The Scriptures: A Wealth Beyond the Needs of All

 

“As for Ephraem’s own attitude to the scriptures and their interpretation, there is a passage in the commentary on the Diatessaron which, even if it may not have come from his pen, is nevertheless an apt expression of his point of view. The text says,

 

Many are the perspectives of his word, just as many are the perspectives of those who study it. [God] has fashioned his word with many beautiful forms, so that each one who studies it may consider what he likes. He has hidden in his word all kinds of treasures so that each one of us, wherever we meditate, may be enriched by it. His utterance is a tree of life, which offers you blessed fruit from every side. It is like that rock which burst forth in the desert, becoming spiritual drink to everyone from all places. [They ate] spiritual food and drank spiritual drink. (1 Cor. 10:3-4)

Therefore, whoever encounters one of its riches must not think that that alone which he has found is all that is in it, but [rather] that it is this alone that he is capable of finding from the many things in it. Enriched by it, let him not think that he has impoverished it. But rather let him give thanks for its greatness, he that is unequal to it. Rejoice that you have been satiated, and do not be upset that it is richer than you…Give thanks for what you have taken away, and do not murmur over what remains and is in excess. That which you have taken and gone away with is your portion and that which is left over is also your heritage.”

(Sidney H. Griffith, ‘Faith Adoring the Mystery’ Reading the Bible with St. Ephraem the Syrian, pp. 16-17)

The Resurrection: Christ Renews Creation

“We have an eloquent testimony to the ultimate restoration of the world from the great Syrian poet-theologian St. Ephrem:

At our resurrection, both earth and heaven will God renew,

liberating all creatures, granting them paschal joy, along with us.

Upon our mother Earth, along with us, did he lay disgrace

when he placed on her, with the sinner, the curse;

so, together with the just, he will bless her too;

this nursing mother, along with her children, shall he who is Good renew. “ 

(from Elizabeth Theokritoff, Living in God’s Creation, p. 38)

St Ephrem of Syria On Paradise

A person who has acquired

good health in himself

and is aware in his mind

of what sickness is,

has gained something beneficial,

and he knows something profitable;

but the person who lies

in sickness;

and knows in his mind

what good health is like,

is vexed by his sickness

and tormented in his mind.

Had Adam conquered,

he would have acquired

glory upon his limbs,

and discernment of what suffering is,

so that he might be radiant in his limbs

and grow in discernment.

But the serpent reversed all this

and made him taste

abasement in reality,

and glory in recollection only,

so that he might feel shame at what he had found

and weep at what he had lost.

The tree was to him

like a gate;

its fruit was the veil

covering that hidden Tabernacle.

Adam snached the fruit,

casting aside the commandment.

When he beheld that Glory

within,

shining forth with its rays,

he fled outside;

he ran off and took refuge

amongst the modest fig trees.

In the midst of Paradise God had planted

the Tree of Knowledge

to separate off, above and below,

Sanctuary from Holy of Holies.

Adam made bold to touch,

and he was smitten like Uzziah:

the king became leprous;

Adam was stripped.

Being struck like Uzziah

he hastened to leave:

both kings fled and hid,

in shame at their bodies.

Even though all the trees

of Paradise

are clothed each in its own glory,

yet each veils itself at the Glory:

the Seraphs with their wings,

the trees with their branches,

all cover their faces so as not to behold

their Lord.

They all blushed at Adam

who was suddenly found naked;

the serpent had stolen his garments,

for which it was deprived of its feet.

God did not permit

Adam to enter

that innermost Tabernacle:

this was withheld,

so that he might first prove pleasing

in his service of that outer Tabernacle.

Like a priest

with fragrant incense,

Adam’s keeping of the commandment

was to be his censer;

then he might enter before the Hidden One

into that hidden Tabernacle.

The symbol of Paradise

was depicted by Moses

who made the two sanctuaries,

the sanctuary and the Holy of Holies;

into the outer one,

entrance was permitted

but into the inner,

only once a year.

So too with Paradise,

God closed off the inner part

but He opened up the outer,

wherein Adam might graze.

(Ephrem the Syrian, Treasure-house of Mysteries, pp. 48-50)

Christ Died that We Would Live

Bright Wednesday

But [the Lord] in his turn vanquished death through his great cry when he had gone up on the cross. Whereas death was binding one person on the cross, all those who had been bound in Sheol were being delivered because of the chains of one person…his hands, which delivered us from the bonds of death, were transfixed by nails, his hands which broke our chains and tied those which were binding us.

It was an amazing thing that the dead were killing the living one, [whereas] the slain one was raising the dead to life. The directed their fury more intensely towards heaven, whereas he humbled his greatness even further down into the depths…

[Death] stole him, took him away and put him in the tomb while he was asleep, but, on awaking and standing up, he stole his stealer. This is the cross which crucifies those who crucified [the Lord], and this is the captive who leads into captivity those who had led him into captivity. The cross, through your death, has become a fountain of life for our mortal life…death used his body to takest and devour the life hidden in mortal bodies What it had hastened to gulp down while famished it was forced to restore very quickly…he commanded the stones and they were split in two. [He commanded] death and it did not prevent the just from going forth at his voice. He trained the lower regions to his voice to prepare them for hearing it on the last day, when this voice will empty [the lower regions].  

(Ephrem the Syrian, from Hilarion Alfeyev’s Christ the Conqueror of Hell, p. 71)

Death: Sojourn to Life

St. Ephrem the Syrian in one of his poems takes us on a tour from Paradise to earth.  Paradise is superlatively better than earth, and yet humans cling to the earth and don’t want to leave it.   He compares our attitude to death to that of the infant in the mother’s womb – both the dying person  and the unborn infant are reluctant to leave the world they know, even if they are entering into an even greater experience or life.  

I was in wonder as I crossed

the borders of Paradise

at how well-being, as though a companion

turned round and remained behind.

And when I reached the shore of earth,

the mother of thorns,

I encountered all kinds

of pain and suffering.

I learned how, compared to Paradise,

our abode is but a dungeon;

yet the prisoners within it

weep when they leave it!

I was amazed at how even infants

weep as they leave the womb–

weeping because they come out

from darkness into light

and from suffocation they issue forth

into this world!

Likewise death, too,

is for the world

a symbol of birth,

and yet people weep because they are born

out of this world, the mother of suffering,

into the garden of splendors.

Have pity on me,

O Lord of Paradise,

and if it is not possible for me

to enter your Paradise,

grant that I may graze

outside, by its enclosure;

within, let there be spread

the table for the “diligent,”

but may the fruits within its enclosure

drop outside like the “crumbs”

for sinners, so that, through Your grace,

they may live!

(Hymns on Paradise, pp. 106-108)

Theophany 2018

St. Ephrem the Syrian composed the following poetry as he reflected on the meaning of the Feast of Theophany.  He focuses on part of the prayer of the Feast for the Blessing of Water in which we ask the Holy Spirit to come upon the water and be present in it just as the Spirit was present at the baptism of Christ in the Jordan River.

The Spirit descended from the heights

and sanctified the water as She hovered.

When John baptized Jesus

She left all others and settled on one,

but now She has come down and settled

upon all who are reborn in water of baptism.

 

Of all those that John baptized

the Spirit dwelt on one alone,

but now She has flown down

to dwell upon many.

Rushing to meet the Foremost who went up first from the Jordan,

She embraced him and dwelt upon Him.

It is a wonder that the Purifier of all

should have gone down to the water to be baptized.

The seas declared that river blessed,

in which You, Lord, were baptized.

The waters, too, that are above the heavens

were envious that they had not been held worthy to wash You.

Thus we pray to make the water that of Jordan.

It is a wonder, Lord, now as well

that, though the springs are full of water,

only the baptismal font

can wash clean:

the seas may be mighty with all their water,

but they have not the power to wash.

(“Hymns on Epiphany,” Treasure-house of Mysteries, pp. 249-250)

The Virgin Mary and the Robe of Glory

“In her virginity, Eve put on

leaves of shame, but your mother has put on,

in her virginity, a garment of glory

that encompasses all, while to Him who covers all

she gave a body as a tiny garment.”

(Ephrem the Syrian)

The imagery of the Robe of Glory, deeply embedded in the Syriac tradition, is used to describe the various stages of salvation history: Adam and Eve are originally clothed in it in Paradise, but lose it at the Fall; Christ, the Divine Word who “put on the body,” deposits humanity’s lost Robe of Glory in the River Jordan at his baptism, and at each Christian baptism it is received in potential from the Font (often described both as the Jordan and as a womb; …); finally, at the Last Judgement, it becomes the clothing of the Righteous in reality ….

Since Christ’s presence in the Jordan makes the Robe of Glory available again to humanity, his presence in Mary’s womb is understood as constituting her baptism, thus providing her with her Robe of Glory …. Mary’s giving Christ “a body as a tiny garment” and receiving in return a “Robe of Glory” is one of the ways in which Ephrem brings out the idea of exchanged involved in the incarnation; this is expressed in epigrammatic form: “He gave us divinity, we gave Him humanity” (Sebastian P. Brock & George A. Kiraz, Ephrem the Syrian: Select Poems, p. 51).

The Samaritan Woman at the Well

St. Ephrem the Syrian gives us poetically vivid imagery to help us understand the Gospel Lesson of the Samaritan Woman at the well (John 4:5-42).

8186047331_e19fe9005e“Our Lord labored and He went like a farmer

to water the seed that Moses sowed.

Directly to the well He went to give

hidden and living water for the sake of the revelation.

Blessed is Moses, who, with the book he wrote, sowed

the symbols of the Messiah, still young;

by [Christ’s] watering were the seeds of the house of Moses perfected,

and they were reaped by His disciples.

Refrain: Praises to your humility!

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Blessed are you, drawer of ordinary water,

who turned out to be a drawer of living water.

You found a treasure, another Source,

from Whom a flood of mercies flows.

The spring had dried up, but it broke through to you and gave you to drink.

He was poor, but He asked in order to enrich you.

You left behind your pitcher, but you filled understanding and gave your people to drink.

Blessed are you to whom He gave living water to drink,

and you did not thirst again, as you said.

For he called the truth “living water,”

since all who hear it will not thirst again.

Blessed are you who learned the truth and did not thirst;

for one is the Messiah and there are no more.”

(HYMNS, p 355)

Satan Learned About Paradise

In a previous post, When Death Wept, I mentioned that early Christian writers were far more interested in how Death reacted to Christ then they were in what it is like to be dead or to traverse through the place of the dead.  Their interest in Hades was because it is a place Christ has conquered and filled – it is a place where we will meet Jesus Christ our Lord, not be separated from Him.

Christ’s descent into Hades liberates all those held captive by death.

These same writers were also very interested in what Paradise, the garden God prepared for His first human creatures, must have been like.  This was of greater interest to these early writers than taking a sojourn through circles of hell or through purgatory or toll houses.  They focused often on where God is, which turns out to be everywhere including Hades, rather than in concocting places where God is not.  St. Ephrem of Syria (d. 373AD) poetically describes Paradise in his volumes of poems.

Perhaps that blessed tree,

the Tree of Life,

is, by its rays,

the sun of Paradise;

its leaves glisten

and on them are impressed

the spiritual graces

of that Garden.

In the breezes the other trees

bow down in worship

before that sovereign

and leader of the trees.

In the very midst He planted

the Tree of Knowledge

endowing it with awe,

hedging it in with dread,

so that it might straightaway serve

as a boundary to the inner region of Paradise.

St. Ephrem describes Paradise to be God’s temple, like the Temple in Jerusalem.  Or rather, as we know, the Temple in Jerusalem was built based upon the Temple which was revealed to Moses (Exodus 25:9, 26:30; Numbers 8:4; Acts 7:44).  Paradise had different regions according to St. Ephrem which had boundaries marking that some regions were even more holy than other regions.  Those who could enter each region were limited, which is the pattern which the Jerusalem Temple followed with its outer courts and the inner Holy of Holies.

Two things did Adam hear

in that single decree:

that they should not eat of it

and that, by shrinking from it,

they should perceive that it was not lawful

to penetrate further, beyond that Tree.

While Genesis portrays the Tree being in the middle of the Garden, St. Ephrem sees the Tree as a boundary which Adam was not permitted to trespass beyond.  The serpent was not even allowed in the Garden, but craftily learned about the inner structure of the Garden by inquiring about it from Eve.  To talk to the serpent, Eve and Adam had to intentionally leave the inner sanctuary.  The serpent didn’t really have Eve and Adam’s ear – they had to go out of their way to listen to the serpent, according to St. Ephrem.

The serpent could not

enter Paradise;

for neither animal

nor bird

was permitted to approach

the outer region of Paradise,

and Adam had to go out

to meet them,

so the serpent cunningly learned

through questioning Eve,

the character of Paradise

what it was and how it was arranged.

According to St. Ephrem, the serpent’s goal all along was to learn about the design of the Garden – of God’s Temple.  His discussion in Genesis 3 with Eve is really his crafty way to learn the layout of the Temple.  The serpent wanted to know what was in the midst of the Garden. Once the serpent had that knowledge he hatched his plan to get Adam and Eve to turn away from God.

When the Accursed One learned

how the glory of that inner Tabernacle,

as if in a sanctuary,

was hidden from them,

and that the Tree of Knowledge,

clothed with an injunction,

served as the veil

for the sanctuary,

he realized that its fruit

was the key of justice

that would open the eyes of the bold

and cause them great remorse.

(St. Ephrem, Hymns on Paradise, 3, Treasure-house of Mysteries, pp. 44-46)

The serpent couldn’t harm Adam or Eve, but he was able to figure out a fatal flaw in them!   Once he surmised that the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge was the key, the serpent suggested to Eve that there would be no harm in eating the fruit, that the fruit like everything in the garden was good to be had.  Wisdom says there is a time for everything.  It was not yet Eve and Adam’s time to partake of the fruit, but they bit on the serpent’s temptation, and the rest is history, so to speak.

A Poetic Phrasing of St. Ephrem’s Prayer

Poet Scott Cairns gives us a fresh look at the Prayer of St. Ephrem in his poetic rephrasing of the Great Lenten prayer.

O Lord and Master of my life,

remove from me this languid spirit,

this grim demeanor, this petty

lust for power, and all this empty talk.

endow Thy servant, instead,

with a chaste spirit, a humble

heart, longsuffering gentleness,

and genuine, unselfish love.

Yes, O Lord and King, grant

that I may confront my own offenses,

and remember not to judge my brother.

for You are–always and forever–blessed.

(Love’s Immensity, pp. 17-18)