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).

Ephrem uses the image of the “reproving Furnace that does not accept on face value – that investigated and tested and distinguished between the people and the peoples” (str. 10) to represent Christ the Judge. Interestingly, the “furnace of fire, [where] men will weep and gnash their teeth” (Matt 13:42) may inspire this image. If this is the case, Ephrem sees the fire of hell as the presence of Christ to those who reject him, rather than as the absence of Christ. At any rate, fire is a good judge of the quality of material – a cleansing fire burns away impurities from metal, for example, leaving only what is pure – and so is a fitting image of the Judge between “the deceit of the people” and “the truth of the peoples” (str. 10). Ultimately, Ephrem ends this strophe: “Blessed is he who becomes his own judge and in you reproves himself!” (str. 10). Here is the first example of theosis in this hymn. As Christ is the Judge, we are to become our own judges. Rather than being reproved by Christ and being cast into the “furnace of fire” (Matt 13:42), we ought to reprove ourselves – purify ourselves as with a cleansing fire, burning away any vices within our hearts. In this way can we be saved: by becoming like Christ.
The mirror, perhaps most explicitly of these images, exemplifies theosis as a model of salvation. Christ is the “clear Mirror that was set up for the peoples!” (str. 12). Looking in this Mirror, we see our “own detestableness” as compared to the “beauty” of the Mirror (Christ) and (hopefully) “reproach” ourselves (str. 12). “Blessed is he who reproaches his detestableness in your beauty and imprints your image on himself!” (str. 12). To imprint the image of Christ, the image of God, upon ourselves is a clear reference to becoming like Christ, even one with Him according to grace. The clear Mirror is the clearest example of theosis in this hymn.  
            When one considers the numerous scriptural references to the sea and Christ’s mastery over it, it is easy to see how Ephrem could call Christ the “skilled Sailor, who has conquered the troubled sea” (str. 15). The image of the skilled Sailor seems inspired most explicitly by Christ’s calming of the sea (cf. Matt 8:23-27). Implicitly, his other encounters with the sea also inspire this image: his walking on the water (cf. Matt 14: 22-33), his preaching from the boat, and his causing Peter to yield a great catch of fish (cf. Luke 5:1-7). Even in the first creation narrative of Genesis, “the waters that were gathered together he called Seas” (Gen 1:10). It is by Christ the Word that God created the seas, and all things. He called the waters the seas. In Genesis, naming a thing expresses dominion over that thing. Christ, Pantocrator, has dominion over the seas, and all things. He is truly the skilled Sailor. Each of these scriptural passages demonstrate Christ’s mastery of water and by extension his mastery over all elements and all things, which reveals his divinity. “Even winds and sea obey him” (Matt 8:27).
             Ephrem continues to develop this image: “Your illustrious cross came; it became the rudder of life. Your wind of mercy blew, it steered the ships away from the troubled sea to the harbor of peace” (str. 15). The image of the cross as “the rudder of life” recalls Christ’s injunctions that we take up our cross and follow him (cf. Mark 8:34-35). If we would rise with Christ, we must die with him. To steer the ships of our lives through the tumultuous sea of the world into the harbor of everlasting life, it is necessary to use our cross as the “rudder of life.” Only by accepting the difficulties of life courageously will we successfully steer our course true.
Ss. John of Damascus and Ephrem the Syrian are depicted here together under St. George on this fragment of a 14th century triptych, currently in Saint Catherine's Monastery in Sinai. 
            Ephrem ends this strophe characteristically: “Blessed is he who becomes his own sailor and keeps and brings out his treasure!” (str. 15). Here is another example of theosis in this hymn. If Christ is the skilled Sailor, blessed is the one who becomes a sailor. Blessed is the one who becomes like Christ. If Christ’s cross is “the rudder of life,” our crosses must become the rudders of our lives. The individual must reflect the archetype of Christ – must become one with Christ – if he or she is to enter into the eternal life in Christ.
One could go on forever meditating upon even these few images of Christ presented for us by St. Ephrem the Syrian. God “fills all in all” (Eph 1:23) and “may be everything to every one” (1Cor 15:28). In Christ, he has become describable, as St. John of Damascus wrote in his work On the Divine Images. These images testify to his describability, much as do the icons John was defending. They are, in a sense, poetic icons of Christ that show us the possibility of becoming one with him. 

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