Ephrem of Edessa, Deacon, Doctor (RM)
(also known as Ephraem, Ephraim)
Born c. 306 in Nisibis (Syria), Mesopotamia; died at Edessa (Iraq) on June 9, 373; declared Doctor of the Church in 1920 by Pope Benedict XV; feast day formerly June 18 and February 1.

Ephrem passed his entire life in his native Mesopotamia (Syria). He was long thought to be the son of a pagan priest, but it is now believed his parents were Christians. He was baptized at eighteen, served under Saint James of Nisibis, became head of his school, and probably accompanied him to the Council of Nicaea in 325.

Syrian sources attribute the deliverance of Nisibis from the Persians in 350 to his prayers, but when in 363 Nisibis was ceded to the Persians by Emperor Jovian, he took residence in a cave near Edessa in Roman territory. Edessa (Urfa in Iraq), the site of a famous theological school, was where he did most of his writing.

Tradition says he visited Saint Basil at Caesarea in 370 and on his return helped alleviate the rigors of the famine of winter 372-73 by distributing food and money to the stricken and helping the poor (one of the jobs of deacons).

Ephraem's fame rests on his writings, above all on his metrical homilies, to be read aloud, and his hymns. The latter in particular were designed for popular use and were didactic in character, often directed against various current heresies (Attwater). He is largely responsible for introducing hymns into public worship. Particularly outstanding are his Nisibeian hymns and the canticles for the seasons.

Compositions attributed to him are still much used in the Syrian churches, and his reputation spread to the Greek-speaking world before his death. The English hymns 'Receive, O Lord, in Heaven above/Our prayers' and 'Virgin, wholly marvelous' are translated from Saint Ephraem's Syriac.

He wrote commentaries on a considerable number of books of the Bible, and a personal 'Testament' which seems to have been added to by a later hand. He countered the heretics--especially the Arians and the Gnostics--and wrote on the Last Judgment.

All Saint Ephraem's work is elevated in style, flowery in expression, and full of imagery: even as a theologian he wrote as a poet. He has always been regarded as a great teacher in the Syrian churches and many of his works were early translated into Greek, Armenian, and Latin.

Ephraem was devoted to the Blessed Virgin. He is often invoked as a witness to the Immaculate Conception because of his absolute certainty about Mary's sinlessness. He is quoted by other authors but we lack a critical edition, which has prevented further examination.

He was called 'the Harp of the Holy Spirit,' and proclaimed a doctor of the Church, the only Syrian so honored. He is especially venerated in the Eastern Church (Attwater, Delaney).

 

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