A “Prayer of Saint Ephrem the Syrian (306-373)”: actually an excerpt from Ephraem Graecus, CPG 4085

Here’s an interesting one, from a random link: a “Prayer of Saint Ephrem the Syrian (306-373)”:

Blessed Virgin, immaculate and pure, you are the sinless Mother of your Son, who is the mighty Lord of the universe. Since you are holy and inviolate, the hope of the hopeless and sinful, I sing your praises. I praise you as full of every grace, for you bore the God-Man. I venerate you; I invoke you and implore your aid. Holy and Immaculate Virgin, help me in every need that presses upon me and free me from all the temptations of the devil. Be my intercessor and advocate at the hour of death and judgment. Deliver me from the fire that is not extinguished and from the outer darkness. Make me worthy of the glory of your Son. O dearest and most kind Virgin Mother. You indeed are my most secure and only hope, for you are holy in the sight of God, to whom be honor and glory, majesty and power forever. Amen.

The same can be found on many Catholic websites, but always unreferenced. I encountered it in a tweet by a youthful Catholic, arguing that Ephrem lived at the time of Nicaea, so Church teaching at that time must have endorsed the idea that Mary was sinless. It can’t be Nicene, of course: Ephraem was a teenager at that time, and his major works belong to the mid-4th century.

So where does it come from?  Is it actually by Ephraem?

The English text of the prayer is taken from something called the “Raccolta”.  This was a “Collection of Indulgenced Prayers & Good Works”, to be used every day in order to obtain indulgences.  It first appeared in Italy in the 19th century – the word means “collection”, and the work was taken on by the church and revised until replaced in the 1960s by a new volume for the same purpose.

In the 1957 edition, p.265, with parallel Latin and English, the prayer appears as section 371:

O pura et immaculata, eademque benedicta Virgo, magni Filii tui universorum Domini Mater inculpata, integra et sacrosanctissima, desperantium atque reorum spes, te collaudamus. Tibi ut gratia plenissimae benedicimus, quae Christum genuisti Deum et Hominem: omnes coram te prosternimur: omnes te invocamus et auxilium tuum imploramus. Eripe nos, o Virgo sancta atque intemerata, a quacumque ingruente necessitate et a cunctis tentationibus diaboli.  Nostra conciliatrix et advocata in hora mortis atque iudicii esto: nosque a futuro inexstinguibili igne et a tenebris exterioribus libera: et Filii tui nos gloria dignare, o Virgo et Mater dulcissima ac clementissima. Tu siquidem unica spes nostra es securissima et sanctissima apud Deum, cui gloria et honor, decus atque imperium in sempiterna saecula saeculorum. Amen.  (S. Ephraem C. D.)

Not sure what C. D. means – confessor?  doctor?  The English is as above, and adds:

St Ephrem the Syrian
An indulgence of 3 years.
A plenary indulgence on the usual conditions, if the daily recitation of this prayer be continued for a month (S. P. Ap., Dec. 21, 1920 and Jan. 9, 1933).

S. P. Ap. = Sacra Poenitentiaria Apostolica, and I presume the reference is to some instructions somewhere by that body, the “Apostolic Penitentiary.”  The prayer also appears in the 1943 edition, as section 339, but not in the 1910 edition.

The Latin text of the prayer is taken from our old friend, Ephraem Graecus.  It is an excerpt from a work printed by Assemani, in Latin only, in volume 3 of the Opera Graeca, on p.575, column 2, lines A-C.[1]  The work in question is “Threni, id est, Lamentationes gloriosissimae Virginis Matris Mariae super passione domini,” “Lamentations of the most glorious Virgin Mother Mary on the Passion of the Lord.”  The reference number is CPG 4085, although the CPG gives no useful information.  The text begins on p.574 of Assemani. There is no indication of where Assemani found it.  Here is the relevant passage:

Willem F. Bakker has made a study of this obscure text.  His useful article with D. M. L. Philippides from 2000, “The Lament of the Virgin by Ephraem the Syrian,” is online here.[2] From this I learn that there is indeed a Greek text, which was printed in a 3-volume collection of articles, although I was unable to access this:

Μ. Ι. Μανούσακας, “Ἑλληνικὰ ποιήματα γιὰ τὴ σταύρωση τοῦ Χριστοῦ”, in: Mélanges Octave et Melpo Merlier, II, Athens (1956), 49-60.  Text on pp.65-9.

According to Bakker &c, the Greek text was circulating from the 16th century onwards, although never printed, and it was translated into Latin by a number of people.  Among them was a version by Vossius, which Assemani then silently copied for his own edition.  The literary theme of the work – the Virgin Mary before her son on the cross – is one that belongs to the Byzantine period, rather than the 4th century, and so the work must be 9th century or later.

A further article by Dr Bakker, from 2005, is paywalled hereanybody got access? * -, but we get a useful abstract:

The “Threnos seu lamentatio sanctissimae Dei genitricis, quae dicitur in sancta et magna Parasceve,” long since attributed to Ephraem the Syrian, appears to be a direct translation of the anonymous “Φρηνo τη υϕεραγία Φεoτόκoυ ει την σταυρωσιν τoυ δεσϕότoυ Xριστoυ,” published by Manousakas, and thus cannot be Ephraem’s work. The Greek original, based upon “troparia” in the versus politicus of the fourteenth century, the “Akolouthia” of Good Friday and the second version of the “Acta Pilati,” must have been composed around the year 1400. There are strong indications that this text, a sort of amplified “stavrotheotokion,” had been sung for some time on Good Friday, outside the official service.

So this is definitely not Ephraem, and certainly not a witness to any doctrinal position at the time of Nicaea, but a very late Byzantine work.

* Thank you to the kind colleague who sent me a copy!

Update: I have now made a translation of the whole thing which may be found here.

  1. [1]Using the Latin text, beginning “O pura et immaculata, eademque benedicta Virgo,” allows us to find the source.  Carlo Passaglia, De immaculato deiparae semper virginis conceptu Caroli Passaglia commentarius, vol. 3 (1855), p.125, quotes the Latin, and so gives us the reference to Assemani.
  2. [2]Willem F. Bakker & Dia Mary L. Philippides, “The lament of the virgin by Ephraem the Syrian” in: Enthymēsis Nikolaou M. Panagiōtakē, (2000), 39-56. http://hdl.handle.net/2345/bc-ir:104925.

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