St. Ephrem the Syrian was a master poet, such that the beauty and skill of his Syriac verse is still studied in academic circles. More widely, his poems fill churches throughout the world with his profound, mystical meditations on all aspects of salvation history.
St. Ephrem was also an accomplished prose writer, and he had a way of turning a phrase that would leave a listener with, to use the modern phrase, “mind blown.”
Attuned to the problems of his time–which uncannily echo ours–St. Ephrem included lessons in his works to keep believers away from the temptations of the world. Here are twelve of his most arresting lines from The Homily on Our Lord.
“Our Lord gave His resurrection as a guarantee to mortals that He would lead them out of Sheol, which takes the departed without discrimination, to the Kingdom, which welcomes guests with discrimination, so that we might journey from where everyone’s bodies are treated the same, to where everyone’s efforts are treated with discrimination.”
The bland pantheism of the world is obliterated by Holy Merit, where each is rewarded according to his works of love.
The Son, whose birth is beyond investigation, underwent another birth which can be investigated.
In one fell swoop, St. Ephrem eviscerates both empiricism (everything must be investigated scientifically) and fideism (faith in God means we don’t need reason).
With the very weapon that death had used to kill Him, He gained the victory over death…death killed natural life, but supernatural Life killed death.
A pro-death culture will never make sense.
Since humanity fell into Sheol because of a tree, it passed over to the place of life upon a tree. And so, on the tree where bitterness was tasted, sweetness has been tasted, so that we might learn who it is who has no rival among his creatures. Praise to you who suspended your cross over death so that souls could pass over on it from the place of the dead to the place of life.
The world sees the cross as a scandal or an obstacle. We see the beauty of redemptive suffering in love.
Dead idols with closed mouths fed on the life of their worshipers. For this reason, you [Lord] mixed your blood, which repelled death and terrified it, in the bodies of your worshipers, so that the mouths of those who consume them would be repelled by their life.
Think of this next time you receive His Blood in the Eucharist: you have a weapon that terrifies idols.
The One who let Adam speak all at once, without instruction, let deaf-mutes, whose tongues are taught only with difficulty, speak with ease.
How often we lose sight of the gift of speech, especially when our culture values rhetoric over truth.
The disciples, who were thought to have stolen a lifeless corpse, were found to be giving life to other corpses!…And the disciples, who ([the unbelievers] claimed) stole a dead body from living guards, were found to be banishing death in the name of the One who was stolen, so that death would not steal the life of the living.
The Resurrection accounts and the ensuing miracles make sense: they are in harmony with reason, and the revelations therein supply what reason lacks.
This is the Fisherman who came down to catch the lives of the lost. He observed publicans and prostitutes running off to debauchery and drunkenness, so He hurriedly spread His nets where they gathered, to snatch them from the food that sustains the body, (to bring them) to fasting that sustains spirits.
Against the spirit of the world that encourages indulgence and gluttony of all kinds, Christ catches us with fasting and abstinence of the holy kind.
The Physician who brought a hidden disease out into the open did not help the disease along; He killed it.
How often our culture fosters an unhealthy fascination with evil and even encourages it along in popular entertainment. The Lord reveals such a thing in a person in order to deal it a death blow and heal that person.
Our Lord visibly carried [Peter] on the sea to teach us that He was also invisibly carrying him on dry land.
The miracles were not mere spectacles. They point to everyday realities that strengthen our faith.
Because Simeon was able to carry in his weak arms the very majesty that created things cannot endure, he knew that his weakness was strengthened by the power he carried. At the same time Simeon, with all creatures, was invisibly being lifted up by the all-prevailing power of the Son Himself.
In a culture that values Nietzschean supermen, it is utterly adventurous to find one’s strength in one’s weakness. Ponder this, perhaps, the next time you’re in Adoration, looking on Christ’s great humility in giving Himself in a bit of bread.
Patience has a habit of granting everything to those who possess it.
“Everything” is a lot–certainly more than a single virtue. All the more important, patience, in a hurried, must-have-it-now world.
Much, much more can be found; everything above is excerpted from the 1994 edition of Selected Prose Works published by Catholic University of America Press.