[This is part 1 of 2 on patron saints. See also St. Chad of the British Isles- patron saint & bishop.]
Saints are important figures in the history of the Christian Church. Their lives inspire us to follow God by emulating their holiness & dedication. For more information about saints in general refer to Saints: Our inspiration and intercessors.
Orthodox Christians choose a baptismal name, or patron saint, from a long history of holy Apostles, saints, and other key figures in Church history. Selecting your patron saint is important and one’s saint day is even considered more important than physical birthday. Celebrating your name day honors your patron saint, and directly connects you with your chrismation, baptism, and continuing life as an Orthodox Christian. Identifying a saint and taking their name dates back to early Christian practices.
Early Church Attestation
Imagine you’re a pagan and you encounter the Lord through the testimony of his followers. You decide to become a Christian and this involves life changes, a new life. It was very common that your transition would include a “Christian” name, one from an Apostle or holy saint from Church history. While Christians today talk of being ‘born again’ having a new name was a practical sign that you had in fact put on Christ. Just as Simon became Peter and Saul’s name is changed to Paul we get a new name! No longer are you involved in the pagan ways of your past. You have been baptized, repented, and began a new life.
Christians took the names of saints and “with these names, they eagerly delivered themselves to martyrdom.” Martyrdom may seem foreign to us in the west, but the Orthodox Church considered martyrdom a ‘baptism by blood’ (Patrologia Graeca, Vol. LXXXVII, Part II, Epitome ton eis ton Propheten Isaian Exegeseon).
In Ekklesiastike Historia, Eusebius also documents the common practice of Christians using the names of the Apostles for their children (Book VII, Chap. 25).
John Chrysostomos states that many Christians named their children after great Saints (Patrologia Graeca, Vol. L).
“According to tradition, it was Christ, of course, who re-named both his Disciples and various others in the New Testament (St. Mary Magdalene, for example). (See “Orthodox Tradition,” Vol. XV, No. 4, pp. 26-27; “Scripture and Tradition”). Christians were also exhorted to take the names of Prophets and Saints by the authors of the first Catechetical texts of the primitive Church. It was also at this time that Liturgies were universally celebrated in honor of the Martyrs, Apostles, and Saints, when those having their names would commemorate them. “…In the ancient Church, the Church of the first centuries of Christianity, …when the catechumens had been taught all that they were to learn, their instructors would take them back to the Bishop, and the Bishop would recommend that they change their pagan names and adopt Christian ones; these names were to remind them of holy personages or virtues.” (Archdeacon Christodoulos of St. Markella’s Church in Astoria).
St. Ephrem the Syrian
As you may have guessed by the name on my blog (OrthodoxEphrem), my baptismal name is Ephrem.
Early in my process as a catechumen (a ‘learner’ of the Orthodox Church) I struggled to find a patron saint. How could I choose one person from so many faithful followers of God? Ignatius, Eusebius, Maximus the Confessor, & Athanasius are all God-fearing saints that I love reading and wish to embody in boldness and dedication. They composed influential works and stood resolute against many heresies. I am often drawn to theological writings that dig into the minutia as a result of my seminary education.
Our patron saints serve as our role models and intercessors so I wanted to identify with their vocation and passion. Oddly enough, I didn’t find myself drawn to someone who is strictly a theologian. As I read through the writings of the saints I was captivated by hymnology, feeling myself moved spiritually and mentally by the writings of St. Ephrem the Syrian. As a student of the Old Testament Ephrem’s OT commentaries are an added bonus!
Ephrem the Syrian is a well known saint and Syriac writer of the 4th century. He composed many hymns and Old Testament commentaries, serving as a deacon under his ‘shepherd’ St. James. Ephrem’s skilled poetic meditations on the Christian faith and stand against heresy make him a popular source of inspiration.
He was born around the year 306 in Nisibis, a town in modern day Turkey near Syria. We may deduce from his writings that his parents were faithful Christians that raised him in the faith. Like many Christians of the early Church, the political life surrounding Ephrem was tumultuous. There was an ebb and flow of friendliness or hostility toward Christians and waves of persecution were common. Many emperors, like Diocletian pursued and persecuted Christians in this region for many years.
Constantine I brought reprieve by legalizing and promoting Christianity, but when he died the Christian world again suffered tumultuous times. Persian armies began attacking the northern Roman Empire leading to the siege of Nisibis. The town was led through three separates sieges and spared. Ephrem’s Bishop, Saint James, led the community spiritually through this period. St. James was also one of the signatories of the first Ecumenical Council in Nicaea in 325.
While the cities surrounding Nisibis were destroyed one by one, the Nisibisians persevered and rebuilt the walls of their city. In his hymns Ephrem celebrates their miraculous deliverance just as Noah and his family were providentially carried to safety in the ark.
Eventually the town of Nisibus was handed over to the Persians for political reasons and part of this arrangement demanded that the Christian community leave the city. Around 363 Ephrem and many other refugees fled the city and settled in Edessa. Surrounded by multiple groups that promoted heresy Ephrem proclaimed and defended the Nicene Orthodox Christian faith.
Ephrem wrote extensively in Syriac, the dominant language in that region, but his writings are also translated in Armenian, Coptic, Greek, and other languages. There are over 400 writings of Ephrem still in existence and sadly many others were lost or destroyed over time. These writings draw on early Rabbinic Judaism & engaging Greek philosophy.
During Ephrem’s feast day on January 28th, and many other times throughout the year, we reflect on one of his most famous prayers.
“O Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth, meddling, lust of power, and idle talk. But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience and love to thy servant. Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own sins and not to judge my brother, for thou art blessed unto ages of ages. Amen. O God, be gracious to me, a sinner.”
We could focus on so many of Ephrem’s writings and I encourage you to read them as you are able. I’d like to focus on one that impacted me personally. I am continually reminded of my sinfulness which necessitates true repentance in word and deed. May these words be a blessing to you as well…
“Before Thy glory, O Christ my Savior, I will announce all my misconduct and confess the infinitude of Thy mercies, which Thou pourest out upon me according to Thy kindness. From my mother’s womb I began to grieve Thee, and utterly have I disregarded Thy grace, for I have neglected my soul. Thou, O my Master, according to the multitude of Thy mercies, hast regarded all my wickedness with patience and kindness. Thy grace has lifted up my head, but daily it is brought low by my sins. Bad habits entangle me like snares, and I rejoice at being thus bound. I sink to the very depths of evil, and this delights me. Daily the enemy gives me new shackles, for he sees how this variety of bonds pleases me. The fact that I am bound by my own desires should provoke weeping and lamentation, shame and disgrace. And yet more terrible is the fact that I bind myself with the shackles that the enemy places upon me, and I slay myself with the passions that give him pleasure. Although I know how dreadful these shackles are, I hide them behind a noble appearance from all who might see. I appear to be robed in the beautiful clothes of reverence, but my soul is entangled with shameful thoughts. Before all who might see, I am reverent, but inside I am filled with all manner of indecency. My conscience accuses me of all this, and I act as if I wish to be freed of my shackles. Every day I worry and sigh over this, yet I ever remain bound by the same snares. How pitiful I am; and how pitiful is my daily repentance, for it has no firm foundation. Every day I lay a foundation for the building, and again with my own hands I demolish it. My repentance has not even made a good beginning as yet; yet there is no end to my wicked negligence. I have become a slave to passions and to the evil will of the enemy who destroys me. Who will give the water to my head, and the founts to my eyes for tears, so that I may ever weep before Thee, O merciful God, that Thou mightest send Thy grace and draw me, a sinner, out of the sea, furious with the waves of sin, that hourly convulses my soul? For my desires are worse than wounds that cannot be bandaged. I wait hoping for repentance and deceive myself with this vain promise until my death. Ever do I say, “I will repent,” but never do I repent. My words give the appearance of heartfelt repentance, but in deed I am always far from repentance. What will happen to me in the day of the trial, when God unveils all things at His court! Certainly I shall be sentenced to torment, if here I have not moved Thee to mercy, O my Judge, by my tears. I hope on Thy mercies, O Lord; I fall at Thy feet and beseech Thee: Grant me the spirit of repentance and lead my soul out of the dungeon of iniquity! May a ray of light shine in my mind before I go to the terrible judgement which awaits me, where there is no opportunity to repent of one’s wicked deeds.” —St Ephraim the Syrian, A Spiritual Psalter
*See the upcoming topics for our ecumenical dialogue.