The Eucharistic Theology in The Thought of Ephrem the Syrian

Written By: on Jan 22nd, 2011 and filed under Articles, We Believe, Youth And Faith.


Part II – Eucharistic Symbolism in Ephrem

Eucharist as “Food”

In Ephrem’s writings, the Eucharist emerges as a complex reality that can never be reduced or exclusively equated with any one of its aspects such as, the Eucharist as “food”. Rather, a flexible and often complex exchange of images allows the Eucharist to be viewed from seemingly paradoxical vantage points simultaneously. By merging the scriptural identification of Jesus as the Good Shepherd and with the scriptural identification of Jesus as Bread, Ephrem arrives at a composite image which includes both elements: “The Shepherd has become the food for his sheep” (Madrosho on the Church 3, 21). The same dynamic process is at work in the following chain of images that focus on a single reality, but is viewed from different perspectives:

Blessed is the Shepherd who became a lamb for our atonement. Blessed is the Vine that became a chalice for our salvation. And blessed is the Farmer who became the Wheat that was planted, and the Sheaf that was harvested. (Madrosho on the Nativity 3, 15)

Eucharist as The Power to Forgive Sin

References to the Eucharist in its capacity to forgive sins abound in Ephrem’s writings, and as the following excerpts illustrate, his discussion draws from a variety of biblically inspired images:

I am astonished by our will; though strong, it has let itself be conquered; though a ruler, it has let itself be enslaved; victorious, it desired defeat. See, the foolish scribe has signed his own bill of debts. Blessed is the one who granted us freedom with his bread, and erased the bill of our debts with his chalice. (Madrosho on the Church 32, 2)

Just as Adam killed life in his own body, in this very same way, in the body of the one who perfects all, See, the just were perfected, and sinners have found forgiveness. (Madrosho on Unleavened Bread

In Ephrem, Fire represents an image of the divine presence and takes on the added dimension of purifying and cleansing when it is viewed in a Eucharistic context. In the Eucharist, fire’s potential to destroy gives way to its ability to vivify and save those who receive it:

The Fire of mercy has come down to dwell in bread. Instead of the Fire that consumed people, you have eaten Fire in the bread, and have found life. (Madrosho on Faith 10, 12)

Eucharist as “Burning Coals”

Fire imagery figures in a number of expressions used in reference to the Eucharist in Syriac texts. For example, particles of the Eucharistic bread are often called “embers” or “burning coals” (gmurotho), usually with reference to the passage in Isaiah 6:6-7, where the prophet speaks of the Seraphim who touched his mouth with a burning coal from the altar of the temple. In an image of the Eucharist as cleansing and purifying, Ephrem links the divine fire of God’s presence to the image of Isaiah’s purification with a fiery coal. Ephrem makes this connection in his madrosho on Faith. He says,

The Seraph could not touch the fire’s coal with his fingers, the coal only just touched Isaiah’s mouth: the Seraph did not hold it, Isaiah did not consume it, but us our Lord has allowed to do both! To the angels who are spiritual Abraham brought food for the body and they ate. The new miracle is that our mighty Lord has given to bodily man Fire and Spirit to eat and to drink.

Ephrem’s liturgical theology had a profound and lasting influence on the development of Syriac liturgy, where the image of the Eucharist as a purifying fire is commonplace. The power of the Eucharist to forgive sin assumes a prominent liturgical role in the Eucharistic prayers of Syriac speaking Churches. After the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer we find a virtual rite of communal penance that includes an imposition of hands over the congregation by the priest and an accompanying prayer, which speaks of the remission of “unconscious” as well as “conscious sins.” Immediately following this rite, the celebrant announces to the congregation, which he now addresses as “Holy,” with the invitation: “Holy things for the Holy.”

In the following verses, preserved only in an Armenian translation, Ephrem speaks of that “moment” in the liturgy when the Eucharistic bread is broken. The mosaic of images depicts the Eucharist reaching beyond the grave to refresh the dead, while on earth, it forgives the sins of the living:

With awe and discernment; let our hearts revere his death, and our souls yearn for his Mystery. The people of Israel glorified in that manna that even the uncircumcised ate; how much more should we then exalt in this Bread of Life, which not even watchers [i.e., angels] attain. Water poured out of the rock for the [Israelite] people; they drank and were strengthened; but a fountain poured out from a tree on Golgotha, for [all] people. Eden’s other trees were there for the first Adam to eat; but for us, the very planter of the garden has become food for our souls. This moment, more than any others, should be esteemed in your minds; the Son has descended to hover over [Gen 1:2] the forgiving altar. The bones of the dead in Sheol drink the dew of life as they are remembered before God at this moment. Now if the dead receive such benefit now, how much more shall the living receive forgiveness; Blessed is the one who was sacrificed by one people for the life of all people. (Armenian Madrosho 49)

Eucharist as “Pearls”

There is a fire-related image seen in the writings of Ephrem when speaking of the Eucharistic elements as “pearls”. For in the Syrian conception, the pearl is born when lightning strikes the mussel that produces it in the sea. Similarly, according to the Syrian fathers, Christ was conceived in the womb of Mary when Fire and Spirit came within her. Bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ due to the action of Fire and the Spirit. Accordingly, it is not surprising to find Ephrem often using the popular symbol of the pearl for Christ himself and for the Eucharistic elements. In one place Ephrem says, “Christ gave us pearls, his Body and Blood”. Ephrem, in a passage referring to the holy Qurbono, says, It is not the priest who is authorized to sacrifice the Only-Begotten or to raise up that sacrifice for sinners to the Father’s presence: rather, the Holy Spirit goes forth from the Father and descends, overshadows and resides in the bread, making it the Body, and making it treasured pearls to adorn the souls that are betrothed by him.

In another madrosho, Ephrem gives this advice to would be communicants in attendance at the holy liturgy:

The Body and the Blood are living pearls; let them not be demeaned in soul and body that are unclean vessels. Heaven and earth are in the incomparable pearl; do not receive your Lord’s holiness in an unclean vessel.

Eucharist as “Medicine of Life”

In Ephrem’s writings another constant epithet for the Eucharist is “living medicine” or “medicine of life” (sam hayye). The Body and the Blood of the Lord are thought to bring healing to the faithful Christian. Addressing Christ, Ephrem in one of his madrosho On Faith says,

Your Bread slays the greedy one who has made us his bread, your Cup destroys death who had swallowed us up; we have eaten you, Lord, we have drunken you; not that we will consume you up, but through you we shall have life.

To express the fullness of the mystery that is Christ, Ephrem juxtaposes images of the actual body of the historical Jesus with allusions to the Eucharistic body of Christ until the images merge and resolve into a single, integrated whole. Ephrem views the Eucharist as part of a wider manifestation of the divine presence (Fire) and power (Spirit) already revealed at the baptism of Jesus.

Like the woman who was afraid but took heart and was healed (Luke 8:40) heal me of my flight from fear that I may take heart in you. I will progress from your clothes to your body to speak of you as best I can.

Lord, your clothes are a fountain of cures; your invisible power dwells in your visible clothing. A little saliva from your mouth (John 9:6), and again, a great wonder: Light from mud.

In your bread is hidden Spirit which cannot be eaten. In your wine dwells a Fire which cannot be drunk. Spirit in your bread, Fire in your wine, Clearly a wonder, which our lips receive.

When our Lord came down to earth among mortals he made them a new creation — like watchers [i.e., angels]; for he mixed Fire and Spirit in them so they would invisibly become Fire and Spirit.

See, Fire and Spirit in the womb of her who bore him; see, Fire and Spirit in the river where you were baptized. Fire and Spirit are in the baptismal font. And in the bread and the cup — Fire, and the Holy Spirit. (Madrosho on Faith 10)

Ephrem draws insistent attention to the physical reality of Christ’s body which he calls the “Treasury of Healing.” Since, as the Gospels record, contact with the physical body of Jesus, and even with his clothing, was able to effect cures, Ephrem speaks of the Eucharistic body of Christ as able to cure and restore those who receive it.

Medical science with its cures does not suffice for the world; but the all-sufficient Physician saw the world and took pity. He took his body and applied it to its pain, and he healed our suffering with his body and blood. And he cured our sickness. Praise be the Medicine of Life, for he is sufficient, and he healed our pain with his teaching. (Madrosho on Nisibis 34, 10).

In Ephrem’s view, the forgiveness of sins flows directly from the Eucharist. He contrasts the willfulness of the sinner with the gratuity of God’s forgiveness. He says, I am amazed at our will: while it is strong, see it brought low; while it is a lord, see it enslaved; while it is a victor, it wills to succumb; free, it surrenders its mouth like a slave, and sets its own hand on the bill of sale. See the foolish scribe, who is the one setting his own hand to the statement of his debts! Blessed is the one who has given us emancipation in his Bread, and in his Cup has erased the statement of our debts.

Conclusion

For Ephrem participating in the Eucharist leads to the indwelling of Christ and the believer becoming the temple of God. Ephrem says:

Let the Qurbono build your own minds and bodies into temples suitable for God. If the Lord dwells in your house, honor will come to your door. How much your ‘honor’ will increase if God dwells within you. Be a sanctuary for him, even a priest, and serve him within your temple. Just as for your sake he became High priest, sacrifice, and libation; you, for his sake, become temple, priest, and sacrificial offering. Since your mind will become a temple, do not leave any filth in it; do not leave in God’s house anything hateful to God. Let us be adorned as God’s house with what is attractive to God.

Bibliography:
1. Sebastian Brock, The Harp of the Spirit: Eighteen Poems of Saint Ephrem, (London: Fellowship of St. Alban and St. Sergius, 1983).
2. Sebastian Brock and George Kiraz, Ephrem the Syrian: Select Poems, (Brigham Young University Press, Provo, 2006), pp. 39 – 61.
3. Ibid., pp. 39 – 61.
4. Ibid., pp. 112 – 121.
5. Sebastian Brock, “The Harp of the Spirit”. Studies Supplementary to Sobornost, No. 4 (1983) pp. 83 – 85.
6. Sebastian Brock and George Kiraz, Ephrem the Syrian: Select Poems, (Brigham Young University Press, Provo, 2006), pp. 200 – 221.
7. L. Ligier, “Penitence et Eucharistie en Orient/’ OCP 29 (1963) 5-78. Also see Alphonse Raes, “Un Rite Penitentiel avant la communion dans les liturgies Syriennes”, OS 10:1 (1965) pp. 107 – 122.
8. Sebastian Brock, “The Harp of the Spirit”. Studies Supplementary to Sobornost, No. 4 (1983) pp. 80 – 82.
9. Sebastian Brock, “The Harp of the Spirit”. Studies Supplementary to Sobornost, No. 4 (1983) pp. 80 – 82. Rodrigues Pereira, Studies in Aramaic Poetry, (Van Gorcum Publishers, Assen, 1997), pp. 237 – 271.
10. Sebastian Brock, Holy Spirit in the Syrian Baptismal Tradition, pp. 17. Andrew Palmer, “The Merchant of Nisibis, Saint Ephrem and his Faithful Quest for Union in Numbers”, J Den Boeft & A Hilhorst (eds), Early Christian Poetry A Collection of Essays (Supplements to Vigilae Christianae, vol 22, Leiden E J Brill, 1993), pp. 167 – 233.
11. Edmund Beck, Des heiligen Ephraem des Syrers Sermones, II (CSCO, vols 311 & 312, Louvain Peeters, 1970), IV 9

12. Kathleen E McVey (trans ), Ephrem the Syrian, Hymns (The Classics of Western Spirituality, Mahwah, NJ Paulist Press, 1989), pp. 149-150.
13. Kathleen E McVey (trans ), Ephrem the Syrian, Hymns (The Classics of Western Spirituality, Mahwah, NJ Paulist Press, 1989), pp. 149-150.
14. Beck, Hymnen de Fide, Χ 18 The English translation is from Sebastian Brock, St Ephrem A Hymn on the Eucharist (Hymns on Faith, no 10) Lancaster, UK, J F Coakley, Dept of Religious Studies, University of Lancaster, 1986). Also see Sebastian Brock and George Kiraz, Ephrem the Syrian: Select Poems, (Brigham Young University Press, Provo, 2006), pp. 200 – 221.
15. All the above exerts are from the madrashe on Faith. Beck, Hymnen de Fide, Χ 18 The English translation is from Sebastian Brock, St Ephrem A Hymn on the Eucharist (Hymns on Faith, no 10) Lancaster, UK, J F Coakley, Dept of Religious Studies, University of Lancaster, 1986). Also see Sebastian Brock and George Kiraz, Ephrem the Syrian: Select Poems, (Brigham Young University Press, Provo, 2006), pp. 200 – 221.
16. Sebastian Brock and George Kiraz, Ephrem the Syrian: Select Poems, (Brigham Young University Press, Provo, 2006), pp. 222 – 245. Sebastian Brock, The Harp of the Spirit: Eighteen Poems of Saint Ephrem, (London: Fellowship of St. Alban and St. Sergius, 1983), pp. 39 – 45 and 70 – 72.
17. Robert Murray, Symbols of Church and Kingdom; a Study in Early Syriac Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975), pp. 45 – 55. Kathleen E McVey (trans ), Ephrem the Syrian, Hymns (The Classics of Western Spirituality, Mahwah, NJ Paulist Press, 1989), pp. 100 – 105.
18. E. Beck, Des heiligen Ephraem des Syrers Sermones IV (CSCO, vols. 334 & 335; Louvain: Secrétariat du Corpus, 1973), vol. 335, pp. xi-xiv.

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2 Responses for “The Eucharistic Theology in The Thought of Ephrem the Syrian”

  1. Thanks for the article! I have always liked St. Ephrem’s ability to theologize with poetry. Your comments have enhanced my prayer this Holy Week, and I used a quote of St. Ephrem in my homily for Holy Thursday! My prayers for you to have a great celebration of Pascha!

  2. Friends,
    The following poetry was posted in the ICON forum in response to the message by Mrs.Susan Eapen,ICON Digest Number 4124 entitled Re: Pre -Lent thoughts – Poetry – Oh! Susan, you tell us!

    I’ve taken the time to respond assuming that it would benefit the reader in some way.Mrs.Susan Eapen’s post also follows.

    I think it’s important that we find the time to offer a rebuttal for such arguments. Since some 10 days has elapsed since the message was posted, I’m releasing it you. I have no doubt that ICON moderators have good reasons, say, like unnecessary attention to ‘such sites’(which is the stress in my poem), with opposite effect on the reader. I fully respect the decision.

    My poetry to the ICON forum follows:

    Re: Pre -Lent thoughts – Poetry – Oh! Susan, you tell us!
    Sat 3,March, 2011, 07:12 am

    Re: Pre -Lent thoughts
    Oh! Susan, You tell us!

    Oh! Susan, I appreciate you,
    Nice cup of tea!
    Your ‘subject’ post.

    No disrespect!
    Make it horlicks or complan;
    Or the such,
    If so you think.

    Regardless,
    In making this drink,
    Till such part,
    When you put,
    The sugar,

    Unknowingly of course;
    The can into which,
    You put the spoon for sugar,
    Was of salt!
    Sour salt, for that matter.

    I mean the part,
    When you pasted,
    The ‘site address’, strange;
    In your ‘subject’ post.

    For, because,
    I love your posts,
    The honesty and love in it;
    I went in,
    To the site,
    You referred!

    And sad I am,
    For,
    Poisonous this,
    Site is,
    Unadutered poison.

    To a responsible,
    MOSC member once,
    For a similar instance;
    I objected;
    When, but it was,
    Less sugar,
    But not salt sour or poison;
    His defence however,
    Was,
    Most of us, the MOSC;
    Are but diabetic,
    Or likely to be,
    Is it true, Oh! Susan?

    “This is unclear to me, if Jesus is Truth, worshipping in spirit and in Truth
    should mean something else. What is it”- Susan Eapen asks?

    Up the wall climbed,
    The ‘would be’ assasin,
    Reaching up,
    And,
    Peeping,
    He saw,
    Through,
    The window creek,
    Rivers of tears flowing,
    With upheld pleading arms
    Down through the cheeks,
    Wonder of wonders!
    Of the Lion – his would be victim!,
    Kneeling in prayer.

    Was Vattesheril Thirumeni,
    Worshipping in spirit,
    And truth?
    Oh! Susan, You tell us!

    Once but not long past,
    During Holy Qurbana,
    Of the Coptic Orthodox Church,
    The priest of staunch faith,
    Lifted his arms up,
    For the tri-plea,
    Similar as in ours,
    ‘Oh!, Lord God do answer me’!

    1,2,3,4,———– to 15,
    Not seconds, but minutes passed,
    In pin drop silence!
    The priest before Holy Thronose,
    With hands upheld,looking up!
    And then after fifteen minutes,
    Of Holy wonder and quiet,
    The priest continued,
    The Holy Qurbana,
    And the church followed.

    Later on, explained,
    The priest, that up,
    High above,
    He saw heaven opened,
    And knew no time passing!
    Was the Coptic priest worshipping ,
    In truth and spirit,
    You tell us, Oh Susan?

    The Holy Qurbana Kramam,
    Just as ours,
    Of St.Basil, St.Chrysostom etc,
    Of Coptic and all Orthodox churches,
    Is full of worship,
    In truth and spirit,
    Relative of course,
    To our trueness,
    Regardless of the staunchness,
    Of faith,
    Of even the Celebrant,
    Is true faith Orthodox.

    Why Susan you search,
    The Living among the dead,
    In such ‘dead sites’,
    In U.S or Europe,
    And practically you can,
    See what the site says,
    In operation,
    In all the Pentecostal
    And ‘independent’ so called,
    Congregational, evangelical,
    Anti Christology,
    In and around your place,
    Trivandrum too?

    “So what is the kind of worship that God desires? Is it enough to have a
    sanctified Church? I do not think so. In Jeremiah 7:11, God speaks about
    insincere worship and man’s reliance on symbols”- Susan asks?

    Suppose, Susan,
    In Physics,
    Do you,
    Want to accept and approve,
    Newtonian or Einsteinian laws or not?
    Or you want,
    To be rigid,
    And reinvent them both on your own?

    If not;
    Prefer to accept and approve,
    After all possible scrutiny of course,
    Saints Basil the Great,
    Or Gregory, the theologian,
    Have said on matters,
    Which you raise,
    In this post,
    Or Aprem,
    As you did before,
    In your one post earlier,
    If correctly, I remember?

    Let us be truthful,
    For we confess,
    Saints Ignatius,Basil and Gregory
    Every time in,
    Our Holy Qurbana,
    In our diptych 1,
    To search them,
    For answers Orthodox,
    They only have.
    But go only,
    To sites Orthodox Christian,
    Never even to Catholic,
    To be safe!

    Regards,

    Prasad Mathew,
    Abu Dhabi.
    —————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————–

    Pre -Lent thoughtsFrom: Susan Eapen,Thiruvananthapuram

    Dear and respected friends,
    I have been thinking over and over. Why do the Orthodox insist on the ‘Right Worship’, and the ‘Right Faith’? God can see into our hearts and He understands our motives.

    Then I came across a passage in Deuteronomy 12 vs 4. God asks Israel to destroy the places of worship of the inhabitants of the promised land when they conquer the place. It does not say destroy the Gods, it says destroy the places of worship because God is not to be worshipped in their way.

    Their ways was by human sacrifice and all sorts of evil ways. WHy did they worship God in that way? Because they thought that God desired such worship and they had a distorted understanding about God. This wrong faith made caused wrong worship and as a consequence, the God they worshipped was a God of their own creation, made in their own image, satisfying their blood thirsty and vengeful nature.

    All along, God keeps saying that even though He is Almighty and Holy and dwells in unapproachable light, He is a loving God and a God who is Love. Isaiah 49: 15 is just one example of His constant pursuit of the prodigal. Jeremiah 31: 3 is another.

    So what is the kind of worship that God desires? Is it enough to have a sanctified Church? I do not think so. In Jeremiah 7:11, God speaks about insincere worship and man’s reliance on symbols.

    God gives us simple statutes for daily lives, more times than I can quote (Zechariah 8:16-17) which is summarised beautifully in Luke 10:27

    As for offerings and sacrifices, God speaks in Jeremiah 7:22 and clearly says that the true sacrifice is obedience.
    The kind of fasts that He desires is very well stated in Isaiah 58.

    So how should we prepare for fasts and how should we worship?

    In my humble understanding the discipline of the fasts, as the Church prescribes it makes us stronger in spirit and will power and we would find the strength to be just and honest and give up things for others. Also to worship in spirit and truth

    Worship in ‘Spirit and Truth ‘ I could get some idea from the following link which I found very helpful http://www.bible.ca/ef/topical-what-the-bible-says-about-worship.htm

    Worship in Spirit is worship from the worshipper’s spirit, which is the image of God in him. It is not spiritual, sentimental or spirited.
    Perhaps that is why in our prayers we speak about God’s presence in us. Is it?

    Worship in Truth:To quote what is said in the above link

    “Jesus also said that the true worshipper will worship God in truth. There can be no doubt, that this means that acceptable worship will be circumscribed by the precepts of God’s word. When Jesus prayed to the Father on the night of His betrayal, He said: “Sanctify them by Your truth. Your word is truth” (Jn. 17:17). Since the very beginning of time God has revealed His will concerning the kind of worship that He will accept from His creation, and He has repeatedly judged those who failed to worship Him according to His word. Therefore, the only way that we can acceptably worship God today is to worship Him according to His word.

    That means that we must worship the right object — God, not men (Acts 10:26), not idols (1 Jn. 5:21), not demons (1 Cor. 10:19-22), not angels (Rev. 22:8-9), not Satan. Jesus said: “You shall worship the LORD your God, and Him only you shall serve” (Mt. 4:10).

    That means that we must worship in the right form. Jesus condemned the worship of the scribes and Pharisees as vain, because they taught the precepts of men as though they were the doctrine of God (Mt. 15:7-9). Paul described the worship of some at Colossae as “will-worship,” because they were basing it upon the philosophies and traditions of men (Col. 2:8-10, 16-23).

    When we come to truly understand what it really means to worship….God….with our spirits….in truth, above everything else God will be pleased, and that is the most important thing, but our lives will also be transformed. May God help us all to be the true worshippers who will worship in spirit”

    This is unclear to me, if Jesus is Truth, worshipping in spirit and in Truth should mean something else. What is it?

    Is there an answer in Divyabodhanam or Sunday School? Can someone please explain?

    Susan Eapen
    Thiruvananthapuram

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