Love is the victor. Death is not the end. The end is life. His life and our lives through him, in him. Existence has greater depths of beauty, mystery, and benediction than the wildest visionary has ever dared to dream. Christ our Lord has risen.
How do we sing God’s songs in times of darkness? We’ve lived through a very dark time in our country in the last few years. The past two years have seen the spread of the corona virus seep into so many corners of our lives, and masked, distanced, and often isolated from friends and family, we’ve faced the tragic darkness of so many lives lost, of so many lives shattered by losing businesses, jobs, or shelter. We’ve also shuddered in the darkness as temperatures continue to rise around the world, creating heat waves, massive floods, storms, and devastating droughts and wildfires. Violence and wars around the world headline our news every day. And we have also witnessed the darkness of a violent assault on our country’s Capitol, on our democratic values, on truth itself, as lies have festered in attempts to rewrite the history of an insurrection, and to distort the facts surrounding the outcome of an election.
Can we still sing of God with us? Can we still believe and sing of God’s care and concern, of God’s presence in the midst of such darkness? Perhaps we can learn something about singing in the darkness from a little known saint of the 4th century, Ephrem of Edessa (306-373). Ephrem was a deacon and teacher for many years in the Syrian church of Nisibis (currently Nuysabin in southeastern Turkey), then later in the church of Edessa (currently Urfa in southeastern Turkey). He was deeply devoted to Christ and to his Church, but he lived in a time when elemental truths of the Christian faith were under attack from a variety of sources. In addition to watching the distortions of his beloved faith, Ephrem also lived through many years when his beloved city of Nisibis was under siege by forces seeking to wrest it from the Romans. Further, when after several sieges, Nisibis was overwhelmed by enemy forces and abandoned by the Roman army, he and all the Christians of Nisibis were forced to leave their beloved city. Ephrem and his Christian friends became refugees, roaming from place to place until, eventually, they were able to settle in Edessa. Not long after their settlement in Edessa, however, the city’s population was decimated by a plague. Ephrem did all he could to alleviate the suffering but eventually he, too, became sick and died from the plague, probably alone in the cave that he had made his home.
How did Ephrem respond to all of the darkness around him—the erosion of truth, the violent assaults on his beloved hometown, the perils of being a refugee, and then the plague? Ephrem responded by SINGING. He wrote poetic sermons and a myriad of hymns (400 of them are still in print today!), and then he set his hymn-poems to the music of Syriac folk tunes. These theologically poetic tunes he would teach to all-female choirs in his church, giving the women of his day, who often had little opportunity to speak in church circles, a voice to join him in singing out against all the darkness around them.
Can we do the same today? Certainly not an easy task, but I do believe we can. In spite of all the darkness of our times, I do believe that we can still sing the poetic Psalms that acknowledge our pain and sorrow but also proclaim the majesty, mystery, and power of a God committed to justice and mercy and truth. That we can still sing the hymns of the Church that echo the New Testament’s claim of God’s steadfast and profound love for our world. That we can still sing St. John’s dream on the island of Patmos, a dream of God’s somehow, someday, renewal of the heavens and of the earth.
Perhaps our singing will lead us to more sustained prayer for God’s light to shine in our darkness. Will lead to action to help those in need. Will lead to constructive protest against the powers that distort truth and disdain justice. Will lead us to persistent hope in the brightness of the One of whom Ephrem sang in his hymn De Nativitate—a brightness no darkness can ever overcome.
The Lord entered her [the Virgin Mary] and became a servant; the Word entered her and became silent within her; thunder entered her, and his voice was still; the Shepherd of all entered her; he became a Lamb in her and came forth bleating. The belly of your Mother changed the order of things, O you who order all! Rich he went in, he came out poor: the High One went into her, he came out lowly. Brightness went into her and clothed himself and came forth a despised form. … He that gives food to all went in and knew hunger. He who gives drink to all went in and knew thirst. Naked and bare came forth from her the Clother of all things.