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Saint Ephraim the Syrian
A Deacon in the 2nd century,
Saint Ephrem le Syrien
Un Diacre du 2ieme siècle
Benedict XVI says that the real experts in opening up God's words, the true interpreters of scriptures are the saints and he is right. I can prove it! There is one verse that I have always found very puzzling and it is "There are some here who will not taste death before seeing the glory of God" (Mark 9:1). I heard it said before that he was referring to the end of the world and that with time passing by, with every Apostle dying one by one (they all eventually got to taste death), some people began to wonder what Jesus really meant. This riddle was just solved for me and it was done the way Benedict XVI pointed out. On Saint Ephraim's feast day , I ran a Google search and found various Orthodox sites with information on his life and samples of his writings and I discovered the most amazing explanation of the verse mentioned above. Ephraim, a Deacon in the second century in Syria, wrote that what this verse is talking about is the upcoming Transfiguration moment. I have a very special fondness for the Transfiguration: do you realize that he was transfigured before his Passion? Right there and then, his divinity is affirmed in front of the 3 Apostles by two OT witnesses, the Law and the Prophet. It is a fantastic "Trinitarian moment" with the Father's voice pointing to the Son like a laser beam, the Son reflecting the Father's glory like a mirror and the power and love of the Holy Spirit bathing this moment in the most dazzling light and, in the process, opening up the minds of the witnesses to the truth of what is going on. In a nutshell, that is what I see every time the Transfiguration is mentioned.
So when I read what Saint Ephraim said:"The men whom he said would not taste death until they saw the image of his coming, are those whom he took and led up the mountain and showed them how he was going to come on the last day in the glory of his divinity and in the body of his humanity", a light went up in my mind! Eureka, I thought, that's what he was talking about! This verse is in all 3 synoptic Gospels and it is immediately preceding the Transfiguration in each one of them. I can't thank you enough, dear Saint Ephraim . You wrote: "He led them up the mountain to show them who the Son is and whose he is. Because when he asked them "Whom do men say the Son of man is? They said to him, some Elias, other Jeremias or one of the Prophets. This is why he leads them up the mountain and shows them that he is not Elias, but the God of Elias; again that he is not Jeremias, but the one who sanctified Jeremias in his mother's womb; not of the Prophets but the Lord of the Prophets who also sent them. And he shows them that he is the maker of heaven and earth, and that he is the Lord of the living and the dead. For he gave orders to heaven and brought down Elias and made a sign to the earth and raised up Moses. And so on the mountain he showed his Apostles the glory of his divinity concealed and hidden in his humanity". So Saint Ephraim was right, Jesus was alerting his disciples to what some of them were going to be allowed to see.
Jesus took with him Peter and James and John and led them up a high mountain apart by themselves; and he was transfigured before them and his garnments became glistening, intensely white, as no fuller on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses and they were talking to Jesus. And Peter said to Jesus: "Master, it is well that we are here, let us make 3 tents: one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah"
For he did not know what to say for they were exceedingly afraid. And a cloud overshadowed them and a voice came out of the cloud:
"This is my beloved Son, listen to him". (Mark 9:2-7)
SAINT EPHRAIM'S PRAYER:
LA PRIERE DE SAINT EPHREM:
Saint Ephraim, the Syrian.
In Pope BENEDICT XVI's book on "The Church Fathers" (which I highly recommend!) there is a wonderful chapter on Saint Ephrem. Pope Benedict starts with the spreading of Christianity in the world, then he introduces Saint Ephrem (historically, geographically, then his writings, about Scriptures, on theology, through hymns and sermons) and quotes parts of his most beautiful hymn to the role of Mary in salvation history and to the mystery of the Incarnation:
Common opinion today supposes Christianity to be a European religion which subsequently exported the culture of this Continent to other countries. But the reality is far more complex since the roots of the Christian religion are found in the Old Testament, hence, in Jerusalem and the Semitic world. Christianity is still nourished by these Old Testament roots. Furthermore, its expansion in the first centuries was both towards the West - towards the Greco-Latin world, where it later inspired European culture - and in the direction of the East, as far as Persia and India. It thus contributed to creating a specific culture in Semitic languages with an identity of its own. Today, I would like to talk about St Ephrem the Syrian, who was born into a Christian family in Nisibis in about 306 A.D. He was Christianity's most important Syriac-speaking representative and uniquely succeeded in reconciling the vocations of theologian and poet. He was educated and grew up beside James, Bishop of Nisibis (303-338), and with him founded the theological school in his city. He was ordained a deacon and was intensely active in local Christian community life until 363, the year when Nisibis fell into Persian hands. Ephrem then emigrated to Edessa, where he continued his activity as a preacher. He died in this city in 373, a victim of the disease he contracted while caring for those infected with the plague. It is not known for certain whether he was a monk, but we can be sure in any case that he remained a deacon throughout his life and embraced virginity and poverty. Thus, the common and fundamental Christian identity appears in the specificity of his own cultural expression: faith, hope - the hope which makes it possible to live poor and chaste in this world, placing every expectation in the Lord - and lastly, charity, to the point of giving his life through nursing those sick with the plague. I cannot present much of his writing here, partly because his poetry is difficult to translate, but to give at least some idea of his poetical theology I would like to cite a part of the hymn: On the Nativity of Christ. Ephrem expressed his wonder before the Virgin in inspired tones:
"The Lord entered her and became a servant;
the Word entered her, and became silent within her;
thunder entered her and his voice was still;
the Shepherd of all entered her; he became a Lamb in her, and came forth bleating.
The belly of your Mother changed the order of things, O you who order all!
Rich he went in, he came out poor:
the High One went into her [Mary], he came out lowly.
Brightness went into her and clothed himself, and came forth a despised form....
He that gives food to all went in, and knew hunger.
He who gives drink to all went in, and knew thirst.
Naked and bare came forth from her the Clother of all things [in beauty]".
I read this hymn and I found it so beautiful, so moving, so true... And it occurred to me that I am blessed for being able to understand this hymn, for being able to truly hear it, love it and believe it. Every word resonates within my heart and mind and soul. I can "see" the theological consequences of every poetic analogy and they are limitless when heard with faith... It is quite a feast. And it has nothing to do with education or being quick or clever... It is about the Judeo-Christian worldview of faith which finds its ultimate conclusion in the Incarnation, the glorious mystery of the Incarnation of the Word, who came for us all, for the whole world, the Clother of all things in beauty.
Blessed be God, blessed be His Most Holy Name!
Saint Ephraim, pray for us!
Read the whole catechism on Saint Ephraim here .
You can order Pope Benedict's book on the Church Fathers at Ignatius Press here .