Tuesday, January 26, 2010

St Ephraim the Syrian
St Ephraim was born in the city of Nisibis (today's Nusaybin in southeastern Turkey) in 306, just as the Great Persecution of Roman Emperor Diocletian was coming to an end. It is thought that he was born into a Christian family. He was later baptized, ordained deacon and appointed as a teacher by the first Bishop of Nisibis, St Jacob.
As a teacher, St Ephraim took up the responsibility of passing on the Orthodox faith in a society where pagan religions, Judaism and early
Christian sects vied with one another for adherents. He therefore set about writing Biblical commentaries, homilies and great numbers of hymns as a means of protecting the deposit of truth given to the Church. This one, for example, is written to refute the teaching of Bardesan, a Syrian who denied 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.

He called his hymns madrashe - that is, doctrinal hymns - and in the following prayer he compares himself to a herdsman, protecting Christ's flock in enclosures of madrashe.

O Lord, may the works of your herdsman not be negated. I will not then have troubled your sheep, but as far as I was able, I will have kept the wolves away from them, and I will have built, as far as I was capable, enclosures of hymns for the lambs of your flock. I will have made a disciple of the simple and unlearned man, and I will have given him a strong hold on the herdsman's staff, the healers' medicine, and the disputants' armour.

St Ephraim served under four bishops of Nisibis: Jacob, Babu, Vologeses, and Abraham. He wrote the following lines about the first three Bishops while Bishop Vologeses was still alive:

He Who created two great lights, chose for Himself these three Lights and set them in the three dark seasons of siege that have been.

St Ephraim did indeed live through "dark seasons of seige". On the death of the Emperor Constantine in 337, the Persian king, Sharpur II set out on a series of campaigns against the eastern borders of the empire, laying siege to Nisibis in 338, 346 and again in 350. On this last attempt, Shapur's engineers diverted the river to undermine the city walls, bringing them down. However, the invading cavalry of elephants became bogged down in the marshy waters and the Persians were beaten back.

He has saved us without wall, and taught us that He is our wall:

He has saved us without king and made us know that is our king:

He has saved us, in each and all, and showed us that He is All.

But peace didn't last. Thirteen years later, the emperor, Julian the Apostate, was killed in the aftermath of his disastrous campaign against the Persian capital. The new emperor, Jovian, was obliged to seek terms and Nisibis was ceded to Persia.

The repose of St Ephraim

St Ephraim formed part of a large group of refugees that left the city in 363 under the terms of the ceasefire. He came to Amida (modern-day Diyarbakιr) before settling in Edessa (Urfa). Here he lived out the last ten years of his life as a hermit, continuing his work of writing hymns, directing them at the many heresies and sects he found in the city.

When a famine threatened the city, it came to his attention that some were hoarding food while others were starving. St Ephraim responded by establishing a programme of food distribution, and it is a measure of the respect he commanded that he and his helpers were able to work with the wealthy to get food to the needy in the city and surrounding area.

Soon after his death, St. Ephraim was well-known across the empire as a defender of Orthodoxy and for the originality, imagery and poetic skill of his hymns. Some four hundred of his hymns still survive.

His feast day in the Orthodox Church is 28th January.