St Ephrem the Syrian blows my mind

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 was
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.

Hymns on Nativity 4.148-155, 160-162, trans. Kathleen E. McVey in Ephrem the Syrian: Hymns

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.

‘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.’

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!