ONE OF THE MORE POPULAR CHANTS in our Church is the kondakion of Christ’s Nativity, “Today the Virgin gives birth…” What many do not know is that this hymn is an excerpt from a much longer work and that it was written by St Romanos the Melodist.
Who is This Saint?
St Romanos was born in Homs, Syria (some say Damascus), to a Jewish family in the latter part of the fifth century. We do not know when he was baptized or whether his family was converted as well. As a young man he moved to Beirut and entered the service of the local Church. One source says that he was ordained a deacon there; others say that his ordination came later.
During the reign of Emperor Anastasios (490-518) Romanos moved again, this time to Constantinople where the patriarch accepted him among the local clergy. He lived at the Monastery of the Theotokos in Kyros, a district of the capital. He ended his life as sacristan of the Great Church, an important position responsible for the vessels and other liturgical items of Hagia Sophia. It was here that he composed his poetic works.
According to a popular legend, Romanos did not have a pleasing voice or any special skill as a chanter. To embarrass him at a service attended by the emperor (perhaps the Royal Hours) other clerics gave him a difficult piece to chant which drew attention to his limitations. Afterwards, while Romanos was resting before the All-Night Vigil for the feast, the Theotokos appeared to him in a dream, offering him a scroll to eat. As we say in the canon for this feast, “Appearing to you at night, the Ever-virgin, who truly gave birth to the incarnate Son of God, illumined your soul and filled your mind with divine understanding.”
That night Romanos mounted the ambo again and astounded the congregation with his hymn, “Today the Virgin gives birth…” From then on Romanos’ poetic and music gifts became legendary. He has been called “Sweet Singer,” “theorrhetor” (God’s poet), and “the Pindar of rhythmic poetry.”
Romanos’ Verse Form, the Kondakion
Romanos’ great contribution to liturgical poetry is the kondakion. The hymn to which we give that title in our services today is simply the first verse of the kondakia which Romanos and others after him had composed. Romanos’ kondakia were more like the Akathist Hymns we know: a series of poetic verses sung by a soloist with recurring refrains sung by the people or choir. Romanos was often credited with composing the Akathist to the Theotokos, but this does not seem to be the case.
Romanos did compose a number of kondakia, a number of which have survived although most of them are no longer used liturgically. A newer poetic form, the canon was popularized in the eighth century by two other Syrian saints, the step-brothers John of Damascus and Cosmas of Maiuma. Canons came to replace the kondakia in the services of the Byzantine Churches.
Musicologists believe that the kondakion had its origin in a type of Syriac poetical homily called the memrâ, which was a sort of paraphrase of a Gospel passage, a kind of homily or sermon in verse that was chanted to music. A kind of memrâ is still heard today in the popular Arabic verses sung in honor of the participants at a wedding or baptism. Romanos blended this Syriac form with the conventions of classical Greek dramatic poetry.
The Kondakion of the Nativity
The following are the first three (of the twenty-four) verses of St Romanos’ Nativity Kondakion which illustrate the style of this poetic form”
Today the Virgin gives birth
to the Transcendent in Essence,
And the earth presents a cave
to the Inaccessible.
The angels with the shepherds
sing His glory
And the Wise Men with the star
travel on their way,
For to us is born a little Child
who is God from all eternity.
Bethlehem has opened Eden, come, let us see; we have found delight in secret, come, let us receive the joys of Paradise within the cave. There the unwatered root whose blossom is forgiveness has appeared. There has been found the undug well from which David once longed to drink. There a virgin has borne a babe and has quenched at once Adam’s and David’s thirst. For this, let us hasten to this place where there has been born a little Child who is God from all eternity.
The mother’s Father has willingly become her Son, the infants’ savior is laid as an infant in a manger. As she who bore him contemplates him, she says, “Tell me, my Child, how were you sown, or how were you planted in me? I see you, my flesh and blood, and I am amazed, because I give suck and yet I am not married. And though I see you in swaddling clothes, I know that the flower of my virginity is sealed, for you preserved it when, in your good pleasure, you were born a little Child who is God from all eternity.
“High King, what have You to do with beggars? Maker of heaven, why have You come to those born of earth? Did You love a cave or take pleasure in a manger? See, there is no place for Your servant in the inn, I do not say a place, not even a cave, for that too belongs to another. To Sara, when she bore a child, a vast land was given as her lot. To me, not even a fox hole. I used the cavern where willingly You made your dwelling, a little Child who is God from all eternity.
Down to the twelfth century this Christmas kondakion was performed by a double choir (from Hagia Sophia and the Holy Apostles) at the imperial banquet on the feast of Christ’s Nativity.
Romanos’ Other Works
A number of other kondakia by this saint have been translated into English. Only two of them are still used liturgically, at least in part. The first verse of Romanos’ Kondakion on the Victory of the Cross is sung on the Third Sunday of the Great Fast: “The angel’s fiery sword will no longer guard the gate of Paradise, for the cross of the Lord has put it out wondrously. The power of death has been broken, the victory of Hades wiped out, and You, my Savior, have stood up and called out to all those bound in hell: ‘Come now, and enter into heaven.’”
The first verse of his Kondakion for the Palms is still sung on Palm Sunday: “O Christ God, enthroned in heaven and on earth riding upon a colt, You have accepted the praise of the angels and the hymns of the children who were crying out to You, ‘Blessed are You who come to restore Adam.’’
We might reflect on these first verses of Romanos’ Kondakion on the Passion which is no longer used in our services:
“Today the foundations of the earth were shaken. The sun was changed, for it could not bear to watch. For the One who gives life to all was being put on a cross, Paradise had been opened to the transgression of old – Only Adam dances.”
Heaven, tremble and be amazed. Earth, sink down in chaos. Sun, do not dare to look on your Master willingly hanged upon the Tree.
Let rocks be shattered, for the Rock of life is now being wounded by the nails. Let the veil of the temple be rent in two as the Master’s body is pierced with a lance by the lawless. In short, let all creation tremble, groan at the passion of the Creator. Only Adam dances.
Source: Eparchy of Newton