One of the church book clubs I currently try to keep up with met recently to discuss our current selection, Christ the Conqueror of Hell: The Descent into Hades from an Orthodox Perspective, by Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev. It is an impressive compendium of material on the subject from Scripture, patristic tradition, and early Christian liturgical texts and poetry. I was intrigued by the section on liturgical poetry from the 4th-6th centuries, especially the verses of St. Ephraim (or Ephrem) the Syrian.
While St. Romanos the Melodist, who lived in the 6th century, is considered by most to be the preeminent poet of the Byzantine period, he “was familiar with Ephrem’s works and drew from them. He learned from Ephrem’s poetical artistry as well as from his handling of particular literary plots and theological themes.”
The author of Conqueror explains how Ephraim and the Syrian tradition differed from that of the Greek fathers and their Ecumenical Councils. While he also formulated dogmatic teaching for his flock, he “clothed theological truths not in the armor of precise dogmatic definitions but with the bright garments of poetic symbols and metaphors …. to theologize for Ephrem meant to glorify God rather than talk about or reflect upon God. He believed the truths of Christianity should not only be comprehended, reflected upon, defined, and established but also experienced by the faithful through prayer. This same avenue was followed by most of the writers of the liturgical texts in the tradition of the Orthodox Church.”
The subject matter of Christ the Conqueror of Hell is especially appropriate for Holy Saturday and Pascha, and maybe I will post some of the liturgical poetry in that season; at this time I wanted to mention the part about Saint Ephraim because January 28th is the day we commemorate this poet and theologian. I found an enjoyable historical video about his life, using the title that has been given to him: “The Harp of the Holy Spirit.”
You may be familiar with his Lenten Prayer we use daily during the Great Fast; also, hymns and meditations of St. Ephraim were collected by St. Theophan the Recluse into A Spiritual Psalter. I have this on my shelf and could stand to spend some time perusing it, especially after reading today’s entry in The Prologue of Ohrid, where there is a hymn to Ephraim by St. Nikolai opening with the words,
Ephraim’s heart burns
With love for Christ,
And Ephraim’s tongue speaks
Of the pure wisdom of the Gospel.
Ephraim, the honey-bearing bee;
Ephraim, the fruit-bearing rain!
Just as God sends the bees and the rain to work for our joy and profit, so He sends people like this man. Let me keep that image of a buzzing and busy bee in my mind a while; let me drink holy nectar and refresh others the way God uses His creatures and creation to constantly renew my spirit.
And for today, one morsel of honey from this holy bee:
The chutzpah of our love is pleasing to you, O Lord,
just as it pleased you that we should steal from your bounty.
-Saint Ephraim the Syrian