Saturday, January 28, 2012

Blessed are those like Christ

            In his hymn, “On the birth of our Lord,” the thirty-first of the Hymns of Virginity, St. Ephrem the Syrian, whose feast is today, employs many images to describe poetically the one who surpasses our everyday speech. He describes Christ as atoning Hyssop, Libation, and Lamb (str. 4-5). Christ is the Priest and the Sacrifice (str. 5). He is the Treasurer and the Treasure (str. 2, 7). He is Fountain, Instruction, Remembrance, Trust, Rock, Curdled Milk, and Justifying Wall (str. 7-8). He is the Gate and the Yoke (str. 9, 11). He is represented by the Eucharistic images of the Grape-Cluster of mercy and the Ear of Wheat (str. 13-14). He is the Furnace, the Mirror, and the skilled Sailor (str. 10, 12, 15). It would be easily possible to multiply images of Christ endlessly, and Ephrem has begun to try. “Christ [is]… above every name that is named” (Eph 1:20-21). No single poetic image, however profound, can ever completely contain or express the inexhaustible mystery of Christ. The use of many, therefore, benefits the attempt to grow in understanding.
Icon of St. Ephrem writing
            Each of Ephrem’s images of Christ has in common a salvific character. Characteristically, in this hymn, he presents an image of Christ at the beginning of each strophe and ends each strophe with the exclamation, “Blessed is…” the one who benefits in the way particularly emphasized by this particular image.  In other words, blessed is the one whom Christ saves or blessed is the one who becomes more like Christ. Many of these images emphasize Christ’s redemptive and atoning role. Others, three in particular, especially struck me and seem to emphasize theosis – becoming like Christ – as the means of salvation. These are the Furnace, the Mirror, and the Sailor (str. 10, 12, 15).

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