Today the universal Church celebrates the feast of St. Ephrem the Syrian, a fourth-century doctor of the Church. Of all the doctors of the Church, I believe he is the only one who became what we would today call a “permanent deacon.”
This fascinating saint early in life attended the ecumenical Council of Nicaea and ran a catechetical school in Nisibis, which was in Syria. After the Persians annexed the area Ephrem was a refugee, and he ended up as a monk and deacon in Edessa, in present-day Turkey.
St. Ephrem is known as the “Lyre of the Holy Spirit” because of the beautiful hymns he composed. He is the most famous of the Syriac Fathers of the Church, and in addition to his hymns he wrote many works of a biblical and apologetic character.
Despite the range and volume of his writings, St. Ephrem is best known as the “Marian Doctor” because of the doctrinal character of his Marian hymns, which aided the Church in her development of Marian doctrines, such as the Immaculate Conception.
I thought I would offer our readers a few brief snippets of St. Ephrem’s work. First, here is a passage from one of his Nisibine Hymns that speaks of Mary’s sinlessness:
You alone and your Mother
are more beautiful than any others;
For there is no blemish in you,
nor any stains upon your Mother.
Who of my children
can compare in beauty to these?
In this passage, St. Ephrem compares the virgin birth with the Resurrection:
The womb and Sheol shouted with joy and cried out
about Your resurrection. The womb that was sealed,
conceived You. Sheol that was secured,
brought You forth. Against nature
the womb conceived and Sheol yielded.
Sealed was the grave which they entrusted
with keeping the dead man. Virginal was the womb
that no man knew. The virginal womb
and the sealed grave like trumpets
for a deaf people, shouted in its ear.
Lastly, St. Ephrem’s biblical insight led him to see Mary as the New Eve and a symbol of the Church. For example, he saw both Mary and the Church as bearers of the living bread from heaven, the Holy Eucharist:
The Church gave us the living Bread,
in place of the unleavened bread that Egypt had given.
Mary gave us the refreshing bread,
in place of the fatiguing bread that Eve had procured for us.
For more historical background on St. Ephrem as well as more information on his various mariological works, see Luigi Gambero, Mary and the Fathers of the Church, which is available through Ignatius Press.
I have to admit that the feast of St. Ephrem is important to me for a completely different reason: It also happens to be the birthday of my beloved wife Maureen. We will be the same age for the next four months, until my birthday in October (I’m sworn to covenantal secrecy as to the exact age!). I would be eternally grateful if the readers of this post would offer a special prayer for Maureen today on her special day.