Envisioning Divine Mystery: Scripture, Creation, and Christ in the Theology of the Ancient Syrian Poets – By Jeanne-Nicole Mellon Saint-Laurent

Jeanne-Nicole Mellon Saint-Laurent on Beggiani’s Early Syriac Theology

Bishop Seely Joseph Beggiani, Early Syriac Theology, with Special Reference to the Maronite Tradition, Revised Edition, Catholic University Press, 2014, 192pp., $29.95
Bishop Seely Joseph Beggiani, Early Syriac Theology, with Special Reference to the Maronite Tradition, Revised Edition, Catholic University Press, 2014, 192pp., $29.95
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Chorbishop Seely Joseph Beggiani’s second edition of Early Syriac Theology (first published in 1983) introduces readers to the theology of two important poet-theologians of the Syriac tradition, Ephrem the Syrian (d. 370) and Jacob of Serugh (d. 521). Through hymns and homilies abundant with biblical motifs, he argues, Syriac Christians like Ephrem and Jacob crafted a sophisticated theology that wove God, humanity, and creation together in a close-knit web of relationships. Because God had imprinted creation with visible signs of God’s hidden nature, it plays a key role in teaching about the mystery of God when a person contemplates it with the eye of faith.

The exegesis of the early Syriac theologians was imbued with a sense of wonder and reverence at God’s activity in creation and relationships with humanity. Beggiani calls attention to the strong biblical foundation of Syriac theology and the rich contribution to exegesis that the early Syriac fathers made. Biblical narratives, for instance, offered an outline from which theologians like Ephrem could formulate their theological views, but these texts also left many questions and mysteries unanswered. Ambiguity in scriptural narratives thus sparked the exegetical creativity of Ephrem and Jacob.

As Beggiani demonstrates, the early Syriac fathers expounded extensively on the link between the creation stories in Genesis and the event of the God’s re-creation: the incarnation. Ephrem’s hymns and homilies investigated the world’s beginnings and searched for explanations to a central conundrum. Scripture claimed that God created the world good (Genesis 1), that God perfected the work of his creation when he made man and woman in his image (Genesis 1:27), and that God endowed humanity with a unique gift that set people apart from the other animals: free will. But Adam and Eve used their free will to disobey God (Genesis 3:13), and this rupture sickened the human race and disordered the creation over which men and women had dominion.

But God, as the early Syriac theologians hymned, did not delight in the afflictions of his creation. So God did something totally unexpected: God came into the world as a person, Jesus Christ. The early Syriac Christians, as Beggiani reminds us, identified Christ’s incarnation as a cosmic event that healed the world of the brokenness that Adam and Eve’s childish mistakes and pride had introduced. God restored the material world by entering into the limits of time, history, and physicality through the incarnation of his Word. Christ invited men and women to use their free will to become like God. After Christ’s physical departure from the world, the Holy Spirit continued the work of sanctifying the community of believers, the church, to whom was entrusted the task of performing the symbolic acts of God’s love, rites known as the “mysteries” (rāze in Syriac; sacraments in the western church). Through the celebration of these rāze, people were initiated into the life of faith and continually nourished with God’s love.

Early Syriac theology was poetic, suggestive, symbolic, and polyvalent.

Beggiani’s book is a helpful introduction to the theology of this important Eastern Christian tradition. It is accessible to specialists and non-specialists alike, bringing together many central themes of early Syriac theology. His attention to liturgy, however, sets this book apart. Beggiani shows how the liturgy acts as a lifeline for the faithful that links them to heaven. In their worship, apostolic churches (like the Maronites) believe that they have a connection to their ancestors in faith through the repetition of prayers, the reading of sacred texts, the hymnody, and the performance of sacramental rites. The liturgy collapses differences between space and time, keeping the voices of ancient theologians alive for modern congregations. While modern people may speak of the importance of private beliefs, for the ancients, communal worship was the means through which the individual was sanctified. Through liturgical practices the faithful were encouraged and exhorted to lead lives of discipleship in imitation of Christ and the saints. They celebrated the mysteries of God’s love. A Maronite Catholic, Beggiani is concerned to show how the Maronite liturgy has preserved and passed on the themes typical of early Syriac poets like Ephrem and Jacob.

Ephram the Syrian, Mosaic, Nea Moni. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Ephram the Syrian, Mosaic, Nea Moni. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Beggiani also helpfully illustrates the necessity of attending to the anthropology of the early Syriac fathers. To understand ourselves, as articulated in Syriac theology, we must first begin with Christ, the enfleshed Word of God, image of the Father and perfect figure of humanity. Christ’s cross, in Syriac theology, is seen as a bridge to paradise for the faithful departed. The cross is the new and true tree of life that replaces the first tree of life in Eden, blocked from humanity after Adam and Eve were banished (Genesis 3:24). As Ephrem teaches in one of his Hymns on the Nativity, we must use our free will to become like Christ, and then we may put on the garments of glory that Adam and Eve lost when they disobeyed God’s command.

Building on the scholarship of Sebastian Brock, Robert Murray, Pierre Yousif, and Sidney Griffith, Beggiani’s book reminds us that early Syriac theology was poetic, suggestive, symbolic, and polyvalent. Ephrem and Jacob avoided systematizing God, whose nature, they believed, was hidden from the human eye. Poetry was a more fitting genre to reflect on the paradoxical nature of God’s interactions with humanity. Beggiani gives many classic examples of this throughout his book. Syriac theologians marveled, for instance, at how the limitless God put on the limits of human nature; the Lord became small as an infant, nourished by his mother Mary, herself an image of piety and devotion. In the same way that God glorified Mary, a poor girl of Nazareth, to carry the Lord of all, so God magnifies the humblest and most common objects of his creation — water, bread, wine, oil, olives — and uses these to perform wondrous acts of healing and sanctification for his beloved.

Beggiani’s book accentuates that, for the ancient Syriac Christians, sanctification of the individual person happened through the church. Believers at prayer, for Ephrem, typologically represented the heavenly community itself. He hymned that symbols of unseen paradise are revealed when the faithful, whom Ephrem calls “saints,” celebrate the liturgy. They are nourished by the Medicine of Life or sāmm haye (the Syriac expression for the Eucharist) given to them by the divine physician, Christ. Citing Robert Murray’s translation of Ephrem’s sixth Hymn on Paradise, Beggiani quotes Ephrem’s beautiful depiction of the faithful at prayer:

The assembly of the saints is a symbol of paradise.
The fruit of him who gives life to all is picked in her everyday.
In her, my brethren, are pressed the grapes of him who is the Medicine of Life.