Saint of the Day – St. Ephrem the Syrian, June 9
The Feast of St. Ephrem the Syrian is celebrated June 9 in the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches. It is celebrated January 28 in the Eastern Orthodox Church and the 7th Saturday before Easter in the Syriac Orthodox Church. Whatever the day on which the feast is celebrated, he was a remarkable man!
Ephrem was born around 306 in the city of Nibisis, an area currently part of Turkey. His family was part of a thriving Christian community. The persecution of Diocletian had just ended when he was born. The Edict of Milan, proclaimed in 313, provided for religious tolerance in the Roman Empire. However, controversies raged among various groups of believers as the community struggled to understand the mystery of Jesus’ relationship with the Father and the Holy Spirit. Some issues were resolved at the First Council of Nicea in 325. Ephrem probably did not attend that council, but his bishop, Jacob of Nibisis, did attend and was one of those who signed the Council documents.
Ephrem was not one of those people who were “perfect little angels” from childhood. He was not even particularly religious as a child and teen. He described some of his mis-adventures in the story of his conversion. Following his conversion, he lived as part of a community of people who shared their lives and faith. They were not “monks” in the later sense of the word, but monasticism grew from these types of communities. He became a deacon and teacher within the community.
He wrote hundreds of hymns, prayers, poems, and homilies. Some of the homilies were in poetry and others in prose. The hymns were designed to teach Christian beliefs and to discount the teachings of heretical groups. Many were arranged for choirs of women to sing, accompanied by the lyre. (One of the symbols often seen in pictures of Ephrem is the lyre.) Over 400 of his hymns have survived to the present, with some still in use in the Eastern Church.
Ephrem was also a prolific writer of homilies and Biblical commentaries and reflections. His writings led Pope Benedict XV to name him Doctor of the Church in 1920. His supportive approach to the role of women in the church, his sense of the presence of God in all of creation and of the interconnectedness of all things, the image of “healing” found in many of his reflections and his Eastern sensibility apparent in his poetry and hymns all make his writings relevant to the Christian community today, as we struggle to help bring the Kingdom to life in our multi-cultural, multi-ethnic 21st Century world.