Saint Ephrem the Syrian was a gifted and prolific poet of the fourth century who is said to have written over 3 million lines of verse. He also happens to be a saint and Doctor of the Church who eloquently defended Christian Orthodoxy during a time of great upheaval.
Born in 306 AD in the town of Nisibis in Syria (today called Nusaybin, Turkey), Ephrem became a deacon and a part of a community called the “members of the covenant,” a kind of proto-monasticism in which Christians practiced sexual abstinence and service to the Church. However, unlike later monasticism, the “sons” and “daughters” of the covenant remained in the wider community and worked alongside other Christians, evangelizing and participating in Church life.
As a son of the covenant and a deacon, Ephrem excelled at teaching. Even in his early days, he wrote insightful biblical commentaries along with the hymns for which he is famous. He continued this work even as the Persians began a series of attempts to invade and conquer Syria. His own city of Nisibis was besieged several times but Ephrem persisted in his work and commitment to the Church. Finally, in 363 AD, Nisibis fell to the Persians who sent the Christians into exile.
Ephrem moved further west to Edessa, a city filled with a wide range of conflicting beliefs. Catholic Christians were the minority amongst Arians, Marcionites, Manichees, Gnostics, various pagans, Jewish sects, conflicting Greek philosophies, and everything in between. But it is often in such turmoil that the truth of the Gospel flourishes best. St. Ephrem excelled at defending Orthodox, Nicene Christianity in the face of a myriad of adversaries.
Hymns became one of Ephrem’s most effective weapons against heresy. It was a common practice amongst heretics of the day, including Manichees, to use traditional Syriac folk songs and melodies to spread their message. They would simply write new lyrics to go with the old, well known tunes. These songs were easy to learn and a useful method for spreading ideas. Ephrem fought fire with fire, penning his own orthodox hymns in this style as a counter to the heretical songs. He was a master of his craft and is still known as the “harp of the Holy Spirit.”
Aside from folk music and imagery, Ephrem also engaged with contemporary religions, philosophies and even science. He often used the Greek and Roman natural science of the day to explain and illustrate Christian ideas. He demonstrates this in one of his Hymns on the Church:
“The eye becomes pure
when it is united with the light of the sun…
it becomes radiant with its ardor
and adorned with its beauty….
In Mary, as in the eye,
the Light has made a dwelling and purified her spirit,
refined her thoughts, sanctified her mined,
and transfigured her virginity.” (112)
Although this may seem very unscientific from a modern perspective, Ephrem is actually engaging with the natural science of the day which understood vision as light “dwelling” in the eye. The great poet uses this understanding to describe the way in which Christ dwelt in Mary, filling her with beauty and transforming her for a great purpose.
In a way, Ephrem is an ancient model of the new evangelism. He fully engaged the world around him, making use of contemporary art, music, philosophy and science while always maintaining Christian Orthodoxy. Part of this interaction with non-Christian culture meant a constant battle against a variety of ideas that would undermine the truth preserved by the Church.
In this fight against heresy, one of St. Ephrem’s favorite subjects was the Blessed Virgin Mary. Like many other Early Church Fathers, Ephrem knew that a proper understanding of Mary and her role was inseparable from a proper understanding of Christ’s humanity and divinity, his relationship with the Father, and the nature of our redemption in him. But, in describing Mary in these terms, St. Ephrem did not resort to dry or technical language. He sang of her beautifully:
“A wonder is Your mother: the Lord entered her
and became a servant; He entered able to speak
and He became silent in her, He entered her thundering
and His voice grew silent; He entered Shepherd of all;
a lamb He became in her; He emerged bleating.” (113)
In these wonderful verses, Ephrem proclaims Jesus’ divinity against the Arians and his humanity against the Gnostics all the while painting a moving picture of the Nativity of Christ.
As many lines as St. Ephrem devotes to Mary, it’s telling that his description of her always points to Jesus. In one of his homilies, he writes,“Blessed are you also, Mary, whose name is great and exalted because of your Child. Indeed you were able to say how much and how and where the Great One, Who became small, dwelt in you.” (111) Ephrem loves Mary and loves to sing and preach on her but this never distracts or takes anything away from Christ and our worship of him. In Ephrem’s effusive writings on Jesus and his Mother, we see not just theological exactitude but a profound love and affection. In one of his hymns written to Jesus, Ephrem declares:
“Only you and your Mother
are more beautiful than everything.
For on you, O Lord, there is no mark;
neither is there any stain in your Mother.” (109)
And this is perhaps the best way to remember St. Ephrem the Syrian, not just a talented and prolific poet, not just a gifted interlocutor with culture and science, but as a man who loved Jesus and his mother, Mary.
Author’s note: The source used for St. Ephrem’s poetry is found in L. Gambero’s Mary and the Fathers of the Church, Ignatius Press (1999).