At the Church of the Mother of God in sixth century Constantinople, a deacon approaches the ambo. It is a day of great celebration in the Church, the great Feast of the Nativity, and some among the clergy expect the worst.
On this most important day, Christmas, as it is known, this poorly educated deacon with no training as a cantor, a man who has been mocked for his ignorance, is about to deliver the homily to the crowd filling the Church and spilling into the streets outside.
What the doubtful clergy and those participating in the liturgy did not know was that this humble and fearful deacon had prayed in tears the night before to the Most Holy Theotokos. They did not know, too, that she had answered his prayers in a dream in which she had given him a scroll he had swallowed at her instruction.
At the ambo the deacon opens his mouth, both his speaking and singing awe and inspire. We can read the words he chanted today in a clear and eloquent translation from the Greek by Archimandrite Ephrem Lash:
“Today the Virgin gives birth to him who is above all being,
and the earth offers a cave to him whom no one can approach.
Angels with shepherds give glory,
and magi journey with a star,
for to us there has been born
a little Child, God before all ages.”
Today that deacon, St. Romanos the Melodist (c. 490-556), is considered one of the greatest writers of kontakia, and parts of his kontakia, such as the prologue above from “On the Nativity,” are still used in Orthodox and Eastern Catholic liturgical services. His most famous is the one he first delivered, “On the Nativity.”
Archimandrite Ephrem provides an excellent introduction to both the kontakia of St. Romanos and the form he used in writing his poetic homilies in On the Life of Christ: Chanted Sermons by the Great Sixth Century Poet and Singer St. Romanos, a collection of eighteen kontakia.
Because the kontakia translated by Archimandrite Ephrem “are concerned with the life and ministry of Christ,” the collection also gives readers a completely new way to reflect profoundly on the humanity and divinity of Jesus Christ from his birth to death, as well as from his resurrection to the second coming.
Readers and poets interested in the type of dramatic narrative that distinguishes the writings of later poets Robert Browning and Robert Frost will find much to admire in the poetry of St. Romanos, which is distinguished by his use of dramatic dialogue.
Another characteristic of these kontakia is that St. Romanos sometimes explicitly opens his mind to the listener. In “The Harlot,” for example, he says that he seeks “to search the mind of the wise woman” whose act of compunction scandalizes Simon the Pharisee but is seen by Our Lord as the expression of one “who loves me much.”
In examining her mind, St. Romanos hopes “to know how Jesus came to shine in her.” In this poem, his use of monologue lets us hear from the woman herself why she chose to purchase costly myrrh:
“See, the moment has come that I longed to see;
an acceptable day and year have dawned for me.
My God lodges in Simon’s house.
I will hurry to him and like Anna weep over my barrenness.
And should Simon reckon that I am drunk,
as Eli once thought Anna was, I will remain and pray,
crying out in silence, ‘Lord, I did not ask for a child,
I seek my one and only soul that I have lost.'”
The price of the myrrh did not matter to her. In fact, she tells us she would have paid any price for a gift for Our Lord. She tells the myrrh-seller:
“Give me, if you have it, sweet myrrh worthy of my friend,
who rightly and purely loved,
who has set my limbs, my inward parts and my heart aflame.
Do not now argue with me over price.
If necessary I am ready to give even my bones
and skin, that I may find something with which to repay
the One who has hastened to cleanse me from
the filth of my deeds.”
Only a translator with a masterful understanding of both poetry in Greek and English, as well as the theology of the Byzantine liturgy and the Greek Orthodox Church, could create such a fine translation.
In these deeply moving words beautifully translated by Archimandrite Ephrem, St. Romanos opens Scripture for us. By entering the mind of the redeemed harlot, revealing her love of Christ and His love for us, St. Romanos reminds us, as he does in each of his kontakia, what it truly means to love, something far too many today have forgotten.