By Ephrem of Edessa (306-373 AD)


May/June 2011 – Vol. 50Quotes From Early Church Fathers

God’s Word is an inexaustible spring of life

Lord, who can comprehend even one of your words? We lose more of it than we grasp, like those who drink from a living spring. For God’s word offers different facets according to the capacity of the listener, and the Lord has portrayed his message in many colors, so that whoever gazes upon it can see in it what suits him. Within it he has buried manifold treasures, so that each of us might grow rich in seeking them out.

The word of God is a tree of life that offers us blessed fruit from each of its branches. It is like that rock which was struck open in the wilderness, from which all were offered spiritual drink. As the Apostle says: They ate spiritual food and they drank spiritual drink (1 Corinthians 10:3-4).

And so whenever anyone discovers some part of the treasure, he should not think that he has exhausted God’s word. Instead he should feel that this is all that he was able to find of the wealth contained in it. Nor should he say that the word is weak and sterile or look down on it simply because this portion was all that he happened to find. But precisely because he could not capture it all he should give thanks for its riches.

Be glad then that you are overwhelmed, and do not be saddened because he has overcome you. A thirsty man is happy when he is drinking, and he is not depressed because he cannot exhaust the spring. So let this spring quench your thirst, and not your thirst the spring. For if you can satisfy your thirst without exhausting the spring, then when you thirst again you can drink from it once more; but if when your thirst is sated the spring is also dried up, then your victory would turn to harm.

Be thankful then for what you have received, and do not be saddened at all that such an abundance still remains. What you have received and attained is your present share, while what is left will be your heritage. For what you could not take at one time because of your weakness, you will be able to grasp at another if you only persevere. So do not foolishly try to drain in one draught what cannot be consumed all at once, and do not cease out of faintheartedness from what you will be able to absorb as time goes on.’

Ephrem of Edessa (306-373 AD)
a brief bio by Ormonde PlatterEphrem the Syrian (or Ephrem of Edessa), deacon, theologian, and hymn writer, died of plague on 9 June 373. Ephrem was born around the year 306 in the city of Nisibis (the modern Turkish town of Nusaybin, on the border with Syria). Internal evidence from Ephrem’s hymnody suggests that both his parents were part of the growing Christian community in the city, although later hagiographers wrote that his father was a pagan priest. Numerous languages were spoken in the Nisibis of Ephrem’s day, mostly dialects of Aramaic. The Christian community used the Syriac dialect. Various pagan religions, Judaism, and early Christian sects vied with one another for the hearts and minds of the populace. It was a time of great religious and political tension. The Roman Emperor Diocletian had signed a treaty with his Persian counterpart Nerses in 298 that transferred Nisibis into Roman hands. The savage persecution and martyrdom of Christians under Diocletian were an important part of Nisibene church heritage as Ephrem grew up.Jacob, the first bishop of Nisibis, was appointed in 308, and Ephrem grew up under his leadership of the community. Jacob of Nisibis is recorded as a signatory at the Council of Nicaea in 325. Ephrem was baptized as a youth and almost certainly became a son of the covenant, an unusual form of Syrian proto-monasticism. Jacob appointed Ephrem as a teacher (Syriac malpanâ, a title that still carries great respect for Syriac Christians). He was ordained as a deacon either at his baptism or later. In his poems Ephrem refers to himself as a “herdsman” (’alana), a member of the shepherd-bishop’s pastoral staff. At the end of his Hymns Against the Heresies Ephrem wrote of himself, saying:

O Lord, may the works of your herdsman (’alana)
not be negated.
I will not then have troubled your sheep,
but as far as I was able,
I will have kept the wolves away from them,
and I will have built, as far as I was capable,
Enclosures of teaching-hymns (madrašê)
for the lambs of your flock.I will have made a disciple
of the simple and unlearned man,
And I will have given him a strong hold
on the herdsmen’s (’alone) staff,
the healers’ medicine,
and the disputants’ armor.

Ephrem began to compose hymns and write biblical commentaries as part of his educational office. He is popularly credited as the founder of the School of Nisibis, which in later centuries was the centre of learning of the church of the East. …The church historian Sozomen credits Ephrem with having written over three million lines. Ephrem combines in his writing a threefold heritage: he draws on the models and methods of early Rabbinic Judaism, he engages skillfully with Greek science and philosophy, and he delights in the Mesopotamian-Persian tradition of mystery symbolism.The most important of his works are his lyric, teaching hymns (madrašê). These hymns are full of rich, poetic imagery drawn from biblical sources, folk tradition, and other religions and philosophies. Themadrašê are written in stanzas of syllabic verse, and employ over fifty different metrical schemes. Eachmadrašâ had its qalâ, a traditional tune identified by its opening line. All of these qalê are now lost. Bardaisan and Mani had composed madrašê, and Ephrem felt that the medium was a suitable tool to use against their claims.

The madrašê are gathered into various hymn cycles. Each group has a title—Carmina Nisibena, On Faith, On Paradise, On Virginity, Against Heresies—but some of these titles do not do justice to the entirety of the collection (for instance, only the first half of the Carmina Nisibena is about Nisibis). Eachmadrašâ usually had a refrain (‘ûnîtâ), which was repeated after each stanza. Later writers have suggested that the madrašê were sung by all women choirs with an accompanying lyre.

Particularly influential were his Hymns Against Heresies. Ephrem used these to warn his flock of the heresies which threatened to divide the early church. He lamented that the faithful were “tossed to and fro and carried around with every wind of doctrine, by the cunning of men, by their craftiness and deceitful wiles.” He devised hymns laden with doctrinal details to inoculate right-thinking Christians against heresies such as docetism. The Hymns Against Heresies employ colorful metaphors to describe the incarnation of Christ as a fully human and divine. Ephrem asserts that Christ’s unity of humanity and divinity represents peace, perfection, and salvation; in contrast, docetism and other heresies sought to divide or reduce Christ’s nature, and in doing so would rend and devalue Christ’s followers with their false teachings.

Ephrem also wrote verse homilies (mêmrê). These sermons in poetry are far fewer in number than themadrašê. The mêmrê are written in a heptosyllabic couplets (pairs of lines of seven syllables each).

The third category of Ephrem’s writings is his prose work. He wrote biblical commentaries on theDiatessaron (the single gospel harmony of the early Syriac church), on Genesis and Exodus, and on the Acts of the Apostles and Pauline epistles. He also wrote refutations against Bardaisan, Mani, Marcion, and others. Ephrem wrote exclusively in the Syriac language, but translations of his writings exist in Armenian, Coptic, Georgian, Greek, and other languages. Some of his works are only extant in translation (particularly in Armenian).

Syriac churches still use many of Ephrem’s hymns as part of the annual cycle of worship. Most of these liturgical hymns are edited and conflated versions of the originals. The most complete, critical text of authentic Ephrem was compiled between 1955 and 1979 by Dom Edmund Beck, OSB, as part of the Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalium.

> See Hymn 16: Blessed Are You, by Ephrem

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 copyright © 2011 The Sword of the Spirit  | email: living.bulwark@yahoo.com
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