June 10: Ephrem of Edessa, Deacon, 373

Welcome to the Holy Women, Holy Men blog! We invite you to read about this commemoration, use the collect and lessons in prayer, whether individually or in corporate worship, and then tell us what you think. For more information about this project, click here.

About this commemoration

Ephrem of Edessa was a teacher, poet, orator, and defender of the faith—a voice of Aramaic Christianity, speaking the language Jesus spoke, using the imagery Jesus used. Edessa, a Syrian city, was a center for the spread of Christianity in the East long before the conversion of the western Roman empire.

The Syrians called Ephrem “The Harp of the Holy Spirit,” and his hymns still enrich the liturgies of the Syrian Church. Ephrem was one whose writings were influential in the development of Church doctrine. Jerome writes: “I have read in Greek a volume of his on the Holy Spirit; though it was only a translation, I recognized therein the sublime genius of the man.”Ephrem was born at Nisibis in Mesopotamia. At eighteen, he was baptized by James, Bishop of Nisibis. It is believed that Ephrem accompanied James to the famous Council of Nicaea in 325. He lived at Nisibis until 363, when the Persians captured the city and drove out the Christians.

Ephrem retired to a cave in the hills above the city of Edessa. There he wrote most of his spiritual works. He lived on barley bread and dried herbs, sometimes varied by greens. He drank only water. His clothing was a mass of patches. But he was not a recluse, and frequently went to Edessa to preach. Discovering that hymns could be of great value in support of the true faith, he opposed Gnostic hymns with his own, sung by a choir of women.

During a famine in 372–373, he distributed food and money to the poor and organized a sort of ambulance service for the sick. He died of exhaustion, brought on by his long hours of relief work.

Of his writings, there remain 72 hymns, commentaries on the Old and New Testaments, and numerous homilies. In his commentary on the Passion, he wrote: “No one has seen or shall see the things which you have seen. The Lord himself has become the altar, priest, and bread, and the chalice of salvation. He alone suffices for all, yet none suffices for him. He is Altar and Lamb, victim and sacrifice, priest as well as food.”


I  Pour out upon us, O Lord, that same Spirit by which thy deacon Ephrem rejoiced to proclaim in sacred song the mysteries of faith; and so gladden our hearts that we, like him, may be devoted to thee alone; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.

II  Pour out on us, O Lord, that same Spirit by which your deacon Ephrem rejoiced to proclaim in sacred song the mysteries of faith; and so gladden our hearts that we, like him, may be devoted to you alone; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.

Psalm  98:5–10


Proverbs 3:1–7

Ephesians 3:8–12

John 16:12–15

Preface of a Saint (1)

From Holy, Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints © 2010 by The Church Pension Fund. Used by permission.

10 thoughts on “June 10: Ephrem of Edessa, Deacon, 373

  1. Edessa is in modern-day Turkey. I found that on the Sawtucket site, also this prayer:

    “O Lord and Master of my life, do not give me the spirit of laziness, meddling, self-importance and idle talk. Instead, grace me, Your servant, with the spirit of modesty, humility, patience, and love. Indeed, my Lord and King, grant that I may see my own faults, and not condemn my brothers and sisters, for You are blessed unto ages of ages. Amen.”

    Another site mentions that Edessa is in the plains of Haran–Abraham is said to have been called by God to go there. Interesting that it became an important site for the spread of Christianity.

  2. How could you not love a guy who taught through music? There’s one hymn of his in the 1982 Hymnal. Sadly, I don’t think I’ve ever sung it, and it’s not available through the on-line sources. It’s number 443.

  3. In the Hymnal 1982 there is one piece by this man and it is a theological heavyweight ( # 443 ). The translator
    and adapter have provided a very interesting ( I assume accurate) English version which is rich in allusion and
    draws me into reflection/meditation. I amglad he is on our schedule to remember and celebrate.

  4. “speaking the language Jesus spoke” — Well, not quite. Ephrem’s language was Syriac, a “Semitic language belonging to the Northern Central, or Northwestern, group; it was an important Christian literary and liturgical language from the 3rd through the 7th century AD. Syriac was based on the East Aramaic dialect of Edessa, Osroëne (present-day Şanlıurfa, in southeastern Turkey), which became one of the chief centres of Christianity in the Middle East at the end of the 2nd century. The earliest Syriac inscriptions date from the first half of the 1st century; the earliest documents not inscribed on stone date from 243.” (The Encyclopaedia Britannica).
    Ephrem was far more than a hymnist: his poetry, sermons, and theological works made him “the chief glory of Edessene Christianity” and “the sun of the Syrians,” as well as “the father of Christian hymnody.”
    Perhaps the best tribute to his genius is the Codex Ephraemi Syri rescriptus. In the 12th century, a devout monk laboriously scraped the pages of this 5th century Bible manuscript clean so that the precious vellum could be used to record a collection of Ephrem’s sermons.
    Too bad about the no pets rule — Ephrem’s bugs saved a city.

  5. Two thinks about the biography:
    * Ephrem of Syria was a deacon. It is worth making the connection to his deaconal ministry of carrying the gospel by word and deed.
    * At least one of the traditions of Ephrem’s death has his death due not to exhaustion, but to plague, whose victims to whom he was ministering at the time of his death.

    I find the collect remarkably flat for a hymnographer. Since we make the effort to allude to poetry in other poets’ (e.g., Donne, Herbert) collects, doesn’t Ephrem deserve the same care?

  6. Ephraem is a perfect bridge between us and the Scriptures. A paragon of patristic incarnational theology.

  7. I doubt if Ephram has much of a cult in TEC, but he iis an important Oriental theologian

  8. This is the third commemoration which could share June 9.

    Line 3, fourth paragraph: add “on June 9, 373” after “exhaustion,”

    Line 6, second paragraph: add “in about 306” after “born”.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s