Ephrem of Edessa was a teacher, poet, orator, and defender of the faith. His was a voice of Aramaic Christianity, speaking the language Jesus spoke, using imagery that Jesus used. Edessa, a Syrian city, was a center for the spread of Christianity in the East long before the conversion of the western Roman empire.
The Syrians called Ephrem “the harp of the Holy Spirit”, and his hymns enriched the liturgy of the Syrian Church. Ephrem’s writings were influential in the development of Church doctrine. Jerome wrote that he had read in Greek of volume written by Ephrem on the Holy Spirit, and “though it was only a translation, I recognized therein the sublime genius of the man.”
Ephrem was born around 306 at Nisibis in Mesopotamia. At eighteen, he was baptized by James (Jacob), the bishop of Nisibis. It is thought that Ephrem accompanied Jacob to the first Council of Nicaea in 325. He lived at Nisibis until 363, when the Persians captured the city and drove out the Christians.
Ephrem thereafter retired to a cave in the hills above the city of Edessa, where he wrote most of his spiritual works. He lived an austere life, eating barley bread and dried herbs, a diet sometimes varied by the addition of greens. He drank only water. His clothing was a mass of patches. But despite this life he was not a recluse, and he frequently went into Edessa to preach. Discovering that hymns could be of great value in teaching the orthodox catholic faith, he opposed Gnostic hymns with his own, sung by a choir of women.
During a famine in 372 and 373, he distributed food and money to the poor and organized a sort of ambulance service for the sick. He died in 373 of exhaustion, brought on by his long hours of relief work.
Some seventy-two hymns, commentaries on the Old and New Testaments, and numerous homilies are among his extant writings. In his commentary on the Passion, he wrote: “No one has seen or shall see the things which you have seen. The Lord himself has become the altar, priest, and bread, and the chalice of salvation. He alone suffices for all, yet none suffices him. He is Altar and Lamb, victim and sacrifice, priest as well as food.”
from Lesser Feasts and Fasts (1980), with amendments
Pour out upon us, O Lord, that same Spirit by which your deacon Ephrem rejoiced to proclaim in sacred song the mysteries of faith; and so gladden our hearts that we, like him, may be devoted to you alone; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
The propers for the commemoration of Ephrem of Edessa, Deacon and Hymnodist, are published on the Lectionary Page website.