Saint Ephrem the Syrian: Living in the Light of Eternity

Saint Ephrem the Syrian (306 – 373), a deacon of the early Church who was made a Doctor by Pope Benedict XV in 1920, is most famous for his hymns and his highly expressive devotional poems, both of which are rich in imagery and full of theological significance, and which are also masterpieces of didacticism, cleverly weaving together exhortations to Christian living and meditations on the mysteries of the Faith with an attractive and vivid style. However, he also contributed many works which, although also characterised by a certain musicality and exhortatory rhythm, are nevertheless more in line with standard homiletical technique.

In a homily given on the first Sunday of Advent, Saint Ephrem uses his fine rhetorical skills to urge those before him to consider what we prepare for when we ready ourselves for the Second Coming of Our Lord, as well as the sort of spirit we should acquire and develop during this period of preparation. Essentially it is an extended meditation on what it means to truly live in the light of Eternity, and to consider the weight and worth of each decision not with respect to the immediate satisfaction it may give us, but in terms of what is left standing upon the foundation of Our Lord when the Day discloses what sort of person we really are (c.f.; 1 Corinthians 3:10-15).

Saint Ephrem, in keeping with the forceful, almost metrical approach of his preaching, spends much time cataloguing the varieties of sins which may lead us away from walking with Christ, and reiterating the desperate fate of those who plant their roots in the transient things of this life, and so I have left much of this out. His basic point though is that, as Christians, our true life is ‘hid with Christ in God’ (Colossians 3:3) and to act as if the ground of our being were to be found anywhere else, particularly amongst the variety of earthly pleasures we meet in this life, is to cut off the branch upon which we sit. Instead, our hearts must be knitted to the will of God, united in the fear of the Lord (c.f. Psalm 86:11), and thus patience is a virtue worth practising, as it is the means by which that harmonising of our wills with God’s takes place. Then, God willing, we will be ready to meet Him when He comes again:

Shining is the life of the Just, but in what does it shine if not in patience? Love this virtue, O Christian, as the mother of fortitude. For the psalmist admonishes us, saying: Expect the Lord and keep his way (Ps. xxxvi. 34). Paul also says, teaching us the way in which we must acquire virtue: tribulation worketh patience (Rom. v. 3). Exercising patience you will discover hope, the source of every good: and hope confoundeth not. Be subject therefore to the Lord, and pray to him, and you will then find that he will give thee the requests of thy heart (Ps. xxxvi. 7, 4). What more blessed than this, to obtain a merciful hearing from such a King? Who does not eagerly wish that the ears of his judge shall be accessible and gracious? Thou art a worker of virtue, O Brother, and Christ has brought thee into His vineyard; therefore while you have time, do good

…Be not then neglectful in striving, setting before your eyes the fruits of hope. Where there are contests, there are rewards. Where there are wars, there also are victories; and where there is warfare, there is likewise a crown. Looking to this end, anoint thyself with patience. Say to thyself at all times the holy words: Expect the Lord, do manfully, and let thy heart take courage, and wait thou for the Lord (Ps. xxvi. 14)…

…For thy sword and thy weapon, take hold of the fear of the Lord. For the fear of the Lord is like a two-edged sword, cutting off every wicked desire. Keep therefore ever in thy mind the fear of the Lord, being mindful at all times of that last and dreadful day, when the heavens shall be consumed by the heat of fire, and the earth and all that is upon it shall perish. When the stars shall fall like leaves, the sun and the moon shall be darkened, nor shall the give forth light. When the Son of Man shall appear, and shall descend from heaven upon the earth, the Powers of heaven shall be troubled. When the appearance of the Angels, and the sound of their trumpets shall prevail, then fire shall burn before Him, and hastening on, it will consume the earth…

…But what shall we do, I ask you, when God will come down in anger, and dread wrath, and sit on the Throne of Glory, and summon to Him all the earth, from the rising of the sun to the going down thereof, and all the ends of the earth, so that He may judge His people, and render to each according to his works? Oh, Woe! Woe! What kind of people shall we be then? In what state of mind shall we be, when naked and fearful we shall appear there, delivered to that dread tribunal? Woe! Woe! Woe is me! Where now is the pride of the flesh? Where now is vain and useless beauty? Where, all human delight? Where then, shameless and impudent boldness? Where the delight of sin, sordid and unclean? What then of the wickedness of those who wallow in the wickedness of lust, of that which is filthy (Rom. i. 27)? Where then will they be who worship Cybele with drum and wine and dance, but the works of the Lord they have not considered? What then of those who have passed their lives in sloth and disorder? Where then will be the enticements of pleasure? All these things will have passed away, and like a little cloud shall have been dissolved…

…And with what joy shall we be filled; if we are directed to the right hand of the King? What must we be like when the Just embrace us there? When, I repeat, they shall embrace thee there, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Noah, Job, Daniel, the Holy Prophets, the Apostles, the Martyrs, who all were pleasing to God in the days of the flesh? And whomsoever you have heard of, and whose life you have admired, and whom you now wish to look upon, they will come to thee, and embrace thee, rejoicing in thy salvation. What manner of men must we be then? Of what kind shall be that unspeakable delight which we are to receive, when the King shall with joyfulness say to those who will be on His right hand: Come ye blessed of my father, possess the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world (Mt. xxiii)…

…Be mindful, my Brother, of what kind of a person it must be, to whom it will be given to reign with Christ in heaven. Reflect upon what it means to dwell for ever in the light of His Countenance, to possess the source of all light. For then you shall no more have the sun for thy light by day, neither shall the brightness of the moon enlighten thee (Is. lx. 19), but Christ will be thy unfailing light, and God thy glory. Behold, my Brother, what glory He has laid up for those who fear Him, observing His commandments.

taken from The Sunday Sermons of the Great Fathers: 1. From the First Sunday of Advent to Quinquagesima (1960), pp.10-13, Longmans.

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