17 Dec 2009

Ephraem the Syrian: Another Ancient Christmas Hymn

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Christmas, Church History, Grace, Jesus, Kingdom, Ministry, Preaching

One of the giants of early Christian hymnody is a man known as Ephraem the Syrian. Ephraem thrived in the 300s and died in the year 379. The Way spread into the East from the beginning. Before the call of Saul there are disciples in Damascus of Syria (Acts 9.1-2). The Way would continue to spread into Mesopotamia’s great centers of civilization and learning. Ephraem thrived in the city of Edessa in upper Mesopotamia.  Edessa was one of the most important centers of Christian scholarship in the world for centuries.

Ephraem rescued the practice of singing from an ill reputation because the Gnostics had seized upon the art form as a way of promoting their heretical views on Jesus. Ephraem who apparently had a spiritual gift in hymn writing turned the art form back to the faith. His songs are characterized by a deceptive childlike simplicity in capturing deep devotional feeling, beautiful in the images used and the teaching conveyed. His favorite themes are Christmas and stories of children in the Gospels. The hymn presented here is titled “On the Nativity of Our Lord.” One unique element of this hymn is that it presents the Christmas story from the point of view of Joseph rather than Mary as in most modern poetic presentations.

Into his arms with tender love
Did Joseph take his holy Son,
And worshiped him as God, and saw
The babe like any little one.
His heart rejoiced above him there,
For now the only God had birth;
And pious fear upon him came
Before this Judge of all the earth.
Ah, what a lofty wonder!

The city of Edessa in upper Mesopotamia was a major center of the Christian faith. Ephraem thrived here.

Who gave me then this precious Son
Of highest God, to be my child?
For I against thy mother here
Had almost been by zeal beguiled;
And I had thought to cast her off —
Alas, I saw not truly then
How in her bosom she should bear
The costliest treasure known to men,
To make my poverty, so soon,
The richest lot in mortal ken!

David, that king of ancient days,
My ancestor, had placed the crown
On his head, and there it lay;
But I sank deep and further down;
I was no king, but in its stead
A carpenter, and that alone.
But now may crown my brow again
That which befits a kingly throne,
For here upon my bosom lies
The Lord of lords, my very own!

As we enter into the Christmas season perhaps Ephraem the Syrian (who lived one thousand seven hundred years ago) can help us remember what the season is about. Perhaps we can even reflect on what Joseph experienced and we can join him in worshiping the “little one” from heaven.

If you would like to hear one of the “Christmas” hymns by Ephraem with English words (it is not sung in English) here is one example.  We get the flavor of singing in the East.  On the Night of the Nativity.

Of Related Interest

Narsai: Mary, Christmas, Poetry & Theology: Christian Faith in Mesopotamia

Aurelius Clemens Prudentius: Another Ancient Christmas Hymn

Bobby Valentine

4 Responses to “Ephraem the Syrian: Another Ancient Christmas Hymn”

  1. BillyWilson Says:

    It sounds great if you sing it to the tune of “Hotel California”.

  2. Stoned-Campbell Disciple Says:

    you will have to sing it to me Billy

  3. southmoon Says:

    Good stuff as always, Bobby. Of course I had to read yours right after I posted up about Christmas songs but mine was about reindeer and snowmen….. Merry Christmas, my friend!

  4. Joshua Says:

    One of your best posts yet.

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