Pope Benedict XVI- General Audiences

General Audience
On St. Ephrem the Syrian
"Scepter of the Holy Spirit"
H.H. Benedict XVI
November 28,  2007

Dear brothers and sisters!

According to general opinion, Christianity is a European religion that has exported the culture of this Continent to other countries. The reality, though, is a lot more complex, as the root of the Christian religion is found in the Old Testament, and therefore in Jerusalem and the Semitic world. Christianity has always nourished itself from its roots in the Old Testament.

Also, its expansion during the first centuries was both westward -- toward the Greek-Latin world, where it then inspired the European culture -- and eastward to Persia and India, thus contributing to stimulate a specific culture, in Semitic languages, with its own identity.

To show the cultural diversity of the early Christian faith, during last Wednesday's catechesis I talked about a representative of this Christianity, Aphraates the Persian sage, almost unknown to us. Along the same lines I would like to speak today of St. Ephrem the Syrian, born in Nisibis around 306 into a Christian family.

He was the most important representative of Syriac Christianity, and succeeded in a unique way to reconcile the vocation of the theologian with that of the poet. He was brought up with James, bishop of Nisibis (303-338), and with him he founded the theological school of his town. Once deacon, he completely immersed himself in the life of the local Christian community until 363, the year in which Nisibis fell under Persian rule. Ephrem fled to Edessa, where he continued his activities as a preacher. He died there in 373, after being infected with the plague while attending to the sick.

It is not known with certainty whether he was a monk, but in any case it is certain that he remained a deacon all his life and that he embraced celibacy and poverty. In this way, according to the specific character of his culture, the common and fundamental Christian identity can be seen: faith, hope -- the hope that allows you to live a chaste and simple life putting your faith in the Lord -- and charity, even to the point of giving one's own life to care for the victims of the plague.

St. Ephrem left us a large written theological inheritance. His considerable writings can be grouped into four categories: works written in ordinary prose (his polemical works, or biblical commentaries); works in poetic prose; sermons in verses; and finally the hymns -- undoubtedly Ephrem's most extensive work.

He is a rich and captivating author for many reasons, but particularly because of his theological profile. The specific character of his work is that theology meets poetry. If we want to get closer to his doctrine, we need to acknowledge that he studied theology through poetry. Poetry allowed him to deepen his theological reflections through paradoxes and images. His theology became both liturgy and music at the same time: he was indeed a great composer and musician.

Theology, reflection on faith, poetry, chanting and the praising of God all complement one another. It is actually from this liturgical character that the divine truth appeared with clarity in Ephrem's theology. During his search for God and in his theology, he followed the path of paradox and symbol. His preference was to use opposing images, because they serve to underline the mystery of God.

I cannot quote much of his work, partly because poetry is difficult to translate, but just to give an idea of his poetic theology I would like to quote parts of two different hymns. First of all, as Advent is almost here, I would like to show you some wonderful images taken from the hymns "On Christ's Nativity." In an inspired tone Ephrem expressed his wonder of the figure of the Virgin Mary:

"The Lord came to her
to make himself a servant.
The Word came to her
to keep silence in her womb.
The lightning came to her
to not make any noise.

"The shepherd came to her
and the Lamb is born, who humbly cries.
Because Mary's womb
has reversed the roles:
The one who created all things
wasn't born rich, but poor.

"The Almighty came to her (Mary),
but he came humbly.
Splendor came to her,
but dressed in humble clothes.
The One who gives us all things
met hunger.

"The One who gives water to everyone
met thirst.
Naked and unclothed he came from her,
he who dresses all things (with beauty)."

(Hymn "De Nativitate" 11, 6-8).

To express the mystery of Christ, Ephrem uses a large variety of topics, expressions and images. In one of his hymns he connects Adam (in paradise) with Christ (in the Eucharist) in an effective way:

"It was the cherub's sword,
that closed the path
to the tree of life.

"But for the people,
the Lord of this tree
gave himself like food
at the (Eucharistic) offering.

"Eden's trees
were given as nourishment
to the first Adam.

"For us, the gardener
of the garden
has made himself food
for our souls.

"In fact we all left
Paradise together with Adam,
who left it all behind.

"Now that the sword has been removed,
from there (on the cross) by the lance
we are able to return."

(Hymn 49,9-11).

Ephrem uses two images to speak about the Eucharist: the charcoal or the hot coal, and the pearl. The theme of the hot coal is taken from the prophet Isaiah (cf. 6:6). It is the image of the seraph who takes the hot coal with tongs and simply grazes the lips of the prophet to purify them; the Christian, instead, takes and consumes the hot coal, that is, Christ himself:

"In your bread hides the Spirit
that cannot be consumed;
In your wine is the fire that cannot be drunk.

"The Spirit in your bread, the fire in your wine:
Here is a wonder welcomed by our lips.

"The seraph could not get his fingers close to the hot coal,
that could only approach Isaiah's mouth;
neither did the fingers take it, nor the lips swallow it;
But the Lord granted us the ability to do both things.

"The fire rained down with anger to destroy the sinners,
But the fire of grace comes down on the bread and remains there.
Instead of the fire destroying man,
we ate the fire in the bread
and we were revived."

(Hymn "De Fide" 10,8-10).

Here is another example of St. Ephrem's hymns, where he writes of the pearl as a symbol of the richness and beauty of faith:

"My brothers, I put (the pearl) to the palm of my hand,
to be able to look at it closely.

"I observed it from one side and then the other:
It had one only appearance from all sides.

"(Such) is the search for the Son, inscrutable,
for he is luminous.

"In its clarity, I saw the clear one,
that does not become opaque;
and in its purity,
I saw the great symbol of our Lord's body,
That is pure.

"In its indivisibility, I saw the truth,
which is indivisible."

(Hymn "On The Pearl" 1, 2-3).

The figure of Ephrem is still very relevant for the life of the various Christian Churches. In the first place we discover him as a theologian, who began from sacred Scripture and poetically reflected upon the mystery of the redemption of man by Christ, the embodiment of the Word of God.

His theological reflection is expressed with images and symbols taken from nature, from daily life and from the Bible. Ephrem conferred an educational and catechetical character to his poetry and to the hymns for the liturgy; these are theological hymns suitable for performance or liturgical songs. Ephrem uses such hymns to spread the doctrine of the Church at liturgical festivals. Over time the hymns proved to be an extremely effective catechetical instrument for the Christian community.

It is important to underline Ephrem's reflection on the God of creation: Nothing in creation is isolated, and the world is, with sacred Scripture, a Bible of God. By using his freedom wrongly, man overturns the order of the cosmos.

To Ephrem the role of the woman is a relevant one. The way he wrote about women was always prompted by sensibility and respect: The fact that Jesus dwelt in the womb of Mary has enormously raised the woman's dignity. For Ephrem there is no redemption without Jesus, just as there could be no incarnation without Mary. The divine and human dimensions of the mystery of our redemption can already be found in Ephrem's texts; in a poetic way and with scriptural images, he anticipated the theological background and in some ways the language itself of the great Christological definitions from the fifth-century councils.

Honored by the Christian tradition as "scepter of the Holy Spirit," Ephrem opted to be a deacon of his Church for his entire life. It was a decisive and emblematic choice: He was deacon, that is to say, a servant, in the ministry of the liturgy, in his love for Christ -- which was radical -- that he sung of in an unparalleled way, and in charity toward his brothers, whom he taught with rare mastery the knowledge of divine revelation.

[Translation by Laura Leoncini]

[After praying the Angelus, the Holy Father greeted pilgrims in six languages. In English, he said:]

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

In this week's catechesis we turn to Saint Ephrem, the greatest of the Syriac Fathers and the most renowned poet of the patristic age. Saint Ephrem's theology, deeply grounded in the Scriptures and profoundly orthodox in content, was expressed in poetic language marked by striking paradoxes and vivid imagery.

Through his mastery of poetic symbolism, Ephrem sought to communicate, especially in his Hymns, the mystery of the trinitarian God, the incarnation of the eternal Son born of the Virgin Mary, and the spiritual treasures contained in the Eucharist. His poetry and hymns not only enriched the liturgy; they also proved an important means of catechesis for the Christian community in the fourth century.

Particularly significant is Ephrem's teaching on our redemption by Christ: his poetic descriptions of the interplay of the divine and human aspects of this great mystery foreshadowed the theology and, to some extent, even the language of the great Christological definitions of the councils of the next century. In his life-long service to the Church as a deacon, Saint Ephrem was an example of fidelity to the liturgy, meditation on the mystery of Christ and charitable service to his brothers and sisters.

I am pleased to greet the English-speaking visitors present at today's Audience, especially those from Australia, Canada and the United States. I offer a special welcome to the students from the University of Sunbury, Melbourne; and to the students and staff of the University of Dallas, Texas. I also greet the members of the pilgrimage from the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City, led by their Archbishop. Upon all of you I cordially invoke an abundance of joy and peace in our Lord Jesus Christ.

[After greeting the pilgrims, he said in Italian:]

December marks World AIDS Day. I remain spiritually close to everyone suffering from this terrible sickness, and to their families, especially those who have lost a loved one. To everyone I give assurances of my prayers.

Furthermore, I wish to exhort all people of good will to increase their efforts to halt the spread of the HIV virus, to combat the disdain which is often directed towards people who are affected by it, and to care for the sick, especially those who are still children.

Copyright 2007 -- Libreria Editrice Vaticana



siervas_logo_color.jpg (14049 bytes)
Return to main page
This page is the work of the Servants of the Pierced Hearts of Jesus and Mary