Saint Ephraim the Syrian (January 28)
Saint Ephraim the Syrian, the great poet saint of the Syriac Church, was born in c. A.D. 306 in Nisibis of
Mesopotamia (northwest of Mosul, Iraq). While some late sources claim that his father was a heathen
priest who worshiped an idol called Abnil, his own writings affirm that he was raised in a Christian
family. He writes: "I was born in the way of truth: though my boyhood understood not the greatness of
the benefit, I knew it when trial came" (Adv. Haereses, XXVI). Again more explicitly, if we may trust
a Confession which is extant only in Greek: "I had been early taught about Christ by my parents; they
who begat me after the flesh had trained me in the fear of the Lord... My parents were confessors
before the judge: yea, I am the kindred of martyrs."
He was ordained deacon in c. A.D. 338, some say by Saint Basil the Great whom Sozomen said "was a great admirer
of Ephraim and was astonished at his erudition," and served the Bishop of Nisibis, Mor Ya`qub (St.
James), who participated in the Synod of Nicaea (AD 325) as one of the 318 Holy Fathers. He lived as a
solitary and apparently never entered into priesthood. After the cession of Nisibis to Persia in AD 363,
Ephraim withdrew into the Roman Empire and settled at Edessa where he composed the hymns that survive
to this day. Though in the ecclesiastical hirearchy he was just a deacon, he is remembered as a great
doctor of the universal Church.
Ephraim wrote exclusively in Syriac, the Edessene dialect of Aramaic, but his works were translated into
Armenian and Greek, and via the latter into Latin and Slavonic. Many works in these languages
attributed to him are, however, not genuine. Of the multitude of sermons, commentaries, and hymns
that Saint Ephraim wrote, many were translated into Greek in his own lifetime. Sozomen says that
Ephraim "Surpassed the most approved writers of Greece," observing that the Greek writings, when
translated into other tongues, lose most of their original beauty, but Ephraim's works "are no less
admired when read in Greek than when read in Syriac" (Eccl. Hist., Book 111, 16). Much of Ephraim's
exegetical, dogmatic and ascetic works are in verse form. He wrote several polemical works refuting
the heresies of Marcion, Bardaisan, Mani, the Arians and the Anomoeans. He wrote widely regarded
biblical commentaries on Genesis and the Diatesseron. His writings extensively employ typology and
symbolism. Over 500 genuine hymns survive, of great beauty and insight. His poetry is in two genres:
madrashe (hymns) and memre (verse homilies). After his death, the hymns were arranged into hymn
cycles, the most famous of which are those On Faith (including the five 'On the Pearl'), On Paradise
and On Nisibis (the second half of which is on the 'Descent of Christ into Hell'). His liturgical
poetry had a great influence on Syriac and Greek hymnography.
Saint Ephraim was the first to make the
poetic expression of hymnody and song a vehicle of Orthodox theological teachings, constituting it an
integral part of the Church's worship;
he may rightly be called the first and greatest hymnographer of
the Church, who set the pattern for those who followed him, especially Saint Romanos the Melodist.
Orthodox churches honor him as 'the Harp of the Holy Spirit'. Jerome says that his writings were read
in some churches after the reading of the Scriptures, and adds that once he read a Greek translation
of one of Ephraim's works, "and recognized, even in translation, the incisive power of his lofty
genius" (De vir. ill., ch. CXV).
Shortly before the end of his life, a famine broke out in Edessa, and Saint Ephraim left his cell to rebuke
the rich for not sharing their goods with the poor. The rich answered that they knew no one to whom
they could entrust their goods. Ephraim asked them, "What do you think of me?" When they confessed
their reverence for him, he offered to distribute their alms, to which they agreed. He himself cared
with his own hands for many of the sick from the famine, and so crowned his life with mercy and love
St. Ephraim departed to his heavenly abode on 9th of June, A.D. 373, according to others, 379.
Reprinted with permission from J.Sanidopoulos Mystagogy Site