As Maronites, we use his words in each and every liturgy we celebrate. Unfortunately many Maronites today may not know his name or his works, but his influence continues to pervade our minds through the Liturgy. As Maronites of a Syriac heritage, this great Deacon is the ‘bones of our bones’ and the ‘flesh of our flesh’ he is ‘ours in the truest sense.’ Read more about his life on the link and we encourage you to read his works beyond this article.
The works of St Ephrem have been influential on the development of the spiritual and liturgical life of the Maronite Church. The Syriac Churches are indebted to him and as Maronites we should read beyond his life in this article and explore his wonderful works for ourselves.
St Ephrem’s life
St Ephrem is often referred to as the “Harp of the Holy Spirit.” He was a deacon and very little is known about his life. We know that lived in the fourth century and was probably born somewhere near Nisbis. Some historians infer from his writings that he came from a Christian family and was baptized as an adult.
St Ephrem – Hymnography and imagery
Dr Sebastian Brock highlights that the various Church traditions, the Greek, Latin and Oriental all have various strengths and serve to enrich the universal Church as a whole. The Greek East focuses on the philosophical, the Latin West focuses on the legalistic and Canon law and the Syriac orient focuses on the symbolic and poetic. In the Syriac Churches poetry and hymns are the main vehicles for teaching theology.
One thing that stands out to anyone who attends a Maronite Liturgy is that so much of the liturgy is sung, both by the celebrant and the congregation. The other thing that stands out is the imagery and poetry of the Liturgy.
St Ephrem wrote in Syriac. In order to address the heresies of the time he used hymns and powerful poetic imagery. He understood the power of music to get a message across and that music could be an excellent educational tool for both young and old alike.
Any Maronite child who attends liturgy from a young age can often be heard chanting the “qadichat” at home. This is because hymns stay with children and they can learn from them.
Just as powerful is St Ephrem’s imagery. A great example is from his Hymns on Paradise dealing with resurrection.
In the evening the world sleeps,
closing its eyes,
while in the morning it arises.
He who repays is distant
as it were but a night’s length away;
now light dawns and He is coming.
Weary not, my brethren,
that your struggle will last long
or that your resurrection is far off,
for our death is already behind us,
and our resurrection before us.
(Hymns on Paradise 7:2)
St Ephrem – Asceticism
St Ephrem was also an ascetic. His Spiritual Father was another monastic, St James of Nisbis to whom he dedicates a hymn. In about 364, St Ephrem went into solitude on Mount Edessa. This was not uncommon in Antioch and Edessa at the time and it is out of this asceticism and monasticism that the Maronites grew, inspired by their spiritual Father, St Maroun.
St Ephrem and his devotion to the Virgin Mary
In his works, St Ephrem has a particular devotion to the Virgin Mary. In his Hymn on the Nativity, a whole Hymn is dedicated to her speaking to the newborn Christ.
Further, St Ephrem is often quoted for his emphasis on the Virgin’s sinless state.
St Ephrem’s Ecological Vision
In his book titled, The Luminious Eye: The Spiritual World Vision of St Ephrem the Syrian, Sebastian Brock writes, “The relationship of humanity to nature, and the attitude of mankind to the environment and his use of it, are matters of profound significance for Ephrem. He would make an appropriate saint for ecologically-minded people”(p164). For Ephrem, everything in God’s creation is intimately linked and he expresses this in his Letter to Hypatius:
For just as in the case of the limbs of the body, their individual needs are fulfilled by one another, so too the inhabitants of the world fill in the common need from the common excess. We should rejoice in the this need on the part of us all, for out of it is born harmony for us all, for in that people need one another, those in high position stoop to the lowly and are not ashamed, and the insignificant reach out to the powerful and are not afraid. Even in the case of animals, seeing that we have a need for them, we take care of them. Clearly our need for everything binds us with a love for everything.
The teachings and vision of St Ephrem inspire an answer to the moral ecological crisis we now face. St Ephrem intercede for us!
St Ephrem and Women
In a poem, another Syriac writer, Jacob of Serugh writes about his joy that St Ephrem, through his hymns, has bought female choirs back into the Church. Alluding to the Old Testament Jacob writes of Ephrem:
By you even the sisters are strengthened to speak.
Your instruction has opened the closed mouth of the daughters of Eve,
and with their voices throngs of crowned women are singing out,
and women teachers are being called into the congregations ‑‑
a new vision that women will speak the Gospel!
It is a New Age, a complete sign of your teaching
that there in the kingdom men and women will be equal.
Your effort made the two sexes into two harps,
and men and women began simultaneously to give glory.
(Jacob of Sarug on Ephrem and the Singing Women – Dr. Kathleen McVey)
Another key feature is Ephrem’s approach to biblical women. Where in some traditions, some biblical women can be tarnished, Ephrem speaks more positively about biblical women and provides a refreshing approach.
St Ephrem and his influence on the Maronite Church – The Maronite Synod
Below is an extract for the Maronite Synod explaining the influence of St Ephrem.
“The Maronite Church emerged and developed in a cultural sphere predominated by the Aramaic-Syriac character. Despite the diversity of civilizations and the plurality of cultures prevalent in Antioch and its environs during the first Christian centuries, the Maronite community since its emergence was set apart from the Byzantine Roman society. The Maronites, in general, were rural and mountain dwellers. They embraced the faith of the monks of Saint Maron and their doctrine, whether in Syria or in Lebanon. They were distinguished in their culture from the other Christians of the big cities who were stamped with the impress of Greek culture, without that meaning that they were cut off from that culture, which, during the first Christian centuries, was an essential instrument of expressing the Christian faith, especially in the ecumenical councils.
The Syriac dimension is especially apparent in the ritual books which constitute an essential reference to the authentic Maronite heritage. This heritage provides a substantive prestige to the Syriac fathers and especially to Saint Ephrem. A teacher of the universal Church, Saint Ephrem, who was not influenced by Greek philosophy, focuses on the status of matter and on the dignity of the human body and of creation in its entirety. He taught that the invisible God, through his divinity which transcends human comprehension, is apparent in all his creatures, because all his creations are in his image, in his likeness, that is, in the image of the Incarnate Son. What are the universe and history except a stage for the meeting of God and humans, recognizing him through everything, and thus they receive Life (John 17:3). “
Antiochan Syriac Maronite Church Synod Text of 2006 (In English)
Teaching Hymns to our children and protecting our traditions
The example of St Ephrem teaches us that in our liturgy, hymns are not just music to listen to. They are a powerful teaching tool and are integral to our Maronite Tradition. We need to live them and sing them and teach them to our children. We need to do more than just listen to the choir at liturgy. We need to let the words of the hymns speak to us and participate in them. It is a very beautiful part of our Maronite tradition.
Further Reading – Sebastian Brock
Much is owed to Dr Sebastian Brock for reinvigorating the study of Syriac and in particular the study of St Ephrem in recent decades. In 1989 the the Maronite Eparchy of St. Maron, USA nominated him for the Order of St. Silvester from the Vatican, in recognition of his great contribution. He has written and spoken extensively about St Ephrem and provided useful translations of his work into English.
Check out this video of a lecture from Dr Brock on St Ephrem.
Also see Dr Kathleen McVey’s wonderful article at http://www.syriacstudies.com/AFSS/Syriac_Articles_in_English/Entries/2007/10/11_Jacob_of_Saruge_on_Ephrem_and_the_Singing_Women_-_-_Dr._Kathleen_McVey.html