St. Ephrem [ܡܪܝ ܐܦܪܝܡ ܣܘܪܝܝܐ, literally “fruitful”] was a 4th-century Deacon, Hymnographer, Poet, and Theologian whose beautiful encomiums to the Blessed Virgin Mary continue to draw the admiration of catholic Christians all over the world. He is venerated by the Coptic Orthodox, Syriac Christians, Nestorian Church of the East, Chalcedonian Orthodox, the Roman Catholic Church, and even attracts the veneration of the Anglican Communion. Pope Benedict XV (1914-22) elevated St. Ephrem to the dignify of being a Doctor of the Universal Church. The Pope made a remarkable description of this beloved Saint: “This Harp of the Holy Spirit [Ephrem] never sings weeter songs than when he has set his strings to sing the praises of Mary” (Acta Apostolicae Sedis, 1920, Pg. 467) . Although many are lost, it is counted that he wrote over 400 hymns. The 5th-century Greek Historian Sozomen, in his famous “Ecclesiastical History” (Book III) speaks very eloquently of St. Ephrem, and his brief description of this awesome Saint is worth sharing, though a bit lengthy. He writes:
“Ephraim the Syrian was entitled to the highest honors, and was the greatest ornament of the Catholic Church. He was a native of Nisibis, or his family was of the neighboring territory. He devoted his life to monastic philosophy; and although he received no instruction, he became, contrary to all expectation, so proficient in the learning and language of the Syrians, that he comprehended with ease the most abstruse theorems of philosophy. His style of writing was so replete with splendid oratory and
with richness and temperateness of thought that he surpassed the most approved writers of Greece. If the works of these writers were to be translated into Syriac, or any other language, and divested, as it were, of the beauties of the Greek language, they would retain little of their original elegance and value. The productions of Ephraim have not this disadvantage: they were translated into Greek during his life, and translations are even now being made, and yet they preserve much of their original force, so that his works are not less admired when read in Greek than when read in Syriac. Basil, who was subsequently bishop of the metropolis of Cappadocia, was a great admirer of Ephraim, and was astonished at his erudition. The opinion of Basil, who is universally confessed to have been the most eloquent man of his age, is a stronger testimony, I think, to the merit of Ephraim, than anything that could be indited to his praise. It is said that he wrote three hundred thousand verses, and that he had many disciples who were zealously attached to his doctrines. The most celebrated of his disciples were Abbas, Zenobius, Abraham, Maras, and Simeon, in whom the Syrians and whoever among them pursued accurate learning make a great boast. Paulanas and Aranad are praised for their finished speech, although reported to have deviated from sound doctrine” (Ch. 16)
So not only were his writings widely known about, they were also translated into Greek, and St. Basil of Caesarea held him in high regard. There is no exaggerating the reliability of this magnificent early Christian writer. His Hymnography of the Blessed Mother covers a wide range of testimony on behalf of her Divine Motherhood, her giving birth as a Virgin, her role of salvific mediation, her Office as Second Eve, and her absolute sinlessness. This is extremely important since at this point in Christian history, if it were a heresy to regard the Virgin Mary as stated, then we should have heard of certain resistance and rebellion against it. However, we only see praise and admiration for authors who held the Mother of God in high esteem.
Below are some select citations from his Homilies which testify to the universality of Marian devotion and the respect she was so graced to receive by being at the center of salvation-history. St. Ephrem was an exclusively Syriac writer, and I’ve drawn the English from “Mary in the Documents of the Church“, by Fr. Paul Palmer, S.J., S.T.D., who himself draws most of his sources from Fr. Thomas J. Lamy, the Belgian Biblical scholar and Orientalist, and his collections on St. Ephrem which can be found here.
“Awake, O my harp, thy chords, in praise of Mary the Virgin. Lift up thy voice, and sing the generation utterly marvelous of this Virgin, David’s daughter, who hath brought forth life to the world…(2) The lover with admiration wonders at her; whilst the curious searcher is suffused with shame and his ear is stopped up, lest he should dare to pry into the Mother who brought forth in virginity inviolate..(12) In Mary’s womb became an Infant. He who from eternity is equal to the Father. He gave us part in His own greatness, and Himself made acquisition of our weakness. Mortal was He made along with us, that by infusing into us His life, we might die no more…(16) Mary is the Garden upon which descended from the Father the rain of benedictions. From that rain she herself sprinkled the face of Adam. Whereupon he returned to life, and arose from the sepulcher – he who had been buried by his foes in hell…(20) Lo, a Virgin is become a Mother, preserving virginity with its seals unbroken…She is made God’s Mother and is at the same time a servant, and the work of His wisdom…(24) In Eden Eve became a debtor, and the debt whereby her posterity in their generation were doomed to death was written in letters large. The Serpent, that wicked scrivener, wrote it out, signed and gave it force with the seal of his fraud….(26) Eve was a debtor to sin. But for Mary the debt was reserved that the daughter might pay her mother’s debts and tear up the handwriting that was handed on her mother’s tears as a legacy to all generations…(30) Since Mary was the Virgin inviolate – prefigured by the blest land of Eden before its surface was torn by furrows — there blossomed from her bosom the Tree of Life, the taste of which…gives life to souls….” (Hymns on the Blessed Mary, 18 – Mary in the Documents of the Church , Fr. Paul Palmer S.J., S.T.D., pages 15-23)
“Since my Son Thou art, with my nursery rhymes will I soothe Thee. And, for all that I am Thy Mother, I shall honor Thee. My Son, to whom I have given birth, older than me Thou art. My Lord, though I carried Thee, it is Thou that upholdest me…(11) Let heaven hold me in its embraces; for above it I am honored. For heaven, in truth, was not Thy Mother, but Thou madest it Thy throne. How much more honorable and venerable is the King’s Mother than His throne. I will give Thee thanks, O Lord, because Thou hast willed me to be Thy Mother. In gentle hymns will I celebrate Thy praise….( 19) Let Eve, our first mother, now hear and come to me….Let her uncover her face and give Thee thanks, because Thou hast taken away her confusion. Let her hear the voice of perfect peace, because her daughter has paid her debt. The Serpent, her seducer, has been crushed by Thee, the Shoot that is sprung from my bosom. By Thee the Cherubim and the Sword have been taken away, that Adam might return o the paradise whence he was driven out” (Hymns on the Blessed Mary, 19– Mary in the Documents of the Church , Fr. Paul Palmer S.J., S.T.D., pages 15-23)
“Eve wrote in Eden the great handwriting of debt whereby her posterity should pass on death to all generations; the Serpent signed the fatal book, sealed and secured it with the signet of fraud…Eve brought on the sin, and the debt was reserved for the Virgin Mary, that she might pay the debt of her mother, and tear up the handwriting under which were groaning all generations….Two virgins there were , but of these two very different was the conduct: the one laid prostrate her husband, the other uplifted her father. Through Eve man found his grave, through Mary he was called to heaven…God’s Eden is Mary; in her is no tree of knowledge , no serpent that harms, no Eve that kills, but from her springs the Tree of Life that restores the exiles to Eden” (On the Annunciation of the Mother of God, Hymn 3 – Mary in the Documents of the Church , Fr. Paul Palmer S.J., S.T.D., pages 15-23)
“The Word of the Father came forth from His Bosom, and in another bosom [Mary’s] He put on a body. From a Bosom He came forth to a bosom. These pure Bosoms were filled with Him. Blessed is He who dwells in us.” (Hymn on the Resurrection of Christ, 7)
“Thou and Thy Mother are the only ones who are perfectly beautiful in every respect; for there is no spot in Thee, O Lord, nor any taint in Thy Mother” (The Nisibis Hymn, 27)
“…how could it be that she, who was the dwelling and habitation of the Spirit and whom the power of God overshadowed, should afterwards become the wife of a mortal man, and in conformity with the preimevl curse bring forth in pain? For since Mary is blessed among woman, through her was revoked that original malediction by which children are born in pain and accursed….For this Virgin, without experiencing the pains of childbirth, really and truly gave birth. If, moreover, the fact that certain disciples were called the brothers of the Lord should lead some to believe that they were the sons of Mary, let them know that even Christ Himself was called the son of Joseph, and this is not only by the Jews, but by His mother Mary herself” (This is an English translation from “Mary in the Documents of the Church” (Palmer, p. 23), which is taking from a Latin reconstruction of Mosinger [Venice, 1876], pp. 23-24, as reproduced by J. Rendel Harris in Framents of the Commentary of Ephrem Syrus upon the Diatesseron [London, 1895], pp. 31-32]
“No one should think that the Creation of Six Days is an allegory; it is likewise impermissible to say that what seems, according to the account, to have been created in six days, was created in a single instant, and likewise that certain names presented in this account either signify nothing, or signify something else. On the contrary, we must know that just as the heaven and the earth which were created in the beginning are actually the heaven and the earth and not something else understood under the names of heaven and earth, so also everything else that is spoken of as being created and brought into order after the creation of heaven and earth is not empty names, but the very essence of the created natures corresponds to the force of these names”. (Commentary on Genesis)