We are pleased to have Dr. Ashoor Yousif, Assistant Professor Church History and Director of the MTS Modular Program (Seminary) speak to us this week on St. Ephram. The title of Ashoor’s message is “A Fulfilled Dream and Prayer”. The life of St. Ephram the Syrian, who was a man of admirable words and deeds, is an inspiration to us as servants of God, regardless of our diverse aspirations and challenges.
Along with his important work at the Seminary, Dr. Yousif is an ordained pastor with the CBOQ and serves as a lead pastor at Middle East Baptist Church in Mississauga. He is an Assyrian-Iraqi Christian, who resides in Mississauga with his wife Helen.
Good morning all. Thank you for being with me this morning in our reflections for this Tuesday. Oh Lord and Master of my life, give me not a spirit of sloth, vain curiosity, lust for power, and idle talk, but give me, your servant, a spirit of soberness humility, patience, and love.
This was the prayer of a giant Christian man. A man who many of you might never heard of.
But a man, whose life and words inspired and transformed the life of million Christians throughout the century. This is the prayer of Saint Ephrem the Syrian.
Ephrem was born in the beginning of the 4th century, sometimes around the year 306 to Christian parents somewhere in the city of Nisibis or nearby in southern Turkey. At a young age, he became a Deacon and a teacher of new converts in the Church, under the leadership of the remarkable Bishop Jacob of Nisibis, who was one of the 318 bishops who attended the councils of Nicaea in 325. For the next four decades of his life, Ephrem served faithfully his role as Deacon and teacher in the city under three more bishops.
During his life in Nisibis Ephrem also experienced multiple challenging moments, including three Persian attacks and sieges on the city in 338, 346 and 350.
Sources speak of his faith during this moment, including his role in encouraging his bishop Jacob to mount the walls of the cities and rebuke the Persian Sha, Shapur II and his army for their ungodliness, calling upon God for a divine intervention, which seems to come in the form of storms of flies that enter the ears of the elephants of the Persian armies, causing a major chaos and retreat.
Eventually, in 363 the Persians defeated the Romans, killing their apostate Emperor Julian, which led to a peace treaty that saw the capitulation of Nisibis to the Persian. Ephrem, like many of his cities Christians, were forced out by the Persians, who evacuated Nisibis of its Christian population as part of the priest’s agreement which saw emptying the city of their people. He moved westward and lived as a refugee in the city of Edessa for the last decade of his life. In Edessa, a more Hellenized Syriac city, Ephrem flourished once again intellectually, despite the new context, and new place, and in certain degree a new culture, far from home, where he embraced and challenged his context, writing many of his works there.
Eventually on June 9th 373, Saint Ephrem died in his early 60s as a humble ascetic Deacon in his cell. Yet he also died as a mighty brilliant doctor of the Church, leaving a rich and exemplary legacy that made him a venerated Saint, not only in his Syriac tradition, but also in Catholic, Greek, Slavic, Armenian, Ethiopic, and Anglican traditions.
In his life, Ephrem was a man of a brilliant mind and powerful words. He wrote multiple biblical commentaries on books such as Genesis, Acts and Paul's letters. During his life, he focused in combating heresies such as those of Marcion, Mani and Arius, writing many theological treatises. In addition, he produced first homilies and hymns. More than 400 of them survive until today, in which he wrote about many theological and biblical themes in poetry.
Yet Ephrem wasn't only a man of mind and words, but also a man of heart and hands. Sources, for example, note his leading role in mobilizing the wealthy of city of Edessa during the famine in 372.
The narrative notes how he was trusted with resources to establish a temporary 300 bed hospital and shelter industry for local citizen and nearby villagers, where he spent the last year serving joyfully and faithfully, before dying in June 373, one month just after the end of the famine.
Thus Ephrem was a man of words and actions, and the later Syriac poet and theologian Jacob of Serugh testified to that in his own poetry, when he writes these words:
I quote “a true worker who laboured diligently from start to finish, manifesting in himself both words and actions in practical way” end of quote.
Ephrem was a man ahead of his time.
I know two things, for example. One, his intellectual creativity by writing theological poetry. His writing of poetry became foundational approach in Syrian Christian traditions, and it was embraced and imitated successfully by many, including Jacob of Serugh and Narsai, to mention two of the most notable Syriac Christian theologians and poets. Secondly Ephrem was inspirational in his view of women's ministry, for he wrote poetry specifically for women whom he trained to sing in church, thus incorporating them in the church services.
As Jacob testified in his own poetry about him, I quote Jacob once again, who wrote quote “The blessed. Ephraim saw that the women were silent from praise, and in his wisdom he decided it was right that they should sing out. As he stood among the sister, it was his delight to steer these pure women into songs of praises.” end of quote.
Saint Ephrem rose to fame quickly and was admired and celebrated beyond a Syrian context by many ancient theologians and historians.
The earliest testimony comes from the pen of the great Saint Jerome, who wrote in his book on famous men in 392, just two decades about after the death of Ephrem, the following, I read and quote “Ephrem a Deacon of the Church of Edessa, wrote a great deal in the Syriac language. He attains such a distinction that his writing are read in some churches after the Scripture. I have read a work of his on the Holy Spirit which someone had translated into Greek from Syriac, and even in translation I could recognize how lofty an intellectual this man is. Jerome’s words are great testimony about the esteem of Saint Ephrem even in Latin tradition and how his words point to the translation of his work even before Jerome’s testimony is noted. His translation of his work or undertaking in Greek, but not only Greek, surviving evidence comes also from Latin, Slavic, Aramaic and Ethiopic and preserved in monasteries and libraries from around the world.
Yet Jerome wasn't the only one who wrote admirably about Ephrem. The famous historian Sozomen also leave us a record of the life of the man, devoting a chapter to him in his ecclesiastical history. He end his narrative of Ephrem by these words: and I quote “Ephrem attained no higher clerical order than that of a Deacon, although he becomes no less famous for his virtue than those who are ordained to priesthood and are admired for their good life and for their learning” end of quote.
His Syriac Vita, or his life in Syriac tradition, not even possible connections between him and the great Saint Basil, the Cappadocian Fathers, and possibly also with Gregory of Nyssa, where they shared remarkable theological interest.
I want to highlight also a dream Ephrem had when he was a young boy.
Palladius of Galatia writes in his work around 420 this dream and documented to us, and he shares this dream of this young boy, which he says in it, and I quote Palladius here;
“A vine shall spring up from his tongue, it grew and everywhere under the heavens was filled by it. It brought bunches of grapes in proliferations, and all the birds of sky came and ate of its fruit. The more they ate, the more the branches multiplied and grew” end of quote, although this might be a hagiographical legend, the dream truly reflects the life of Ephrem, a man whose words filled the heavens and earth, satisfying the hunger of many to the word of God, given in the form of the sweet words of a humble and brilliant man.
Regardless of the admirable life indeed of Ephrem, I believe Ephrem prayers was fulfilled during his life and after it.
For as we saw today, he was a man with a sober and brilliant mind, who was also a man with a loving and compassionate heart.
He lived and died humbly as an ascetic deacon, as well as he laboured patiently in writing and during his life difficulties and challenges.
This Ephrem this morning might be leaving us with a wonderful example for our life to imitate, a servant of God, but also he challenges with his prayers.
Either you are a student or a staff or faculty. Either you’re starting or finishing your careers or studies. Either you're serving God through your mind or hands.
Either you're labouring in shining public sphere or quietly in private ways.
Either you are experiencing success or challenges in your life or ministry. Ephrem’s life and words might speak to you as it speaks to me today.
Thus, let us pray this morning.
Ephrem’s words, let us collectively say these words; Oh Lord and master of my life, give me not the spirit of sloth, vain curiosity, lust, or power, and idle talk. But give me, your servant, a spirit of soberness humility, patience and love. Amen.
May these words be heard by our Heavenly Father and transform our life as we start the new semester. We start the new year. And we start the new journey regardless of its difficulties, challenges.
Regardless of its opportunity and glory, let us always remember these words.
That God always glorify his name in your life and mine. Amen.
— End of transcript —