Call to Mind Thy Childhood: St Ephrem the Syrian and the Infant Jesus

Before I (Neil) begin, let me ask you to keep Joe Cecil in your prayers.  

Each Sunday, we profess, following the Fathers of the First Council of Nicaea, that Jesus Christ is “one in being with the Father” and “for us humans and for our salvation he came down and became incarnate.” We might grasp the flawed logic in arguments that Jesus was merely a gifted human being, or the cold insufficiency of the claim that he kept a safe distance from our humanity. But do we really understand what it means to profess the full divinity and humanity of Jesus Christ? This, I think, isn’t merely an academic question, but rather an inquiry that can guide our meditation during this Advent season. 

So, this will be a Christological post, focusing on the infancy of Jesus. I will be indebted throughout to an article that I read a few years ago in Hugoye: Journal of Syrian Studies, written by Paul S. Russell. Russell begins by telling us that “I have never forgotten the shock I felt on reading for the first time Cyril of Alexandria’s aggressive treatment of the nativity scene.” Cyril had written to Nestorius: 

Neither do we say that the flesh was converted into the divine nature, nor surely that the ineffable nature of God the Word was debased and perverted into the nature of flesh, for he is unchangeable and unalterable, ever continuing altogether the same according to the Scripture: but we say that the Son of God, while visible to the eyes, and a babe and in swaddling clothes, and still at the breast of his Virgin Mother, filled all creation as God, and was seated with his Father. 

When we meditate, then, on the divinity and humanity of Jesus Christ, we must not think that they were somehow chemically mixed or combined – that Jesus’ divinity can be pictured as the intensification of certain desirable human qualities (we might find ourselves imagining, say, a hyper-masculine Jesus). Instead, Cyril forces us to meditate on the startling juxtaposition of a helpless child with limitless divinity. 

Many Patristic authors do not spend a great deal of time on the infancy of Jesus, but Ephrem the Syrian does do this, illustrating Cyril’s juxtaposition with a memorable attentiveness to detail. As Russell writes about Ephrem’s hymns (madrâšê), “The infant Jesus shows us the saving paradox of the Incarnation in a clear and striking manner: the presence of the Divine nature makes the helplessness of the baby active in the salvation of humans while still leaving the helplessness unchanged” (emphasis mine). For instance, Ephrem movingly writes about the presentation of Jesus in the Temple:

Because Simeon was able to carry in his weak arms the very majesty that created things cannot endure, he knew that his weakness was strengthened by the power he carried. At the same time Simeon, with all creatures, was invisibly being lifted up by the all-prevailing power of the Son Himself. This is amazing, that while a weak man was visibly carrying the power that gave him strength, that power was invisibly carrying the one who carried it. Majesty made itself small so that those who held it could endure it. 

Likewise, Ephrem says about the Evil One, “The Babe in a manger cast him from his power.” Think about that for a while. 

This juxtaposition is always startling, but it is not unstable. For Ephrem, Jesus’ divinity is no threat to his humanity. Ephrem is willing to picture Jesus, though divine, as a human being among other more unremarkable humans: “He was cheerful among the infants as a baby.” Ephrem will bid us to “Behold the Lord of Joseph on a humble lap,” inviting us to consider the physical fragility of Our Lord requiring the support and protection of a comparatively ordinary man. But Jesus’ humanity is also no threat at all to his divinity. Ephrem acknowledges that Jesus did have special human qualities, without any evident anxiety that this might make his divinity seem superfluous. “Even while He was an infant, He was a teacher of the sons of men, by the splendor that was upon Him.” When we meditate on the human and divine natures of Christ, we should never think that they are competitive.  

But, still, why the basic paradox of the Incarnation – the “Lord of the Universe,” “older then Noah and younger than Noah,” pictured reclining in a manger?  

Paul Russell writes, “The gulf which had existed between God and Creation, which is a strong theme in Ephrem’s writings and which he believed to be clearly described in Scripture, has been bridged so effectively by the Son’s Incarnation that, not only can humans come into the direct presence of God, but they can even pick the Son up and carry him around!” What is needed is a rather direct bridge between God and humankind. Thus, the Son, Russell writes, comes directly into creation, “taking up residence in it, instead of merely suffusing it with His presence or presiding over it, as the Divine had done before that change.” Salvation, then, can be offered directly to us – there is no more direct bridge than this. Thus, speaking of the human birth of Jesus, Ephrem says: 

This one day, / The [most] perfect in the year, alone opens / this treasure house.

About Jesus, Ephrem will say:

Mute He was as a babe, yet He gave to all creation all His commands. / For without the First-Born no one is able to approach Being, for He alone is capable of it.

Beyond this, Ephrem also seems to say, as Russell writes, that the Incarnation was “an experience that was deeply personal for the Son, and one that has deeply personal effects for God’s own sense of His connection with human beings.” Part of the bridge between God and human beings is actually shared personal experience. In a very striking example, Ephrem prays to the Son:

Have mercy, O Lord, on my children! In my children call to mind Thy childhood, Thou Who wast a child! Let them that are like Thy childhood, be saved by Thy grace! 

Russell says that this prayer clearly shows that, for Ephrem, Jesus “not only enjoys both divine and human nature, but His divine nature experiences the human nature as a human experiences it, not just in the midst of human beings.” And, so, Ephrem can call on God the Son to take pity on his children by calling into memory the Son’s own recollection of having once been a child himself (“call to mind Thy childhood, Thou Who wast a child!”).  

Many of you will recall the patristic dictum, “God became man so that we might become children of God.” How does this happen? There are different ways to explain this (some of which we have already explored on this blog), but it seems as though Ephrem would suggest in part that God now has a degree of personal empathy with us, since God the Son was one of us. And so we may come into his presence, united by this empathy. I do not know of another Church Father who suggests this. … But it is a striking thought for Advent, isn’t it?

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Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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2 Responses to Call to Mind Thy Childhood: St Ephrem the Syrian and the Infant Jesus

  1. Tony says:

    “for us humans and for our salvation he came down and became incarnate.”

    I don’t profess that, Neil. I always profess “for us men and for our salvation He came down from heaven”.

  2. Neil says:

    Dear Tony,

    In most churches that I’ve been in, the formulation has been “for us and for our salvation …”

    In any case, I borrowed my rendering here from EWTN’s translation of “The Profession of Faith of the 318 Fathers,” taken from Tanner’s Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, which reads –

    ” … for us humans and for our salvation he came down and became incarnate, became human, suffered and rose up on the third day, went up into the heavens, is coming to judge the living and the dead. … ”

    Obviously, there are other translations and I did go ahead and translate “consubstantial” into “one in being.” But, I figured, if EWTN’s website has “humans,” it surely can’t be objectionable.

    Thanks.

    Neil

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