Mar 25, 2024

Ephrem the Syrian

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Why do we sing in worship? Singing is not mere filler, as warm-up to the sermon. Hymn singing has served a valuable teaching role in church history. Songs helped worshipers internalize the theology preached in the sermon. Many of our cherished hymns set Scripture to music. While I welcome the inclusion of praise music into recent worship, some songs need a strong infusion of theology. Charles Wesley composed hymns in the 18th century primarily to teach theology. I’m reminded every time I sing his cherished carol, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” Consider all the theology Wesley packed into a single line, “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see; Hail the incarnate Deity, Pleased with us in flesh to dwell, Jesus our Emmanuel.” Ephrem (or Ephraim), the Syrian (306-373), was a teacher in the early church whose primary teaching method was through hymns. Four hundred of his hymns still exist and are sung in Syrian churches today. In his late teens, Ephrem attended the great Council of Nicaea in 325 AD, which determined Jesus the Son was “consubstantial with the Father.” He wrote hymns defending Nicaean orthodoxy and challenging the prevailing heresies of his day.Given that large segments of the 4th-century population couldn’t read or write, learning hymns became a valuable learning tool. Many of Ephrem’s hymns taught core beliefs about Jesus’ full divinity and humanity. Consider the line from one of his nativity hymns, “Heaven is the throne of his glory, yet he sits on Mary’s knee; The earth is his fountain, yet like a baby he crawls beside her.” We join in a Lenten prayer of Ephrem the Syrian:

O Lord, drive away the darkness from our minds with the light of your wisdom, so that enlightened in this way we may serve you with renewed purity. The beginning of the sun’s passage through the sky marks the beginning of the working day for us mortals: we ask you, Lord, to prepare in our minds a place where the day that knows no end may give its light. Grant that we may have within us this light, the life of the resurrection, and that nothing may take away our delight in you. Mark us with the sign of that day that does not begin with the movement and the course of the sun, by keeping our minds fixed on you. Do not take away from our minds, Lord, the signs of your spiritual presence and do not withdraw from our bodies the warmth and delight of your presence. The mortal nature of our bodies is a source of corruption within us: let the outpouring of the spirit of your love wipe away the effect of mortality from our hearts. Grant, Lord, that we may hasten to our true home, and, like Moses on the mountain-top, let us have a glimpse of it. Amen.

“A Spiritual Psalter or Reflections on God,” excepted by Bishop Theophan

Rev. Dr. Peter James served 42 years as the senior of Vienna Presbyterian Church in Vienna, VA — 21 years in the 20th century and 21 years in the 21st century. He retired in 2021 and now serves as Pastor-in-Residence at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

Even as a pastor, prayer came slowly to Pete. Read Pete’s story.