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.
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.
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.