The Church remembered the life of Ephrem of Edessa this past Monday
in its calendar of saints. His life points to an aspect of faith that I want to
share with you.
Ephrem was born in the year 306 on the border of what is now Turkey
and Syria, near where both countries border Iraq. For anyone who has traveled
northwest on Highway 1 from Mosul, Iraq, to the border of Syria, you were
heading toward Ephrem’s home town; the rest of us will settle for Map Quest. He
was ordained a Deacon and served the Church for his entire life mostly in
teaching, preaching, and defending the faith. 72 of his hymns and reflections on
the Bible remain popular to this day. During a famine, he distributed food and
organized a sort of ambulance service. Ephrem died on June 9th, 373, from exhaustion and sickness.
It would be easy to talk about his popular poetry and hymns or his
possible involvement in the Council of Nicea (whence we get the Nicene Creed)
but today I want to highlight something else about his life. This struck me
perhaps because of Father’s Day but Ephrem was unlike his father in the practice
of his faith. His dad was probably a pagan priest until he converted to
Christianity. His mother, a Christian, may have had a role in that conversion.
Nevertheless, they raised Ephrem with a focus on education, specifically writing
and poetry. But at some point, Ephrem took on the faith of his father and made
it his own.
The early 300’s were an exciting time to be a Christian. For one
thing, it was legal: Emperor Constantine had legalized the practice of
Christianity. The Christ-driven movement was flourishing. Saint Jacob, the
second bishop of the diocese of Nisbis, was Ephrem’s mentor in the faith. So
Ephrem was baptized, and perhaps simultaneously ordained, in his youth and then embraced a type of Syrian-monasticism. Several years later, his bishop and
mentor was a signatory at the First Council of Nicea; Ephrem may have attended.
And yet, the time was not without difficulty. A series of attacks from Persia
forced the Emperor to surrender Ephrem’s region which permitted the
expulsion of the entire Christian population. Ephrem had to relocate
to continue his work in the Church.
We do not know much about the faith of Ephrem’s mother and father.
But, based on his life and his practice in the faith, it appears he adopted
Christianity pretty much on his own. This is quite different from when God spoke
to Abraham and said that he would give Abraham many descendants. Abraham
accordingly became the father of the faith and Isaac, Abraham’s son, took his
father’s faith and made it his own. Likewise Jacob, Isaac’s son, took his
father’s faith and made it his own. To this day, we call on the God of Abraham,
Isaac, and Jacob.
Saint Paul is one of the most prolific writers in the New
Testament. He was a high-up leader in the Jewish faith, something that was
probably taught to him by his father. We don’t know anything about Paul’s father
but Paul’s conversion experience suggests that Paul’s practice of faith was
substantially different from that of his dad.
King David took his father’s faith and made it his own – through
writing psalms and at one point in a jubilant dance. We are told that David had
a heart for God. David’s son, Solomon, took his father’s faith but not much of
the exuberance for God and placed importance on building a temple and his own
collections of various things (including wives). Solomon’s son took the faith
handed to him and found more important matters in wealth and
What is the faith of your father? For some us, our fathers had a
strong and outwardly visible faith; other fathers have faith known to God alone.
Regardless of where your dad is along that spectrum, I believe that you need to
make your faith in God your own. You cannot simply adopt the faith of your parents.
May God who we call our Father in Heaven shape your faith, may the
Holy Spirit guide you into wisdom and instruction and may Christ be your
spiritual guide as you make your ancestral faith your own,
- Fr. Marshall