“This day makes glad, my Lord, kings, priests, and prophets; for upon this day all of their sayings were fulfilled in action.” (Hymn on the Nativity, 1.1)
With this verse, St Ephrem’s opens the first of his Nativity Hymns. It draws attention to one of the central Syriac ideas of the Nativity, an idea which is absolutely faithful to the earliest beliefs of the Church: Christmas is a day of great joy, on which the ancient prophecies were fulfilled.
The Incarnation of the Lord is the central point of history; and the day of His birth is the day to which the great figures of salvation history, the kings, priests, and prophets, had stretched their necks and strained their eyes in eager anticipation. The Nativity of the Lord is the fruit of God’s loving and gracious plan for our salvation. The Word became Flesh, and so became Action. This is the reason for our joy as a new grace enters history. That joy, sharing in the innocence of the Christ child, is the great mark of Christmas.
The message of the Syriac sages is that the Nativity of the Lord is not just a once off event: it is both the climax of history and the life of the living. the glory of the Nativity in the world. In this broadsheet, the first of several on the Nativity, I will concentrate on this one aspect: the fulfilment of prophecy.
The Prophecy of Isaiah 7:14
In this first hymn, Ephrem mentions some of the prophecies of the coming of the Lord, beginning with St Isaiah declaring that a virgin would conceive and bear a child whose name would be “Emmanuel,” meaning “God with us” (Isaiah 7:14). That prophecy, St Ephrem declares, is fulfilled today (H.N. 1.2). It is fulfilled each and every Christmas. This is part of the wonder of the Syriac way of thinking about history: each 25 December is the day on which the Lord was born: the past is brought into the present through grace, and the present is united with the past through faith.
Critics see no prophecy here. They counter that the Hebrew word 3almâ does not specifically refer to a virgin, although the Greek translation, the Septuagint, chose the word parthenos in translation, and that often usually refers to a virgin. This is a weak objection: first, the Septuagint is a good witness to how the Hebrew was understood. Second, 3almâ can connote a virgin (NIDOTTE 3.418). Third, the prophecy has to be read according to to its genre: it is a declaration of the unsearchable will of God. There is something miraculous to remark in a prophecy that a virgin will give birth, but not much where it is simply saying “a man will be born.” Unless there were a virgin birth, as both the Septuagint and St Matthew state, the prophecy is pedestrian, the words were wasted. Not every prophecy about anyone mentions that they were born: we take that for granted, we don’t need a prophet to tell us that. This is an important point, because objections to the Virginal Conception are important: they not only diminish our understanding of Our Lady and her role in salvation history, they also weaken our understanding of prophecy and its fulfilment. Rejecting the Virginal Conception is just another step to seeing the Lord as merely a “good man,” and denying His divinity.
The Prophecy of Numbers 24:17
Ephrem dwells upon the prophecy of Numbers 24:17: “Behold, a star has shone forth from Jacob, and a prince has arisen from Israel.” This is the fourth prophecy of Balaam, the son of Beor, who was called to curse Israel, but who was unable to because God changed the words which came out of his mouth. Further, he thought his prophecies referred to one matter, the war between Israel and its neighbours, but the Church has always understood that prophecy as referring to the Incarnation.
Prophecy, being the Word of God, is mysterious, and is not limited to having just one meaning. As Ephrem stated in his commentary on the Diatessaron: no one is capable of understanding all of the meaning of Scripture; we should not think that the little we grasp from it is all that there is in it. Rather, he says we should realise that we are capable of grasping only a small part of its riches: we should rejoice because we have drunk from the fountain of truth, and not be despondent because we cannot drink the spring dry (T.M. Law, When God Spoke Greek, 167-168). This is one of the great beauties of the Syriac method of biblical interpretation: everyone can make fresh discoveries, and so feel as if the Spirit has individually spoken to him – which indeed it has.
St Ephrem states that on this day, Christmas, Balaam’s prophecy becomes clear: “The hidden light descended, and its beauty shone forth from a body” (H.N. 1.5-6). The word used for “shine forth” here, is the Syriac “dnaH,” meaning “to rise (like the sun or a star”). This concept could not be more wonderful: that there is an uncreated light in the universe, and that it has been hidden from humanity, until, like the sun, it dawned in the Christ child who was born to the Virgin. In terms of typology, all light is the light of the sun, the light of dawn, and the light of dawn is an antetype of reflection of the uncreated light of God – which shone forth in Christ. The light which shines in the Lord is truer than the light even of the sun.
If we understand the reality of prophecy, we will understand the reality that there is a purpose in history and in each human life. Today, we tend to gloss over the prophecies of the coming of the Lord. This has been a great loss, because it has meant that we have forgotten to look at history as a story which, whatever the human actors may desire, ultimately unfolds as God has determined. Against all the available evidence, we think that we can make our plans and then mould the world in accordance with them. We see how everything goes off the rails, how the unexpected happens and blows away our human schemes, but we never learn the lesson.
Let us think what prophecy shows us: it demonstrates that God knows what will happen in history, that He has a design for our salvation, and that he communicates some knowledge of His plan to certain people, and orders them to make this known to the world. Further, the message of what God is going to perform among us, brings hope to the world. God’s institution of prophecy shows that he cares enough about humanity to have this plan for our salvation; and then that He has the power to cause His prophecies to come to pass.
Prophecy means that the eyes of God are fixed upon us, watching and waiting for the moment when He will act. If we had a deep understanding of this, we would not be prey to the worries and anxieties which we do. Perhaps even more than that, we would cease to think of God as being absent from the world: we would know and feel that His quiet presence is here, now, with us.
Prophecy teaches us that our lives are small but God’s is endless and eternal. We may think our lives are all that there is, but we are wrong – they are not even all that there is for us – for we must one day lay aside our lives, and be reborn into the life of the soul, which is God’s to determine and to dispose.
25September 2020, the Feast of St Paphnutios the Ascetic, of Egypt (4th century)
Note: I am using Kathleen McVey’s book Ephrem the Syrian: Hymns, which contains English translations of many, but not all, of the saint’s surviving hymns. I usually begin with her translations, and then check Edmund Beck’s edition of the Syriac text of the Nativity (Epiphany) Hymns to see what the original Syriac is.