Extraordinary Songs for the Lenten Season
A Review of
Songs for the Fast and Pascha
(Fathers of the Church Series)
St. Ephrem the Syrian
Translated by Blake Hartung, Joshua Falconer, and J. Edward Walters
Hardback: Catholic University of America Press, 2023
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Reviewed by C. Christopher Smith
Today is Ash Wednesday, and I’ve been thinking about what I’d like to read during the Lenten season. I’ve been reading as much poetry as I can over the last couple of years, and I’ve always been curious to learn more about church history, so as I was perusing my office for Lenten reading, my eyes lighted upon the new volume of St. Ephrem the Syrian’s poetry, Songs for the Fast and Pascha. Bingo! In an instant, I knew what I would be reading during Lent.
This volume contains not only new translations of these works, but also an immensely helpful introductory essay by Blake Hartung (one of the translators) that provides context on Ephrem’s life, works, and in particular, these collections of songs. Hartung notes that few details about Ephrem’s life have survived. In brief, he was born in about 306 or 307, lived through at least 363, and most of his life was lived in the town of Nisibis on the Roman-Persian frontier (which is Nusaybin, Turkey today). Most of his surviving works are poems in the Syrian forms of mēmrē and mādrāšē, and the poems in this volume are in the mādrāšē form, which has a range of flexibility in its meter.
Hartung notes in the introduction that a central theme of the work On the Fast, is “the spiritual power of fasting,” and offers the first stanza of the work as prime example:
This is the firstborn’s fast
the first of his deeds;
let’s revel in his advent:
for by fasting he prevailed,
though he was able
to prevail by all means.
He showed to us
the power veiled
in the fast, conquering all,
whereby one conquers
that one who by fruit
conquered Adam and devoured him.
Blessed is the firstborn who compassed
our weakness with the wall
of his great fast (23).
Throughout all ten parts of On the Fast, Ephrem challenges us to consider our desires and how they are formed (and de-formed). These Lenten songs, meant to be sung together by the people of God, undoubtedly played a crucial role in forming a community into the image and likeness of Jesus. In our day, in which we are culturally formed to avoid interrogating our personal desires, these songs have a timely ring to them. Fasting may take many forms, but as Ephrem reminds us, the practice of fasting– of being attentive to and interrogating our desires– is a vital part of following in the Way of Jesus. I look forward to immersing myself in this work during this season of Lent (as well as Ephrem’s other works in this volume on crucifixion, the resurrection, and the unleavened bread).
As Lent is not only a season of fasting, but also a season of lament, I should highlight Hartung’s exploration in the introduction of Ephrem’s anti-Judaism in the songs on the crucifixion and resurrection. Hartung notes that this opposition to Judaism was lamentably prevalent in Ephrem’s day. Readers need to beware of this inclination in Ephrem’s work, so that in digesting his work, we do not adopt a similar anti-Judaism. Rather, we should lament that the author of such elegant verse, was animated by such virulent hatred.
This volume represents some of the most extraordinary poetic work of the early Christian era, and timely reading for us to meditate upon in this season of Lent and Easter. But as we read, may we be careful to discern and lament Ephrem’s hatred of the Jewish community, and likewise careful to avoid propagating such hatred in our times.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com