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Ephrem the Syrian: Poet Theologian of the Nativity

By David Ney

It is no longer acceptable to talk of two dominant streams of ancient Christianity, Latin and Greek. We must now leave behind our Eurocentrism and speak of Latin, Greek, and Syriac Christianity. The Syriac Patriarch of the East’s episcopal oversight extended not only to the Indian Ocean, but all the way to the Pacific! to China, and possibly even to Mongolia and Japan. And if we are to believe Philip Jenkins, the Syriac geographic center of Ancient Christianity was also the center of population almost until the High Middle Ages.

Thanks to scholar Sebastian Brock and those who have followed him, the great monuments of the Syriac tradition are now being translated in English. The first order of business for Brock was to expose Westerners to the “lyre of the Spirit,” the pre-eminent poet-theologian of the early Church, Ephrem the Syrian.

Ephrem was a contemporary of Basil the Great. He was probably born in the first decade of the fourth century and died on June 9, 373. Ephrem was probably raised by Christian parents in Nisibis, on the border of Turkey and Syria. He served as a deacon and catechetical teacher in the local church under the leadership of four remarkable bishops. After the emperor Julian the Apostate fell in his disastrous Mesopotamian campaign, Nisibis was ceded to the Persians, and its Christian population, including Ephrem, was exiled 100 miles west to Edessa, within Roman lands. There was a famine in Edessa shortly before Ephrem’s death and he led the relief of the poor in the city as Basil was doing around the same time. Tradition has it that Ephrem succumbed to the plague as he ministered to its victims.

Ephrem wrote polemical works and commentaries on the Bible, rhythmic prose, and gave homilies. His fame, however, rests upon his poems. Many of his poems were set to Syriac folk tunes and performed by all-female choirs. Among these hymns are 28 hymns on the Nativity and 52 hymns on the “Symbols of our Lord.” Ephrem’s creative endeavors were catechetically driven, and he had in mind both the intellectual and spiritual formation of his students when he wrote his hymns. One of his primary goals was to help Christians enter into the mystery of the Nativity of our Lord. For Ephrem, it is in and through the Nativity that God’s presence is to be found, in faith, in and through created things, and thus explored in and through them.

As a poet, Ephrem never tires of exploring the mystery of the Nativity; he never quite seems to get to the bottom of it. Poetry is thus the logical choice for his reflections. One definition of poetry is “elevated speech.” The poet feels the weight of having to describe the indescribable, and so puts on an accent. The poet talks intentionally, precisely, to try to get to the bottom of things. He or she may even begin to play with language, knowing full well that what needs to be said cannot fully be expressed.

Ephrem is at once both theologian and poet. He chooses to be a poet-theologian because he believes it is potentially dangerous to use propositions to define God; they easily have a deadening and fossilizing effect on the subject of enquiry. For Ephrem, Arianism was a case in point. Arius located the Father’s generation of the Son within time, and thus located the Son within creation. In consequence, the Son is subject to rational definition. Ephrem believed this was a double blasphemy. For Ephrem, poetry was thus polemic. It was his defiant opposition to Arian rationalism.

Propositions about God run the risk of being blasphemous because they easily reduce God to human definitions. Poetry is far less likely to fall into this trap, because of its inherent acknowledgement that the subject matter, in this case the God who became flesh, lies beyond human attempts at description.

As poet, Ephrem spoke about God using paradoxes. Paradoxes use two statements to capture what one statement cannot. The simple example Brock highlights is one of Ephrem’s favorite ways to speak of the Nativity: for Ephrem, the Nativity is the paradox of “the Great One who became small.” You can almost see Ephrem pacing back and forth as he wrestles with words: “the One who became small. No. No. No. That’s not quite right. The Great One. No. That’s not right either. I know! The Great One who became small.”

It could be argued that this is a proposition, one which might follow a question in a catechism: Who is Jesus Christ? He is the Great One who became small. Ephrem didn’t deny that propositions, such as those enumerated in the Faith of Nicaea, describe God more or less accurately. But like the Great Cappadocians, he also insisted that statements about God must always be accompanied by other statements about God. Christians do theology in the gaps that their statements both engage and create. Ephrem thus addresses and describes his Lord by means of paradox:

Your mother is a cause for wonder: the Lord entered her

and became a servant; He who is the Word entered

—and became silent within her; thunder entered her

—and made no sound; there entered the Shepherd of all,

and in her he became the Lamb, bleating as he came forth.

Your mother’s womb has reversed the roles:

the Establisher of all entered in His richness,

but came forth poor; the Exalted One entered her,

but came forth meek; the Splendrous One entered her,

but came forth having put on a lowly hue.

The Mighty One entered, and put on insecurity

from her womb; the Provisioner of all entered

—and experienced hunger; He who gives drink to all entered

—and experienced thirst: naked and stripped

there came forth from her He who clothes all (Hymn on the Nativity 11:6-8).

Poetry is Ephrem’s means of engaging the paradox of the Nativity, as the mystery of the Great One who became small. For Ephrem, the Nativity reveals the hidden God and yet it does not change who this God is. It does not obliterate God’s hiddenness; it is the paradox of the revelation the hidden God.

Who, Lord can gaze on Your hiddenness which has come to revelation? Yes Your obscurity has come to manifestation and notification; Your concealed being has come out into the open, without limitation. Your awesome self has come to the hands of those who seized You. All this has happened to You, Lord, because You became a human being. Praises to Him who sent You. Yet who will not fear because, even though Your Epiphany is revealed and so too Your human birth, your birth from the Father remains unattainable: it has baffled all those who investigate it (Hymn on Faith 51:2-3).

This, I think, is something Christians in the West would do well to consider. On the ground, the meaning of Christmas today often seems to be that before, God was obscure, but now we have him figured out! Ephrem challenges us head on.

For Ephrem, God’s identity as both revealed and concealed has everything to do with the nature of the Scriptures. The Scriptures both reveal and conceal the God who became flesh. When we talk as if we have God figured out, we violate the ordering and intent of the Scriptures. For Ephrem, Christians engage the Scriptures to enter into the mystery of the Great One who became small. It is only once they have drunk deeply of its fountain that they can appropriately engage in the paradoxical art of describing the One who is indescribable.

Who is capable of comprehending the extent of what is to be discovered in a single utterance of Yours? For we leave behind in it far more than we take from it, like thirsty people drinking from a fountain. The facets of His word are more numerous than the faces of those who learn from it. God depicted his word with many beauties, so that each of those who learn from it can examine that aspect of it which he likes. And God has hidden within His word all sorts of treasures, so that each of us can be enriched by it from whatever aspect he meditates on. For God’s word is the Tree of Life which proffers to you on all sides blessed fruits; it is like the Rock which was struck in the Wilderness, which became a spiritual drink for everyone on all sides: ‘They ate the food of the Spirit and they drank the draft of the Spirit’. Anyone who encounters Scripture should not suppose that the single one of its riches that he has found is the only one to exist; rather he should realize that he himself is only capable of discovering that one out of the many riches which exist in it. Nor, because Scripture has enriched him should the reader impoverish it. Rather, if the reader is incapable of finding more, let him acknowledge Scripture’s magnitude. Rejoice because you have found satisfaction and do not be grieved that there has been something left over by you. A thirsty person rejoices because he has drunk: he is not grieved because he proved incapable of drinking the fountain dry. Let the fountain vanquish your thirst, your thirst should not vanquish the fountain!  If you thirst comes to an end while the fountain has not been diminished, then you can drink again whenever you are thirsty; whereas if the fountain had been drained dry once you have had your fill, your victory over it would have proved to your own harm. Give thanks for what you have taken away, and do not complain about the superfluity that is left over. What you have taken off with you is your portion, what has been left behind can still be your inheritance (Commentary on the Diatessaron 1:18-19).

As one year gives way to the next, many of us again have the privilege of immersing ourselves in the scripturally manifested mystery of the Nativity. Ephrem reminds us that this richness of food is our portion, but that inexhaustible treasures remain. These treasures, though, can still be our inheritance. This is why the Church asks us to celebrate the mystery anew each year. But Ephrem, of course, is not the poet of Christmas. As the poet of the Nativity, he demands that we do not stop pondering the mystery of the Great One who became small the whole year through. For Ephrem, it is a mystery that demands nothing less.

The Rev. Dr. David Ney is assistant professor of church history at Trinity School for Ministry.



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