Friday, 16 December 2016

A Nativity Hymn of St. Ephraim in Rhyming Verse Fit For Advent

St. Ephraim the Syrian (306-373 A.D.) is a Father of the Church and since 1920, has been honoured as a Doctor of the Church. He is well known for having composed numerous hymns, poems and sermons in verse. Among his hymns are those on the Nativity of Christ. The following is an excerpt from the first of Ephraim’s Nativity hymns, which I have modified from Rev. J. B. Morris’ English translation by putting it in an AA-BB rhyming scheme.[1]

The following excerpt from “Hymn I” of “Hymns on the Nativity” is fitting for this time of Advent, as it explicates the longing and desire that preceded Christ’s First Coming as an infant in "swaddling clothes". From this perspective we can interpret the entire period of Salvation History before Christ’s Incarnation and birth, as the original and centuries-long Advent. A period in which the holy ones of God longed to see the day of Christ’s emergence from the heavens and from the womb.

Triunfo del Cristianismo, Gustave Dore, 1866.
Even today, this season of Advent, which is nearing it’s close, remains a season of desire. A season of longing. A season of hope. Yet not of a kind of wishful hope – hoping for something that might come. But a sure and firm hope, built on Certitude Itself – Jesus Christ. Thus in this preparatory period preceding Christmas Day – the Nativity of Christ – we are being called as the prophets and holy ones of old were called: to rekindle the flame of our desire, and the thirst of our longing, for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. Who in His First Coming has come to us in the flesh already. Who in His Third and Intermediary Coming, as St. Bernard so speaks, comes to us today, through the heart that prays, and through the Eucharist in Mass and Adoration. And who in His Second and Final Coming will come to us tomorrow – exactly when, we do not know; when He comes in glory on the clouds with all the angels and saints, to separate the sheep from the goats, and to raise the bodies of all – the just to everlasting life, and the wicked to everlasting fire.

In view of our Lord’s Second Coming our whole life is thus an Advent season. An Advent in which we are called to wait and yearn with hearts filled with desire and blazing with love, like ready brides whose lamps are filled and lit, for the Coming that was, is, and shall be. A Coming – Adventus – which in all its facets we may participate through our faith here and now. Even as did those of old who through their longing to see Jesus the Messiah, tasted the good Presence of Him for whom they pined. 

From Hymn I of Hymns On the Nativity

From thy treasure-house put forth, Lord, from the coffers of Thy Writing,
names of righteous men of old, who looked to see Thy coming!
Seth who was in Abel’s stead shadowed out the Son as slain,
by Whose death was dulled the envy brought into the world by Cain.
Noah saw the sons of God, saints that sudden waxed quite godless,
and the Holy Son he sought, whom turned men's lewdness into holiness.
            The brothers twain, that covered Noah, saw He who came to hide –
the Son of God – the nakedness of Adam, who was drunk with pride.
Shem and Japhet, being gracious, looked for the gracious Son,
Who to set free Canaan from the servitude of sin should come.

Melchizedek expected Him; as vicegerent, looked that he might see
the Priesthood’s Lord whose hyssop cleans the world in purity.
Lot beheld the Sodomites how they perverted nature:
for nature’s Lord he looked who gave His grace through human vesture.
Him Aaron looked for, for he saw that if his rod ate serpents up,
His cross would devour the Serpent that had eaten Adam and Eve as sup.
Moses saw the uplifted serpent that the bite of asps had cured,
And so he looked to see Him who’d heal the wound that ancient fangs on Adam’s hand secured.
Moses saw that he himself alone from God retained the illumining,
and he looked for Him who came and multiplied gods by His teaching.
Caleb the spy bore the cluster on the staff, and came and longed to see the Cluster,
Whose wine would restore the world with all the comfort He could muster.
Him did Jesus son of Nun so long, that he might conceive the force of his own surname:
for if by His name he waxed so mighty, how much more would He surpass such fame?
This Jesus that gathered and carried, and brought with him the fruit in store,
was longing for the Tree of Life to taste the Fruit that quickens all.
For Him Rahab too was looking; for when the scarlet thread from window hung,
which in type redeemed her from wrath, the Truth in type she tasted on her tongue.
For Him Elijah longed, and when on earth he saw Him not,
he, through faith most thoroughly cleansed, mounted up in heaven to see the Sole-Begot.
Moses saw Him and Elijah; the meek man from the depth ascended,
the zealous from on high descended, and in the midst beheld the Son – the Splendid.
They figured the mystery of His Advent: Moses a type of the dead,
and Elijah a type of the living, that fly to meet Him at His coming as He hath said.
For the dead that have tasted death, them He makes to be the first:
and the rest that are not buried, are last caught up to meet Him in sacred mirth.

Who is there that can count me up the just that looked for the Son,
whose number cannot be determined by us weak creatures – this unknown sum?
Pray ye for me, O beloved, that another time with strength endued,
I in another legend may so set forth their foretaste, as I am able to.
Who is adequate to the praising of the Son of the Truth that to us has risen?
For it was for Him the righteous longed, that in their generation they might see Him.

Adam looked for Him, for He's the Lord of the Cherub that guarded behind the flaming knife,
Who could minister an entrance and a residence hard by the branches of the Tree of Life.
Abel longed after Him, that in his days He might come, the One foretold;
that instead of that lamb he offered, the Lamb of God he might behold.
For Him Eve also looked; for women’s nakedness was sore, and He capable to clothe them;
not with leaves, but with that same glory that they had exchanged away in Eden.
The tower that the many builded, in mystery looked for One,
Who coming down would build on earth a tower reaching heaven’s sun.
Yea the ark of living creatures looked in a type for our Lord dear;
for He should build the Holy Church, wherein souls find a refuge free from fear.
In Peleg’s days earth was divided into tongues, threescore and ten.
For Him Who by the tongues, to His Apostles divided earth to them.
Earth which the flood had swallowed up, in silence cried to her Lord.
He came down and opened Baptism, and men were drawn on Ark aboard.
Surnamed as sons of God were Seth and Enos, and also Cainan,
for the Son of God they looked, that they by grace might be His brethren.
But little short of a thousand years did Methuselah breathe:
He looked for the Son Who makes heirs of life that never leaves!
Grace itself in hidden mystery was beseeching on their behalf
that their Lord might come in their age and fill up their empty flasks.
For the Holy Spirit in them, in their stead, besought with meditation: up them stirred;
and in Him did they look on that Redeemer, after whom they longed – the Word.

The souls of just men perceive in the Son a Medicine of life; and so they felt desires
that He might come in their own days, and quench with sweetness their ardent fires.
Enoch was longing for Him, and since on earth the Son he did not see,
he was justified by great faith, and mounted up in Heaven to Him to see.
Who is there that will spurn at grace, when the Gift that they of old
gained not by so much labour, comes to us now like freely given gold?
For Him Lamech also looked who might come and lovingly give Him quiet rest
from his labour and the toiling of his hands, and from the earth the Just One cursed unblest.
Lamech then beheld his son, Noah – him, in whom were figured types relating to the Son.
In the stead of the Lord afar off, the type at hand afforded quiet in patience done.
Yea Noah also longed to see Him, the taste of whose assisting graces he had tasted.
For if the type of Him preserved living things, how sure He was upon souls to bestow life elated!
Noah longed for Him, by trial knowing Him, for through Him had the ark been established.
For if the type of Him thus saved life, assuredly much more would He in person all life assist.
Abraham perceived in Spirit that the Son’s birth was far away;
instead of Him in person he rejoiced to see even His day.
To see Him Isaac longed, as having tasted the taste of His redemption on the rock;
for if the sign of Him so gave life, much more would He by the reality unlock.

Joyous were today the Watchers, that the Wakeful came to wake us!
Who would pass this night in slumber, in which all the world was watching thus?

[1] For Morris’ original English translation of which this is a modified version, see Ephraim Syrus, “Hymns on the Nativity,” in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Phillip Schaff and Henry Wace, eds. (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers Marketing, 2012), 13:224-225.

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