Wednesday, June 21, 2017

June 21 - Ephrem of Syria, Deacon, Teacher, Harp of the Spirit

Ephrem was the child of Christian parents who were active in their congregational family in Nisbis. This was a mark in the favor of Ephrem's potential spiritual growth. From birth he was raised hearing the stories of life through death and the redeeming power of pure, unblemished love. We cannot and should not underestimate this for a single moment. Further, the congregation that Ephrem was a part of--and into which he was eventually baptized--was led and cared for by Jacob of Nisbis. Jacob was one of the men who signed the documents of the First Council of Nicea in 325 when Ephrem was almost twenty years old. This meant that Ephrem was learning from one of the pillars of the Church how best to likewise become a great leader of the Church and devoted follower of the Church's bridegroom. He was baptized by Jacob and eventually appointed both deacon and teacher. But Ephrem took an interesting approach to his educational vocation. He did not ask his students to memorize and he did not teach them in the lecturing didactic style so common at the time. Instead, he wrote poetry and hymns. Ephrem was convinced that the great mysteries of God could not be handled with the calculating hands of academia and must be carefully cradled by the hands of the arts. With poetry and music the mysteries of the Faith could flourish and not be "solved" but, instead, be entertained, experienced, and appreciated.

Constantine died in 337 and the Persian ruler Shapur II began to raid the northern portions of Roman Mesopotamia. These attacks were repelled, according to Ephrem's hymns and poetry, by the mighty prayers of Jacob of Nisbis. But some twenty years later they were picked up again and the Roman empire was willing to make a deal because of the chaos ripping through its power structure in the wake of the death of Julian the Apostate in battle. Since Constantius II was not willing to attend to the needs of the cities of norther Mesopotamia and the new ruler Jovian was willing to sacrifice the cities to save his army, the city of Nisbis was turned over to Shapur with the understanding that its Christian population would be banished. Ephrem led the community in its exile and they eventually landed in Edessa. In Edessa, Ephrem helped to rebuild the congregation and continued to teach them through the wonders of poetry and hymnody.Even as rival teachers tried to engage him in formulaic debate he refused to abandon the world of the arts for the world of academic discourse. He wasn't concerned with winning arguments and solving intellectual puzzles, he was concerned with taking care of the mysteries and proclaiming what amounted to nothing more than foolishness to most.

In the year 373 famine hit Edessa and tore through its occupants with ferocity. A plague resulted from the widespread starvation and death. Ephrem led his congregation to care for the sick, hungry, and dying and did so by example. Eventually, he succumbed to the plague that afflicted those he loved and cared for. Through the years, we still have four-hundred of Ephrem's hymns so we can trust that there were thousands of hymns and poems at his death. He left a legacy of love and mysterious providence behind him to the Church he loved and served. This legacy was inspired in him by the Lord he loved and of whom he wrote:

Your Bread kills the Devourer who had made us his bread,
your Cup destroys death which was swallowing us up.
We have eaten you, Lord, we have drunk you,
not to exhaust you, but to live by you.
See, Lord, my arms are filled with the crumbs from your table;
there is not room left in my lap.
As I kneel before you, hold back your Gift;
Keep it in your storehouse to give us again!

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