It’s hard to maintain the spirit of anticipation that should mark the season of Advent when Christmas itself has become little more than an occasion for extravagance and consumption. We could all use some fresh inspiration concerning what Advent is preparing us for.
I have found an unexpected source for such insight in the increasing number of English translations from ancient Syriac literature. It turns out that the early Christians pondered the same questions we face. And while Gnostic texts have been widely touted in the mainstream media in recent decades as alternatives to the canonical Gospels, the lesser-known Syrian Christian tradition opens up an equally ancient but orthodox theology and devotionalism that are surprisingly fresh, deeply human, and, despite the differences in time and culture, relevant to our own needs.
Of the three international languages of the early church, Greek, Latin, and Syriac, Syriac was closest to the Aramaic and Hebrew of Jesus and the Bible. It was rich in imagery and imagination, and was widely used in the Middle East until it was supplanted by Arabic, following Islam’s sweeping military conquests in the seventh century. The Odes of Solomon, which translator James Hamilton Charlesworth calls “the earliest Christian hymnbook,” suggests that there was a vital Christian community of Syriac speakers even before the end of the first century. At a time when prayers to Mary did not yet exist in the Western church, the description of the Nativity in The Odes is startling:
She brought forth like a strong man with desire
And she bore according to the manifestation
And acquired with great power.
Although its golden literary age lay between the fourth and the seventh centuries, Syriac is the lone tongue from the ancient world that has remained in continuous use down to the present. Known largely only to scholars, in the last thirty-five years Syriac texts have been introduced to English-speaking audiences thanks to dramatic new translations by Sebastian Brock, Susan Ashbrook Harvey, and Kathleen McVey. They provide us with novel versions of what might have happened between scenes in our canonical Bible.
Would we ever have imagined that Mary wouldn’t let the astonished Gabriel get in a word during the Annunciation?
Who are you, sir?
And what is this that you utter?
What you are saying is remote from me
And what it means I have no idea.
Are we prepared to hear the angel snap back at her in this dialogue poem?
It would be amazing in you if you were to answer back
annulling the message which I have brought to you.
This confrontation is part of a large body of anonymous dialogue poems (or sogyatha) based on biblical themes. In this particular poem, Mary continues to fend off her visitor with remarkable chutzpah. From the fourth to the sixth century, sogyatha were often chanted in churches by antiphonal choirs of men and women. The vocal poems featured the stories of biblical women like Sarah or the Samaritan woman. In this instance, the men sang Gabriel’s lines, the women Mary’s.
Each of these dialogue poems consisted of serious arguments between faith and reason, artfully dramatized, and ending, as this one does, on the side of faith. But for this early community, relying on faith did not mean simply renouncing one’s intellect or common sense. In the debate with Gabriel, for example, Mary argues first for reason, and she doesn’t make it easy for the archangel, who soon becomes exasperated:
How is it then that you are not afraid
to query the thing which the Father willed?
Mary admits that she is afraid, but says she must question Gabriel nonetheless. Clearly, it would have been better for the angel if he had listened more carefully to God’s advice in another anonymous poem:
In this crucial encounter at the Annunciation, early Eastern Christians understood Mary’s obedience to mean that she made her choice by her own intelligent free will. As the Syrian poet Jacob of Serug put it in the sixth century, “However great be the beauty of something from God, it is not acclaimed if freedom is not present.” Mary, he continues, “rose up to this measure on her own.”
The sung dialogues, rooted in biblical scenes, were intended to explore the problems of faith faced by new believers. Syrian Christians were not “cradle Catholics” but largely converts from paganism. Their teachers were primarily concerned with adult education. The doubts of converts regarding their new religion were given voice in dramatic form, which matched the Eastern insistence on the incompleteness of any simple verbal answer to questions about the ineffable divine.
The paradox of Mary’s freedom of thought and speech, combined with her unwavering acceptance of God’s Word, is even more evident in the dialogue of her quarrel with Joseph after she has conceived. She had visited her cousin Elizabeth before she saw him. For three months, according to Syrian tradition, with no man’s voice nearby, the two women read, interpreted, prophesied, and poured out their thanks to God for the good news granted to them and to all people. When Mary returned home, she tried to convince her betrothed of what had occurred, but he found it very hard to believe her.
Joseph is really angry, as any husband would be, especially in that patriarchal culture. His doubt is given visual form in traditional Byzantine icons-an art springing from the same sources as this literature-which depict him as separate from the mother and child and, in some versions, tempted by the devil in shepherd’s clothes. In ordinary life, as Joseph insists, his wife would not answer back, even respectfully. Yet Mary persists in this tense debate, and she and faith ultimately prevail over Joseph’s natural skepticism.
Mary’s simple, inexorable faithfulness and verbal cleverness are revealed in other sogyatha. When the Magi show up after Jesus’ birth, at first Mary sees them as potential enemies and tries to get rid of them by insisting she and her son are too poor to be royalty. Another, later dialogue even has her questioning the gardener at Jesus’ tomb-Eastern tradition puts Mary, not Mary of Magdala, in this encounter. She gradually wears him down, much as she had done at Cana, and is thus first to learn the truth of her son’s Resurrection.
But these biblically based dialogues reveal far more than Mary’s voice and character. Because the vast majority of early Syrian Christians had been pagan and lived in an agricultural society, their notion of the new life that Jesus represented was intimately connected to the idea of fertility. In contrast, the Western church was silent for centuries about Mary as God-bearer, fearing that people might confuse her with goddesses such as Isis and Cybele, long associated with fertility. In the fourth century, Rome emphasized Mary’s physical virginity and obedience, especially as examples for women. Only after pagan goddesses were no longer a force did the Western fathers turn to Mary, but at first largely as a symbol of the church itself: spotless, virginal, unlike other women.
The Syrian church, in contrast, developed such feasts as Our Lady of the Seeds, Our Lady of the Harvest, and Our Lady of the Grapes. All placed Mary in an earthy, cosmic context. There are textual records of these feasts from the fifth and sixth centuries in the Antiochene Church, but tradition maintains their origins go back to late apostolic times.
It seemed perfectly suitable to Syrian believers that Mary, though a human woman, be accorded the characteristics of a goddess, because for them nature was the other book of God. The Eastern church adapted elements of this people’s earlier worship as easily as the Western church converted pagan temples and borrowed pagan artistic styles. If God had brought about a new creation, surely the earth had to be the place where its renewal was experienced. (Had this sense of the intimate connection between earth and heaven been preserved in church tradition, we might be more active in working to prevent ecological disaster today.)
The theological importance of Mary’s unique yet representative person in the Syriac tradition was best and most fully expressed by the fourth-century poet-theologian St. Ephrem (d. 373). A lay deacon and catechist who served the poor in Nisibus and Edessa, and who died ministering among plague victims, Ephrem was the first and greatest of Syrian authors. He composed hundreds of hymns and homilies-over four hundred of which have survived. Many of the hymns he composed were for the women’s choirs that he instituted. Jacob of Serug later praised Ephrem for this achievement: “The blessed Ephrem saw that the women were silent from praise, and in his wisdom he decided it was right that they should sing out.”
The music is now lost but the texts survive, revealing Ephrem’s extraordinary ability to use types and symbols to express the awesome connection between earth and heaven that God’s love in the Incarnation has brought about. For Ephrem, anything and everything in creation pointed to the Creator. “Blessed is he who has appeared to our human race under so many metaphors,” he insisted, meaning both the language of words and of nature itself. Sharing much of the theology of the great fourth-century Cappadocian fathers (Basil and the two Gregories), Ephrem stressed Mary’s role as central in salvation history. Without her there could have been no Incarnation.
Ephrem’s Hymns on the Nativity dwell on this central significance. Creation gave birth to Christ in natural symbols, just as Mary gave birth to him in the flesh. She was, therefore, a living symbolic bridge between the Hebrew and Christian testaments, and a way for illiterate believers to connect and understand them. For centuries, biblical interpreters and painters were inspired by Ephrem’s way of linking images-for example, presenting Mary as the Burning Bush or the Ark of the Covenant, both objects that bore something holier than themselves. Ephrem’s influence can also be seen in the late medieval masterpiece in the Cathedral of Aix-en-Provence, where Mary sits high on a tree that is burning at the edges. She holds her son as Moses kneels before them. It is also found in Piero della Francesco’s Madonna del Parto, in which the pregnant Madonna steps out of a tent-like tabernacle lined with goatskins like those God prescribed to Moses for the Ark of the Covenant.
Though Ephrem was steeped in biblical stories and symbolism, he did not confine his hymns and homilies to them, as the anonymous dialogue poems did, but creatively pieced together Mary’s complex character, often in her own voice. He let her speak for herself in countless imagined ways-in lullabies to her son, prayers of praise to God, and songs to her fellow humans-that allowed her a significant teaching voice in the life of the early Christian community. By embodying Jesus’ teaching in Mary’s voice, Ephrem kept her presence powerfully alive. And since both doctrine and teaching were enacted and performed by believers, they experienced their own continuity with the past in the timeless reality of the Eucharist.
Ephrem’s sacramental theology and imaginative liturgical hymns and homilies shaped Syrian Catholic tradition. It can replenish and refresh us today, especially during the season of Advent, by reminding us that God’s love of creation and desire for human cooperation in shaping it is timeless. This vision invites us to participate in God’s ongoing work. In ancient Syriac literature, Mary is both image and voice of the unity of physical and spiritual reality. But she is also our representative, our sister, the “daughter of humanity” as Ephrem insists, who accurately sees reality with her “luminous eyes.” He sums up the timeless meaning of this good news in this homily on the Nativity: