Wednesday, December 02, 2015

Ephrem the Syrian's First Hymn on the Nativity

I'm still getting back into the swing of things after a week away, and I'm busy putting some finishing touches on my latest novel (hopefully out within a matter of weeks!), so I haven't written a new poem for today. Instead, I'll offer one of the best Christmas poems ever written: selections from lines 89-99 of Ephrem the Syrian's "First Hymn on the Nativity" (adapted from the McVey translation). Ephrem is one of the greatest church fathers in the eastern tradition, and probably one of the top five hymnographers in church history. (If you're interested, I'd list the others as Charles Wesley, the best mix of great theology and great lyricism you'll find in English; Isaac Watts, the first outstanding figure of Protestant hymnody;  Romanos the Melodist, the undisputed pinnacle of Orthodox chants; and Fanny Crosby, the prolific poet whose songs revolutionized the worship of the Victorian age). Ancient Syriac hymns were not sung to the same sort of melodies we're accustomed to in the modern West; they were chanted, and this is why Ephrem's song looks more like a free verse poem to us than it does a hymn.

Hymns on the Nativity: #1, from lines 89-99

This is the night of the Sweet One;
Let us be on it neither bitter nor harsh.
On this night of the Humble One, 
Let us be neither proud nor haughty.
On this day of forgiveness let us not avenge offenses.
On this day of rejoicings let us not burden each other with sorrows.
On this sweet day let us not be bound by fierce passions.
On this calm day let us not be quick-tempered.
On this day on which God came into the presence of sinners,
Let not the just man exalt himself in his mind over the sinner.
On this day on which the Lord of all came among servants,
Let the lords also bow down to their servants lovingly.
On this day when the Rich One was made poor for our sake,
Let the rich man also make the poor man a sharer at his table.
On this day a gift came out to us without our asking for it;
Let us then give alms to those who cry out and beg from us.
This is the day when the high gate opened to our prayers;
Let us also open the gates to [those who] have sought forgiveness.
The Lord of natures today was transformed contrary to His nature;
It is not too difficult for us also to overthrow our evil will.
Today the Deity imprinted itself on humanity,
So that humanity might also be cut into the seal of Deity.