St Romanos the Melodist

I’m writing this post on October 1, the feast of St Romanos the Melodist (or St Romanus, sometimes Melodos instead of “the Melodist”). St Romanos was born in the late 400s in Emesa, Syria, and spent his professional career in Constantinople, moving to the imperial city during the reign of Emperor Anastasius I (r. 491-518). I won’t linger on the hagiography. While there, Romanos was enlisted as a professional hymnographer by the patriarch and composed a vast number of hymns for the different feasts of the church. Verses of some of these hymns have been incorporated into the round of liturgical hymn-singing in the Eastern Orthodox Church to this day. His greatest period of activity would be during the reigns of Justin (518-527) and Justinian (527-565); he died some time after 555.

He is claimed to have written around 1500 hymns. People typically balk at numbers like this, but I learned recently that in the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, they have poets who compose a new hymn every Sunday and every major feast day. Most of these hymns are not written down and preserved, but some are. Besides being evidence for something mighty in Ethiopia and the ongoing life of Ge’ez as a literary language, this parallel makes me wonder if perhaps Romanos did write 1500 hymns, but only some of them were polished and published.

His hymns are quite long, taking after the hymns of our dear friend St Ephrem the Syrian. They often include dialogue, or an address on the part of the hymnographer to a character in a biblical scene. The hymns are steeped in Scripture and bring forth, in true poetry, the theology of the drama of salvation. I feel as though St Romanos is possibly the greatest theologian of the age of Justinian, although that usually goes to Leontius of Byzantium.

Allow me to close with a sample of St Romanos’ work, taken from the translation by Archimandrite Ephrem Lash and preserved by the Wayback Machine. This is the Prooemion from Kontakion 22; the Prooemion and first Ikos are still used in the Orthodox Church on the Third Sunday in Lent.

ON THE VICTORY OF THE CROSS

Acrostic: BY THE HUMBLE ROMANOS
Proemium 1. Idiomel.
The sword of flame no longer guards the gate of Eden,
For a strange bond came upon it: the wood of the Cross.
The sting of Death and the victory of Hades were nailed to it.
But you appeared, my Saviour, crying to those in Hades:
‘Be brought back
Again to Paradise’.


Proemium 2.
Nailed to the form of the Cross
As truly a ransom for many
You redeemed us, Christ our God,
For by your precious blood in love for mankind
You snatched our souls from death.
You brought us back with you
Again to Paradise.


Proemium 3.
All things in heaven and earth rightly rejoice with Adam,
Because he has been called
Again to Paradise.

The Crucifixion, Studenica, Serbia. 1310s.
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The Eucharistic Prayer of Addai and Mari, ll. 14-18:

Thy majesty, O my Lord, a thousand thousand heavenly beings and myriad myriads of angels adore and the hosts of spiritual beings, the ministers of fire and of spirit, glorifying thy name with the cherubim and the holy seraphim, ceaselessly crying out and glorifying and calling to one another and saying: Holy, holy, holy … (Trans. A. Gelston)

The prayer whence comes this quotation is a mediaeval East Syrian (ie. ‘Nestorian’) Eucharistic prayer, still recited to this day in Syriac in the Assyrian Orthodox Church and not much changed from its reconstructed fifth-century predecessor. This Eucharistic prayer is interesting to me because it has an unequivocal statement of God becoming incarnate and suffering and dying — the sort of thing one would expect from my Monophysite friends of the Syrian Orthodox Church. It serves as a reminder that to box in the living Church according to the disputes and anathemas of centuries past can make one lose sight of the true faith of the people involved.

Of course, the reason I draw your attention to this prayer is the passage quoted above. It is beautiful. It is a beautiful, lyrical passage, clearly stemming from the same people whence Ephraim the Syrian sprang. This brief moment from the East Syrian liturgy stirs my heart to worship the Almighty God — and much more so than the worship song the radio plays right now that has been repeating the line, “I’m so deep in love,” about ten times before getting around to, “with you.” (With whom? I was too focussed on myself and forgot.)

Noting the incongruity, I am now playing Striggio’s Missa “Ecco Si Beata Giorno”the Mass in 40 Parts.

I’m not actually here to rag on the contemporary worship music scene. I trust God enough to know that He does great work through it and receives due glory from those who worship with it. However, I am here to draw attention to the magnificent beauty of the ancient, Mediaeval, and Renaissance liturgies — their hymns, their prayers, their music.

“When through the woods and forest glades I wander / And hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees, When I look down from lofty mountain grandeur, / And hear the brook and feel the gentle breeze,” not only does my soul want to sing, “How great Thou art,” unto the wondrous Creator God, it also wants to sing, “How beautiful thou art!’

God has created a wondrous, beautiful world, and it is only fitting that our worship of him be beautiful as well. This is part of the fabric of the Eucharistic Prayer of Addai and Mari. This is what drove men like Striggio to compose wondrous things like a mass in 40 (40!!) parts. Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised!

Plunging into the tradition, rediscovering the riches of things like the Gelasian Sacramentary (as I currently am) is as important as rediscovering the ancient and mediaeval theologians. Often when we look upon the offerings from Patristic blogs or at the upcoming Oxford Patristics Conference or anywhere interested in the Fathers, we find a lot of thoughts about the theology and doctrine of the Fathers, maybe some information about Church History in the Patristic Age, but less about the worship of the Fathers.

Now, I realise that part of this is because of how complicated the liturgical legacy of the Fathers is. If you take any of the Eastern divine liturgies, such as the one quoted above, or those attributed to Sts. John Chrysostom and Basil the Great, you find the words and order for worship of something that has been in constant use since the fourth or fifth century (with roots stretching earlier than that).

How can we disentangle Chrysostom from the later Byzantine worshippers? It is a task scholars spend entire careers doing. However, we still have many individual prayers from the Patristic age as well as other poems and songs, such as:

St. Ambrose’s hymns (remember this from before?), St. Ephraim the Syrian’s hymns (such as those on the Nativity), St. Romanos the Melodist’s hymns (as here), and the hymns and poetry of Prudentius (as here) would probably be good places to start. They are allusive and beautiful, tuning and turning our thoughts upwards towards God Almighty and the worship of him alone.

Noah’s Ark & the Annunciation of the BVM

I think that the Feast of the Annunciation of the BVM is one of those feasts that a lot of low(er) Protestants avoid because BVM = Blessed Virgin Mary = obvious Papist connexions. This is silly. The Annunciation is the first feast of the earthly life of Christ. Furthermore, unlike, say, the Dormition (Assumption), the Annunciation is a biblical event. And we all know how much we Protestants love the Bible!

This Feast is on March 25, and I celebrated it by popping in at my local Orthodox Church and standing around through the Divine Liturgy (Eucharist). Not that I could receive the Sacrament, but it was good to be there.

One of the Old Testament readings for this Feast was the end of the tale of Noah’s Ark, where he sends out the dove. According to The Orthodox Study Bible:

The dove foreshadowed the Holy Spirit (Mt 3:10), who caused the Holy Virgin to conceive Christ in her womb, and the olive leaf speaks of the Virgin herself (Lk 1:35, Akath).

That abbrev. ‘Akath’ = Akathist Hymn. The Service of the Akathist Hymn is a beautiful service of the Orthodox Church that takes place over the first five Fridays of Lent, the full Service occurring on the final; the hymn itself was possibly composed by Romanos the Melodist in the sixth century. It is a hymn all about the Theotokos (Mother of God, see here for why that’s an important title).

Anyway, I noticed neither during the service nor later when I read through the Akathist hymn myself this particular piece of typology (on the fourfold sense of Scripture, read here). It was not, however, the first piece of typology I thought of.

In Noah’s Ark, as all good Sunday School children know, were the entire human race and all the living animals as well. In the belly of the ark (fun fact: the Greek for belly and hold are similar). These humans and animals were saved from destruction in the terrible Flood by taking refuge in the Ark.

The typology I thought of was that the BVM is like the Ark because she carried the salvation of the world in her belly as well — she carried our Lord Christ, God Incarnate, without Whom we would all be lost, inside her womb. The Annunciation, celebrated nine months before Christmas, is the starting day of our salvation, as the priest noted to us in his homily that day.

The Orthodox Study Bible confirms this, citing once again the Akathist Hymn. It, however, was not my first place to turn but my second. My first place to turn was the IVP Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, and there I found only typologies for the Ark as the Church, wherein the human race is saved. This typology also works.

Nonetheless, I like this old, forgotten way of reading the Bible. While I’ll never abandon the historical method, to have this more spiritual approach alongside adds greater depth to my reading. The Ark is the BVM. Cool.