Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Mar Ephraim

Fr Jose Thomas Poovathumkal
Mar Ephraim of Nisibis (St. Ephraim the Syrian), called “the harp of the Holy Spirit,” is the great leader of the Syrian ascetic tradition. He was a spiritual poet, theologian and teacher.

Mar Ephraim was born in or around Nisibis (Mesopotomia), a city in the ancient Roman Empire, in about AD 306. His father was the priest of god Apollo. The boy Ephraim was driven away from home when his father knew that the boy was in touch with Christians. He went to Jacob, the bishop of Nisibis, who baptized him and brought him up. He showed great interest in the study of theological books and in doing kind deeds. He was ordained to the deaconate before the year 338 AD, and remained all his life a deacon.

He was appointed the principal teacher of Nisibis School. He accepted the hard and strict life style of a monk while working as a teacher there. Then he lived a solitary life. He shone as an ideal model of a monk. He ate simple food and wore simple clothes. Though living alone, he was concerned about the problems of the society around him and tried to solve them. He was gifted with elegant language, brilliant imagination, and fine tune in music, spiritual vigour and singular analytical power of a theologian. As a result, he produced many beautiful literary works.

The attack by Persians and immigration to Eddesa (Urhay) were two important incidents in Mar Ephraim’s life. The people of Nisbis prayed, under the leadership of Mar Ephraim, when the Persians prepared to attack Nisibis for the first time. Miraculously the Persians retreated. However, Nisibis was ceded to the Persians and became a part of the Sassanide Empire in AD 367. Then the people of Nisibis immigrated to Eddesa, about 100 miles west of Nisibis in the Eastern Roman Empire, and settled there. St. Ephraim gave them leadership in their long journey and in their settling down there. He also shifted his school from Nisibis to Edesa, the famous School of Persians. There he confronted the heresies of Marcion, Bardaisan, Arius, Eunomius and the Anomeans, the Manichaeans and many others.

Mar Ephraim was living alone in his old age in a cage outside the city of Edessa. Suddenly famine and epidemic broke out in the city. St. Ephraim came out of the cave and gave active leadership to the relief measures. He was nearing his death when he gave the following message to his disciples, “Don’t make any speeches praising me, don’t sing any songs extolling me, don’t arrange any pompous burial, don’t make memorials for me, don’t keep my remains. I am a sinner.” Mar Ephraim died at Edessa in 373.

Literary contributions of Mar Ephraim
His voluminous exegetical, dogmatic, controversial, and ascetical writings are mainly in verse. They include cycles of hymns on great feasts of the Church, on the Last Things and refutations of heretics. He wrote exclusively in Syriac, but his works were translated into Armenian and Greek at an early date.

Exegetical works are in prose and are excellent in their exposition. There are extant commentaries on Genesis and Exodus and there is a beautiful Armenian version of treatise on the Diatheserone of Tatian, Acts of Apostles and the Epistles of St. Paul.

Dogmatic works (Hymns against heresies or Madrose d-luqbal yulpane) are polemical against Mani, Bardaison, Marcion, etc.

Hymns and homilies are many. The main hymns are On Faith, against heresies, Hymns of the Epiphany (Madrose d-denha), On Virginity (Madrose d-‘al btuluta), On the Church, On Paradise, On Crucifixion, On Resurrection, etc. His Nisibene Hymns (Madrose da- Nsibaye), seventy-seven in number, is very famous and it praises St.Mary. He loves to sing her virginity, her divine maternity and her holiness. His homilies (Memre) On faith and On our Lord are very famous. His poems and homilies are doctrinal, moral, polemical and liturgical.

The main teachings of Mar Ephraim
Mar Ephraim wrote in Syriac many valuable works of prose and verse about the Bible, theology and about the life of monks. He explains the theological matters with the sweetness of music in his hymns. For example,

“In the womb of Mary the Infant was formed,
Who from eternity is equal to the Father.
He imparted to us His greatness,
And took on our infirmity.
He became mortal like us and joined his life to ours,
So that we might die no more.”
(Song of Praise 1, 12)

He says that, the humanity and the Divinity were intimately united in Jesus Christ. The Divine nature of the Word was ineffably united to all the parts of the soul and body. Even though, the Incarnation was an entry into the limitation of humanity, the Divine nature remains unchanged. Christ is a unity of God-man. Mar Ephraim’s soteriology is very profound and it confirms that God tasted death for all in His own flesh. The salvation is perfect due to the richness of the suffering and sacrifice of Christ our Lord.

Hymn of Mar Ephraim

Fr Jose Thomas Poovathumkal

1. Lord have mercy upon us
Kindly accept our prayers
Grant us mercy, redemption
From Thy treasury above.

Notes: We can see repentance as a major theme in the writings of Mar Ephraim. Through his hymns Mar Ephraim seeks mercy and forgiveness from God. The last word of St. Ephraim was “I am a sinner.” We are sinners and weak. We cannot exist without the help of God. This idea is firmly supported by the Holy Bible. For example, the parable of tax collector gives the importance of repentance. We read in Luke 8:13, “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, `God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Here, like King David, Mar Ephraim cries “Answer me when I call to you, O my righteous God. Give me relief from my distress; be merciful to me and hear my prayer” (Ps.4:1; 17:1; 64:1; 65:2; 86:6). We are in a struggle with the power of evils in this world. Only the grace of God can help us from evils. So Mar Ephraim invokes the attention of God for the help. It is also the faith of the children of God that God hears the prayers of His children and open His abundant treasure and showers all blessings. We can see this conviction in three youngsters, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah. They proclaimed, “the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, O king” (Dan.3:17).

2. Let me Lord, before Thee stand,
Wakeful my watch I'd keep,
Should I fall to slumber's hand,
Guard me from my sinful sleep.

Note: “In the morning, O Lord, you hear my voice; in the morning I lay my requests before you and wait in expectation” (Ps.5:3). Here, Mar Ephraim, like David, requests the help of God to stand in front of God in the morning. Without the inspiration of Holy Spirit we cannot pray.

3. If I do wrong while awake
Mercifully absolve me;
If I err in my sleep
In mercy, grant redemption.

Note: Mar Ephraim asks for an assessment and requests for a sinless and a peaceful night. “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Ps. 139:23-24;17:3; 18:23). David’s claim of innocence in support of the rightness of his case. He is not guilty of the ungodly ways of his attackers – let God examine him (cf. 139:23-24). “Examine me, see the integrity of my devotion and keep me true.”

4. By Thy cross + of submission
Grant me, Lord, a restful sleep,
Forbid vain and evil dreams
O my Lord, from Thy servant.

Note: “I will lie down and sleep in peace, for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety” (Ps. 4:8). Here Mar Ephraim reflects David’s confidence and Solomon’s assurance “when you lie down, you will not be afraid; when you lie down, your sleep will be sweet” (Prov.3: 24). Jesus Christ, the Lord defeated evil and his companions through cross and delivered us from anxiety and terror. Cross is the symbol of victory over evilness. It will protect us from fear and terror.

5. Through the night conduct me, Lord,
Peaceful sleep give Thou to me,
Wroth and foul thoughts O Lord
May not govern me at all.

Note: Here we can see David’s sense of security. “I lie down and sleep; I wake again, because the Lord sustains me” (Ps.3:5). “Keep me as the apple of your eye; hide me in the shadow of your wings” (Ps.17:8). “Apple of eye” is a conventional Hebrew metaphor for protection against oppression--as shade protects from the oppressive heat of the hot desert sun. Kings were spoken of as the “shade” of those dependent on them for protection (as in Num 14:9, “protection”--lit. “shade”; Lam. 4:20; Ezek. 31:6,12,17). Similarly, the Lord is the protective “shade” of his people (see 91:1; 121:5; Isa 25:4; 49:2; 51:16).

6. O Lord, Thy servant I am
Guard my body while I sleep
Keep Thy bright angel's guard
O my Lord, by my side.

Note: Like the three young men in Babylon (Dan.3:28), Mar Ephraim requests the help of heavenly hosts for the protection. “See, I am sending an angel ahead of you to guard you along the way and to bring you to the place I have prepared” (Ex.23: 20). “… when we cried out to the Lord, He heard our cry and sent an angel and brought us out of Egypt” (Num.20: 16). The line speaks of the security with which the Lord surrounds his people, individually and collectively; “The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him, and he delivers them” (Ps.34:7).

7. Christ Thy life-abiding
Holy body that I ate
Keep away from my heart
Evil desires that destroy.

Note: Jesus Christ, the bread of life (Jn.6: 35) indwells in us through the Holy Communion. Therefore, we indwell in Christ and Christ indwells in us (Jn. 15:1-7). The presence of Christ keeps us from all wickedness. The purifying fire, the Holy Blood and Body of Christ, cleanse us from all impurities and lead us to the process of divinization. We will be clothed with the robe of Glory.

8. While I sleep in this night
May Thy holy blood guard me
Be Thou always redeemer
For I am Th-ine image.

Note: Jesus Christ, God the Son and the Lord, is not only the creator but also the sustainer and protector. The idea of God’s providence or the sense of the divine concern and care is affirmed in the Holy Bible (Ps 23, Matt 6:25-34, 10:29, Rom 8:28-29). As well as God is the Creator; He is the protector of the creation. Providence of God becomes manifest in the protection and preservation that He extends to the created. As the crown of creation humanity has responsibility of participating in the divine economy of protecting the creation. “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Gn. 1:27).
9. Thy hand shaped me, O Lord
Shadow me with Thy right hand,
Let Thy mercy be a fortress
Shielding me-all around.

Note: “The Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being” (Gn. 2:7). “…the Lord God made a woman…” (Gn.2:22). “Keep me safe, O God, for in you I take refuge” (Ps.16:1). Prov. 3:22-24. “You are my hiding place; you will protect me from trouble and surround me with songs of deliverance” (Ps.32:7). “Hear me, O God, as I voice my complaint; protect my life from the threat of the enemy (Ps.64:1). “Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name (Jn.17:11). “Show the wonder of your great love, you who save by your right hand
those who take refuge in you from their foes (Ps.17:7). “My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me (Ps.63:8).

10. While my body silent lies,
May Thy power keep vigil;
Let my sleep in Thy presence
Be like the rising incense.

Note: Mar Ephraim requests the protection of God in the night. God the Almighty (El-Shaddai) protected Daniel in the night when he was thrown into the den of Lions (Dan.6:16, 22). Yahweh, the Lord, protected the people of Israel in the day and night (Ex.40:38). We are the new Israel, a holy nation and God’s own people (1 Pet.2: 9) and an extended family household. The Lord of Israel will neither slumber nor sleep (Ps.121: 4). He is the Lord of all creation and the guardian over new Israel – the One in whom the faithful may put unfaltering trust. We read in Rom. 12: 1, “Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God--this is your spiritual act of worship.” Our life should be a living sacrifice to God. God Who pleased in the offerings of Patriarchs should accept our spiritual as a burnt offering and bless us. If we stay in front of God day and night blameless, it will be accepted as a pleasing odour (Gen. 8:21). Our spiritual life should be lifted up to heaven like the smoke of incense.

11. Thy mother who did bear Thee
By her prayers for me Lord
Let not evil touch my bed,
While I slumber in this night.

Note: Mar Ephraim always gives importance to Holy Virgin Mary in his hymns. In Mar Ephraim’s thought the Virgin Mary is seen very much as a model for the ideal pattern of relationship between human individual and God. She fulfills the potential that Eve failed to achieve. He wrote, “Mary has given us the Bread of rest in place of that bread of toil which Eve provided” (Unleavened Bread 6:7). She submitted herself to God and obeyed the commandment of Lord (Lk.1:38). She was willing to bear God the Son for the goodness of humanity. She conceived God the Son and gave birth (2:7). Mar Ephraim requests the intercession of this Virgin Mary, because, Christ, the Lord and God will accept the appeal of His mother as in the wedding ceremony at Cana. His eyes always upon the righteous and ears open to the cries of virtuous (Ps.34:15, 17).

12. By Thy pleasing sacrifice
That absolved me from my distress
Forbid from me the wicked one
That keeps troubling me.
Note: Mar Ephraim sees the redemptive work of Christ as a merciful deliverance from the terrible consequences of Adam’s disobedience. By His death and resurrection Christ delivers us from the consequences of first man’s disobedience. He has suffered on behalf of us. St. John depicts Christ as the atoning sacrifice (1 Jn.2:2). So we see in the cross, the perfect sacrifice or voluntary self-offering of self-loving compassion, which delivers us from all misery. Hence, Mar Ephraim demands the compassion of Christ for the protection from wicked forever.

13. By Thy kindness O my Lord
Thy promise in me fulfilled
By Thy Holy Cross + O Lord
Protect my life perfect.

Note: The greatest promise of God is salvation, which is enacted through His Son. This promise was first given in the proto-evangelium (Gen 3:15) and was repeated in the history (Gn.12:2, 7; 2 Sam 7:12-13, 28; Isa 2:2-5; 4:2; 55:5). In the New Testament all these promises are regarded as having their fulfillment in Christ (2 Cor 1:20; Eph 3:6). Church is the extension of this fulfillment. It can be seen in the New Testament books – event of Pentecost, succession of Kingdom of God (James 2:5), Eternal life (1 Tim 4:8), and Christ's coming (2 Peter 3:9). Being the member of the Church, the Body of Christ, we inherit these promises. That is, these promises have fulfilled in us (1 Pet.2:9-10). We bear the marks of Jesus Christ (Gal.6: 17) as the symbol of this inheritance and fulfillment. The term “aakal karusa” stands for satan. It is derived from the syriac “okal karuso” means “flesh eater.” That is, satan eats or destroys the life of man. Hence, Mar Ephraim requests on behalf of this mark (cross) for protection from Evil.

14.Thou who pleased in me
Feeble and sinful servant I am
May I praise Thy mercy,
When I wake up from my sleep.

Note: In his epistle to Romans, St. Paul describes the depth of God’s love. “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom.5:8). Mar Ephraim commemorate this mercy and everlasting love, and express his desire to praise God like the Psalmist. “In the morning, O Lord, you hear my voice; in the morning I lay my requests before you and wait in expectation” (Ps. 5:3).

15. May Thy servant know Thy will
In Thy true loving kindness
Grant me O Lord Thy mercy
So that I may walk with Thee.

Note: Here Mar Ephraim asks the grace of God to walk in His way according to the will of God, because man is expected to live with God. But his deeds create a gap between God and man. But the everlasting atoning sacrifice of the Son reestablishes this communion. Man has the responsibility to keep this reestablished communion with God. Therefore, we do have the task of drawing all men into this fellowship where the Spirit is building up the community of eternity. This community is the worshipping community, standing before God, in Christ, by the Holy Spirit, living in the triumph of the Risen Lord, in the expectant hope of the full manifestation of God’s righteousness beyond history.

16. Jesus Christ, O my Lord
Grant to us Thy servants
An evening filled with peace
And a night of graceful sleep.
Note: Here, Mar Ephraim requests a blissful evening filled with peace and a night of graceful sleep, because, Jesus Christ can provide an everlasting peace to us. His resurrection provides eternal peace to us. It is the liberation from all terror and fear. “He guided them with the cloud by day and with light from the fire all night” (Ps.78:14). “

17. True light Thou art O Lord
Praise we Thy bright glory
We children of Thy light
Praise Thee for ever more.

Note: Jesus Christ is the true light (Jn.9:1) and the light of the world (Jn.8:12). He who follows Jesus Christ, God the Son, shall not walk in darkness, because God is light and in Him is no darkness at all (1Jn.1:5). Being the children of this light (1Thess.5:5), we praise the true light forever.

18. O savior of mankind
Thy servants praise Thy mercy
As we do in this world
May it be in heaven above.

Note: We praise you, the redeemer of humanity (Ps.138:2; Heb.13:15). Make your servants worthy to offer glory and praise in this world and in the coming world.

19. Praise to Thee, O my Lord
Praise to Thee, O my savior
Praise a thousand thousand fold
Praise we Thou O Jesus Christ.

Note: “Praise” is a general term for words or deeds that exalt or God. Some of the Hebrew and Greek words mean “thanksgiving,” “blessing,” or “glory,” and are often so translated (2 Chr. 7:3, 6; Luke 1:64; John 9:24). “Arete” (virtue) is translated “praises,” or “excellencies,” in 1 Peter 2:9. We are to be the praise of God’s glory (Eph. 1:6, 12, 14). Praise fills the Book of Psalms, increasing in intensity toward the end (Pss 145-150). Psalms 113-118 are called the Hallel, the praises. Praise for redemption dominates the New Testament (Luke 2:13-14; Rev 19:5-7). Here, like David, Mar Ephraim expresses his gratitude towards God through praising. God is alone worthy of worship. So he offer unlimited praise to Jesus Christ, the Lord and God. It is our responsibility to praise God.

20. Thou who does receive our prayers
Thou who grants supplications
Heed Thy servants' prayers
Kindly grant our petitions.

Note: Mar Ephraim concludes his hymn by asking grace upon grace and mercy, because, Jesus Christ will hear the prayers and supplication of humankind. He will shower limitless blessings from His abundant love and mercy. Bertimaeus, the blind, the woman from Syro-Phoenicea, the Centurian, possessed man, the woman with hemorrhage, etc., are examples for His mercy. Jesus Christ never close His eyes to the cry of the weak and needy.