He Invaded Death’s Fortress

From “Sermon on Our Lord, 3-4, 9 (ca. 370)

Death could not devour our Lord unless he possessed a body, neither could hell swallow him up unless he bore our flesh; and so he came in search of a chariot in which to ride to the underworld. This chariot was the body which he received from the Virgin; in it he invaded death’s fortress, broke open its strongroom, and scattered all its treasure.

At length he came upon Eve, the mother of all the living. She was that vineyard whose enclosure her own hands and enable death to violate, so that she could taste its fruit; thus the mother of all the living became the source of death for every living creature. But in her stead Mary grew up, a new vine in place of the old. Christ, the new life, dwelt within her. When death, with its customary impudence, came foraging for her mortal fruit, it encountered its own destruction and the hidden life that fruit contained. All unsuspecting, it swallowed him up, and in so doing released life itself and set free a multitude.

He who was also the carpenter’s glorious son set up his cross above death’s all-consuming jaws, and led the human race into the dwelling place of life. Since the tree had brought about the downfall of humankind, it was upon a tree that humankind crossed over to the realm of life. Bitter was the branch that had once been grafted upon that ancient tree, but sweet the young shoot that has now been grafted in, the shoot in which we are meant to recognize the Lord whom no creature can resist.

We give glory to you, Lord, who raised up your cross to spam the jaws of death like a bridge by which souls might pass from the region of the dead to the land of the living. We give glory to you will put on the body of a single mortal and made of the source of life for every other mortal. You are incontestability alive. Your murderers sowed your living body in the earth as farmers sow grain, but it sprang up and yielded an abundant harvest of people raised from the dead.

St. Ephrem of Edessa (ca. 306-373) was a deacon and theologian, one of the great hymnwriters of the ancient church, widely considered the most influential of the Syriac church fathers. He wrote numerous commentaries, sermons, and founded the School of Nisibis, the great intellectual center of the Syriac Church, and later set up a school in Edessa. He died while caring for victims of the plague there. His feast day is June 9 or 10 in the West, January 28 on the Byzantine calendar, and the 7th Saturday before Easter in the Syrian Orthodox Church.


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