Of The Birth Of The Firstborn
Words: Saint Ephream of Syria
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, from Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, eds., A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers. Second Series, Volume 13, Part 2. (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1905), pp. 250-252.
The Rhythms of Saint Ephrem the Syrian on the Nativity
Rhythm The Fourteenth
Resp.—Blessed be he who became beyond measure low, that he might make us beyond measure great.
1. Of the Birth of the Firstborn, let us tell on His Feast-day.505—He gives on His day, secret comforts.—If the unclean King at his feast, in memory of his day,—gave the gift of wrath, the head in a charger,—how much more shall the Blessed, give blessings to him—who sings praise at His Feast!
2. Let us not count our vigil like vigils of every day.—His feast, its reward, exceeds an hundredfold.—For this feast makes war, on sleep by its vigil;—speaking it makes war, on silence by its voice;—clad with all blessings, it is chief of feasts,—and of every joy.
3. To-day the angels, and the archangels,—descended to sing—a new song on earth.—In this mystery they descend, and rejoice with the vigil-keepers.—At the time when they gave praise, blasphemy abounded.—Blessed be the Birth by which, lo! the world resounds—with anthems of praise.
4. For this is the night that joined, the Watchers on high with the vigil-keepers.—The Watcher came to make watchers in the midst of creation.—Lo! the vigil-keepers are made comrades with the Watchers:—the singers of praise are made, companions of the Seraphs.—Blessed be he who becomes, the harp of Thy praise!—and Thy grace becomes his reward.
5. The Birth then of the Firstborn, I will sing and tell how—the Godhead in the womb wove itself a vesture.—He put it on and came forth in birth, in death again put it off;—once he put it off, twice He put it on.—On the left He wore it, then took it off thence,—and laid it at the right.
6. He dwelt in a narrow bosom, the Might that rules all.—While He was dwelling there, He held the reins of the whole:—to His Father He made offering, that He might fulfil His Will:—Heaven was filled by Him, and every creature.—The Sun entered the womb, and in the height and the depth—his splendour abode.
7. He dwelt in the wide bosoms, of all the creatures;—too narrow to hold, the greatness of the Firstborn.—How then sufficed for it, that bosom of Mary?—Marvellous if it sufficed, bewilderment if it sufficed not.—Of all bosoms that held Him, one bosom sufficed for Him,—His, the Supreme Who begat Him.
8. The bosom that held Him, if it held Him Wholly,—equals the wondrous bosom, of the Supreme Who begat Him.—But who dare say the bosom, that is narrow weak and lowly,—is equal to His, Who is the Supreme Being?—He dwelt there of His mercy, though so great is His Nature:—it is without bound.
9. Reconciling Peace, sent to the nations!—gladdening Brightness, that camest to the sad!—Mighty Leaven in silence, overcoming all!—Patient One that hast taken, man after man in Thy net!—Happy he who has welcomed, thy joy in his heart,—and forgot his groans in Thee!
10. They sounded forth peace, the Watchers to the vigil-keepers.—Among the vigil-keepers the good tidings, were announced by the Watchers.—Who would sleep on that night, which has waked all creatures?—For they bear good tidings of peace, where warfare had been.—Blessed is he who has pleased, the Divine Majesty by his silence,—when speaking moved His wrath!
11. Watchers mixed with watchers, they rejoiced that the world came to life.—The Evil One was shamed who was king, and had woven a crown of lies;—and set up his throne, as God in the world.—The Babe laid in the manger, cast him from his dominion.—The Sun rendered worship, doing Him homage by his Magi;—in his worshippers he worshipped Him.
12. God saw that mankind, worship things created:—He put on a created body, that in our custom He might capture us.—Lo! in this our form, He that formed us healed us;—and in this created shape, our Creator gave us life.—He drew us not by force: blessed be He Who came in ours,—and joined us in His!
13. Who would not marvel, at Mary, David’s daughter,—bearing an infant, and her virginity kept!—She lays Him on her breast, and lulls Him with song and He rejoices.—The Angels raise hymns, the Seraphs cry “Holy,”—the Magi offer, acceptable gifts,—to the Son Who is born.
14. O great above measure, immeasurably made low,—praised beyond praises, debased to humiliation!—the tender mercies laid on Thee, bowed Thee down to all this;—let Thy grace bow me down, though evil to give praise!—Happy he who becomes, a fountain of voices,—all praising Thee in all!
15. He was servant on earth; He is Lord in Heaven.—Heir of height and depth, He became a stranger:—Whom men judged in guile, He is judge in truth:—He Whose face they spat on, breathes His Spirit on theirs:—He Who held the frail reed, is become the staff of the world,—which grows old and leans on Him.
16. He Who rose to wait on His servants, now sits to be worshipped.—Whom the scribes despised, before Him Seraphs cry “Holy.”—This praise Adam desired, to steal privily.—The serpent which made him fall, saw to what height he was raised:—he crushed it because it deceived him; the feet of Eve trod it down,—which had sent venom into her ears.
17. The wife proved barren, and withheld her fruit;—but the bosom of Mary, holily conceived.—To wonder at fields, and to admire plants—she needed not who received, and rendered what she borrowed not.—Nature confessed its defeat; the womb was aware of it,—and restored what Nature gave not.
18. Mary was defeated, in the judgment by Elizabeth.—She that was barren pleaded, that the Will which prevailed—to close the open door, has opened the closed.—He has made childless the married womb; He has made fruitful the virgin womb.—Because the People were accurst faithless, He made her that was married,—held from bearing before the face of the maiden.
19. He Who could give moisture, to breasts barren and dead,—caused them to fail in youth, made them to flow in age;—forced and changed nature, in its season and out of its season.—The Lord of natures changed, the Virgin’s nature.—Because the People were barren, He made her that was aged,—a mouth on behalf of the damsel.
20. And as He began at birth, He went on and fulfilled in death.—His Birth received worship; His Death paid the debt.—As He came to His Birth, the Magi worshipped Him;—again He came to His Passion, and the thief sought refuge in Him—Between His Birth and Death, midway He set the world:—in birth and Death he gave it life.
21. Thousand thousands stand, and ten thousand thousands haste.—The thousands and ten thousands, cannot search out the One:—for all of them stand, in silence to serve.—He has no heir of His Throne, save the Son Who is of Him.—In the midst of silence is the enquiry into Him, when the watchers come to search Him out,—they attain to silence and are stayed.
22. The Firstborn entered the womb, and the pure Virgin was not harmed.—He stirred and came forth in her travail, and the fair Mother was troubled by Him.—Glorious and unseen in entering, humble and manifest in issuing;—for He was God in entering, and He was man in issuing.—A marvel and bewilderment to hear: fire entered the womb; put on a body and came forth!
23. Gabriel chief of Angels, called Him “My Lord”:—he called Him “My Lord,” to teach that He was his Lord, not his fellow.—Gabriel had with him, Michael as fellow:—the Son is Lord of the servants; exalted is His Nature as His Name.—No servant can search Him out; for the greater the servant,—He is great above His servant.
24. When they stand before Thee, the watchers with songs of praise,—they know not in what part, they shall discern Thee.—They have sought Thee above in the height; they have seen Thee below in the depth:—they have searched for Thee in the midst of heaven; they have seen Thee in the midst of the abyss:—they have discerned Thee beside Him that is worshipped; they have found Thee in the midst of the creatures:—they have come down to Thee and sung Glory to Thee.
25. Thou art all wonderful, in all parts where we seek Thee.—Near art Thou,—and far, and who may attain to Thee?—No seeking avails, that its stretch should reach unto Thee.—Whereon it stretches to reach Thee, it is checked and stops,—it falls short of Thy mountain; Faith reaches thither,—and Love with prayer.
26. The Magi also sought Him, and in the manger when they found Him,—instead of scrutiny worship, they offered Him in silence;—for empty strivings, oblations gave they Him.—Seek thou too the Firstborn, and if thou find Him in the height,—instead of troubled questionings, open thy treasures before Him,—and offer Him thy works.
St. Ephraem of Syria was also the author of Fifteen Hymns of the Epiphany, 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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