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St. Ephrem of Edessa and the special beauty of good music

Taking a page out of Arius’ playbook, the fourth-century deacon and hymnographer Ephrem composed hymns to teach the Faith and to refute various errors.

Detail from an illustration of St. Ephrem the Syrian, from a 16th-century Russian manuscript of the Slavonic translation of John Climacus and Ephrem's Homilies. (Image: Wikipedia)

Editor’s note: The following homily was preached for the feast of St. Ephrem (calendar of the Extraordinary Form), June 18, 2021, at the Church of the Holy Innocents, New York City.

In the calendar of the Extraordinary Form, today we honor St. Ephrem of Edessa, deacon and hymnographer. His memory is celebrated in the Ordinary Form on June 9, which is the actual date of his death.

Ephrem was born in 306 on the eastern front of the Roman Empire, close to Persia, in what is now Turkey. He was a valued member of the household of the Bishop of Nisibis, James. When the Persians conquered that place, Ephrem hied himself off to a monastery, where he was ordained a deacon; he declined to become a priest, out of humility – like St. Francis many centuries later. He was a gifted preacher, but an even greater promoter of the true Faith through the hymns he composed to combat the errors of the Gnostics, the Marcionites and Arians. Ephrem is most often referred to as “the Harp of the Spirit,” precisely because of his profound and elevating hymns. Contemporaries of his included Athanasius, Gregory of Nazianzen, Gregory of Nyssa, and Basil; it has always fascinated me how we find, throughout the history of the Church, how many saints were roaming around the Church here below at the same time!

Ephrem died in 373. Even before his death, he was venerated as a saint. In 1920, Pope Benedict XV proclaimed him a doctor of the Church.

As you know, I place great store in liturgical music. You can’t forget, I am sure, how we sang our way through Advent, Lent and May, for our continuing theological education classes. And how many times did you hear me quote Dostoevsky’s “Idiot,” as he declared: “Beauty will save the world.” The preeminent theologian of beauty, we might say, was Hans Urs Von Balthasar, who rhapsodized on this notion thus:

Beauty is the last thing which the thinking intellect dares to approach . . . Our situation today shows that beauty demands for itself at least as much courage and decision as do truth and goodness, and she will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters without taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance. We can be sure that whoever sneers at her name as if she were the ornament of a bourgeois past – whether he admits it or not – can no longer pray and soon will no longer be able to love.1

Which is to say, that beauty here below allows us, in the gracious words of Michael Gaudoin-Parker, “to pierce through the crust of our commonplace experiences,”2 to gain at least a glimpse of the glory and splendor of God. We also need a very special kind of beauty – good music. How can we forget that it was not erudite theological debate which won St. Augustine’s mind and heart? The sweet chants he heard outside St. Ambrose’s cathedral did the job; it was the “singing Church”3 which brought him and countless millions of others down the centuries into the communion of saints. St. Thomas Aquinas saw this clearly when he taught that liturgical music had a most important mission: ad provocandum alios ad laudem Dei (to stimulate others to the praise of God).4

Cardinal Ratzinger aptly summarized the musical development since the Second Vatican Council as that “grim impoverishment which follows when beauty for its own sake is banished from the Church and all is subordinated to the principle of ‘utility’.”5 With what result? Most congregations, he says with grim accuracy, “endure [it all] with polite stoicism.”6 What a damning analysis, yet how sadly true.

Ratzinger also recalled that Mahatma Gandhi spoke of the three modes of being found in the cosmos: The fish live in the sea and are silent; the animals who inhabit the earth scream and shout; the birds who soar through the heavens sing. He spelled it out in this way: Silence is proper to the sea, shouting to the earth, and singing to the heavens. Man, by nature, ought to participate in all three, yet what so many would-be liturgists have done to our worship is to eliminate silence and to proscribe good, uplifting music, so that contemporary worshipers are left with little to do but scream!7

In grammar school, as the Sisters pushed us to sing with gusto, they would often remind us of St. Augustine’s adage, “Qui cantat bene, bis cantat.” It was not until seventh grade, however, that Sr. Theresa Mary highlighted the adverb in the adage, “He who sings well (bene!), prays twice.”

Sociologists of religion tell us that every religion and culture has always enshrined its fundamental truths and vision in poetry which, nearly always, was likewise sung. And so, Homer gave us his Iliad and Odyssey, as Virgil (in imitation of his Greek forerunner) gave us his Aeneid. That tradition was carried on in the Christian era as well with the Chanson de Roland of France, El Cid of Spain, and Beowulf of England. Yes, it would seem that there is an innate human instinct to put the most important aspects of life to song.

The ancient Hebrews did not fail in this regard, either. One thinks immediately of the numerous canticles (liturgical hymns other than the psalms) which dot the landscape of the Old Testament, like that of Miriam (Ex 15:1-18) or that of the Three Youths in the Furnace (Dn 3:52-88 ). Of course, the Psalter is nothing if not the very hymn book of Israel, which the Church took for her own at the dawn of Christianity and has treasured ever since as the psalms became the “meat and potatoes” of the Divine Office and also figure prominently in Holy Mass. And who could forget the soaring poetry of the Prologue to the Fourth Gospel or the kenosis hymn of St. Paul in the second chapter of his Epistle to the Philippians?

Taking a page out of Arius’ playbook, Ephrem composed hymns to teach the Faith and to refute various errors. We are told that he enlisted the services of some nuns, who brought his hymns to life, done in “responsorial” style, that is, one chanting the verses and the others “responding” with the refrain – the pattern usually used in the Ordinary Form of the Mass for the Responsorial Psalm. Unfortunately, the tones he employed are lost, but the texts survive – although even those were generally lost even when Benedict XV made him a doctor of the Church, as the Pope relied largely on quotations from his works found in various Patristic authors.

Let’s savor a few of his many compositions. His paean to Our Lady is quite beautiful:

Blessed are you, O Mary, daughter of the poor,
who became Mother of the Lord of kings.
In your womb he has dwelt
of whose praise the heavens are full.
Blessed be your breast, which has nourished him with love,
your mouth which has lulled him
and your arms which have held him.
You have become a vehicle to bear a God of fire!

Blessed are you, O Mary,
you have become the home of the king.
In you, he who has power has taken abode,
he who rules the world.
You came from the tribe of Judah;
You descended from the family of David.
Illustrious is your lineage.
For you, though remaining virgin,
have become the mother of the Son of David.

Blessed are you, O maiden,
who have borne the lion cub spoken of by Jacob.
He humbled himself and became a lamb,
destined to ascend the Cross to deliver us.
He prefigured you, the tree,
which providing the kid, spared the life of Isaac.

Blessed are you, O blessed one, since through you
the curse of Eve has been destroyed.
From you has come the light
which has destroyed the reign of darkness.

Or this excerpt from his fourth hymn in honor of the Lord’s Nativity:

This is the month which brings all manner of joy; it is the freedom of the bondsmen, the pride of the free, the crown of the gates, the soothing of the body, that also in its love put purple upon us as upon kings.

This is the month that brings all manner of victories; it frees the spirit; it subdues the body; it brings forth life among mortals; it caused, in its love, Godhead, to dwell in Manhood.

In this day the Lord exchanged glory for shame, as being humble; because Adam changed the truth for unrighteousness as being a rebel: the Good One had mercy on him, justified and set right them that had turned aside.

In this Year of St. Joseph, listen to his praise of the Lord’s foster father:

Joseph caressed the Son
as a babe, He served Him
as God, He rejoiced in Him
as in a blessing, and he was attentive to Him
as to the Just one – a great paradox!
May we all relish the opportunity to sing the praises of the Lord.

St. Ephrem, Harp of the Spirit, pray for us the grace to sing well, so that our efforts be counted as praying twice.

Endnotes:

1Hans Urs Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1984), Volume I, 18.

2Michael L. Gaudoin-Parker, Heart in Pilgrimage: Meditating Christian Spirituality in the Light of the Eucharistic Prayer (New York: Alba House, 1994), 88.

3Confessions, IX 6, 14.

4Summa Theologica, q 91 a 1 ad 2.

5Feast of Faith (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986), 100.

6Ibid., 85.

7See: Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, A New Song for the Lord: Faith in Christ and Liturgy Today (New York: Crossroad Publishing Co., 1996), 127.


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About Peter M.J. Stravinskas 200 Articles
Reverend Peter M.J. Stravinskas is the editor of the The Catholic Response, and the author of over 500 articles for numerous Catholic publications, as well as several books, including The Catholic Church and the Bible and Understanding the Sacraments.

3 Comments

  1. The two good things about the “lockdown” were the suspension of the nonsensical “kiss of peace” and the dismantlement of the parish sing along at mass — an English speaking parish in the southwest which for cultural massaging has most of its music in Spanish which few speak.
    Ah, blessed silence reigned.
    Well the rhapsodizing Philistines are back.
    Indeed, we “endure [it all] with polite stoicism.”

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