Saint Ephraim the Syrian is fascinating due to his existence outside the periphery of the “Christian world” most of us think of. Though he lived in the Roman Empire (he writes hymns against the Emperor Julian the Apostate), his writing is Syriac and decidedly Old Testament in its focus. He apparently wrote amidst Jews whose religion was still powerful in his region and similar to earlier fathers such as Justin Martyr, seems to hold the Old Testament to a higher regard.
Even in translation, his hymns are obviously beautiful and authentically Biblical. Due to the hymns not being overtly apologetic works, they help us glean theology in a way advantageous to us centuries later. Hymns were how the early Church taught theology and though hymns were often composed to refute false teachings, many teaching is the hymns are simply presented “as is.” Hence, we get to imbibe in doctrines without the contention of contemporary polemics.
The following are highlights of Ephraim’s hymns from Dr. Kathleen McVey’s translation. All citations are from the hymn and verse numerations in her book.
Christ’s Voluntary Corruptibility
Ephraim endorses the little-appreciated doctrine of Christ’s voluntary corruptibility. Christ, being sinless, was not liable to death apart from His human will permitting and even enabling it.
Blessed is He Whom freedom crucified, when He permitted it. Blessed is He Whom also the wood bore, when He allowed it. Blessed is He Whom even the grave enclosed, when He set limits to Himself…Blessed is He who engraved our soul and adorned and betrothed her to Him[self]. (Nativity Hymn 3:6-7)
If she [Mary] gave You a drink, [it was] because you willed to thirst. (Nativity Hymn 11:5)
He entered, a might warrior, and put on fear insider her [Mary’s] womb. He entered, Nourisher of all, and He acquired hunger. He entered, the One who gives drink to all, and He acquired thirst. (Nativity Hymn 11:8)
Glory to the One who pledged Himself to pay the debt. (Nativity Hymn 3:8)
By the mercy of His Father, He lowered Himself to us. Our own debts He did not take up to Him [the Father]. He reconciled [His] Lordship with His chattels. (Nativity Hymn 8:1)
He came and paid the debts by His descent; by His resurrection He ascended and sent treasures. (Nativity Hymn 26:13)
He [the serpent] deceived [and] led astray our mother [Eve], a young girl without understanding. Since the deceiver mocked the young girl, the fraudulent one was exposed by the Dove who shone forth from an innocent womb, the Wise One Who crushed the crafty one….on Friday Adam whom the evil one envied. As a false friend he pleased him [by] offering him poison in his food. (Nativity Hymn 26:8-9)
For upon the sanctuary he [Satan] lifted Him up to convince Him that a human could become god from the house of Divinity, as he convinced Adam a human could become god from that tree. He remembered that the foreparents listened to him, his counsels were a trick for youth. (Virginity Hymn 12:11-12)
[Satan:] I should have remembered that even the first Adam, had I made him proud as a lord, in his pride* would have scorned honor so that it would not seem that a tree was better than he; his pride would have become a protector. On account of this I extolled the tree in order by it to diminish man. When he saw his smallness, he would hold [himself] in contempt and run like a child for shame and go toward the tree that is greater than he. (Virginity Hymn 12:23-24)
*Note: “Pride” is not being used in its normal sense here. Satan calls Jesus “proud” in verse 26 and continues to boast that only if he changed his tactics Jesus would have sinned. The implication is that Adam and Jesus went through a similar temptation, being offered something great without their “pride” being appealed to. So, it’s not that Adam really had pride but Satan perceived he would have pride like himself and so he shifted his tactics accordingly. The temptations of Christ summed up in Jesus being offered the world’s kingdoms (see Virginity Hymn 26:13, quoted below) failed in bringing Jesus to sin unlike Adam, which surprises Satan. So, Satan decided unlike Adam that if “I called Him God, He would have sinned” (26:26) and he should have appealed to pride after all–he learned wrong from his experience with Adam. Perhaps the irony of this is that it would have not worked, as Satan would not want to admit to Jesus He is God and then ask Him to worship him–and Adam, if his non-existent pride was appealed to, would have simply thought less of the serpent. Satan appears to be an excuse maker, unable to exalt others because he himself is proud.
In his hymnography, Ephraim’s Mariology is exceedingly rich. He also makes clear assertions of Orthodox Mariological doctrines vis a vis the Roman Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception.
The importance of Mary’s free will:
…Mary in whom dwelt Emannuel turn[ed] against marriage. Your will increased you and sanctified you. [Footnote 602: Mary is addressed here.] Your Lord increases and adorns you, as well. The animals of Noah were compelled by force, but you [chose] by your will. (Nativity Hymn 28:1)
Adam imposed corruption on Mary:
Man [lit. “Adam;” see footnote 15] imposed corruption [or “recompense;” see Ibid.] on woman when she came forth from him [i.e. his seed]; today she has repaid him–she [Mary] who has born the Savior. (Nativity Hymn 1:14)
The purification of Mary’s passions:
Your refined conception wipes clean [and] dissolves the impulsive desire of your members. Holiness and purity He poured forth [and] filled you with holy floods. He purified you, so that one would say, “How good is she that glorious woman!” Since the conception is the Glorious One, He stamped Himself as if by a signet upon your mind. (Nativity Hymn 28:6-7)
Jesus paid Mary’s debts:
Upon your bosom you caressed Him when He was small…when He was crucified He repaid all you had advanced to Him, the debt of His upbringing. For, the Crucified repaid debts; even yours was repaid by Him. (Virginity Hymn 25:2-3)
Jesus baptized and redeemed Mary:
Shall I call you Lord, O [You] who brought forth His mother [in] another birth out of the water?…Again, I am mother because of your conception, and bride am I because of your chastity. Handmaiden and daughter of blood and water [am I] whom You redeemed and baptized. Son of the Most High Who came and dwelt in me, [in] another birth, He bore me also, [in] a second birth, I put on the glory of Him. (Nativity Hymn 16:9-11)
The Concept of “Purification” and Baptism
Due to my interest in the flaws inherent with Father Christaan Kappes’ thesis on the prepurification of the Theotokos, I found the following passages to be of interest:
By that song of praise brides awoke suddenly and chose chastity and virgins preserved their chastity, and even young girls were purified. (Virginity Hymn 7:9)
O Pure One Who was baptized, let Your washing wash us of impurity. (Nativity Hymn 23:14)
The First-born, Purifier of all, on the day of His purifying purified the purification of the first-born and was offered. The Lord of offering was in need of offerings to make an offering of a bird. (Nativity Hymn 26:13)
They descended in debts as filthy ones and ascended pure as babes since they have baptism, another womb…Since sin is drowned in the water let it not be revived by desires. (Virginity Hymn 7:7, 9)
Blessed are you, little Jordan River into which the Flowing Sea descended and was baptized…For the Holy One who condescended to bathe in you, descended to open by His baptism the baptism of the pardoning of souls. (Virginity Hymn 15:3)
Purifying sprinkling, pardoning hyssop, Who pardons all their sins in a baptism of water! (Virginity Hymn 31:4)
Let this persuade [us] that John who baptized Him was exalted, and pardoned was the servant who bathed Him, sanctified [was] the river that received Him. (Virginity Hymn 36:5)
Since there is no baptizing again, there [should be] no sinning again, but since there is spattering, there is sprinkling. He who gave hope in baptism gave repentance lest hope be cut off by Him. But harsher is the work after you have been baptized than that work before you have been baptized. Sins before baptism by simple work are able to be atoned. And if the imprint of scars sullies [the Christian] baptism whitens and wipes clean. But sins after baptism with double works are able to be overturned. (Virginity Hymn 46:21-26)
Sloppy Christology (According to the Translation)
In the translation, there are some suspect Christological statements. It should be noted that Ephraim lived before both of these controversies and that due to the genre (hymn) it is possible to interpret the following passages in an orthodox sense.
Glory to the One Who [the Word? the Father?] came to us by His First-born. Glory to that Silent On Who spoke by means of His Voice. Glory to the Sublime One Who was seen by means of His Dawn. (Nativity Hymn 3:3).
He rose and raised Him up in glory. Blessed is He Who came down, put on [a body] and ascended! (Nativity Hymn 23:13)
Other interesting passages
Intercourse is not defiled nor is marriage accursed. Chastity’s wings are greater and lighter than [the wing’s of] marriage. Intercourse, while pure, is lower. (Nativity Hymn 28:3)
If a robber seizes you and you are raped in the field the unclean man’s force will be persuasive evidence that you are chaste, just as Sarah in the bosom of Pharaoh was chaste, for she did not commit adultery by her own will. (Virginity Hymn 1:9)
Elijah joined together flour and oil as a yoke and he who was taken up in a chariot and conquered death… (Virginity Hymn 7:4)
In John [the Baptist] He set a limit and restrained the prophets and he called and sent the apostles. He dismissed and put to rest the former, and put to work and wearied the latter. (Virginity Hymn 8:13)
He [Satan] lifted Him [Jesus] up and set Him on a mountain, yet he did not call Him by name to make Him proud. (Virginity Hymn 12:13)
Since our king is exalted, His images are in His Temples and His images are among His possessions…He is the glorious, immutable nature, but because of His love, He acquired changes. Colors were put on: the symbols and types, and also all the prototypes and all the lifestages. The crucifiers saw Him and dishonored Him. The tares saw Him and made Him alien. The Church has seen Hum and while knowing His [divine] nature, worships His changes.* (Virginity Hymn 28:6, 11)
*Note: The former statement appears to imply that churches have painted images of Christ. This is used as a metaphor in the latter statement to speak about how the human nature of Christ is worshiped along with His divine nature–perhaps a statement that the veneration of the paintings themselves lead the Church to “worship His changes.” “His changes” are His different life stages as a man, hence we worship both the immutable and mutable aspects of that God-man Jesus Christ.
Our prayer is a sacrifice and our libation is weeping. Blessed is the one who sends up his sacrifices in Your hand. (Virginity Hymn 31:3)
Infant Who adorns the arms of old age, permit me too my Lord to lift You up in Your bread, (Virginity Hymn 32:2)
If the visible light is intangible, how can the hidden light be comprehended? But if He is not able to be touched by thought, how did they seize Him and crucify Him? (Virginity Hymn 51:12)
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