Part 1 – Ephrem and the Liturgy
Life of Ephrem
In this paper, I will analyze Ephrem’s most important madrashe on the liturgy, “The Mysteries of the Eucharist,” along with his madrashe on Faith, Pearls, Church, Unleavened Bread and Nativity where Ephrem considers the Holy Eucharist. Ephrem the Syrian, known as ‘Harp of the Holy Spirit’ is undoubtedly the greatest poet and theologian that the Syrian Church ever produced. He is described as ‘the greatest poet of the patristic age and perhaps the only theologian-poet to rank beside Dante.’ Ephrem was not only a well-known figure in the Syriac-speaking world but also had a great reputation in the Greek East as well as the Latin West. Within the patristic age itself Ephrem’s reputation as a holy man, poet and a theologian was widely known far beyond his Syrian homeland. Less than fifty years after Ephrem’s death Palladius included him among the ascetic saints whose memory he celebrated in the Lausiac History. Sozomen the historian celebrated Ephrem’s memory as a popular ecclesiastical writer, some of whose works had been translated into Greek even during his lifetime.
For Ephrem, the sacred is a dimension that does not submit to analytical investigation by the faculties of reason; only the more fluid logic of scriptural imagery is subtle and allusive enough to evoke it. As Sebastian Brock, a leading authority on early Syriac – speaking Christianity, has eloquently put it: “So astounding is the nature of the Christian mystery — God not just becoming Man, but becoming the very Bread for man to eat — that it is often more meaningful to describe this paradox in the language of poetry, where parable, myth and symbol can perhaps approximate to spiritual reality rather more successfully than straightforward theological description”.
Although Ephrem wrote biblical commentary, prose refutations of the teachings of those whose views he regarded as false, prose meditations, dialogue poems and metrical homilies (memre), there can be no doubt that his preferred genre was the “teaching song” (madrosho). Translators have often called these songs “hymns”, but since they are not primarily songs of praise, the term is not really apt. Rather, they are “teaching songs” (madroshe); they were to be chanted to the accompaniment of the lyre (kennoro), on the model of David, the Psalmist. Perhaps the closest analogue to the madrosho is the Hebrew Piyyut, a genre of liturgical poetry that was sung or chanted during Jewish religious services. Popular in Palestine from the eighth century on, the Piyuut featured biblical themes and literary devices strikingly similar to those employed by Ephrem.
Ephrem composed his “teaching songs” for the liturgy. According to Jerome, Ephrem composed his “teaching songs” for the Divine Liturgy and were to be recited after the scripture lessons. Madroshe would eventually find a place in the liturgy of the hours in the Syriac speaking churches from the earliest periods for which textual witnesses remain. These madroshe consisted of meditations on the symbols that God distributed in nature and scripture. These symbols, which Ephrem often called roze (sing, rozo) in Syriac, which in turn, by God’s grace, discloses to the human mind those aspects of the hidden reality that are within the range of human intelligence.
There are several symbols that Ephrem uses to explain the Eucharist that I will analyze, notably, the Eucharist as “Food”, “Living Coal”, “Pearl” and “Medicine of Life.” In his madrashe on Faith, Ephrem explains that if John the Baptist held even Christ’s sandal straps in awe, how can he hope to approach Christ’s very body? Ephrem takes refuge in the example of the woman who gained healing just through touching Christ’s garment – which in another sense is indeed his body, being the garment of his divinity. The hidden power that lay in Christ’s garment is also present in the Bread and the Wine, consecrated by the fire of the Spirit.
Ephrem views the Eucharistic body of Christ in dynamic continuity with the actual body of the historical Jesus. As the body of Christ, the Eucharist partakes of the entire historical and eternal reality of Christ in all its complexity — divine and human, corporeal and incorporeal, exalted and earthbound, and, of course, body and blood. In other words, for Ephrem the Eucharist is nothing less than the entire eschatological mystery of Christ taking place here and now in history:
Your bread killed insatiable death which had made us its bread. Your cup put an end to death which gulped us down. Lord, we have eaten and drunk you, not to exhaust you, but to have life in you.
Although Ephrem never used the Greek word “Eucharist,” he had much to say about the Body and the Blood of the Lord in the bread and wine of the church’s daily sacrificial offering to God. For his thoughts on the Body and Blood of the Lord, and their place in the life of the church, one must survey the wide range of his madroshe, searching for the verses in which he instructs the faith of the Christians in attendance at the sacred mysteries.
Qurbono is the Syriac word Ephrem used for the liturgical action we call the Eucharist. It has the sense of “sacrificial offering”, and, as it occurs in the madroshe, refers both to the sacrificial offering associated with the Jewish Passover and to the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. In Ephrem’s world, Christians offered the holy qurbono not only at Easter, Sundays and major feast days, but every day. This is clearly implicated in one of Ephrem’s madroshe, On Paradise:
The assembly of the saints is on the type of Paradise. In it the fruit of the Enlivener of All is plucked each day. In it, my brothers, are squeezed the grapes of the Enlivener of All.
Ephrem refers to the daily qurbono as “the breaking of the bread and the cup of salvation,” often speaking of our Lord’s “breaking his own body”, at the Passover supper, an obvious evocation of the close connection in his mind between Calvary and the Last Supper. Ephrem says of this particular event:
He broke the bread with his own hands in token of the sacrifice of his body. He mixed the cup with his own hands, in token of the sacrifice of his blood. He offered up himself in sacrifice, the priest of our atonement.
For Ephrem, “the Last Supper and its table symbolizes the first church and the first altar, and by extension, representative of all churches and all altars”. Therefore, in his madroshe, Ephrem often calls attention to the prefigurations of the Eucharist in the New Testament and the numerous types and symbols of it in the narratives of the Old Testament. In his estimation, they all find their ultimate focus in the Last Supper and in its consummation on the cross, when blood and water flowed from the pierced side of Christ (John 19:34). This represents the sacraments of the Eucharist and Baptism respectively, and thereby inaugurating the era of the church. Ephrem’s thought on this subject is particularly rich in symbolism, involving a typological connection between the Cherubim’s sword that guarded the way to the tree of life in paradise after Adam’s sin (Genesis 3:24), and the lance which opened Christ’s side on the tree of the cross, thus providing a new entry to glory for the new Adam’s progeny:
Ephrem’s symbolic interpretation of the piercing of Christ’s side is particularly complicated. Christ is the second Adam, from whose side is born the second Eve, the Church; yet through that opening we enter paradise, to come again to the Tree of Life, which is sometimes the Cross but also sometimes Christ himself.
1. Sebastian Brock, “The Harp of the Spirit”. Studies Supplementary to Sobornost, No. 4 (1983) pp. 5.
2. Robert Murray S.J., Symbols of Church and Kingdom (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1975), pp. 31.
3. C. Butler, The Lausiac History of Palladius (2 vols., Texts and Studies, 6; Cambridge, 1898 & 1904), vol. II, pp. 126-127.
4. J. Bidez & G. H. Hansen (eds.), Sozomenus, Kirchengeschichte (Griechische Christliche Schriftsteller, no. 5.; Berlin, 1960), pp. 127-130. Glenn Chesnut, The First Christian Histories: Eusebius, Socrates, Sozomen, Theodoret, and Evagrius. Paris: Éditions Beauchesne, 1977.
5. Sebastian Brock, “The Harp of the Spirit”. Studies Supplementary to Sobornost, No. 4 (1983) pp. 5.
6. Sidney Griffith, “Images of Ephrem: the Syrian Holy Man and his Church”, Traditio (1989-1990), pp. 7-33. Sidney H. Griffith, “Spirit in the Bread; Fire in the Wine: The Eucharist as Living Medicine in the Thought of Ephraem the Syrian,” Modern Theology 15.2 (1999), pp. 225-246.
7. Koonammakkal Thoma Kathanar, “Changing Views on Ephrem”, Christian Orient 14 (1993), pp. 113-130. Also refer to Andrew Palmer, “A Lyre without a Voice, the Poetics and the Politics of Ephrem the Syrian”, ARAM 5 (1993), pp. 371-399.
8. Sebastian Brock, “The Poetic Artistry of St. Ephrem: an Analysis of H. Azym. III”, Parole de l’Orient 6 & 7 (1975-1976), pp. 21-28. Also see J Schumann, “Hebrew Liturgical Poetry and Christian Hymnology”, The Jewsh Quarterly Review, n. s. 44 (1953-1954), pp. 123. They are also comparable to the Byzantine Kontakion.
9. Pierre Yousif, L’Eucharistie chez Saint Ephrem de Nisibe. OCA 224 (Rome: Pontificium Institutum Orientale 1984).
10. Sebastian Brock, “From Ephrem to Romanos”, in E. A. Livingstone (ed.), Studia Patristica (vol. XX; Leuven: Peeters, 1989), pp. 139-151.
11. All the translations given in this paper are taken from Sebastian Brock and George Kiraz edited, Ephrem the Syrian: Select Poems, Sebastian Brock’s, Harp of the Spirit, Kathleen McVey’s, Ephrem the Syrian and Rodrigues Pereira’s, Studies in Aramaic Poetry.
12. Sebastian Brock and George Kiraz, Ephrem the Syrian: Select Poems, (Brigham Young University Press, Provo, 2006), pp. 200 – 221.
13. Sidney Griffith, “Setting Right the Church of Syria: Saint Ephrem’s Hymns against Heresies”, in William E. Klingshirn & Mark Vessey (Ed.s), The Limits of Ancient Christianity: Essays on Late Antique Thought and Culture in Honor of R.A. Markus, (University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 1999).
14. Sebastian Brock, “The Harp of the Spirit”. Studies Supplementary to Sobornost, No. 4 (1983) pp. 21 – 26. Also refer to Edmund Beck, Des heiligen Ephraem des Syrers Hymnen de Paradiso und Contra Juhanum (CSCO, vols 174 & 175, Louvain Peeters, 1957), VI 8.
15. Sebastian Brock and George Kiraz, Ephrem the Syrian: Select Poems, (Brigham Young University Press, Provo, 2006), pp. 96 – 111. See also Edmund Beck, Des heiligen Ephraem des Syrers Hymnen contra Haereses (CSCO, vols 169 & 170, Louvam Peeters, 1957), XXVII 3.
16. Sebastian Brock and George Kiraz, Ephrem the Syrian: Select Poems, (Brigham Young University Press, Provo, 2006), pp. 112 – 121. Edmund Beck, Paschahymnen, De Azymis, XII 5.
17. Ibid., Beck, Paschahymnen, De Azymis, II 7.
18. Edmund Beck, “Die Eucharistie bei Ephram”, Oriens Christianus 38 (1954), pp. 50.
19. Pierre Yousif, L’Eucharistie chez Saint Ephrem de Nisibe. OCA 224 (Rome: Pontificium Institutum Orientale 1984), pp. 31 – 107.
20. Robert Murray, Symbols of Church and Kingdom, pp. 126. See also R Murray, “The Lance Which Reopened Paradise, a Mysterious Reading in the Early Syriac Fathers”, Orientalia Christiana Periodica 39 (1973), pp. 224 – 234,. S. Brock, “The Mysteries Hidden m the Side of Christ”, in S. Brock, Studies in Syriac Spirituality (The Syrian Churches Series, Vol. 13, Poona Anita Printers, 1988), pp. 62