Monday, December 5, 2016

Delight – Ephrem of Edessa (the Syrian) on Paradise

Before Lothlorien or Narnia or Perelandra, there was Ephrem of Edessa's vision of Paradise.

Ephrem of Edessa (also known as "the Syrian") lived from around 306 to 373 and was one of the great theologians and hymn writers of the early church. He wrote in Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic (the language Jesus spoke), and thus is not nearly as well-known in the western church as he should be. His Hymns on Paradise is a cycle of 15 hymns ranging in length from 11 to 31 verses (think of that next time you are tempted to complain about singing all the verses of a hymn in church).

Here is a selection:

1. In the world there is struggle,
in Eden, a crown of glory.
At our resurrection
both earth and heaven will God renew,
liberating all creatures,
granting them paschal joy, along with us.
Upon our mother Earth, along with us,
did he lay disgrace
when he laid on her, with the sinner, the curse;
so, together with the just, will he bless her too;
this nursing mother, along with her children,
shall He who is Good renew.

Response: Blessed is He who, in his Paradise,
gives joy to our gloom

2. The evil one mixed his cup,
proffering its bitterness to all;
in everyone’s path, he set his snares,
for everyone has he spread out his net;
he has caused tares to spring up
in order to choke the good seed.
But in His glorious Paradise
He who is Good
Will sweeten their bitter trials,
Their crowns he will make great;
because they have borne their crosses
He will escort them into Eden.

3. Should you wish
to climb a tree,
with its lower branches
it will provide steps before your feet,
eager to make you recline
in its bosom above,
on the couch of its upper branches.
So arranged is the surface of these branches,
bent low and cupped
–while yet dense with flowers–
that they serve as a protective womb
for whoever rests there.

4. Who has ever beheld such a banquet
in the very bosom of a tree,
with fruit of every savor
ranged for the hand to pluck?
Each type of fruit in due sequence approaches,
Each awaiting its turn:
fruit to eat,
and fruit to quench the thirst;
to rinse the hands there is dew,
and leaves to dry them after
–a treasure store that lacks nothing,
Whose Lord is rich in all things.

5. Around the trees the air is limpid
as the saints recline;
below them are blossoms,
above them fruit;
fruits serve as their sky,
flowers as their earth.
Who has ever heard
or seen
a cloud of fruits providing shade
for the head,
or a garment of flowers
spread out beneath the feet?

6. Such is the flowing brook of delights
that, as one tree takes leave of you,
the next one beckons you;
all of them rejoice
that you should partake of the fruit of one
and suck the juice of another,
wash and cleanse yourself
in the dew of yet a third;
anoint yourself with the resin of one
and breath another’s fragrance,
listen to the song of still another.
Blessed is He who gave joy to Adam.
[from hymn IX of Hymns on Paradise, p. 136-138]

More numerous and glorious
than the stars
in the sky that we behold
are the blossoms of that land,
and the fragrance which exhales from it
through divine Grace
is like a physician
sent to heal the ills
of a land that is under a curse;
by its healing breath it cures
the sickness that entered in
through the serpent.
[hymn XI, v. 9]

I enjoy the imagery in the verses above and there are more like them in the cycle of hymns. They remind us that our delight in creation here and now is a foreshadowing of the delight we will know in the New Creation of Paradise. For Ephrem, Paradise is not an escape from this world and physical reality. Rather, it is heaven and earth – along with us  renewed in Easter delight.

For the colors of Paradise are full of joy,
its scents most wonderful,
its beauties most desirable,
and its delicacies glorious.

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