On Monday I gave a lecture about St Ephrem the Syrian (c. 300-373) entitled “Orthodoxy in a Syriac Mode.” I had never read a substantial amount of St Ephrem before, although I had certainly read Sebastian Brock’s The Luminous Eye, Robert Murray’s Symbols of Church and Kingdom, and selections from Ephrem’s Hymns on the Nativity and Hymns on Paradise. For this lecture, however, I assigned all 28 Hymns on the Nativity as well as the “Homily on the Lord.”
And reading so much St Ephrem in a short time frame quite frankly blew my mind.
How, you may ask?
I found St Ephrem’s poetry mind-blowing in two ways, primarily. First, the way he heaps up typological associations on top of each other. It can be quite overwhelming. Second, the thundering of juxtapositions found in these hymns as well.
Typology is when a figure or event of the Old Testament is seen as a prefiguring of something in the New. Usually, they are shadows that are fulfilled by Christ, specifically. St Ephrem has many of the expected typologies, such as the Passover Lamb or Isaac, for example.
An example from the Hymns on the Nativity that I had never encountered before is Aaron’s staff being a prefiguring of the Cross — it is a piece of wood that destroys serpents.
St Ephrem’s hymns are filled to bursting with such imagery, and it’s beautiful and challenging. This is the benefit of poetry, though. In a logical, philosophical-theological treatise, you’d have to justify each of these typologies. In the midst of a poem, such justification is unnecessary. It doesn’t matter quite so much whether they are perfectly justifiable; really, what matters is their impact upon our worship of Christ and our exaltation of Him as God.
The juxtapositions, which he also piles up, are a further source of glory in St Ephrem. In particular, I am always struck by the series of antitheses he likes to compose:
The Lofty One became like a little child, yet hidden in Him wasHymns on Nativity 4.148-155, 160-162, trans. Kathleen E. McVey in Ephrem the Syrian: Hymns
a treasure of Wisdom that suffices for all.
He was lofty but he sucked Mary’s milk,
and from His blessings all creation sucks.
He is the Living Breast of living breath;
by His life the dead were suckled, and they revived.
Without the breath of air no one can live;
without the power of the Son no one can rise.
Upon the living breath of the One Who vivifies all
depend the living beings above and below.
As indeed He sucked Mary’s milk,
He has given suck — life to the universe.
As again He dwelt in His mother’s womb,
in His womb dwells all creation.
Mute He was as a babe, yet He gave
to all creation all His commands.
While His body in the womb was being formed,
His power was constructing all the members.
While the fetus of the Son was being formed in the womb,
He Himself was forming babes in the womb.
Ineffectual as was His body in the womb,
His power in the womb was not correspondingly ineffectual.
It really only gets better from there, to tell the truth.
Sebastian Brock remarks in The Luminous Eye that for people who are weary and wary of modern, western Christianity, St Ephrem is an important figure to point them towards. What I’ve highlighted here is just the tip of the Syriac iceberg. Check him out.