Lyre, Lyre, Sanctifier

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.

3 responses

  1. Happy Birthday, Maureen! We will offer our Magnificat for your intentions.

    Here is an interesting reflection from “Catholic Online” to supplement you very insightful blog:

    “According to tradition, Ephrem began to write hymns in order to counteract the heresies that were rampant at that time. For those who think of hymns simply as the song at the end of Mass that keeps us from leaving the church early, it may come as a surprise that Ephrem and others recognized and developed the power of music to get their points across. Tradition tells us that Ephrem heard the heretical ideas put into song first and in order to counteract them made up his own hymns. In the one below, his target is a Syrian heretic, Bardesan, who denied the truth of the Resurrection:
    “How he blasphemes justice
    And grace her fellow-worker.
    For if the body was not raised,
    This is a great insult against grace
    To say grace created the body for decay;
    And this is slander against justice,
    to say justice sends the body to destruction.”

    The originality, imagery, and skill of his hymns captured the hearts of the Christians so well, that Ephrem is given credit for awakening the Church to the importance of music and poetry in spreading and fortifying the faith. And close on his heels is a fellow named Augustine, who is credited with the statement: He who sings well, prays twice!

  2. St.Ephrem often wrote of the need for unity among the Christians of his time who had formed sects.
    He noted how Christ had washed the disciples’ feet as a lesson against dissension which was utterly out of place for those reborn by baptism:

    “Our Lord washed the bodies of the brethren
    in a basin that was the symbol of unity.
    By that symbol also was cut off the member
    who cut himself off and betrayed himself.
    From the womb of the waters we are newly mounted up;
    ket us not be divided members
    which contend against each other, not perceiving
    that it is with their Beloved they are quarreling.”

    In other Hymns he prayed:
    “May God’s grace expel and cast out
    dissension, pride and division…May Unity shine forth among us, the mirror of peace!”

    A good prayer for all engaged in ecumenism!

  3. Dear Mike and Jim,

    Thanks so much for these additional quotes and insights. Awesome material!

    I also want to thank the dozens of people who showered Maureen with emails and phone calls wishing her a happy birthday yesterday. She really appreciated hearing from so many dear friends, and even more she was grateful for all the prayers offered on her behalf.

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