Introducing the Poet of the Ancient Church

Ephrem the Syrian (c. 306-373) was a deacon in the Roman border cities of Nisibis and Edessa in the 300s. Though not widely known, he is perhaps the most important poet of the early church. The reason he is not well-known is because he wrote not in Greek or Latin, but in Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic that served as the main language for Christians in the far east of the Roman empire and those who lived across the border in the Parthian, later Sassanian, empire. These eastern cities where Ephrem lived (now in SE Turkey – Nusaybin and Sanilurfa) were extremely diverse religiously during his lifetime. Different sects of Christians mixed in the marketplace with Arians, Jews, polytheists, and Manicheans. Ehphrem wrote theological poetry, composing many hymns which would serve both discipleship as well as evangelistic purposes. Ever since I read that Ephrem would lead evangelistic choirs of women into the marketplace to contend for the truth of the gospel, I have wanted to more about this overlooked ancient poet. Our focus people group, and so many others in the Middle East and Central Asia, continue to be deeply poetic and musical. The idea of doing theology and evangelism via poetry and song, employed by Ephrem so long ago, might still prove to be a very powerful thing in this region.

I’ve finally gotten my hands on a book of Ephrem’s poems and will periodically post some on this blog, as a window into the Christian faith of this ancient Syriac poet and the churches he sought to strengthen. The poem below is about a communion service, and Ephrem calls for the Church to praise its savior, drawing connections to the wedding at Cana in John 2, doing a bit of comparison between Israel’s failure and the Church, and ending by delighting in the nature of Jesus.

Hymns on Faith, no. 14

I have invited You, Lord, to a wedding feast of song, 
but the wine - the utterance of praise - at our feast has failed.
You are the guest who filled the jars with good wine,
fill my mouth with Your praise. 

Refrain: Praise to You from all who perceive your truth.

The wine that was in the jars was akin and related to
this eloquent wine that gives birth to praise,
seeing that that wine too gave birth to praise
from those who drank it and beheld the wonder.

You who are so just, if at a wedding-feast not Your own
You filled six jars with good wine,
do You, at this wedding-feast, fill, not the jars,
but the ten thousand ears with its sweetness.

Jesus, You were invited to the wedding-feast of others, 
here is Your own pure and fair wedding-feast: gladden Your rejuvenated people,
for Your guests too, O Lord, need 
Your songs; let Your harp utter!  

The soul is Your bride, the body Your bridal chamber, 
Your guests are the senses and the thoughts. 
And if a single body is a wedding feast for you,
how great is Your banquet for the whole Church!  

The holy Moses took the Synagogue up on Sinai:
he made her body shine with garments of white, but her heart was dark;
she played the harlot with the calf, she despised the Exalted One, 
and so he broke the tablets, the book of her covenant.

Who has ever seen the turmoil and insult 
of a bride who played false in her own bridal chamber, raising her voice? 
When she dwelt in Egypt she learnt it from 
the mistress of Joseph, who cried out and played false. 

The light of the pillar of fire and of the cloud 
drew into itself its rays
like the sun that was eclipsed 
on the day she cried out, demanding the King, a further crime.

How can my harp, O Lord, ever rest from Your praise? 
How could I ever teach my tongue infidelity? 
Your love has given confidence to my shamefacedness,
-yet my will is ungrateful.

It is right that man should acknowledge Your divinity,  
it is right for heavenly beings to worship Your humanity;
the heavenly beings were amazed to see how small You became, 
and earthly ones to see how exalted! 

-Ephrem the Syrian, translated by Brock, The Harp of the Spirit: Poems of Ephrem the Syrian, pp. 24-26

Photo from Wikimedia Commons

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