Ephrem’s Symbolic Transformation

This post is part of an ongoing series examining Ephrem the Syrian and early Syriac Christianity.

TransformationIn his dissertation on Ephrem, Jeff Wickes argues that Ephrem’s symbolic universe constructs a symbolic self through the scriptural world of his hymns (Wickes, 3). In light of an earlier chapter, this is clarified to mean that Ephrem co-identified the scriptural and symbolic selves (Ibid., 3). Overall, Wickes’s presentation of how Ephrem assimilated biblical terminology in order to create a scriptural self for his audience is convincing, especially when read with the perspectives of Alford and Krueger. Yet there seems to be something missing from this presentation of the scriptural self, namely, the concrete manner in which the transformation of the believer through identification with Ephrem’s symbolic universe was to occur. This essay reflects upon the question of whether or not Ephrem’s scriptural universe required concrete expression, or remained a primarily abstract symbolic universe.

Saint Ephrem the Syrian
Saint Ephrem the Syrian

The general argument that faith was to be lent through hymns (Ibid., 15), that identification with and affirmation of Ephrem’s symbolic universe was a major purpose in his Hymns on Faith, seems a bit too abstract, as if identification with the symbolic universe could be played out only in a spoken or affirmative sense, without necessarily suggesting that the symbolic universe of the hymns be transposed in the lived universe of Syriac Christianity. Here, Gary Anderson’s suggestion of the literal giving of alms (noted on Wickes, 14-5) becomes, at the very least, intriguing, as it offers a concrete representation of Ephrem’s symbolic theology. This is not to say that Wickes’s presentation of Ephrem’s universe does not encompass concrete moral concerns; however, these admonitions seem to focus on “right belief” and “right speech” rather than “right action.” Now of course, the controversy at hand was often highly abstract, dealing with the manner in which Christians conceived and spoke of the Son in relation to the Father. But—and perhaps here I am reading too much of the Nicene position (and specially Athanasius and the Cappadocians) into what Ephrem’s Christology should be and not reading it as it is—on a fundamental level the power of the Christian symbolic universe resides in its concreteness. Certainly the incarnation of the Son of God should lead the faithful to learn from the symbolic nature of scripture; yet at the same time there seems to be a requirement of practice—faith in action, as it were—that calls Christians beyond merely identifying with the thematic to living out that connection.

Ephrem’s use of (at least ostensibly) historical events in his hymns seems to presuppose the tangible work of God in the world—Sodom and Gomorrah (HF 10.11-12), Elijah and the Baal prophets (HF 10.13), the Wedding at Cana (HF 14.1f), Gabriel’s appearance to Zechariah (HF 21.2-5), and the flood narrative of Noah and the ark (HF 49) providing a few examples. The cooption of these narratives as the context of Ephrem’s symbolic recasting seems to presuppose their location within time and space, their connection to the reality of the world that makes the Christian’s symbolic participation in their stories even more powerful. Even clearer are Ephrem’s apparent references to the Eucharist, the ongoing place of participation not only with the grand metanarrative and symbolic universe of God, but also a visible and tangible interaction with Christ himself (HF 10.17 and 85.8-9, maybe 25.19-29). Finally, in the Hymns on the Pearl we see clear identification of the manner in which the concrete can shape the theological and symbolic, for it is through reflection upon the pearl that symbols may be revealed, the great things of the kingdom may be found, and the mysteries of the Son recognized (HF 81.1). Even the use of pearls as jewelry can lead to appropriate reflection upon the Son (HF 82.1, 83.9-10, and 85.13).

Oyster Pearl SandOn an important level, locating the scriptural and symbolic selves within Ephrem’s Hymns on Faith stands as a precursor to understanding the concrete implications of faith. That is, the fact that Ephrem helps his audience locate their conceptual connection with, for example, the vessels of the Wedding at Cana provides a starting point from which lived action can develop out of a symbolic universe (HF 14). And certainly the language of humility, the location of the self in the “villains” of the Biblical narrative, assists with this process, reminding readers and hearers that they ought proceed with caution about their place in the universal narrative. Perhaps this is why Ephrem’s use of the metaphor of “lyre” is so important, for it presupposes action of some kind in order to be meaningful. I would like to see additional explanation on Ephrem’s use of the lyre metaphor, especially the implications of that image for the concrete ramifications of Ephrem’s scriptural and symbolic universe. This would seem to bring the image of that universe “full circle”, as it were, and provide a more holistic portrait of the transformation that Ephrem seeks for his community through the application of his symbolic universe.


Published by Jacob J. Prahlow

Husband of Hayley. Dad of Bree and Judah. Lead pastor at Arise Church. MATS from Saint Louis University, MA from Wake Forest University, BA from Valparaiso University. Theologian and writer here and at Conciliar Post. Find me on social at @pastorjakestl

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