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Church’s Roots Aren’t European, Says Pope

Comments on Syriac Poet-Theologian

VATICAN CITY, NOV. 28, 2007 ( Christianity didn’t originate in Europe, but rather has its roots in the Middle Eastern world of the Old Testament, says Benedict XVI.

The Pope said this today during the general audience in Paul VI Hall, which he dedicated to the figure of St. Ephrem the Syrian, a fourth-century theologian, poet and musician.

He said the reflection continued along the lines of his commentary last week on the fourth-century Syriac Christian Aphraates, which also showed the cultural diversity of the early Christians.

“According to general opinion,” said the Pontiff, “Christianity is a European religion that has exported the culture of this Continent to other countries. The reality, though, is a lot more complex, as the root of the Christian religion is found in the Old Testament, and therefore in Jerusalem and the Semitic world.”

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.”

A deacon

Ephram was born in 306 in Nisibis, in what is in modern-day Turkey, and died of the plague in 373 in Edessa, in what is modern-day Eastern 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.

“For Ephrem there is no redemption without Jesus, just as there could be no incarnation without Mary.”

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