Christianity came to Syria early: within a few years of Christ’s death, Saul was on his way to Damascus, commissioned by the High Priest to arrest Jesus’ followers there so that he “might bring them bound to Jerusalem” (Acts 9:2). Saul, having now become Paul, returned to Damascus after spending time in Arabia, and remained there for three years. Jesus’ followers were first called Christians in this city.
By the end of the first century, Christianity had spread to other parts of Syria, so that in AD 311 Lucian, the priest of Antioch, stated, “the greater part of the world now adheres to this Truth, yea whole cities.” With the spread of faith came persecution: Eusebius’s Church History describes how in AD 303 “prisons, hitherto reserved for murderers and riflers of graves, were now packed everywhere with bishops, priests, [and] deacons.” In the face of this adversity, new voices arose to spread the message of Jesus.
One of these was Ephrem the Syrian, who, after his baptism around AD 320, helped to spread Christianity into inner Syria. Ephrem is best remembered today as a composer of hymns, over four hundred of which are still in existence. The lyrics of his songs helped to defend the faith against false doctrine, teach about various aspects of Christian belief, and give praise and worship to God. His glorious “Hymn to the Light” is an example, with its words of hope in the coming kingdom. Reading Ephrem’s ancient words, “the saints awaiting Him in weariness and sorrow,” our thoughts are drawn to those suffering in Syria today. Ephrem died serving others: in AD 373, he caught the plague while ministering to the sick.
Hymn to the LightThe Light of the just and joy of the upright is Christ Jesus our Lord.
Begotten of the Father, He manifested himself to us.
He came to rescue us from darkness and to fill us with the radiance of His light.
Day is dawning upon us; the power of darkness is fading away.
From the true Light there arises for us the light which illumines our darkened eyes.
His glory shines upon the world and enlightens the very depths of the abyss.
Death is annihilated, night has vanished, and the gates of Sheol are broken.
Creatures lying in darkness from ancient times are clothed in light.
The dead arise from the dust and sing because they have a Savior.
He brings salvation and grants us life. He ascends to his Father on high.
He will return in glorious splendor and shed His light on those gazing upon Him.
Our King comes in majestic glory.
Let us light our lamps and go forth to meet Him.
Let us find our joy in Him, for He has found joy in us.
He will indeed rejoice us with His marvelous light.
Let us glorify the majesty of the Son and give thanks to the almighty Father
Who, in an outpouring of love, sent Him to us, to fill us with hope and salvation.
When He manifests Himself, the saints awaiting Him in weariness and sorrow,
will go forth to meet Him with lighted lamps.
The angels and guardians of heaven will rejoice
in the glory of the just and upright people of earth;
Together crowned with victory,
they will sing hymns and psalms.
Stand up then and be ready!
Give thanks to our King and Savior,
Who will come in great glory to gladden us
with His marvelous light in His kingdom.
Several of Ephrem’s hymns bear the title “Hymn to the Light.” The lyrics of this beautiful rendition, sung in Arabic, are taken from another of Ephrem’s poems (its composer remains unknown). The refrain, “The light has dawned, rejoice O earth and heaven,” reminds us of the victorious light that can never be extinguished.