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A Reading From the Holy Gospel According to Luke

Jesus said to his disciples: “A good tree does not bear rotten fruit, nor does a rotten tree bear good fruit. For every tree is known by its own fruit. For people do not pick figs from thornbushes, nor do they gather grapes from brambles. A good person out of the store of goodness in his heart produces good, but an evil person out of a store of evil produces evil; for from the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks.

The Gospel of the Lord.

Transcription of Sermon

The Gospel of the Lord.

Today the Church celebrates the Feast of the great Doctor of the Church, St. Ephrem. St. Ephrem was a Syrian born into a solid Catholic family in Syria, Nisibis to be more precise, at the end of the third century. And he, according to the practice of a time, since there was a good long time in the history of the Church, especially in the early centuries, when the practice was you’re allowed to go to Confession once, and so, many, therefore, would be baptized later in life, and then confess before they died. Well, the Church obviously changed that practice, but this was the time when that was the practice when Efrem grew up. And so, he was baptized later in life as an adult, but he grew up in a very healthy Holy Catholic household in Syria, and lived according to Natural Law, lived according to the Revealed Law.

And then as an adult, not very educated formally, but as a very intelligent and spiritually sensitive adult, was baptized and the graces of his baptism bore such great fruit that he then offered himself for training to be a deacon. And so, he became a deacon. And this was at a time of lots of heretical teachings in Mesopotamia. And many of these teachings were spread through song and through poetry. He lived a very ascetical life, lived alone as a solitary, almost a semi-hermit, was offered to be ordained a priest, but he refused, and he was a sought-after spiritual guide by many.

When he heard of these songs, these hymns, that the heretics were producing to promulgate their errors, he responded in kind. And what he would do would be to take popular tunes and give new words to them that reflected orthodox teaching of the Catholic Church. And these hymns then, that he wrote, there are many that we have, many hymns of Saint Ephrem, these hymns were a catechesis in itself, and something that the people could hold on to when they were confronted with error; when they were confronted with persecution.

In Nisibis because of the political situation, all of the Catholics were routed out and he went to Edessa and there in Edessa, the Catholics settled there. And then, Edessa was under siege by a nearby potentate who moved the river, changed the direction of the river, and started and flooded the town. And the Catholics went to high ground to keep their place, and we’re fed by these hymns that Ephrem taught them and that they had memorized. And so, they were able to hold on to the Faith, they were able to hold on to their own identity in the midst of all sorts of tragedy.

St. Ephrem the Syrian, 16th c.

And this shows us the importance of art, for good and for ill, how music, which is the most spiritual of all of the arts, when we have these beautiful paintings and statues, and mosaics here in this Church. You know, there’s something very tactile, very tangible, and that reveals a hidden beauty and tangible way. When a song is sung, it’s gone forever. And so, song is… the music is the most spiritual of all of the arts, it’s the least sensible sort of say in terms of physical senses. And therefore, it can speak to the soul in a way that many other forms of art don’t. And this is the importance of hearing only good music, of seeing only good art because these things that we see, these things that we hear, leave an impression on us, on our memory, on our imagination, on our affections on our will.

And Ephrem knew this, and he was able to take very worthy melodies, that might have been profane, and give them a Catholic content. And this was something that his people held on to.

Eventually, the flooding of Edessa was the downfall of the besiegers, and their chariots got stuck in the mud, and their siege became frustrated. And they thought that there was a time of peace, until that same potentate, in a battle, overcame the Romans under Jovian and, therefore, as part of the settlement in the peace terms was he wanted the town of Edessa. So, it came under their power, the pagans’ power, again anyway. And nonetheless, this time of sorrow, this time of siege, this time of disaster, was also a time of great holiness.

When there was a famine because of failed crops, Ephram was shocked to learn that, in this general hunger that everybody was experiencing, that some of the Catholics were hoarding food and not sharing it with their fellow Catholics. And when he confronted them, they said, “Well, we don’t know anybody honest enough to make sure that the distribution is fairly done.” And he said, “You doubt me?” and they didn’t. And so, they allowed him to be the one who distributed the hoarded foods amongst the Catholic families. And the next season saw a very fruitful crop, the famine was over.

St. Ephrem in spite of not being formally educated is a Doctor of the Church; a Doctor because of his personal holiness; a Doctor because of the perennial message in his hymns, in his poetry, and all of his writings that have fed, and continue to feed Catholics.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

— Fr. Ermatinger