The Syriac preacher in song. It is doubtful whether he could even speak Greek, yet he deserves an honorable place among the Greek fathers, as having had his works translated into Greek during his lifetime, and as being so revered throughout the entire East that his books were read in many of the churches after the Scriptures. He was a deacon of the church at Edessa, was born in the reign of Diocletian, and died A. D. 373. He lived ascetically in the retirement of a cell, though he constantly came forth to preach. Once only he broke away from this quiet life and made a long journey to visit Basil at Caesarea. The Oriental poet is seen in his meeting with this bishop. He had arrived in Basil's church while the latter was preaching. After the sermon Basil met him and asked if he were not "that servant of Jesus Christ, Ephraem." "I am that Ephraim, very far from the way of heaven," said he. Then bursting into tears, and raising his voice, he cried, "O my Father, have pity on a miserable sinner and deign to lead him into the true way! " Basil, embracing him, asked why he had thus praised him with a loud voice. "Because," said Ephraem, "I saw over your right shoulder a dove of spotless white, which seemed to be suggesting to you what you were saying to the people." Ephraem's is the chief name connected with the somewhat abundant literature of the Syrian Church. These writings are for the most part in metrical form. Ephraem, noting the influence which the Gnostic Bardesanes had exercised over the people, by putting his doctrine into hymns and odes, sought to give currency to the truth by the same means. "The blessed Ephraem," says his biographer, "seeing that all men were led by music, rose up and opposed the profane games and noisy dances of the young people, and established the 'daughters of the convent,' and taught them odes, and scales, and responses, and conveyed in the odes intelligent sentiments in a sententious form, and things of spiritual wisdom." He not only composed and taught such odes and hymns, but he wrote and preached his homilies in a metrical form, not unlike that of the Old Testament prophecies. His work was prolific. Besides commentaries on much of the Bible, written in prose, we have of his some two hundred metrical discourses, as well as numerous hymns and briefer homilies.
The following selections from these works were translated from the Syriac of the Vatican edition by the Rev. J. B. Morris and the Rev. Henry Burgess, who have given considerable portions of the hymns and homilies to English readers. The first, "On speaking of the Divine Mysteries," is from one of eighty-six homilies Against Captious Questioners the second, from one of three homilies of a similar character Concerning the Faith. "The Repentance of Nineveh," in reality an epic poem, appears in the Syriac works as one of a collection of eleven discourses on separate texts of Scripture, all of which were doubtless delivered by the author. "On the Death of Children" is from a collection of eighty-five Canones Funebres, or pieces relating to death. The "Prayer" is one of seventy-six hymns or brief homilies known as the Parenetica or Exhortations to Penitence. Among the most beautiful of Ephraem's compositions are seven homilies forming a complete work known as The Pearl. In addition to the above may be noted thirteen discourses On the Birth of Christ and fifty-six discourses Against Heresies.
AD CLERUM: ON SPEAKING OF The DIVINE MYSTERIES.
Speak on, harp, for silence is thine enemy; speak thou whatsoever is to be spoken, for whatsoever we haye no right to speak, if it be spoken to the righteous it will be blasphemy. Unto the unbelievers is he nigh akin that dares to pry; oh the very edge of death the rash standeth, in that he hath left the faith in his disputation to go down and search into the ocean of hidden things.
...Set thy soul then in tune, and sing without discord. Purify thy strains and sing unto us, but not of hidden things. Be a disciple to all the things revealed, speak fair things which are free of danger; weigh out, then, thy words, sounds which may not be blamed; weigh also and sing strains that can not be reproved, and let thy song be, my son, comfort to the servants of thy Lord, and then shall thy Lord reward thee.
Do not, therefore, sing things hurtful to mankind, neither divide, by thy disputation, brethren at unity together; put not a sword, which this questioning is, among the simple that believe in sincerity. Sing not thou unto God perversely in the stead of praise, lest thou forget and sing iniquity. Sing like David to David's Son, and call him Lord and Son as David did....Make ye then disciples, and baptize in the three names, that is, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. For the name of the Son could not have come before the name of the Father, that there might not be confusion. But how and why this is so is encompassed in silence. Far off from that silence, without it, be thou speaking of his praise. Let not thy tongue be a bridge for sounds which letteth all words pass across it. Praise do thou send up to Him, as the tithing of thy strains. A wave-sheaf of words offer unto Him from thine imagination, hymns also as first-fruits, and send up clustered hymns thy tongue hath culled. From Rhythm 23, Against Captious Questioners.
MAN CAN NOT COMPREHEND THE DUST, MUCH LESS GOD.
Whither wilt thou mount, feeble man? Thou dust that art flung upon dust, let thy conversation be in the dust! Even the dust which is beneath thee is above thee, to search into. If that beneath be too high for thee, how wilt thou attain to Him who is above? If the small dust thy kinsman, from which thou art, is yet hidden from thee, how wilt thou search out the Majesty too high for any to search out?
That dust is in appearance one: it is little and yet great upon searching into it. The dust is one and yet not one, since in its severally it is manifold. One mean bosom generates tastes that can not be numbered; one little treasury sendeth forth ornaments that can not be reckoned....How much can vile dust do which giveth to each of them its increase? To the fruits it giveth their tastes, and with their tastes their colors; to the flowers it giveth their odors, and with their odors their ornaments; flavors it giveth to the fruits, and to the roots aromas; it giveth beauty to the blossoms, the flowers it clothes with adornment. It is the seed's handicraftsman, it bringeth up the wheat in the ears; the stem is strengthened with knots as a building with bond-timbers, that it may sustain and bear up the fruit, and hold out against the winds....If the dust thou tramplest perplexeth thee in thy search into it, how wilt thou search out the Majesty of Him who with contemptible things maketh thee perplexed? From Homily, Concerning the Faith.
The REPENTANCE OF NINEVEH.
The argument of the earlier part is summarized in the opening lines:
"The just man Jonah opened his mouth;
Nineveh listened and was troubled."
For at the preaching of the prophet the city was moved to repentance, the king setting the example to his subjects. We recognize quickly the tender author of the Canones Funebres in his description of
"The gentle wailing of the little ones,"
and the vain efforts of the parents to assume a cheerfulness which they can not feel, Abraham's assurances to Isaac being used as an illustration. The king, convoking his armies, addresses them:
"Asshur has roared against the world,
But the voice of Jonah roars against her.
Behold! the voice of Nimrod the mighty one
Is altogether brought low."
He urges them, though they can not now conquer in their wonted manner, to take to themselves hidden weapons, prayer and repentance, which will not be spurned by the righteous God. He tells them how he has tried to shake the prophet:
"I flattered him, but he was not enticed,
I sought to terrify him, but he trembled not;
I showed him riches, but he laughed at them,
A sword also, but he altogether despised it."
"In battles ye have conquered kings,
Now conquer Satan by prayer."
The people thus repenting, Jonah is filled with wonder, and compares them with the obdurate Israelites. Meantime, through all the forty days, the earth has not ceased to quake, and the signs of their doom have convinced all hearts. The dreaded day comes:
"Each man grasped the dust,
And called louder upon God,
. . . .
The sackcloth walls shed tears
. . . .
The air itself was affrighted
And the heaven trembled
The cloud and thick darkness enveloped it.
. . . .
The thunder met its fellows,
And lightnings pressed on lightnings.
Each man beheld the earth
With consternation and commotion of heart,
For he thought it was near to ruin.
Each man called to his companion
That he might see him and be satisfied with his presence;
That his speech might end with his,
And they might descend together to the grave."
But evening came, and twilight, and night. "In the morning it would come," they said; but morning came, and
"At the moment when hope was cut off
The good news of mercy was afforded."
The earthquake suddenly ceased, and the people knew themselves saved. In their joy they flock forth from the city to Jonah, whom they find brooding in prophetic spirit, and speaking to himself in two persons:
"That of God and that of the prophet."
Hearing the colloquy about the gourd, the people shout their praises to God. They also seize with affection upon Jonah, whom they bear in triumph into the city. He is loaded with presents, and the king causes him to be conducted back to his own country in royal state.
Jonah will not allow the cortege to enter the Hebrew cities, lest the Ninevites see the corruption which there abounds; but they see from the hilltops the evidences of idolatry and crime, and are filled with horror.
Returning home, they call upon all classes of their countrymen to hymn praises to God for their own deliverance.
Ephraem concludes with a comparison of the repentance of the Ninevites with that of his hearers, which he calls but a shadow, and with the ascription
"Blessed be He who loves the righteous,
Who multiplied penitents in Asshur."
Sermones Exegetici. On Jonah, 3:2, 3.
ON The DEATH OF CHILDREN.
Let the little children be pledges with Thee,
And above, in heaven, let them be thy guests;
Let them be intercessors for all of us,
For pure is the prayer of childhood.
Blessed is He who entertains them in his pavilion.
Our Saviour took children in his arms,
And blessed them before the multitude,
And showed that He loved childhood,
Because it is pure and free from defilement.
Blessed is He who makes them dwell in his tabernacle.
The Just One saw that iniquity increased on earth,
And that sin had dominion over all men,
And sent his messenger and removed
A multitude of fair little ones,
And called them to the pavilion of happiness.
Like lilies taken from the wilderness,
Children are planted in paradise;
And like pearls in diadems
Children are inserted in the kingdom,
And without ceasing shall hymn forth praise.
Who will not rejoice at seeing
Children taken to the heavenly pavilion?
Who will weep for childhood
That has fled from the snares of sin?
Lord! make me happy with them in thy habitation.
Glory be to Him who hath taken away
The little ones, and made them meet for paradise;
Glory be to Him who hath removed children
And placed them in a garden of pleasure!
Lo! they are happy there without danger.
From Necrosima, Canon 43.
A PRAYER IN PROSPECT OF JUDGMENT.
Before my offenses
Are brought against me
At the tribunal of justice,
And cause me to stand
In the presence of the Judge,
With confusion of face
Have mercy on me, O Lord, for
Thou art abundant in mercy.
Before thou shalt close
Thy door against me,
Thou Son of God,
And I become Food for the fire
Which dieth not in hell
Have mercy on me, etc.
Before the wheel of time
Shall run its course
Above the well,
And the pitcher Of all tribes of men
Be broken at the fountain
Have mercy on me, etc.
Before those who have made
A vain profession
Shall cry, "Lord! Lord! "
And Thou answerest them,
"I know you not,
Who ye are"
Have mercy on me, etc.
Before the voice of the trumpet
Shall shout aloud
To announce thy coming;
O Lord Jesus,
Have pity on thy servants
Who pray earnestly to thee
Have mercy on me, etc.
From Parcenesis, 32.
The PEARL: CONCERNING FAITH.
Once on a time
I took up, my brothers,
A precious pearl;
I saw in it mysteries
Relating to the kingdom;
Images and types
Of the high Majesty.
It became a fountain,
And I drank from it
The mysterious things of the Son.
. . . .
Men who had put off their clothing
Dived and drew thee forth,
A precious pearl!
It was not kings
Who first presented thee
To the children of men;
But the mystically naked,
Even men who were poor,
And fishermen in occupation,
And natives of Galilee.
For bodies which are clothed
Have not the power
To come near to thee;
But those which are destitute of raiment,
Like little children.
They buried their bodies in the sea,
And descended to thy side.
And thou didst receive them kindly,
And didst intrust thyself to them
Who so much loved thee.
From Homilies 1 and 5.
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