He’s been called the “greatest poet of the patristic age,” he’s one of only 36 Doctors of the Church, and he wrote some of the most beautiful and profound reflections on the meaning of Christmas in Church history. And yet few Catholics have even heard of him.
I’m talking about the great fourth century deacon and hymn-writer St. Ephrem of Syria.
Born during the Diocletian persecution of the early 4th century, it’s unclear whether his father was a Christian or a pagan priest, but his mother was a Christian. Ephrem was baptized as a young man and soon after was ordained as a deacon. He lived a proto-monastic life and started writing hymns as a way of meditating on and teaching the faith.
A constant theme in his Christmas hymns is juxtaposing the tender smallness of Christ as a human baby with the infinite power and enormity of Christ’s divinity.
“When He sucked the milk of Mary, He was suckling all with Life,” he writes. “While He was lying on His Mother’s bosom, in His bosom were all creatures lying. He was silent as a Babe, and yet He was making His creatures execute all His commands.” (Hymns on the Nativity [HN] 3)
Here’s another snippet: “The bosom of Mary amazes me, that it sufficed for You, Lord, and embraced You.— All creation were too small, to conceal Your Majesty;—Heaven and earth too narrow, to be in the likeness of wings, to cover Your Godhead.— Too small for You was the bosom of earth; great enough for You was the bosom of Mary!” (HN 16)
Take a moment and let that sink in. Very profound!
Here are just a few more snippets from his hymns on the birth of Christ:
“Mary bare the silent Babe, while in Him were hidden all tongues! Joseph bare Him, and in Him was hidden a nature more ancient than anything that is old! The High One became as a little child, and in Him was hidden a treasure of wisdom sufficing for all! Though Most High, yet He sucked the milk of Mary, and of His goodness all creatures suck!
“He is the Breast of Life, and the Breath of Life; the dead suck from His life and revive. Without the breath of the air no man lives, without the Might of the Son no man subsists. On His living breath that quickens all, depend the spirits that are above and that are beneath.” (HN 3)
“Let women praise Her, the pure Mary,— that as in Eve their mother—great was their reproach—lo! In Mary their sister—greatly magnified was their honor. […] Of him the Lord said, that he had fallen from Heaven.— The Abhorred One had exalted himself; from his uplifting he has fallen. The foot of Mary has trod him down, who bruised Eve with his heel.” (HN 15)
“[Mary] lulled Him, [saying,] ‘Who has given me, the barren, that I should conceive and bring forth this One, that is manifold; a little One, that is great; for that He is wholly with me, and wholly everywhere?
“‘The day that Gabriel came in unto my low estate, he made me free instead of a handmaid, of a sudden: for I was the handmaid of Your Divine Nature, and am also the Mother of Your human Nature, O Lord and Son! Of a sudden the handmaid became the King’s daughter in You, You Son of the King. Lo, the meanest in the house of David, by reason of You, You Son of David, lo, a daughter of earth has attained unto Heaven by the Heavenly One!
“‘How am I astonished that there is laid before me a Child, older than all things! His eye is gazing unceasingly upon Heaven. As for the stammering of His mouth, to my seeming it betokens, that with God its silence speaks.'” (HN 4)