Dear brothers and sisters,
As part of this series of catechesis on the Fathers of the Church, I would like to speak today about a relatively unknown figure, Romanus the Melodist, who was born around the year 490 in Emesa (present-day Homs) in Syria.
A theologian, poet and composer, he belongs to that great line of theologians who transformed theology into poetry. We are reminded of his fellow countryman, Ephrem of Syria, who lived 200 years before him, of St. Ambrose, a theologian from the West, whose hymns are part of our liturgy to this day and continue to touch hearts, and of St. Thomas Aquinas, a theologian and thinker of great renown, who gave us the hymns for the feast of Corpus Christi. We are also reminded of St. John of the Cross and many others. Faith is love, so it creates poetry and music. Faith is joy, so it creates beauty.
The Formative Years
Thus, Romanus the Melodist belongs to this group of theologians and was a poet and a composer.
He learned the basic elements of Greek and Syrian culture in the city where he was born before moving to Berytus (Beirut) to complete his classical education and perfect his rhetorical skills. He was ordained a permanent deacon around the year 515, and was a preacher there for three years.
Toward the end of the reign of Anastasius I around 518, he moved to Constantinople and settled in a monastery located in the Church of the Theotótokos (Mother of God). Here, a key episode in his life occurred.
The Sinassario describes a dream in which the Mother of God appeared to him and gave him a gift — the charism of poetry. Mary asked him to consume a piece of paper rolled up like a scroll. When he woke up the next day — on Christmas morning — Romanus began to recite the following words from the pulpit: “Today the Virgin gives birth to the Transcendent” (Inno “Sulla Natività” I. Proemio). That is how he became a homilist and a cantor, which he continued up until the time of his death sometime after 555.
Romanus lives on in history as a leading representative of authors of liturgical hymns. Back then, the homily was practically the only occasion the faithful had for any catechetical instruction. Therefore, Romanus became an eminent witness to the religious sentiment of his era, and also to a very original and colorful way of catechesis.
Thanks to his compositions, we are able to grasp the creativity of his form of catechesis, the creativity of his theological thinking, and of the esthetics and his art of composing sacred hymns at that time.
Catechesis for the People
Romanus preached at a shrine on the outskirts of Constantinople. He would climb up into the pulpit, which was located in the center of the church, and preach to the community using elaborate props — the murals on the walls of the church or icons placed on the pulpit — and his homilies often included a dialogue.
He chanted his homilies in metric verse called kontákia. The word kontákion (little staff) seems to refer to the wooden rod around which a liturgical manuscript or some similar manuscript was wound. There are 89 kontákia that are attributed to Romanus that have been handed down to us, but tradition attributes 1,000 to him.
Each of Romanus’ kontákia consists of stanzas that are 18 to 24 lines in length with an equal number of syllables, structured according to the pattern of the first stanza (irmo). The rhythmic accents of the verses in all the stanzas are modeled after those of the irmo. Each stanza ends with a refrain (efiminio) that is usually identical in order to create poetic unity.
Moreover, the first letters of every stanza indicates acrostically the name of the author, often preceded by the adjective “humble.” A prayer referring to the event that was being celebrated or remembered concludes each hymn.
When the readings from the Bible were over, Romanus would sing the Proemio, usually in the form of a prayer or a supplication. Thus, he would announce the theme of his homily and would explain the refrain that was to be repeated in chorus at the end of each stanza, which he would recite aloud in cadence.
The kontákion for Good Friday, a dramatic dialogue between Mary and her Son that takes place along the Way of the Cross, is a good example.
Mary asks: “Where are you going, my Son? Why have you completed so quickly the course of your life?/Never did I think I would see you in this condition, my Son/and never did I imagine to what point the wicked would succumb to their fury,/laying their hands upon you against everything that is just.”
Jesus replies: “Why are you weeping, my Mother? […] Should I not suffer? Should I not die?/How, then, would I be able to save Adam?”
Mary’s son consoles his mother, but also reminds her of her role in salvation history: “Therefore, lay down your sorrow, my mother, lay down your sorrow./It is not fitting that you should weep because you have been called ‘full of grace’” (Maria ai piedi della croce, 1-2;4-5).
In this same hymn, when speaking about Abraham’s sacrifice, Sara reserves for herself the decision regarding Isaac’s life. Abraham says: “When Sara hears your words, my Lord/and knows your will, she will tell me: ‘If he who gave him to you takes him back now, why did he give him to you in the first place?’/[…] ‘Venerable old man, leave my son to me/and when he who called you wants him, he should say so to me” (Il sacrificio di Abramo, 7).
Romanus did not use the solemn Byzantine Greek used at the court, but a very simple Greek that was akin to the language of the people.
I would like to cite here an example of his very lively and very personal way of speaking about the Lord Jesus. He calls him “a font that does not burn up and a light against the shadows,” and says: “I yearn to hold you in my hands like a lamp./Indeed, whoever carries a light among men is illuminated without ever being burned./ Illuminate me, then, you who are the inextinguishable light (Presentazione o Festa dell’Incontro, 8).
The power of conviction in his preaching was based on a great consistency between his words and his life. In one prayer he says: “Make my tongue clear, my Savior, and open my mouth/and, after having filled it, pierce my heart, so that what I do/may be consistent with what I say” (Missione degli Apostoli, 2).
The Theme of Unity
Let us examine some of his principal themes.
A fundamental theme of his preaching was the unity of God’s action throughout history, the unity between creation and the salvation history, and the unity between the Old and New Testaments. Another important theme was pneumatology, that is, the teaching on the Holy Spirit.
On the Feast of Pentecost, he emphasized the continuity that there is between Christ, who ascended into heaven, and the apostles, that is, the Church, and exalts the Church’s missionary work throughout the world: “... with divine virtue, they have conquered mankind./They have taken up the cross of Christ like a pen./They have used words like fishing nets in order to fish throughout the world./They have used the word of God like a sharp hook/and, as bait, the flesh of the King of the universe” (La Pentecoste 2;18).
Another central theme is, of course, Christology. He does not get into the problems surrounding some of the difficult concepts of theology that were discussed at length back then and had destroyed unity not only among theologians but also among Christians within the Church.
He preached a simple yet basic Christology — the Christology of the great councils. But above all, he felt close to the piety of the people — after all, the concepts of the councils were born out of popular piety and from the knowledge within the hearts of Christians — and for this reason Romanus highlighted the fact that Christ was true God and true man, and being truly God and man, was one person, the synthesis of creation and creature, in whose human words we hear the Word of God himself.
“He was a man,” he says, “he was the Christ, but he was also God/though not divided in two: He is One, son of a Father who is but One” (La Passione 19).
As for Mariology, Romanus, who was grateful to the Blessed Virgin Mary for the gift of the charism of poetry, remembers her at the end of almost every one of his hymns and dedicates some of his most beautiful kontákia to her: Nativity, Annunciation, Divine Motherhood, and the New Eve.
His Moral Teaching
Finally, his moral teachings all have to do with the last judgment (Le dieci vergini [II]). He leads us to this moment of truth in our life, our meeting with the just judge, thereby exhorting us to conversion through penance and fasting.
On a positive note, Christians have to practice charity and almsgiving. He emphasizes the primacy of love over chastity in two hymns, “The Marriage at Cana” and “The Ten Virgins.” Charity is the greatest of virtues: “... Ten virgins possessed the virtue of having their virginity intact/but for five of them, this difficult practice was fruitless./The others shone with their lamps of love for mankind/and for this, the bridegroom asked them in” (Le dieci vergini, 1).
A vibrant humanity, an ardent faith and profound humility pervade the songs of Romanus the Melodist.
A great poet and composer, he reminds us of the wealth of Christian culture that was born of faith — born in hearts that encountered Christ, the Son of God. From this contact of the heart with truth that is love, culture was born and all great Christian culture came into being.
If faith remains alive, this cultural legacy will not die, but will remain alive and be ever-present to us.
Icons also speak today to the hearts of believers. They are not just things of the past.
Cathedrals are not medieval monuments but houses of life, where we feel “at home” and where we meet God and where we meet each other. Neither is great music — such as Gregorian chant, Bach or Mozart — a thing of the past. It lives in the vitality of liturgy and our faith.
If faith is alive, Christian culture will never become a thing of the “past” but will remain alive and be ever-present to us.
If faith is alive, we can respond even today to the command that is repeated constantly throughout the Psalms: “Sing to the Lord a new song!”
Creativity, innovation, new song, new culture, and the presence of the entire cultural heritage in the vitality of faith are not mutually exclusive but a single reality.
They are the presence of the beauty of God and the joy of being his children.