The Harp of the Spirit: Poems of Saint Ephrem the Syrian (Review)

Who Should Read This Book – Readers who desire to sit at the feet of an ancient Christian spiritual master.

What’s the Big Takeaway – Ancient Christian poetry beautifully communicates the wonder of who God is in Jesus.

And a quote: The shepherd of all flew down
in search of Adam, the sheep that had strayed;
on His shoulders He carried him taking him up:
he was an offering for the Lord of the flock,
Blessed is His descent!

(Hymns on the Resurrection 1, P. 36)

Ephrem lived in the 300s , during the height of the Trinitarian debates. When we in the West study church history, we think of the East as the Eastern Orthodox Church which, in the 300s, centered on Constantinople. The names we think of are Athanasius, Basil, Gregory of Nazianzus and Gregory of Nysa. Yet Ephrem represents the church to the east of the east: the Syriac church.

Ephrem lived right on the eastern edge of the Roman Empire, which reminds us that Christianity by this pointed had expanded into Persia. Unlike the Cappadocians and those to Ephrem’s west, he wrote in Syriac. A while back I read some work of, and about, Isaac the Syrian and when I learned about Ephrem I wanted to read some of his work too. This small book is a wonderful introduction, translated by Sebastian Brock, that includes a bit of background and some of Ephrem’s best poetry. Not for nothing is Ephrem considered the greatest Christian poet prior to Dante.

For the rest of my review, here is a taste of some of his poetry:

“Your mother is a cause for wonder: the Lord entered into her
and became a servant; He who is the Word entered
-and became silent within her; thunder entered her
-and made no sound; there entered the shepherd of all,
and in her He became the Lamb, bleating as He comes forth.”
(Hymns on the Nativity 11, p. 48)

“Death finished his taunting speech
and our Lord’s voice rang out thundering in Sheol,
tearing open each grave one by one.
Terrible pangs seized hold of Death in Sheol; where light
had never been seen, rays shone out from the angels who had entered to bring out
the dead to meet the Dead One who has given life to all
The dead went forth and shame covered the living
who had hoped they had conquered Him who gives life.”
(Nisbene Hymns 36, p. 62)

”…The medicine of life has entered Sheol
And brought its dead back to life. Who is it who has introduced for me and hidden
the living fire in which the cold and dark,
wombs of Sheol melt?”
(Nisbene Hymns 36, p. 63)

”Let us wonder at how, when he became small, He made our own small state great.”

(Hymns on Faith 31, p. 88)

“He who measures the heavens with the span of His hand
lies in a manger a span’s breadth;
He whose cupped hands contain the sea
is born in a cave;
His glory fills the heavens
and the manger is filled with his splendor.”
(Hymns on the Nativity, p. 92)

”Whatever is perverse and crooked is the result of free choice,
what is straight and upright comes from Grace.
Our free will never ceases from perversity,
but His grace never ceases from putting us straight.
Free choice had made ugly Adam’s beauty
when he wanted to become a god.
Grace made fair his scars
-and God arrived to become Man!”

(Hymns on Virginity 48, p. 130)

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