When I reflect on Mary, mother of God, often my admiration and gratitude for her life of fidelity, faith and wisdom cannot be expressed in ordinary words.
Instead, I turn to the deep tradition of poetry and music that has grown up among the faithful over the centuries, and in particular to the work of a saint at the intersection of the East and from the West: Saint Ephrem the Syrian.
Ephrem (an alternate spelling is Ephraim) lived in the fourth century in an area of the world that is now southeastern Turkey. He wrote and spoke Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic, a close linguistic cousin of the language spoken by Jesus.
Whether or not he was a monk, Ephrem was dedicated to a simple, ascetic lifestyle and served as a deacon to several bishops.
At a papal audience in November 2007, retired Pope Benedict XVI told those gathered that Ephrem was the “most important Syriac representative of Christianity” who “was uniquely successful in reconciling vocations as theologian and of a poet ”.
Ephrem’s contemporaries called it “the harp of the spirit”. He wrote two types of poetry: hymns (“madrashé”), intended to be sung, and homilies “in verse” (“memré”).
Unfortunately, Ephrem’s music did not survive, although others created compositions to accompany his poetry, some of which have been translated and are available to us today.
Among the jewels of Ephrem’s poetry are works dedicated to the Incarnation and to Mary, mother of God. With a mixture rich in images, rhythmic cadence and striking paradox, the saint expresses awe and wonder at the mysteries nestled in the faith at times like the Annunciation and, more particularly, the Nativity.
One of these poems is “Homily on the Nativity”, translated by scholar Sebastian Brock in the book “The Harp of the Spirit: Poems of Saint Ephrem the Syrian”.
Ephrem helps us see Mary as a young mother, cradling her baby like any young mother would, while giving an idea of the awe-inspiring nature of Mary’s baby, fully divine and fully human:
The King before whom the angels
of fire and spirit tremble
is in a girl’s womb,
and she cuddles him like a baby.
Heaven is the throne for his glory,
yet he sits on Mary’s knee;
the earth is also his footstool,
yet, like a baby, he crawls beside her.
Ephrem’s theology derived from two important sources: Scripture and nature. In both, he saw the love of God at work and often incorporated them into his poetry.
In another living verse, which Pope Benedict XVI shared during his papal audience, Ephrem uses images and sounds of beautiful effect to describe the Incarnation and, through it, the transformation into Mary at the Annunciation. and at the Nativity:
“The Lord entered into her and became a servant; the Word entered into her and was silent in her; thunder entered her and her voice fell silent; the Shepherd of all entered into her; he made himself a Lamb in her and went out bleating.
Sometimes Ephrem’s choice of what to write about is as inspiring as the way he composes his verses.
For example, in his Hymn 12 on the Nativity, he writes in the immediacy of the first person, capturing the meaning of Mary’s voice and the joy of Jesus’ presence in her, much like in the Magnificat (Lk 1 , 46-55):
“The child I am carrying is carrying me,” said Marie; and he lowered his wings, and took me and set me under his gables and ascended into the air; and it was promised to me that height and depth would belong to my Son.
Ephrem’s poetry is a treasure during Advent, when we again turn to Mary in reflection and prayer. If our words seem not to be enough, he draws us into the wonder, awe, faith and gratitude that are the heart of Mary – love in Advent and in all seasons too.
Ephrem’s feast in the Orthodox Church is January 28, and his feast in the Roman Catholic Church is June 9, the date of his death in 373.
Pratt is a columnist for Catholic News Service. His website is maureenpratt.com.