our God, heaven cannot hold him.’ Here we have the mystery of the Incarnation — God became an infant. And his maiden mother kissed him as any mother would kiss her child.

Note the juxtaposition in these two lines — ‘But only his mother, / In her maiden bliss.’ Normally, in order to have a child, a lady must no longer be a maiden. But this is no ordinary child, the Beloved. And his was no ordinary conception. (I imagine the birth itself was, save the singing of angels and brilliant star, quite ordinary.)

When I heard these lines, I could not help think of St Ephraim the Syrian’s hymns on the Incarnation. Specifically, these lines come to me:

From Hymn 12

Who indeed has seen the Babe Who is more ancient
than His bearer?  The Ancient One entered
and became young in her.  He emerged an infant
and grew by her milk.  He entered and became small in her;
He emerged and grew through her—a great wonder!

A great wonder, indeed! God, Creator of the Universe, Creator of Mary, became the son of Mary. He was, in Latin christological terms, fully consubstantial with his mother (and thus the human race) and fully consubstantial with the Father (and thus is God). This union of divine and human, inextricable yet unconfused, is what makes Jesus unique, what enables his death and resurrection to save us.

And so we celebrate his birth in Bethlehem and wonder at that moment when ‘his mother, / In her maiden bliss, / Worshipped the Beloved / With a kiss.’

Too Awesome Not to Share

The Eucharistic Prayer of Addai and Mari, ll. 14-18:

Thy majesty, O my Lord, a thousand thousand heavenly beings and myriad myriads of angels adore and the hosts of spiritual beings, the ministers of fire and of spirit, glorifying thy name with the cherubim and the holy seraphim, ceaselessly crying out and glorifying and calling to one another and saying: Holy, holy, holy … (Trans. A. Gelston)

The prayer whence comes this quotation is a mediaeval East Syrian (ie. ‘Nestorian’) Eucharistic prayer, still recited to this day in Syriac in the Assyrian Orthodox Church and not much changed from its reconstructed fifth-century predecessor. This Eucharistic prayer is interesting to me because it has an unequivocal statement of God becoming incarnate and suffering and dying — the sort of thing one would expect from my Monophysite friends of the Syrian Orthodox Church. It serves as a reminder that to box in the living Church according to the disputes and anathemas of centuries past can make one lose sight of the true faith of the people involved.

Of course, the reason I draw your attention to this prayer is the passage quoted above. It is beautiful. It is a beautiful, lyrical passage, clearly stemming from the same people whence Ephraim the Syrian sprang. This brief moment from the East Syrian liturgy stirs my heart to worship the Almighty God — and much more so than the worship song the radio plays right now that has been repeating the line, “I’m so deep in love,” about ten times before getting around to, “with you.” (With whom? I was too focussed on myself and forgot.)

Noting the incongruity, I am now playing Striggio’s Missa “Ecco Si Beata Giorno”the Mass in 40 Parts.

I’m not actually here to rag on the contemporary worship music scene. I trust God enough to know that He does great work through it and receives due glory from those who worship with it. However, I am here to draw attention to the magnificent beauty of the ancient, Mediaeval, and Renaissance liturgies — their hymns, their prayers, their music.

“When through the woods and forest glades I wander / And hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees, When I look down from lofty mountain grandeur, / And hear the brook and feel the gentle breeze,” not only does my soul want to sing, “How great Thou art,” unto the wondrous Creator God, it also wants to sing, “How beautiful thou art!’

God has created a wondrous, beautiful world, and it is only fitting that our worship of him be beautiful as well. This is part of the fabric of the Eucharistic Prayer of Addai and Mari. This is what drove men like Striggio to compose wondrous things like a mass in 40 (40!!) parts. Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised!

Plunging into the tradition, rediscovering the riches of things like the Gelasian Sacramentary (as I currently am) is as important as rediscovering the ancient and mediaeval theologians. Often when we look upon the offerings from Patristic blogs or at the upcoming Oxford Patristics Conference or anywhere interested in the Fathers, we find a lot of thoughts about the theology and doctrine of the Fathers, maybe some information about Church History in the Patristic Age, but less about the worship of the Fathers.

Now, I realise that part of this is because of how complicated the liturgical legacy of the Fathers is. If you take any of the Eastern divine liturgies, such as the one quoted above, or those attributed to Sts. John Chrysostom and Basil the Great, you find the words and order for worship of something that has been in constant use since the fourth or fifth century (with roots stretching earlier than that).

How can we disentangle Chrysostom from the later Byzantine worshippers? It is a task scholars spend entire careers doing. However, we still have many individual prayers from the Patristic age as well as other poems and songs, such as:

St. Ambrose’s hymns (remember this from before?), St. Ephraim the Syrian’s hymns (such as those on the Nativity), St. Romanos the Melodist’s hymns (as here), and the hymns and poetry of Prudentius (as here) would probably be good places to start. They are allusive and beautiful, tuning and turning our thoughts upwards towards God Almighty and the worship of him alone.

A Christmas-themed Sermon from a Year Ago, Part 1

I preached a shortened version of this sermon at Evensong at St. Alban’s Anglican Church, Ottawa, Ontario, on December 28, 2008.  The preaching began with a reading of the hymns by Ephrem the Syrian quoted in my last post.

It is Christmas.  I hope to share with you in this homily some thoughts on the ineffable mystery of Christmas.  The elusive “true meaning” of Christmas that every Christmas special seeks to hunt down is bigger than Santa, gifts, family, friends, carols, winter, snow or anything else that we human beings do.  The true meaning of Christmas, dear friends, is that of the Incarnation, as St. Ephraim says, “the God-man.”  It is this theological mystery I hope to investigate tonight.

People are often afraid of theology, and I’ll skip over a lot of jargon; I’ll use Scripture, hymns, creeds, the Fathers, etc, to bring out the beauty of the mystery of Christ’s Incarnation—with the understanding that the hymns, Fathers, creeds, etc, are in accord with Scripture.  When we see the beauty and glory and magnificence of this event, I hope that we will be drawn to worship and prayer.  True worship of the true God is the ultimate goal of all proper theology.

Diadochus of Photike says, “Divine theology brings into harmony the voices of those who praise God’s majesty.”  Similarly, Evagrius Ponticus declares, “If you are a theologian, you will pray truly.  And if you pray truly, you are a theologian.”  Worship and prayer are vitally important; both fuel us and drive us into action; may we thus also live better lives in the light of the truth of Christmas, when God came down and lived amongst us.

1. What God is Jesus?  The Creator God.

According to John 1, Jesus is the Incarnate Word of God.  And the Word is not only with God, but is God.  We read the Nicene Creed instead of the Apostle’s tonight so we could read its Christological formulae: Jesus, the Word, is “begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.” (BCP)  The Word is not other than God.  God, in His fullness, is Jesus.  Anything we can say about God we can also say about Jesus.  So in Psalm 72, when the Psalmist says, “Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel, who only doeth wondrous things; and blessed be the Name of his majesty for ever: and let all the earth be filled with his majesty.  Amen and Amen,” (BCP) we can substitute Jesus for the Divine Name, “the LORD”, and proclaim, “Blessed be Jesus, the God of Israel, who only doeth wondrous things; and blessed be the Name of his majesty for ever: and let all the earth be filled with his majesty.  Amen and Amen.”

This truth is expressed most fully in the Creed of St. Athanasius, which can be found here.  The entire thing is worth a read someday; I encourage you to do so.  Verse 30 reads, “Now the right Faith is that we believe and confess that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is both God and Man.  He is God, of the substance of the Father, begotten before the worlds; and he is Man, of the Substance of his Mother, born into the world; Perfect God; perfect Man, of reasoning soul and human flesh subsisting; Equal to the Father as touching his Godhead; less than the Father as touching his Manhood.” (BCP)

Perfect God.

God.  Jesus is fully God.  He is not some lesser being, some semi-divine creature, or an angelic being.  He is God Himself.  This is a mystery.  We cannot penetrate into the fullness of its glory.  Indeed, it boggles the mind to think on it:  God in the flesh!  There is so much that could be said about the God Who Jesus is—he is the God of the Old Testament, He set the people of Israel free from Egypt, He spoke by the prophets, He gave the law, He showed Moses a glimpse of His glory.  Let’s reflect for a moment on the fact that He is the Creator God.

a. The Creator God

God, according to Genesis 1, created everything.  He spoke, and it happened.  God said, “Let light come into being, and there was light.”  Since God created using speech, it comes as no surprise that we read in John 1, “All things were made through [the Word], and without Him nothing was made that was made.” (NKJV)  Jesus, the Word, created.  He is the living Word of God the Father, and He brought all things into existence.  He is the One Who creates out of nothing.  Before we rush off into these heights of glorious truth, let us recall the title of a book I once read, Jesus with Dirty Feet.  This Jesus we read of in the Gospels, the One with dirty feet, Who walked the shores of Galilee, Who threw the moneychangers from the Temple, Who wept at Lazarus’ death, Who told stories, Who was born a Babe in Bethlehem and laid in a manger by His mother—this Jesus happens also to be the Creator of the Universe.

Creator.  Of.  The.  Universe.

This is who Jesus is: the Creator of the Stars of Night; the Creator of nebulae and galaxies and comets and solar systems and suns and planets and asteroids and all stellar phenomena; the Creator of ants and whales and bacteria and diatoms and hair and mountains and goats and birch trees and mighty oaks and Niagara Falls and you and me.  As Creator of humanity, He gave unto us a certain creative faculty.  Therefore, all the works of beauty created by humans are traceable back to the Creator God: the architecture of this Church, beautiful poetry, paintings, stained-glass windows, fabulous novels, true philosophy—all because of Jesus.  He is the Creator of the Universe.  He made stuff by talking.  His Word went forth and made all that was, all that is, and all that ever shall be.  As we sing in the fourth-century hymn of Prudentius:

At his word the worlds were framèd;
He commanded; it was done:
Heaven and earth and depths of ocean
In their threefold order one;
All that grows beneath the shining
Of the moon and burning sun,
Evermore and Evermore.

This Creator God took on flesh at Christmas.  He was born of a Virgin as an infant.  The mind that hung the Pleiades in the sky was incapable of expressing itself in words and lived off the very milk of a woman whom He created.  Mindblowing.

b.  The God of the Old Testament

Briefly, let us remember that the Creator God has a specific character and history as revealed in the Old Testament; and Jesus, the Babe of Bethlehem, is that God.  In fact, some of the early Church Fathers taught that the Word of God, Jesus, is the God who speaks in the Old Testament.  I’m not sure I agree, but the implications are that the Second Person of the Trinity is the One Who once on Sinai’s height did “give the Law in cloud and majesty and awe”;  He spoke to Elijah in the still small voice on Mt. Carmel;  He visited Abraham and Sarah; He spoke to Isaiah, Jeremiah, and all the prophets.

This God we worship in Jesus is not just a speaker and Creator.  He doesn’t just order the cosmos and talk to us every once in a while.  He acts.  Remember our Sunday School Bible stories: He brought Noah’s flood, He led the people of Israel out of Egypt into the Promised Land, He caused the walls of Jericho to fall down, He gave Samson superhuman strength, He gave Solomon wisdom, He consumed the offerings that Elijah gave on the altar with a mighty flame, He saved Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the fiery furnace.  The holy God of Israel, Who meets Moses in the burning bush and declares His Divine Name, “I am that I am,” manifests Himself as Jesus.

He is just, righteous, jealous for His holy Name, compassionate and merciful.  Anything we can say about Almighty God we can say about Jesus.  This means also that, in the New Testament, when John says that God is Love, the same applies to Jesus.  That God is Love helps unlock the mystery of why this God of power and might would choose to humble Himself as a poor infant, born into this world not into the halls of kings or emperors but into a manger of all places!

Ephrem the Syrian: Hymns on the Incarnation

Ephrem the Syrian (recommended reading from John Wesley, of all people; d. 373) wrote the following hymns on the Incarnation:

From Hymn 8

Blessed is the Messenger who came bearing
a great peace.  By the mercy of His Father,
He lowered Himself to us.  Our own debts
He did not take up to Him.  He reconciled
[His] Lordship with His chattels.

Refrain: Glory to Your Dawn, divine and human.

Glorious is the Wise One Who allied and joined
Divinity with humanity,
one from the height and the other from the depth.
He mingled the natures like pigments
and an image came into being: the God-man.
O Zealous One who saw Adam
who became dust and the accursed serpent
eating him.  Reality dwelt
in what had lost its flavor.  He made him salt
by which the cursed serpent would be blinded.
Blessed is the Compassionate One Who saw, next to paradise,
the lance that barred the way
to the Tree of Life.  He came to take up
the body that would be struck so that by the opening in His side
He might break through the way into paradise.

From Hymn 12

Who indeed has seen the Babe Who is more ancient
than His bearer?  The Ancient One entered
and became young in her.  He emerged an infant
and grew by her milk.  He entered and became small in her;
He emerged and grew through her—a great wonder!