The fifteen poems which comprise Ephrem’s Hymns on Paradise revolve around the poetic figure suggested in their title, taking as their starting point the narrative of Adam and Eve found in Genesis chapters 2 through 3. This is “a tale that is short to read,/ but rich to explore” (Hymn II:3). Ephrem’s concern is to rise above the merely literal sense of the details found in the Biblical account, arriving at the spiritual perception of Paradise itself: to be lifted up and transported “from the bosom of the book/ to the very bosom of Paradise” (V: 3). Ephrem does not dwell long in close exegesis of the letter of the Genesis text, but ranges freely on his theme, making use of a wide array of images and metaphors drawn from other books of the Bible, as well as from the world of man and nature.
Paradise eludes all specific geographical location: it is a spiritual state, and as such invisible to the eye (I :8). The “bridge” and “gate” to Paradise is to be found in Scripture (V:4-5), and is ultimately identified with Christ, who is Himself the “Door” (II:2). Paradise was planted for the sake of man (VI), yet Adam lost it through his disobedience to God’s command. Re-entry into Paradise is won by Christ’s incarnation in the same flesh worn by Adam, accompanied by His obedience, suffering and resurrection, and the grace and mercy of God given to man through these mysteries.
If Paradise cannot be identified with any spot on the terrestrial map, it nevertheless has its own spiritual topography. Ephrem follows certain Jewish traditions in envisaging Paradise as a mountain. This mountain encircles all creation, enclosing both land and sea (Hymn I:8-9). The Flood in the time of Noah was unable to destroy it (I:4), but reached only its foothills, which are guarded by the Cherub with the flaming sword, as mentioned in Genesis 3:24 (II:7; IV:1). Halfway up the mountain is the tree of knowledge, marking the point past which Adam and Eve were forbidden to go (III:3).
Ephrem also uses Old Testament imagery associated with the Temple to describe the relation of the two trees of the Genesis story. He identifies the Temple as a figurative type of Paradise. The tree of knowledge is the sanctuary curtain or veil (III:5, 13; XV:8) which hides the entrance to the inner sanctuary or Holy of Holies. The Holy of Holies itself is identified with the tree of life (III:5, 14).
The mountain of Paradise is further divided into three concentric circles, relating to different categories of blessedness. Ephrem describes these in terms corresponding to the various levels of Noah’s Ark, as well as to the divisions of the Israelites at Mount Sinai (II:10-13). This threefold structure of Paradise is finally related to the threefold constitution of man himself, made up of spirit, soul and body (IX:20).
Within the context of this threefold “spiritual topography,” Ephrem maintains that Adam was originally placed in an intermediate state, midway up the mountain of Paradise. This is: man and woman were created as incomplete, dynamic, open-ended creatures, with a call of priestly offering to fulfill. The human being was created with a not-yet realized vocation to become “the likeness of God, / endowed with immortal life/ and wisdom that does not err.”
The tree of knowledge functioned as a gate of testing for this vocation (II:1). Only by freely keeping the command of God were Adam and Eve to progress up the mountain, past the tree of knowledge, to the tree of life: past the veil of the sanctuary, into the Holy of Holies. As Ephrem writes in Hymn III:16-17:
God did not permit
Adam to enter
that innermost tabernacle;
this was withheld,
so that first he might prove pleasing
in his service to that outer Tabernacle;
like a priest
with fragrant incense,
Adam’s keeping of the commandment
was to be his censer;
that he might enter before the Hidden One
into that Hidden Tabernacle.
Adam is like a Levite who has not yet been allowed to serve as high priest, yet seizes the opportunity anyway, bringing ruin upon himself. The degrees of Adam’s “priesthood” and his sharing in the life of grace correspond strictly to his level of spiritual obedience (see esp. Hymn XII:17-18). If only he had been obedient, Adam would have been rewarded with the fruit which he desired, as well as access to the tree of life.
However, tempted by the serpent, Adam and Eve overstepped the commandment. They thereby lost not only the summit of the mountain, but also its midpoint, and were cast out of Paradise. Without obedience, the tree of knowledge becomes an instrument of judgment (III:10). A wall of division is set up, separating Adam and his descendants from Paradise. “Now the cherub and the sharp sword provided the fence to Paradise”(IV:1).
In what is perhaps his fullest description of man after the fall, in Hymn XIII, Ephrem compares fallen Adam to the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar, whose rebellion against God led to his becoming like a wild beast (Dan. 4). This description still offers hope for Adam, as Ephrem notes that Nebuchnezzar was returned to his kingdom when he repented (XIII: 6-7). The numerous examples of repentance found in the Old Testament are meant as lessons to teach us how to weep over our sins in order that, as in the typology of Nebuchadnezzar, the kingdom might be returned to us. The force of these examples is compounded by the example of the repentant thief to whom Jesus promised a place in Paradise (VIII).
However, no human repentance alone but only God’s gracious act of redemption can return man to Paradise. Redemption takes the form of God’s putting on of the garment of flesh in Jesus Christ. With the incarnation of Christ comes a dramatic reversal of Adam’s sin and fall. Ephrem emphasizes strongly that the Son of God assumed the very same flesh as that of Adam, such that Jesus becomes Adam’s recapitulation, a second Adam acting in the place of the first.
Jesus Christ comes as a high priest, and as in the Epistle to Hebrews, His priesthood entails humble compassion for the state of fallen man:
The High Priest, the Exalted One,
cast out from himself:
He stooped down and came to him,
He cleansed him with hyssop,
and led him back to Paradise (Hymn IV:4)
In Jesus, the original vocation given to man – that of priestly offering to God – which had been aborted in Adam, is fulfilled. This fulfillment comes to its head in Jesus’ sacrifiical death:
Samson is a type of the death
of Christ the High Priest:
Samson’s death returns prisoners
to their towns,
Whereas the High Priest’s death
has returned us to us our heritage.
Let us repeat to each other
the good news of joy,
that the gate is once again open,
and happy is he who enters in quickly (XIII: 13).
The crucifixion of Jesus is both a priestly sacrifice and a redemptive ransom. Christ’s death re-opens the gate to Paradise, so that all who follow after Him may be
freed from slavery and may enter into blessedness. The wood of the Cross becomes the true tree of knowledge (XV:5). The way of the Cross leads to the bliss found in the tree
In this connection, Ephrem makes much of the detail found in John 19:34, of the lance which pierced Christ’s side on the Cross, bringing forth blood and water. Ephrem frequently pairs the lance typologically with the flaming sword guarding the way to Paradise. Paradoxically, it is the willingness of Christ to be pierced in the side by the Roman soldier that reversed the curse of the flaming sword, and broke down for all time the barrier which kept mankind from entry into Paradise. “Blessed is He who was pierced and so removed the sword from the entry to Paradise,” Ephrem writes (II:1).
Here we come to the very heart of St. Ephrem’s theology regarding Paradise. Out of the pierced side of Jesus, the second Adam, is born His Bride, the Church, in the form of the water of baptism and the blood of the Eucharist. Ultimately, it is the Church – understood as the communion of man in the uncreated life of God through the word and sacraments of Jesus Christ – that Ephrem identifies with Paradise. Yet Ephrem also demonstrates a realistic sense that the full paradaisical glory will only be manifested when all mankind is raised from the dead in the flesh (Hymns V:7-10; VIII:9). By His Cross and Resurrection, Christ has saved in Adam not an isolated and disembodied soul, but a fully embodied man, surrounded by the family of mankind – the “many” which comprise the Church of all ages and locales:
Blessed is He who has brought Adam from Sheol and returned him to Paradise in the company of many (VIII:11).
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