The work of St Ephrem has 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 is 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 wrote in Syriac. To address the heresies of the time he used hymns and 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.
Dr Sebastian Brock highlights that the various Church traditions, the Greek, Latin and Oriental all have different strengths and serve to enrich the universal Church as a whole. The Greek focuses on the philosophical, the Latin focuses on the legalistic and the Syriac 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 is distinctive is the imagery and poetry of the liturgy.
Any Maronite child who attends liturgy from a young age can often be heard chanting the hymns.
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 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.
In his works, St Ephrem also has a particular devotion to the Virgin Mary. In his Hymn on the Nativity, a whole Hymn is dedicated to her speaking to the new born Christ. St Ephrem is often quoted for his emphasis on the Virgin’s sinless state.
The 2006 Maronite Synod recognising the influence of St Ephrem, stated:
“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)
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. They are not just emotive song, rather they are a theological lesson which is why it is important not to replace them in our liturgy. They serve an important purpose. 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.
Much is owed to Dr Sebastian Brock for reinvigorating the study of Syriac and in particular the study of St Ephrem in English in recent decades. In 1989 the Maronite Eparchy of St. Maroun, 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.