Middle East the cradle of Christianity
Pope Benedict XVI
Pope Benedict XVI delivered on 21 November 2007 at the general audience in St. Peter's Square. A reflection on the fourth-century Assyrian theologian, Aphraates.
Dear brothers and sisters!
On our journey into the world of the Fathers of the Church, today I would like to guide you toward a little-known area of the universe of faith, namely those territories in which the Churches of Semitic languages, not yet influenced by Greek thought, flourished. Such Churches developed through the fourth century in the Near East, from the Holy Land to Lebanon and Mesopotamia. In that century -- which was a period of clerical and literary growth -- the ascetic-monastic phenomenon was developed with autochthonous characteristics, which did not come under the influence of Egyptian monasticism. Hence the Syriac communities of the fourth century represent the Semitic world from which the Bible itself evolved. They are an expression of a Christianity whose theological formulation had not yet come into contact with other cultural currents, but rather lived thinking their own way. These are Churches in which asceticism in its various hermitic forms (hermits in the desert, in caverns, recluses, stylites), and monasticism in the form of community life, play a vital role in the development of theological and spiritual thought.
I would like to introduce this world through Aphraates, also known as "the wise one." He was one of the most important and enigmatic characters of fourth-century Syriac Christianity. He lived in the first half of the fourth century and was a native of the Nineveh-Mosul region -- today’s Iraq.
We have little information about his life; he had strong ties with the ascetic-monastic environment of the Syriac Church, on which he reflected a great deal in his work. According to some sources, he was the head of a monastery, and later ordained a bishop. He wrote 23 speeches known as Expositions or Demonstrations, in which he discusses different topics of Christian life, such as faith, love, fasting, humility, prayer, ascetic life, and also the relationship between Judaism and Christianity, and between the Old and New Testaments. He writes in a simple style, with short sentences and at times contrasting parallelisms; nevertheless he manages to make consistent speeches by developing articulated arguments.
Aphraates came from a clerical community halfway between Judaism and Christianity. The community was very closely linked to the Mother Church of Jerusalem, and its bishops were traditionally chosen among what were called James' "relatives," the "Lord’s brother" (cf. Mark 6:3): These people were connected to the Church of Jerusalem by blood and faith.
Aphraates spoke Syriac, a Semitic language like the Hebrew of the Old Testament and like the Aramaic spoken by Jesus himself. The ecclesial community in which Aphraates lived wanted to stay faithful to the Judeo-Christian tradition, of which it felt it was a daughter. Therefore it maintained a close relationship with the Jewish world and its sacred books.
Significantly Aphraates defines himself as a "disciple of sacred Scripture," of both the Old and New Testaments (Exposition 22,26), which he considered his sole source of inspiration, and so often mentioned it that it became the center of his reflections.
Aphraates develops different arguments in his Expositions. True to his Syriac tradition, he often presents Christ’s salvation as a type of healing and consequently, Christ as a doctor. In keeping with this, sin is seen as a wound, which penance alone can heal: "A man that has been injured in battle," says Aphraates, "is not ashamed to put himself in the hands of a doctor. ... Equally so, he who has been injured by Satan should not be ashamed to admit his fault and to distance himself from it, asking for the medicine of penance" (Exposition 7,3).
Another important aspect of Aphraates' work is his teaching on prayer, and particularly on Christ as the master of prayer. The Christian prays following Jesus’ teaching and the example he has set us: "Our Savior taught us to pray saying: 'Pray in the secret of the one who is hidden, but who sees everything.'" And again: "Enter your room, pray to your Father in secret, and the Father who sees this will reward you" (Matthew 6:6). … Our Savior wants to show that God knows the desires and thoughts of the heart" (Exposition 4,10).
To Aphraates, Christian life is centered on the imitation of Christ, taking up his yoke, following him on the path of the Gospel. Humility is one of the most apt virtues in a disciple of Christ. It is not a secondary consideration in the spiritual life of a Christian: Man’s nature is humble, and God exalts it to his own glory. Humility, Aphraates states, is not a negative value: "If man’s root is planted in the earth, his fruits ascend before the Lord of greatness" (Exposition 9,14). By remaining humble, even in his earthly surroundings, a Christian can establish a relationship with the Lord: "The humble man is humble, but his heart rises to the uppermost heights. The eyes of his face observe the earth, but the eyes of his mind observe the highest summit" (Exposition 9,2).
Aphraates’s vision of man and his physical reality is a very positive one: The human body, in the example of the humble Christ, is called to beauty, joy and light: "God is attracted to the man who loves, it is right to love humility and to stay humble. Humble individuals are simple, patient, loving, honest, righteous, experts in what is good, prudent, serene, wise, calm, peaceful, merciful, ready to convert, benevolent, profound, thoughtful, beautiful and attractive" (Exposition 9,14).
Often in Aphraates’ teachings, Christian life is presented in a clear ascetic and spiritual dimension: Faith is its base, its foundation; it makes of man a temple where Christ himself lives. Faith therefore enables a true charity that is expressed in the love toward God and toward one’s neighbor.
Another important aspect in Aphraates’ thought is that of fasting, understood in its widest sense. He speaks of fasting from food as a practice that is necessary to be charitable and pure; of fasting in the sense of self-discipline with a view to sanctity; of fasting from vain and loathsome words; of fasting from anger; of fasting from owning goods in the context of the priestly ministry; of fasting from sleep to pray.
Dear brothers and sisters, to conclude, we return again to Aphraates' teaching on prayer. According to this ancient sage, prayer is achieved when Christ dwells in the heart of Christians, inviting them to a coherent commitment of charity toward their brethren. He writes:
"Give relief to those in distress, visit the ailing,
Be solicitous to the poor: This is prayer.
Prayer is good, and its works are beautiful.
Prayer is accepted when it gives relief to your neighbor.
Prayer is heard when it includes the forgiveness of sins.
Prayer is strong when it is full of God’s strength" (Exposition 4,14-16).
With these words Aphraates invites us to join in a prayer that becomes Christian life, a life that comes to fruition, infused by faith, by openness to God and, as such, by the love for one’s neighbor.
The Holy Father continued: "Its expansion during the first centuries was both westward -- toward the Greek-Latin world, where it then inspired the European culture -- and eastward to Persia and India, thus contributing to stimulate a specific culture, in Semitic languages, with its own identity."
St. Ephrem, said Benedict XIV, "was the most important representative of Syriac Christianity, and succeeded in a unique way to reconcile the vocation of the theologian with that of the poet."
Ephram was born in 306 in Nisibis (Assyrian Nsiven) and died of the plague in 373 in Edessa (Assyrian Urhai). Both cities are locted in south-east Turkey. The Pope said that while not much is known of his life, it is commonly held that he was a deacon and lived a life of celibacy and poverty.
The Holy Father said the deacon, "a rich and captivating author," also "left us a large written theological inheritance."
"The specific character of his work is that theology meets poetry," continued the Pontiff. "If we want to get closer to his doctrine, we need to acknowledge that he studied theology through poetry.
"Poetry allowed him to deepen his theological reflections through paradoxes and images. His theology became both liturgy and music at the same time: He was indeed a great composer and musician."
Benedict XVI quoted several of Ephrem's hymns, as examples of the saint's "poetic theology."
In his hymn "On Christ's Nativity," Ephrem reflected on the figure of the Virgin Mary: "The Lord came to her to make himself a servant. The Word came to her to keep silence in her womb. The lightning came to her to not make any noise."
Pearl of faith
In another hymn, "On the Pearl," St. Ephrem talks of faith: "My brothers, I put (the pearl) in the palm of my hand, to be able to look at it closely.
"I observed it from one side and then the other: It had only one appearance from all sides.
"(Such) is the search for the Son, inscrutable, for he is luminous."
Commenting on the hymns of the fourth-century poet-theologian, Benedict XVI said, "His theological reflection is expressed with images and symbols taken from nature, from daily life and from the Bible."
The Pope also noted the deacon's writings on women: "To Ephrem the role of the woman is a relevant one. The way he wrote about women was always prompted by sensibility and respect: The fact that Jesus dwelt in the womb of Mary has enormously raised the woman's dignity.