The Eucharist in the Syriac Tradition
By Chorbishop Seely Beggiani
It was the divine will of Christ that he would be with us always, and that we are called to be part of his Mystical Body. After His Ascension, Christ continues His work of sanctification and salvation through the mysteries [sacraments]. In the Syriac tradition and in other traditions, the Eucharist is seen as the central mystery toward which all other mysteries are drawn. It is the climax of the process of Christian initiation by which we become disciples of Christ. Baptism and Chrismation prepare believers for participation in the Eucharist. It is the Eucharist that forms Church and unites us to one another in the love of Christ. Through the sacramental body of Christ we grow as members of the Mystical Body of Christ.
Baptism, Eucharist, and the Community of Faith
The Syriac writers presume a direct relationship between baptism and the Eucharist. If Baptism incorporates the candidate into the Church, it also enables him to have access to the Holy Eucharist which is the cause and manifestation of that incorporation. Aphraat teaches in his Demonstration No. 12 -- On the Passover: "When his heart has been circumcised from evil works, one then proceeds to Baptism, the consummation of the true circumcision; he is joined to the people of God and participates in the Body and Blood of Christ." St. Ephrem sees a direct link between Baptism and the Eucharist when he declares: "Once this womb [the baptismal font] has given birth, the altar suckles and nurtures them: her children eat straight away, not milk, but perfect Bread!" (Hymn on Virginity, No. 7).
Ephrem summarizes his teaching in his Hymn on the Epiphany, No. 3: "The figure has passed [that is, the Old Testament types], the truth is realized, with oil you have been signed, by baptism you have been rendered perfect, you have been mingled in the flock, you have been nourished with His Body."
Old Testament Types of the Eucharist
The Syriac writers sought to learn the meaning of the Eucharist by meditating on the Scriptures where they found a dazzling variety of types foreshadowing the Eucharist. James of Saroug draws a parallel between the "deadly fruit" eaten by Adam in the garden, and the "Fruit of Life" that brought Adam and his descendants back to life. The manna which came down from the heavens and fed the Jews in the desert prefigures the "Food of Life" who would give of Himself to feed the world. The bread of the Last Supper meal becomes the Body of Christ to be eaten by human beings.
James of Saroug recalls the practice described in the Book of Numbers (cf. Numbers 19) where God orders that a red heifer be slaughtered as a sin-offering and its blood sprinkled on the meeting tent. James sees the red heifer as a type of the future Christ who, through his death, would achieve forgiveness of sins. The Mosaic law s prescribing the weekly offering of shewbread (cf. Leviticus 24: 5-9) foreshadows the unbloody sacrifice of the Eucharist.
Other types of the Eucharist include: the jug of oil of the widow which was never exhausted in giving nourishment to the widow, her son, and Elijah (cf. I kings 17:8ff); and the body of Eliseus which was God s instrument to restore life to the dead boy, and thus is a type pre-figuring the life-giving body of Christ (cf. II Kings 4: 32ff). Finally, there is the type of the offering of bread and wine by Melchizedek which foreshadows the end of bloody sacrifices (cf. Gen 14:18).
Symbols of the Eucharist
The Syriac writer James of Saroug also speaks about symbols of the Eucharist. For example, in the story of the good Samaritan, we are told that the Samaritan uses oil and wine to treat the wounds of the Jew who had been attacked by robbers. For James, the oil is a symbol of the baptismal seal and the wine symbolizes the cup of wine, which becomes the Blood of Christ given to heal the wounds of sinners.
The "burning coal" by which the seraph purified the lips of Isaiah represents the power of the body of Christ to purify us of our sins. It also represents the fact that Christ immolated himself for us through his sacrifice on the altar of the cross.
Syriac writers often see the pearl's qualities of fire, light, and purity as a representation of Christ. (There was also the ancient legend that pearls were formed virginally through the action of lightning on the oyster.) However, James of Saroug, reflecting on the biblical parable of the pearl of great price, considered the pearl as signifying a precious possession. It therefore symbolizes the Eucharist, the "life-giving pearl", for which we should sacrifice all that we have.
The Divine Presence
For the Syriac writers the Incarnation is the climax of God's plan of creation. God in His benevolent love for us became one of us in order to save us. St. Ephrem views the humanity of Christ as the instrument of salvation. For him, that same body in which Christ healed humans and rose again, He gave us in sacramental form to heal us, to incorporate us in Him in the Church, and to give us a pledge of His resurrection.
St. Ephrem often meditates on the presence of the divine in the bread and wine. In his Hymn on the Faith. No. 6, he declares: "For in the Bread is eaten a strength not to be eaten and in the Wine is drunk a might not to be drunk..."
In fact, St. Ephrem draws a parallel between the divine action at the Incarnation and at the Eucharist. He declares in the Hymn on the Faith. No. 10:
In the womb that bore you are Fire and the Spirit,
Fire and Spirit are in the river where you were baptized,
Fire and Spirit are in our Baptism too,
And in the Bread and the Cup are Fire and Spirit.
The Syriac fathers were aware that in the Eucharist we are dealing with a great mystery, one that could be grasped only by faith. St. Ephrem believes that the spiritual eyes of faith are able to pierce through shadows and forms and arrive at reality. Using his poetic talents he sometimes tries to express his theological views through the use of narrative such as a meditation by Mary on Christ that he constructs in his Hymn on the Nativity, No. 11:
For [when] I see that outward form of Yours before my eyes, the hidden Form is shadowed forth in my mind, O holy One.
In your visible form I see Adam,and in your hidden form I see Your Father, who is joined with you.
Have you then shown me alone Your Beauty in two Forms?
Let Bread shadow forth you, and also the mind; dwell also in Bread and in the eaters thereof.
In secret, and openly too, may your Church see You, as well as Your Mother.
Lo! Your Image is shadowed forth in the blood of the grapes on the Bread [the intinction during the Divine Liturgy]; and it is shadowed forth on the heart with the finger of love, with the colors of faith.
The Eucharist as Sacrifice
The Eucharist is the sacrifice by which Christ offered himself for our redemption. Foreshadowed by the Passover Lamb of the Old Testament which liberated the Jews, Christ is the "Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world" through the shedding of his blood on the cross. For James of Saroug, Christ has immolated Himself in the presence of the Father. The blood shed on Golgotha is the "medicine of life" for the world.
The Doctrine of the Eucharist
The Syriac world often sought to express its theological beliefs in its worship. It truly exemplifies the ancient adage that the "law of faith is the law of prayer; and the law of prayer is the law of faith." While the Syriac world in its history had to deal with many major and difficult doctrinal issues, its belief in the Eucharist and the real divine presence in the Eucharist were never questioned.
The Church in the west had to deal with a number of controversies regarding the Eucharist, especially the teaching of the Protestant reformers. The Council of Trent declared the Church's official teaching on the Eucharist, and used the formula of official teaching on the Eucharist, and used the formula of transubstantiation to express this teaching. The Maronite Church, of course, believes and accepts all the teachings of Councils and of the Church.
The Eucharist as Nourishment
The Syriac writers view the Eucharist as divine nourishment for our spiritual journey. In his Homily on Our Lord, St. Ephrem explains that our deficiency is filled by the "leaven" from the Body of Christ. Christ who possesses fullness and life in His body supplies for our deficiency and gives life to our mortality.
James of Saroug teaches that just as we have received the gift of immortal life freely, we should give freely to those most in need. Those who receive the Body and Blood of Christ ought to give bread to the hungry and drink to the thirsty.
The Eucharist as Pledge of Immortality
In his Hymn on the Faith, No. 10, St. Ephrem declares in poetic form that the power of the Eucharist overcomes the power of death: "Your Bread kills the Devourer [Death] who had made us his bread, Your Cup destroys death which was swallowing us up. We have eaten you, Lord, we have drunk you, not to exhaust you, but to live by you."
The Eucharist Forgives Sins
As noted above, the Eucharist is the fruit of the redeeming sacrifice of Christ on the cross. The one sacrifice of Christ merits forgiveness for all people for all time. In the Syriac tradition, as well as that of other Churches, the Eucharist is seen as forgiving sin. This is the theme repeated in all the Anaphoras of the Syriac tradition. James of Saroug refers to the place of worship as the "house of forgiveness".
An ancient Syriac homily on the sinner woman in the Gospel attributed to a Bishop John teaches the following: "Behold, it is written of the sinner that she kissed only the feet of Christ, but it is not written that she received his body. And if the kisses of a sinner, given with faith, shook and overthrew the fortress of her debts, how much more we ourselves who embrace Him with love and receive Him with faith, shall we be purified of our faults and sins, and He will answer our requests."
Eucharistic Symbolism in Ephrem
Ephrem and the Liturgy
Life of Ephrem
In this paper, I will analyze Ephrem’s most important madrashe on the liturgy, “The Mysteries of the Eucharist,” along with his madrashe on Faith, Pearls, Church, Unleavened Bread and Nativity where Ephrem considers the Holy Eucharist. Ephrem the Syrian, known as ‘Harp of the Holy Spirit’ is undoubtedly the greatest poet and theologian that the Syrian Church ever produced. He is described as ‘the greatest poet of the patristic age and perhaps the only theologian-poet to rank beside Dante.’ Ephrem was not only a well-known figure in the Syriac-speaking world but also had a great reputation in the Greek East as well as the Latin West. Within the patristic age itself Ephrem’s reputation as a holy man, poet and a theologian was widely known far beyond his Syrian homeland. Less than fifty years after Ephrem’s death Palladius included him among the ascetic saints whose memory he celebrated in the Lausiac History. Sozomen the historian celebrated Ephrem’s memory as a popular ecclesiastical writer, some of whose works had been translated into Greek even during his lifetime.
For Ephrem, the sacred is a dimension that does not submit to analytical investigation by the faculties of reason; only the more fluid logic of scriptural imagery is subtle and allusive enough to evoke it. As Sebastian Brock, a leading authority on early Syriac – speaking Christianity, has eloquently put it: “So astounding is the nature of the Christian mystery — God not just becoming Man, but becoming the very Bread for man to eat — that it is often more meaningful to describe this paradox in the language of poetry, where parable, myth and symbol can perhaps approximate to spiritual reality rather more successfully than straightforward theological description”.
Although Ephrem wrote biblical commentary, prose refutations of the teachings of those whose views he regarded as false, prose meditations, dialogue poems and metrical homilies (memre), there can be no doubt that his preferred genre was the “teaching song” (madrosho). Translators have often called these songs “hymns”, but since they are not primarily songs of praise, the term is not really apt. Rather, they are “teaching songs” (madroshe); they were to be chanted to the accompaniment of the lyre (kennoro), on the model of David, the Psalmist. Perhaps the closest analogue to the madrosho is the Hebrew Piyyut, a genre of liturgical poetry that was sung or chanted during Jewish religious services. Popular in Palestine from the eighth century on, the Piyuut featured biblical themes and literary devices strikingly similar to those employed by Ephrem.
Ephrem composed his “teaching songs” for the liturgy. According to Jerome, Ephrem composed his “teaching songs” for the Divine Liturgy and were to be recited after the scripture lessons. Madroshe would eventually find a place in the liturgy of the hours in the Syriac speaking churches from the earliest periods for which textual witnesses remain. These madroshe consisted of meditations on the symbols that God distributed in nature and scripture. These symbols, which Ephrem often called roze (sing, rozo) in Syriac, which in turn, by God’s grace, discloses to the human mind those aspects of the hidden reality that are within the range of human intelligence.
There are several symbols that Ephrem uses to explain the Eucharist that I will analyze, notably, the Eucharist as “Food”, “Living Coal”, “Pearl” and “Medicine of Life.” In his madrashe on Faith, Ephrem explains that if John the Baptist held even Christ’s sandal straps in awe, how can he hope to approach Christ’s very body? Ephrem takes refuge in the example of the woman who gained healing just through touching Christ’s garment – which in another sense is indeed his body, being the garment of his divinity. The hidden power that lay in Christ’s garment is also present in the Bread and the Wine, consecrated by the fire of the Spirit.
Ephrem views the Eucharistic body of Christ in dynamic continuity with the actual body of the historical Jesus. As the body of Christ, the Eucharist partakes of the entire historical and eternal reality of Christ in all its complexity — divine and human, corporeal and incorporeal, exalted and earthbound, and, of course, body and blood. In other words, for Ephrem the Eucharist is nothing less than the entire eschatological mystery of Christ taking place here and now in history:
Your bread killed insatiable death which had made us its bread. Your cup put an end to death which gulped us down. Lord, we have eaten and drunk you, not to exhaust you, but to have life in you.
Although Ephrem never used the Greek word “Eucharist,” he had much to say about the Body and the Blood of the Lord in the bread and wine of the church’s daily sacrificial offering to God. For his thoughts on the Body and Blood of the Lord, and their place in the life of the church, one must survey the wide range of his madroshe, searching for the verses in which he instructs the faith of the Christians in attendance at the sacred mysteries.
Qurbono is the Syriac word Ephrem used for the liturgical action we call the Eucharist. It has the sense of “sacrificial offering”, and, as it occurs in the madroshe, refers both to the sacrificial offering associated with the Jewish Passover and to the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. In Ephrem’s world, Christians offered the holy qurbono not only at Easter, Sundays and major feast days, but every day. This is clearly implicated in one of Ephrem’s madroshe, On Paradise:
The assembly of the saints is on the type of Paradise. In it the fruit of the Enlivener of All is plucked each day. In it, my brothers, are squeezed the grapes of the Enlivener of All.
Ephrem refers to the daily qurbono as “the breaking of the bread and the cup of salvation,” often speaking of our Lord’s “breaking his own body”, at the Passover supper, an obvious evocation of the close connection in his mind between Calvary and the Last Supper. Ephrem says of this particular event:
He broke the bread with his own hands in token of the sacrifice of his body. He mixed the cup with his own hands, in token of the sacrifice of his blood. He offered up himself in sacrifice, the priest of our atonement.
For Ephrem, “the Last Supper and its table symbolizes the first church and the first altar, and by extension, representative of all churches and all altars”. Therefore, in his madroshe, Ephrem often calls attention to the prefigurations of the Eucharist in the New Testament and the numerous types and symbols of it in the narratives of the Old Testament. In his estimation, they all find their ultimate focus in the Last Supper and in its consummation on the cross, when blood and water flowed from the pierced side of Christ (John 19:34). This represents the sacraments of the Eucharist and Baptism respectively, and thereby inaugurating the era of the church. Ephrem’s thought on this subject is particularly rich in symbolism, involving a typological connection between the Cherubim’s sword that guarded the way to the tree of life in paradise after Adam’s sin (Genesis 3:24), and the lance which opened Christ’s side on the tree of the cross, thus providing a new entry to glory for the new Adam’s progeny:
Ephrem’s symbolic interpretation of the piercing of Christ’s side is particularly complicated. Christ is the second Adam, from whose side is born the second Eve, the Church; yet through that opening we enter paradise, to come again to the Tree of Life, which is sometimes the Cross but also sometimes Christ himself.
Eucharist as “Food”
In Ephrem’s writings, the Eucharist emerges as a complex reality that can never be reduced or exclusively equated with any one of its aspects such as, the Eucharist as “food”. Rather, a flexible and often complex exchange of images allows the Eucharist to be viewed from seemingly paradoxical vantage points simultaneously. By merging the scriptural identification of Jesus as the Good Shepherd and with the scriptural identification of Jesus as Bread, Ephrem arrives at a composite image which includes both elements: “The Shepherd has become the food for his sheep” (Madrosho on the Church 3, 21). The same dynamic process is at work in the following chain of images that focus on a single reality, but is viewed from different perspectives:
Blessed is the Shepherd who became a lamb for our atonement. Blessed is the Vine that became a chalice for our salvation. And blessed is the Farmer who became the Wheat that was planted, and the Sheaf that was harvested. (Madrosho on the Nativity 3, 15)
Eucharist as The Power to Forgive Sin
References to the Eucharist in its capacity to forgive sins abound in Ephrem’s writings, and as the following excerpts illustrate, his discussion draws from a variety of biblically inspired images:
I am astonished by our will; though strong, it has let itself be conquered; though a ruler, it has let itself be enslaved; victorious, it desired defeat. See, the foolish scribe has signed his own bill of debts. Blessed is the one who granted us freedom with his bread, and erased the bill of our debts with his chalice. (Madrosho on the Church 32, 2)Just as Adam killed life in his own body, in this very same way, in the body of the one who perfects all, See, the just were perfected, and sinners have found forgiveness. (Madrosho on Unleavened Bread
In Ephrem, Fire represents an image of the divine presence and takes on the added dimension of purifying and cleansing when it is viewed in a Eucharistic context. In the Eucharist, fire’s potential to destroy gives way to its ability to vivify and save those who receive it:
The Fire of mercy has come down to dwell in bread. Instead of the Fire that consumed people, you have eaten Fire in the bread, and have found life. (Madrosho on Faith 10, 12)
Eucharist as “Burning Coals”
Fire imagery figures in a number of expressions used in reference to the Eucharist in Syriac texts. For example, particles of the Eucharistic bread are often called “embers” or “burning coals” (gmurotho), usually with reference to the passage in Isaiah 6:6-7, where the prophet speaks of the Seraphim who touched his mouth with a burning coal from the altar of the temple. In an image of the Eucharist as cleansing and purifying, Ephrem links the divine fire of God’s presence to the image of Isaiah’s purification with a fiery coal. Ephrem makes this connection in his madrosho on Faith. He says,
The Seraph could not touch the fire’s coal with his fingers, the coal only just touched Isaiah’s mouth: the Seraph did not hold it, Isaiah did not consume it, but us our Lord has allowed to do both! To the angels who are spiritual Abraham brought food for the body and they ate. The new miracle is that our mighty Lord has given to bodily man Fire and Spirit to eat and to drink.
Ephrem’s liturgical theology had a profound and lasting influence on the development of Syriac liturgy, where the image of the Eucharist as a purifying fire is commonplace. The power of the Eucharist to forgive sin assumes a prominent liturgical role in the Eucharistic prayers of Syriac speaking Churches. After the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer we find a virtual rite of communal penance that includes an imposition of hands over the congregation by the priest and an accompanying prayer, which speaks of the remission of “unconscious” as well as “conscious sins.” Immediately following this rite, the celebrant announces to the congregation, which he now addresses as “Holy,” with the invitation: “Holy things for the Holy.”
In the following verses, preserved only in an Armenian translation, Ephrem speaks of that “moment” in the liturgy when the Eucharistic bread is broken. The mosaic of images depicts the Eucharist reaching beyond the grave to refresh the dead, while on earth, it forgives the sins of the living:
With awe and discernment; let our hearts revere his death, and our souls yearn for his Mystery. The people of Israel glorified in that manna that even the uncircumcised ate; how much more should we then exalt in this Bread of Life, which not even watchers [i.e., angels] attain. Water poured out of the rock for the [Israelite] people; they drank and were strengthened; but a fountain poured out from a tree on Golgotha, for [all] people. Eden’s other trees were there for the first Adam to eat; but for us, the very planter of the garden has become food for our souls. This moment, more than any others, should be esteemed in your minds; the Son has descended to hover over [Gen 1:2] the forgiving altar. The bones of the dead in Sheol drink the dew of life as they are remembered before God at this moment. Now if the dead receive such benefit now, how much more shall the living receive forgiveness; Blessed is the one who was sacrificed by one people for the life of all people. (Armenian Madrosho 49)
Eucharist as “Pearls”
There is a fire-related image seen in the writings of Ephrem when speaking of the Eucharistic elements as “pearls”. For in the Syrian conception, the pearl is born when lightning strikes the mussel that produces it in the sea. Similarly, according to the Syrian fathers, Christ was conceived in the womb of Mary when Fire and Spirit came within her. Bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ due to the action of Fire and the Spirit. Accordingly, it is not surprising to find Ephrem often using the popular symbol of the pearl for Christ himself and for the Eucharistic elements. In one place Ephrem says, “Christ gave us pearls, his Body and Blood”. Ephrem, in a passage referring to the holy Qurbono, says, It is not the priest who is authorized to sacrifice the Only-Begotten or to raise up that sacrifice for sinners to the Father’s presence: rather, the Holy Spirit goes forth from the Father and descends, overshadows and resides in the bread, making it the Body, and making it treasured pearls to adorn the souls that are betrothed by him.
In another madrosho, Ephrem gives this advice to would be communicants in attendance at the holy liturgy:
The Body and the Blood are living pearls; let them not be demeaned in soul and body that are unclean vessels. Heaven and earth are in the incomparable pearl; do not receive your Lord’s holiness in an unclean vessel.
Eucharist as “Medicine of Life”
In Ephrem’s writings another constant epithet for the Eucharist is “living medicine” or “medicine of life” (sam hayye). The Body and the Blood of the Lord are thought to bring healing to the faithful Christian. Addressing Christ, Ephrem in one of his madrosho On Faith says,
Your Bread slays the greedy one who has made us his bread, your Cup destroys death who had swallowed us up; we have eaten you, Lord, we have drunken you; not that we will consume you up, but through you we shall have life.
To express the fullness of the mystery that is Christ, Ephrem juxtaposes images of the actual body of the historical Jesus with allusions to the Eucharistic body of Christ until the images merge and resolve into a single, integrated whole. Ephrem views the Eucharist as part of a wider manifestation of the divine presence (Fire) and power (Spirit) already revealed at the baptism of Jesus.
Like the woman who was afraid but took heart and was healed (Luke 8:40) heal me of my flight from fear that I may take heart in you. I will progress from your clothes to your body to speak of you as best I can.Lord, your clothes are a fountain of cures; your invisible power dwells in your visible clothing. A little saliva from your mouth (John 9:6), and again, a great wonder: Light from mud.In your bread is hidden Spirit which cannot be eaten. In your wine dwells a Fire which cannot be drunk. Spirit in your bread, Fire in your wine, Clearly a wonder, which our lips receive.When our Lord came down to earth among mortals he made them a new creation — like watchers [i.e., angels]; for he mixed Fire and Spirit in them so they would invisibly become Fire and Spirit.See, Fire and Spirit in the womb of her who bore him; see, Fire and Spirit in the river where you were baptized. Fire and Spirit are in the baptismal font. And in the bread and the cup — Fire, and the Holy Spirit. (Madrosho on Faith 10)
Ephrem draws insistent attention to the physical reality of Christ’s body which he calls the “Treasury of Healing.” Since, as the Gospels record, contact with the physical body of Jesus, and even with his clothing, was able to effect cures, Ephrem speaks of the Eucharistic body of Christ as able to cure and restore those who receive it.
Medical science with its cures does not suffice for the world; but the all-sufficient Physician saw the world and took pity. He took his body and applied it to its pain, and he healed our suffering with his body and blood. And he cured our sickness. Praise be the Medicine of Life, for he is sufficient, and he healed our pain with his teaching. (Madrosho on Nisibis 34, 10).
In Ephrem’s view, the forgiveness of sins flows directly from the Eucharist. He contrasts the willfulness of the sinner with the gratuity of God’s forgiveness. He says, I am amazed at our will: while it is strong, see it brought low; while it is a lord, see it enslaved; while it is a victor, it wills to succumb; free, it surrenders its mouth like a slave, and sets its own hand on the bill of sale. See the foolish scribe, who is the one setting his own hand to the statement of his debts! Blessed is the one who has given us emancipation in his Bread, and in his Cup has erased the statement of our debts.
For Ephrem participating in the Eucharist leads to the indwelling of Christ and the believer becoming the temple of God. Ephrem says:
Let the Qurbono build your own minds and bodies into temples suitable for God. If the Lord dwells in your house, honor will come to your door. How much your ‘honor’ will increase if God dwells within you. Be a sanctuary for him, even a priest, and serve him within your temple. Just as for your sake he became High priest, sacrifice, and libation; you, for his sake, become temple, priest, and sacrificial offering. Since your mind will become a temple, do not leave any filth in it; do not leave in God’s house anything hateful to God. Let us be adorned as God’s house with what is attractive to God.