The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

Fifteen Hymns for the Feast of the Epiphany

Metrical Poems by Saint Ephraem the Syrian
 (Born at Nisibis, then under Roman rule, early in the fourth century; died June, 373)

Translated into Prose by Rev. A. Edward Johnston

Music: Not Stated

Source: John Gwynn, ed., Hymns and Homilies of Ephraim The Syrian, Trans. A. Edward Johnston, Volume 13, Part 2, of Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, eds., A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers. Second Series. (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1905), pp. 250-262.

These hymns were discovered in a treasure trove of Syrian manuscripts retrieved in the early 1840s by Rev. Henry Tattam (1789–1868), an English Coptic scholar, from the Monastery of the Syrians (Deir al-Suryani) (St. Mary Deipara) in Egypt's Nitrian desert. They were first transcribed from the manuscript, and translated into Latin, in Thomas J. Lamy, ed., Sancti Ephraem Syri hymni et sermones. Volume 2. (Mechliniae: H. Dessain, 1886), pp. 429-516 (Languages: Syrian and Latin).

Unless otherwise stated, all quotations from the Holy Bible will be from the English Revised Version of 1895,
which is in the public domain. The source did not stated which translation they used or recommended.

The Rhythms of Saint Ephrem the Syrian on the Feast of the Epiphany

Hymn 1. The Heavens He Has Renewed

Resp.— To You be praise from Your flock in the day of Your Epiphany!

Hymn 2. In The Time Of The King — Nearly identical with Hymn XIII. On the Nativity. See: In The Days Of The King

Resp.— To You be praise Who in this feast makest all to exult!

Hymn 3. Christ and Chrism Are Conjoined

Resp.— Christ with chrism,1 lo! He is sealing the newborn lambs in His flock!

Hymn 4. Descend My Sealed Brethren

Resp.— Blessed be He that blots out in water misdeeds that are without measure!

Hymn 5. Descend, My Brethren

Resp.— Blessed be He that ordained baptism, for the atonement of the sons of Adam!

Hymn 6. The Spirit Came Down From On High

Resp.— Blessed be He Who was baptized that He might baptize you, that you should be absolved from your offenses.

Hymn 7. The Flock of Jacob Came Down

Resp.— Blessed is He Who atoned your sins, that you might receive His Body worthily!

Hymn 8. God In His mercy Stooped And Came Down

Resp.— Happy are you whose bodies have been made to shine!

Hymn 9. O John, Who Saw The Spirit

Resp., Blessed is He Who came down, and sanctified water for the remission of the sins of the children of Adam!

Hymn 10. Adam Sinned And Earned All Sorrows

Resp.— Glory to Him Who came and restored it!

Hymn 11. Give Thanks, O Daughter

Resp.— Let the bodies rejoice which the Evil One had made naked, that in the water they have put on their glory!

Hymn 12.  In Baptism Adam Found Again

Resp.— Blessed is He Who went down and was baptized in Jordan, and turned back the People from error!

Hymn 13. Your Garments Glisten, My Brethren, As Snow — Hymn of the Baptized.

Resp .— Brethren, sing praises, to the Son of the Lord of all; Who has bound for you crowns, such as kings long for!

Hymn 14. My Thought Bore Me To Jordan — Hymn concerning our Lord and John.

Resp .— Glory to You, my Lord, for You — with joy Heaven and earth worship!

Hymn 15. In the Birth of the Son Light Dawned

Footnote:

1. Chrism is defined as consecrated oil used in Greek and Latin churches especially in baptism, chrismation, confirmation, and ordination. Source: Merriam-Webster Dictionary <accessed February 4, 2017>  Return

Editor's Notes:

There is great esteem for St. Ephream's poetry in the Eastern Church. He's been said to be a genius in poetry, and his mastery of the language is considered by some to be virtually unequalled.

Translating the texts composed in one language into another language is always challenging. But translating poetry is someplace between extremely challenging and nearly impossible. Translating Syrian poetry into English is especially difficult for several reasons including rhythms and accents, rhymes, assonance, images, structures, and the subtle variances in the meanings of words. In addition, there are major cultural differences in preferences for poetic structures. 

These may be some of the reasons that caused the authors to create prose translations of St. Ephream's poetry.

The Catholic Encyclopedia (1912) entry for St. Ephraem briefly discusses this issue:

In Syriac poetry St. Ephraem is a pioneer of genius, the master often imitated but never equalled. ... The Western reader of the hymns of Ephraem is inclined to wonder at the enthusiasm of his admirers in the ancient Syriac Church.

His "lyricism" is by no means what we understand by that term. His poetry seems to us prolix, tiresome, colourless, lacking in the person note, and in general devoid of charm.

To be just, however, it must be remembered that his poems are known to most readers only in versions, from which of course the original rhythm has disappeared---precisely the charm and most striking feature of this poetry.

These hymns, moreover, were not written for private reading, but were meant to be sung by alternating choirs. We have only to compare the Latin psalms as sung in the choir of a Benedictine monastery with the private reading of them by the priest in the recitation of his Breviary.

Nor must we forget that literary taste is not everywhere and at all times the same. We are influenced by Greek thought more deeply than we are aware or like to admit: In literature we admire most the qualities of lucidity, sobriety, and varied action. Orientals, on the other hand, never weary of endless repetition of the same thought in slightly altered form; they delight in pretty verbal niceties, in the manifold play of rhythm and accent, rhyme and assonance, and acrostic. In this respect it is scarcely necessary to remind the reader of the well-known peculiarities and qualities of Arabic poetry.

Source: Labourt, Jιrτme. "St. Ephraem." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 5. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1909. 5 Feb. 2017 <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/05498a.htm>.

We have seen some excellent English-language poets translate poems from other languages into English, as, for example, Katherine Winkworth's translations from the German. Perhaps the time is ripe for contemporary poets to take these prose translations and attempt to put them into a poetic structure that would be appealing to Western readers.

There have been other individual translations of hymns that are in the public domain; as we find them, we'll post them with links on the Eastern Hymns web page.

There are several contemporary translations of St. Ephream's poetry including:

St. Ephraem of Syria was also the author of Nineteen Hymns of the Nativity, as well as other hymns of the Christmas-tide, hymns against heresies, hymns for the faith, etc.

See generally Christmas-tide Hymns from the Eastern Churches.

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