Sermons in stone,” “sermons in glass”—these multimedia figures of speech should surprise no one, since for long periods of time and in a broad range of places the largely illiterate faithful in Europe learned the Bible and the teachings of the church in ways that had nothing to do with formal, academic instruction—or even books. The sermons that taught them were carved in stone and embedded in glass. People saw and then asked questions about sculptured tableaux on the portals of Romanesque churches or about the intricate patterns of form and color in stained glass windows of Gothic cathedrals. The answers given by the initiated were the people’s scriptural commentaries, catechisms and handbooks of theology.
“The Sacrifice of Abraham,” “Moses on Sinai,” “Jonah and the Whale,” “The Adoration of the Magi,” “The Crowning with Thorns,” “The Final Judgment,” “The Tree of Jesse,” “St. Helena Finds the True Cross,” “St. Martin Divides His Cloak”—each of these typical medieval scenes of concrete art was designed to stimulate responses far more spiritually significant than was possible through mere recognition of plot or characters. At the same time, these figures in glass or stone—like the mosaics and icons of the Eastern Orthodox church—were essentially static. However magnificent they might be as works of art, their media did not permit the development of a moral argument or invite participation in the explanation of a difficult passage from Scripture or a subtle doctrinal distinction. These forms—limestone sculptures, rainbow windows, meticulous tessera patterns in mosaics or subtle encaustica panels— could only marginally and falteringly constitute a genuine sermon.
But during the age of the Roman-Byzantine emperor Justinian the Great (527–565 C.E.b), in the city of Constantinople, there occurred a moment unique in the entire history of Christian homiletics (preaching). Within the domed basilica of Hagia Sophia and in other churches in the imperial capital, the congregation listened and contributed to a most improbably exotic liturgical hybrid, the sung sermon, or Kontakion.
The creator of this radically new form of religious instruction in the first half of the sixth century was Romanos the Melodist. His traditional epithet (the Musician/Singer) indicates that he was responsible for both the words and the melodies of his works—as well as, it is presumed, for their original presentation. These works were composed in Greek, which was of course the language not only of Homer and Plato, but also of the New Testament, the Septuagint (the third century B.C.E. translation of the Hebrew Bible)c and the voluminous writings of the Patristic period.d Legend tells us that Romanos miraculously received the grace of poetic composition when the Virgin Mary appeared to him in a dream on Christmas Eve and handed him a piece of paper. After he consumed this phantom gift (other examples of inspirational papyrophagy, or paper eating, occur in Ezekiel 2:8–3:3 and Revelation 10:2, 8–10), he awoke, mounted the pulpit and chanted the opening lines of 022his famous kontakion on the nativity:
Today the virgin gives birth to the
Earth offers a cave to the unapproachable one.
Angels and shepherds join in a hymn of glory,
as the Magi are guided on their trek by a star.
On our behalf there has been born
an infant now, yet God before all ages.
A far more likely explanation—or at least more amenable to scholarly comment—of the origins of this new form of Christian poetry is that Romanos, who was born in Syria,1 knew and imitated the works of the Father of Syriac Christianity, St. Ephraem (c. 306–373 C.E.). Ephraem’s massive production of metrical homilies and hymns, which are diffuse, repetitious and overly ornate by classical Greek standards, was immensely popular, especially as an antidote against early Christian heresies. As a young deacon in Beirut, Romanos would also have been exposed to the equally effective and widely hailed works of the great Christian Greek orators and polemicists of the late fourth and fifth centuries. Men such as St. John Chrysostom (the Golden Mouth) of Antioch—later patriarch of Constantinople—and Basil of Seleucia were directly involved in the doctrinal debates of their day; they used the pulpit to launch their verbal missiles against sin, ignorance, laxity and heterodox doctrine. Romanos surely studied the works of these and other famous preachers when he arrived in Constantinople, the imperial capital, in the early sixth century and began his duties at the Church of the Mother of God (Theotokos). Whatever the remote sources for and direct influences on the topics and techniques of the kontakion might be, it is certain that Romanos molded the form into its most perfect shape during the reign of Justinian. When Romanos died some time around 565 C.E., kontakia continued to be composed for several generations, but no other Melodist achieved equal distinction.
Legend claims that Romanos composed over 1,000 works for the various feasts of the Christian calendar, honoring Christ and his Virgin Mother as well as the commemorated saints and martyrs. However, only 87 Kontakia traditionally attributed to the Melodist survive. Of these, about 25 dedicated to various saints are usually considered spurious and assigned to later, inferior poets who appropriated Romanos’ name and frame to gain acceptance for their own rambling sometimes vapid productions.
Before reading my translations of a few passages from Romanos’ sung sermons, you may want to look at the sidebar to this article, where I discuss the unusual techniques employed by Romanos, in his Kontakia
In translating Romanos, I have tried to highlight the poetic and homiletic dimensions of the works,2 but I have made no attempt to reproduce the original metrical patterns or the acrostic letters that spelled out Romanos’ name in each sung-sermon.
“The Victory of the Cross,” the first kontakion excerpted below, was intended to be sung on Good Friday (see
I. A flaming sword no longer bars
the gates of Eden;
an astounding bolt rests there now,
the beam of the cross.
To it are spiked the sting of Death and the
victory of Hades.
And at those gates you stand, my Savior,
crying out to those in Hell:
Return to Paradise.”
II. As an incontestable ransom for many men
you were nailed to the cross,
Christ our God, and we are redeemed.
Because you generously paid out
your precious blood,
you snatched our souls from death
our return to Paradise.
III. Heaven and earth justifiably
rejoice with Adam,
because he has been called
to return to Paradise.
1 Pilate ordered three crosses
fixed on Golgotha,
two for thieves, one for the Giver of Life.
Hades saw the lord, and said to those in Hell:
“O my priests and O my powers,
Who has driven a spike into my heart?
A wooden lance has just pierced me, and I am
being torn in two.
I feel it terribly: my breath is a whirlwind.
My insides burn. My belly churns in pain.
I am forced to vomit forth
Adam and Adam’s people, whom a tree
deposited into me.
But a tree now guides them
on the return to Paradise.”
2. When the wily serpent Belial
heard these groans,
he slithered up and hissed, “Hades, what has
happened to you?
Why do you wail for nothing?
What are these complaints?
The wooden stake causing your panic
Was set up by me in the world above,
for the Son of Mary.”
Belial admonishes Hades to get control of himself and assures him that no one will return to Paradise. But Hades remembers that Elisha had
[P]ainted a prophetic image of all this:
When he pulled an iron axe from
the River Jordan
he used light wood to drag out the heavy metal.
Elisha’s act, Hades explains, taught you
“That Adam was destined to be rescued
from misery by wood,
and return to Paradise.
A stanza of rebuttal intervenes, then Belial asks:
4. “Who gave you such ideas, Hades?
Where has your courage gone?
Why worry about the worthless, withered, barren tree
set up for the execution
of criminals and blood-thirsty murderers?”
Hades accuses Belial, once a cunning serpent” of having lost his senses. The serpent retorts:
6. “Wretched Hades, stop this cowardly
These arguments expose your state of mind.
You are terrified of the cross
and of the one crucified.…”
Belial continues berating Hades for his cowardice:
8. “Is the tree of Jesus of Nazareth so mighty
as to panic you?…
If the wood of that cross so utterly
terrifies you now,
Then what about the gibbet on which Esther
and the stake which Jael drove
through Sisera’s skull,
and the five crosses on which Joshua
once nailed the Amorite warlords?e
Why let the Paradise-tree of Eden frighten you
more than these?…”
Hades persists, trying to convince Belial of “the absolute power of the one crucified” and that the cross is the “throne glory.”
“On it Jesus is nailed, like a king
waiting to be hailed.
He listens to the Good Thief crying out to him,
‘Lord, remember me in your kingdom.’
And Christ replies, as if from a royal dais:
‘Pitiable man, today you shall reign with me;
for at my side you shall
return to Paradise.’ ”
10. When the serpent, master-schemer,
faced this rebuttal,
he leaped up in a frenzy and saw
what he had just heard:
a thief as a witness for Christ,
whose witness is his cross.
Completely shattered by these events,
the serpent beats his breast
and mutters to himself:
“Why does Christ speak to a thief, but did not
reply to his accusers?”…
11. Then the serpent raised his voice again
“Hades, rescue me! You are my only refuge.
Though I did not heed your warning,
I am now at your service.
I have Just seen the cross-tree
which terrified you.
It is scarlet with blood and water.
I too am terrified, but not by the blood—
it is the water.
The blood testifies to the sacrificial death
The water testifies to life, water gushing
from his side.
It was not the first Adam, but Jesus,
the second Adam,
from whose side bursts forth a new Eve,
the mother of those who live
and return to Paradise.”
12. These were the words with which the
archfiend [Belial] grudgingly admitted
that he had been laid low beside Hades.…
“We are doomed, my comrade.
We are finished, my brother.
As we have fallen together, so let us
For Adam has begun
his return to Paradise.
13. “How did we not remember what prefigured
In ages past clear signs were sent,
in many ways and forms,
by people who were saved and those
who were destroyed.
Noah was saved by wood…
Wood gave glory to Moses: he carried
his rod like a scepter…
What the cross has done now was prefigured
long ago in images.”
Now comrades in understanding, Belial and Hades lament their new understanding of Christ and his cross. Together they declare to one another:
17. “Imperious Belial, swear that you have
crucified your last victim!”
“And you, O Hades, never plot to slay
“We both have learned our lesson. We must
tether our hands.
Let what has happened guide our actions
in the future:
neither of us can ever again tyrannize
the race of Adam.
The sign of the cross marks every man
as a vault of treasure,
protecting an inviolate pearl in
an incorruptible shell.
Yet, as he hung on the cross, the dexterous
thief stole a fortune.
For his other crimes, that thief was crucified;
for that final theft,f he was sentenced
to return to Paradise.”
The sung sermon concludes:
18. Exalted and glorious God of our ancestor
and of us today,
the shame which you freely accepted
has become our pride.
Let all of us be magnified by your cross.
Let us string our hearts on its pegs
so we can tune the lyres of our soul to it
to you, Master of the Universe, the odes of Zion.
The Bible says a wooden ship from Tarshish
once supplied Solomon with gold
at the appointed time.
Now, every day and hour, the wood
of your cross gives us
riches beyond measure.
For the cross guides all of us
on the return to Paradise.
In this sung sermon, the redemptive impact of the crucifixion is viewed from the perspective of Hell. Romanos uses typology, his favorite means of stressing the importance of the Old Testament to the faith and life of his Christian congregation. This is why, as he reflects upon the cross-tree in stanza 8, he refers to other wooden “weapons”—the stake on which Haman was impaled as a result of Esther’s success (Esther 8:7), the tent peg with which Jael killed Sisera (Judges 4:21, 5:26–27), the five stakes on which Joshua hanged the Amorite kings (Joshua 10:26) and Elisha’s miraculous retrieval of an iron axehead by tossing a stick in the Jordan River (2 Kings 6:5–7). The actions and actors in the first covenant—the Hebrew Bible—are seen as both significant moments in salvation history and as events which foreshadow and prefigure what happens in the new covenant. Parallels such as these are everywhere in the kontakia, demonstrating impressive scriptural awareness in both the poet and his audience.3 In another example of typology, stanza 11 exhibits an ingenious contrast of sacrificial blood and revivifying water flowing from Jesus’ side as he dies on the cross. Jesus, to Romanos, becomes a second Adam from whom comes the living water of baptism, a symbol of a new Eve.
Finally, in typical style, Romanos the Melodist compares the instrument of Christ’s execution to the wooden treasure ships from Tarshish and reaches his moralizing crescendo in stanza 18: “Now, every day and hour, the wood of your cross gives us riches beyond measure. For the cross guides all of us on the return to Paradise.”
Two of Romanos’ kontakia feature the life of the patriarch Joseph, whose feast is celebrated by the Orthodox Church on Monday of Holy Week (the week before Easter). One, an epic of 40 stanzas, traces the entire career of Jacob’s favorite son, from his first dreams to his reunion with his aged father in Egypt. The second work is much more narrowly focused on Joseph as the “Chaste Youth” in his encounter with the passionate Egyptian, Potiphar’s wife. In the opening stanza, Joseph is presented as God’s warrior, protected by the “impenetrable armor of virtue”; he is also an athlete, competing in a match in which each thrust and parry must be delivered with championship precision, “because” (according to the refrain) “the eye that never sleeps sees everything.”
The basic plot of this work comes from Genesis 39, but Romanos has pulled out all his rhetorical stops to capture and keep the attention of his congregation—and to ensure that they will not miss his Lenten message of eternal vigilance in the face of sexual temptation. The struggle is set in an almost cosmic context:
The devil came to bolster the Egyptian woman:
he would escort the adulterous bride.
“Be hard,” he said. “Become a hook,
tempered and tested.
Prepare the bait, land the youth.
Braid the locks of your hair into a net for him.
Beautify your face with cosmetics:
scarlet lips, beguiling eyes.
Coil chains of gleaming gold around your neck;
drape your body in precious silks.
Apply your most potent perfumes—they soften
any young man—
for the struggle will be titanic, heroic.
You must attack with lust;
he will defend himself with purity.
You must not be defeated;
we cannot be mocked.
For he is sure to say, ‘I will not do
what you desire,
because the eye that never sleeps sees everything.’”4
These blandishments fail:
When she flaunted her pollutions
before the chaste youth,
he loathed what he saw.
The display was magnificent,
but he recognize the twisted motives
behind the splendor
and rushed to flee the temptation,
as from a lurking serpent.5
Thus it is that the Egyptian temptress and the noble Hebrew slave step “in to the arena of ultimate test”:
A pair of seconds entered,
each at the side of her favorite:
Chastity stood at Joseph’s shoulder,
Lewdness bolstered the woman’s
The champion of purity moved to the
center of the arena;
the wily woman circled towards him.
She whispered the delights of adultery;
in the heroic youth coiled to crush
the shameless woman.
Angels mustered to support Joseph;
devils marched with Potiphar’s wife.
In the heavens, the Lord observed
and crowned his victor with
odes of triumph,
because the eye that never sleeps
Joseph rejects every plea and threat by countering that to his Lord in heaven even our hidden sins are naked.
Inflamed by these arguments, the
rushed at the chaste young man.
She grabbed his tunic, violently
clutched her chaste slave:
“Listen to me, my beloved.
Come, make love with me.”
Potiphar’s wife dragged him down;
divine Grace pulled him back.
“Sleep with me,” the Egyptian gasped.
Heavenly Grace countered,
“Stay awake with me.”
At the mistress’ side the devil struggled
locking the valiant athlete in his
The angel of purity moved into
the arena again
and strained to break their hold.
“Tear away his tunic,” the angel
“but dare not violate his pure body.
For, from the hands of this contest’s
Joseph the victor will receive
the robe of incorruptibility,
because the eye that never sleeps
Romanos typically concludes this Kontakion with a personal and a communal appear for divine assistance in the face of forbidden desires. For all steadfast Christian soldier-athletes, just as for Joseph whose memory they rightfully honor, the Redeemer will deliver “a heavenly crown and a victory ode… because the eye that never sleeps sees everything.”
In the passages cited above, the exegetical and ethical aspects of the sung-sermon are evident. What about a dogmatic dimension? At this time and place one could still hear the reverberations of the great Christological debates about which formula most precisely encapsulates the Lord’s unique God-man status. Writing of Constantinople in a time slightly before Romanos, the 18th-century historian Edward Gibbon quotes “an intelligent observer”:
This city is full of mechanics and slaves who are all of them profound theologians, and preach in the shops and streets. If you desire a man to change a piece of silver, he informs you wherein the Son differs from the Father, if you ask the price of a loaf, you are told by way of reply that the Son is inferior to the Father.8
Romanos by no means neglects offering orthodox doctrinal guidelines to his listeners—and he does this in, by and through traditional Kontakion techniques. For example, in “The Healing of the Leper,” the Lord is appropriately presented not only as one who can miraculously cure even the most noxious disease, but also as “the only Physician of our souls.”
Romanos reminds the congregation that not all members of the greater Christian community have always displayed such eloquently simple and correct faith:
At the Lord’s command, the leprosy
and its pains were mortified, and
The disease saw the Creator and
Redeemer and was terrified.
Yet the Arian heretics do not
tremble in this way
before the mastery and authority of the
Word, the Son of God.
He is the one who was eternally
generated, before the ages,
from a timeless Father,
a timeless Son himself.
He will endure for all eternity just as
he existed before all time.
He willingly was born in the flesh
from a Virgin,
but he never left his Father,
The Lover of mankind, the Savior and
only Sinless One.9
These few selections from typical kontakia demonstrate that sung sermons fulfill the three basic tasks of a homily: exposition of a reading from the Bible, exhortation to lead a morally upright life and explanation of some doctrinal point. Moreover, even in translation—and without a trace of the original musical setting—the dramatic intensity, figurative ingenuity and linguistic dexterity of these works is evident. These enduring marks of exegetical and poetic genius justify the reputation of Romanos the Melodist as perhaps the greatest scriptural and liturgical poet of the Christian church.
Sermons in stone,” “sermons in glass”—these multimedia figures of speech should surprise no one, since for long periods of time and in a broad range of places the largely illiterate faithful in Europe learned the Bible and the teachings of the church in ways that had nothing to do with formal, academic instruction—or even books. The sermons that taught them were carved in stone and embedded in glass. People saw and then asked questions about sculptured tableaux on the portals of Romanesque churches or about the intricate patterns of form and color in stained glass windows of Gothic […]