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.

Early ascetics talking about the Bible

I have been looking briefly into the teachings of some early ascetic writers about sacred Scripture. Here are some juicy quotes for you:

Toil at reading the Scriptures more than at anything else: for in prayer the mind frequently wanders, but in reading even a wandering mind is recollected. -John the Solitary early 400s, Letter to Hesychius, ch. 44 (trans. Sebastian Brock, The Syriac Fathers on Prayer and the Spiritual Life, p. 92)

Let us open up our hearts so as to understand the Scriptures which are filled with spiritual life and wisdom. In them there speaks the Spirit of God who gives life and knowledge. …

For all the wisdom of Life is hidden in the Scriptures. In them we are able to gain knowledge of God and of his creative activity, of his wonderful governance and providence; likewise of his goodness and, at the same time, of his righteousness, and, in sum, of his great and mighty power. …

Again, it is from the Scriptures that we learn how to travel on the road of virtuous conduct, for in them all the fine deeds of the just life are delineated. Just as one cannot see anything without light … similarly, without the light of the Scriptures we are unable to see God, who is Light, or his Justice, which is filled with light. -Martyrius (Sahdona) in the 600s, The Book of Perfection, chh. 48, 49, 50 (trans. Brock, Syriac Fathers, pp. 221-223)

Out of fear become conversant with the divine scriptures on a daily basis, for by association with these you will drive away converse with thoughts. He who by meditation treasures the divine scriptures in his heart easily expels thoughts from it. In listening to the divine scriptures in the night-time reading at vigils, let us not render our hearing moribund by means of sleep, nor hand over our soul to the captivity of thoughts; rather, with the goad of the scriptures let us prod the heart, so that with the goading of diligence we may pierce through the opposing negligence. -Evagrius of Pontus, To Eulogius 20 (trans. Robert Sinkewicz, Evagrius of Pontus: The Greek Ascetic Corpus, p. 46).

Recapitulation and the Lord’s Supper

Over at Read the Fathers, we encountered Irenaeus’ idea of recapitulation, or anakephalaiosis, for the first time yesterday. I blogged Unger’s discussion of the word from the notes to his translation as part of our journey through the Fathers. Recapitulation is a powerful, potent, idea in Irenaeus. It is the idea that all things are brought together under the head of Christ, united to Him, and transformed by him through his Incarnation. In particular, Jesus is the second Adam, and he fulfils all the promise that Adam held but at which the first man failed.

All things come together in Christ, human and animal, visible and invisible. The Incarnation is cosmic in scale, and by it we are able to become like God. In the Preface to Book 5, Irenaeus writes that God has

become what we are, that He might bring us to be even what He is Himself.

I first encountered the concept of recapitulation in Robert E. Webber’s book Ancient-Future Faith back when I first started getting into ancient Christianity, where he gives a good, succinct covering of the concept on pages 58-61. However, if memory serves me correctly, Webber also uses this term in reference to the Lord’s Supper in his book Worship Old and New.

As I recall, Webber’s idea in that book is that in the Eucharist, we recapitulate the death and resurrection of Jesus. In fact, I would say that we recapitulate the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus (and maybe Webber does, too?). The question that passed through my mind on the commute home yesterday was:

Is this a legimate use of Irenaeus’ concept?

The question is valid. St Irenaeus teaches that God the Word has been present in all of history, and His incarnation was part of God the Father’s plan for creation from the beginning. Thus, when God the Word, who is both fully a person and the ordering rationality of the universe, becomes human, this … ruptures (if you will) the cosmos, and all things are drawn to Him, and ordered under Him.

Can the same be said to take place on the Communion table? Or is Communion only recapitulation in a loosely analogous sense, or in a different sense entirely?

After all, what God the Word did in taking on flesh, dying, and rising again is utterly unrepeatable. As an Anglican, I embrace the words of the Book of Common Prayer:

Blessing and glory and thanksgiving be unto thee Almighty God, our heavenly Father, who of thy tender mercy didst give thine only Son Jesus Christ to take our nature upon him, and to suffer death upon the Cross for our redemption; who made there, by his one oblation of himself once offered, a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world; and did institute, and in his holy Gospel command us to continue, a perpetual memorial of that his precious death, until his coming again. (Canadian BCP 1962, p. 82)

The key words:

a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world

At first blush, then, the BCP would tell me that whatever happens at the Communion table is ‘a … memorial of that his precious death’. But the BCP also teaches me that the bread and wine truly are body and blood, that Jesus Christ is present in the sacrament, that my sinful body may be made clean by his body, and my soul washed through his most precious blood.

Indeed, as the priest gives me the host, he even says, ‘The Body of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was given for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life …’ Likewise the cup.

This is, in second-century terms, the medicine of immortality (St Ignatius of Antioch).

How can a ‘mere’ memorial hold such power? Indeed, from what I have read, it would seem that the whole ancient Christian witness proclaims that Jesus Christ communicates something of Himself, something of the benefits of his Incarnation, death, and resurrection through the most blessed sacrament of His body and blood.

But does this relate to recapitulation?

St Ephrem the Syrian points us the way forward. I quote Sebastian Brock’s splendid book, The Luminous Eye:

Ordinary time is linear and each point in time knows a ‘before’ and an ‘after’. Sacred time, on the other hand, knows no ‘before’ and ‘after’, only the ‘eternal now’: what is important for sacred time is its content, and not a particular place in the sequence of linear time. This means that events situated at different points in historical time, which participate in the same salvific content — such as Christ’s nativity, baptism, crucifixion, descent into Sheol, and resurrection — all run together in sacred time, with the result that their total salvific content can be focused at will on any single one of these successive points in linear time. (29)

Brock goes on to explain how Eucharist and baptism are a fulfilment now of the future paradise. In the chapter about Ephrem and the Eucharist, he also discusses the intimate relation between Incarnation and Eucharist, specifically the epiclesis, that moment in the liturgy when the priest invokes the Holy Spirit to descend upon the elements and make them into Jesus’ real body and blood:

The mystery that occurred at the moment of the Incarnation and the mystery that occurs at the epiclesis in the Eucharistic Liturgy are seen throughout all Syriac tradition as intimately connected. (108)

Take all of this together, and I would argue that the vision of sacred time found in St Ephrem means that when we partake of the bread and wine in the Eucharist, when we enjoy the benefits of Christ’s passion, this is because we are entering into sacred time. There is only ever one full and perfect sacrifice. There is only one Body broken for us in history, as part of the recapitulation of all things.

And we encounter that body and that sacrifice at the altar every Sunday.

Moreover, our whole liturgy of Holy Communion reenacts that sacred drama, draws us back into the biblical narrative, ties us into sacred time, and we find ourselves on Golgotha, with a silver chalice in hand to drink the Blood of our Creator.

This vision of time is not unique to Ephrem, I hasten to add. It is part of the theological rationale given in Leo the Great, Ep. 16, as to why baptisms should only occur in Eastertide — because the divine economy performed different acts at different times, and it matters that when we are baptised into Christ’s death and resurrection, we do so at the same time as the death and resurrection in history.

This also, I would argue, does away with an argument I once heard from a post-Catholic Baptist, that if Christ is offered up on the altar every Sunday in the Eucharist, then his sacrifice on Calvary was not complete — and this is not the God of the Bible.

Christ is only ever offered up once, and that one time happens every Sunday, because the Resurrection Day, the Eighth Day of the week, ushers us into sacred time, and we find ourselves at the Tomb with the women, bewildered, amazed, rejoicing.

So, this Sunday, when you lift up your heart unto the Lord and give thanks unto him (for it is meet and right so to do), when your priest offers up the gifts of bread and wine, and the sacred drama occurs all around you — you are not in 2020 but at the foot of the Cross. And you are not eating bread but body. And this is more than a reenactment but a recapitulation of all things by Christ Himself, the Host at this feast.

“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.

Typology As a Way Forward in Bible Reading

I have previously posted about the fourfold sense of Scripture here and here. Among the spiritual senses, we find typology. Typology, as you may recall, is when we see events, items, and persons in the Old Testament as prefigurations of New Testament theology. It is distinguished from allegory as allegory is when we see parallels in events in the Old Testament not only of the New Testament but also of our own spiritual journey. Thus, an allegorical reading of Genesis 3, while not denying the real Fall of humanity, will say that this is the story of Everyman.

Typology, on other hand, sees a moment as a single flash of the greatness of the fulfillment of the promises in Christ and the Church — Melchizedek is a type of Christ; the flashing sword in Eden is a type of Mary; the crossing of the Red Sea is a type of Baptism, Jerusalem is a type of the heavenly city, and so forth. I have already posted on Noah’s Ark as a type of Mary.

This approach to Scripture is never meant to entirely supplant the literal or historical meaning, something even its most famous proponent, Origen, acknowledges. Yet it seeks to see with spiritual eyes a new, different layer of meaning. Since the purpose of Scripture is to reveal to us the things of God and empower us to lead godly lives, I see no difficulty in this way of reading Scripture.

Indeed, many see this way of reading the Bible as a way forward for western biblical interpretation. Sebastian Brock writes:

the typological approach to the Bible as found in the Syriac (and of course other) Fathers is essentially a fluid one, refusing to be contained by dogmatic statements on the one hand, or considerations of modern biblical scholarship and its findings on the other. Indeed, one wonders whether this approach does not offer the openings of a via tertia for twentieth-century western Christianity in its dilemma when faced with the liberal critical approach to the Bible that to many seems purely destructive, on the one side, and a distastefully fundamentalist approach on the other. (p. 188)*

Now, one may argue that there already exists middle ground between liberal criticism and fundamentalism, but the idea of typology as being part of that middle ground is not a bad idea. With typology, we are able to say, “Indeed, the points of the liberal’s modernist critique may be valid, and the doctrinal concerns of the fundamentalist are also worthy of consideration, and with typology I am able to honour both.”

Suddenly, Scripture is not limited to a single, literal meaning at every turn of the page. Through prayerful consideration and the reading of other spiritual books, the Holy Spirit can guide us to spiritual truths about ourselves and the Gospels that perhaps we would never have thought of if shackled to the liberal/fundamentalist approach.

Typology can be beautiful and can stir the thoughts of the reader, as we see in Brock on Ephrem the Syrian:

Ephrem’s highly allusive poetry, shifting almost relentlessly from one set of symbols to another, makes considerable demands on the reader who, above all, if he is to appreciate Ephrem to the full, must know his Bible as well as Ephrem did. Much of this typological exegesis will appear to modern readers as forced, or it may even be described as ‘wrong’, but I think it is misleading to speak of this kind of exegesis in absolute terms of ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’. The very fact that quite often one finds side by side two pieces of typological exegesis which are logically incompatible when taken together, seems to be an indication that what is being offered was never meant to be the ‘correct exegesis’, such as modern biblical scholarship likes to impose, but possible models which are held up, and whose purpose is to make meaningful, and give insight into, some aspects of a mystery that cannot be fully explained. (185-186)

If we remind ourselves that our doctrine of the Trinity is smaller than the Trinity, that our Christology is a feeble attempt to encapsulate in words the wonders of God Incarnate, if we keep in mind the smallness of ourselves and our doctrines about God in the Face of God Himself, then typology and its difficulties make a certain sense — God is ultimately incomprehensible and a great mystery. Ought not His self-revelation to the world to be filled with wonder and beauty?

Now, most of us probably aren’t reading to do our own typologies, for it is a way of thinking that is foreign to us. Here are some places to begin:

Typology in Action

The Orthodox Study Bible. The NT of this study Bible has been out for a long time, and a couple of years ago they released the entire Bible, Septuagint and NT. Its footnotes provide us with a primarily typological reading of the OT, so it can stand alongside most Protestant study Bibles that give us the literal account and thus bring us deeper into the spiritual world of the Word.

The Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. This series of commentaries gathers together selections from the Fathers on the entirety of Scripture. A great many, though not all, patristic passages herein provide a typological understanding of the Scriptural passage at hand.

Ephrem the Syrian, referenced by Brock in the second passage above, has a number of works translated at the CCEL; there is also a volume in the Classics of Western Spirituality Series from Paulist Press and another of the Hymns on Paradise in the Popular Patristics Series from SVS Press. His hymns on the incarnation are especially beautiful, as I’ve noted on this blog before; he takes your mind in worship to places it has likely never gone before.

Gregory of Nyssa’s Life of Moses, mentioned here before, is worth a read, combining both the allegorical and typological readings of Scripture after giving the straight historical reading of the text. The same translation exists in the Classics of Western Spirituality series as well as in the HarperCollins Spiritual Classics; the latter has a less extensive introduction but is also cheaper.

Origen of Alexandria is the most famous of the exegetes who apply “spiritual” methods to Scripture. His Commentary on the Gospel of John provides an introduction to his method of reading Scripture. I’m still working on Origen, myself, so I do not know what else of his to recommend.

About Typology

Hall, Christopher A. Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers. This book deals with the Four Doctors of the Western and the Four Doctors of the Eastern Church and how they read Scripture, including space devoted to Origen and Diodore of Tarsus. Space is thus given to the more spiritual readings of Scripture that lead us to typological understandings. This is a popular level book, geared towards pastors and students.

de Lubac, Henri. Medieval Exegesis: The Fourfold Sense of Scripture. This monumental work, a product of the Ressourcement that began in the 1950s (not ’20s, sorry), taking up three volumes in English, will give you all you want to know about Patristic and western Mediaeval approaches to the reading and interpretation of Scripture. This is a work of scholarship, but the rewards are no doubt hefty for those who persevere to the end (I have yet to do so).

*S. Brock, “Mary in the Syriac Tradition,” in Mary’s Place in Christian Dialogue, ed. Alberic Stacpoole. Pp. 182-191.