Like many saints who lived long ago, we don’t know much about St. Romanos the Melodist, and what we might know isn’t agreed on by all scholars.
We aren’t sure his parents were Christian. There are some experts who think he may have been from a Jewish family. He either became Christian when they did, as a child, or converted later, as an older child or a young man. He was born in Edessa (known today as Homs) in Syria sometime in the late 5th century, and whether his parents were Christian or not, he certainly loved the Lord and had a special affection for the Mother of God.
We know that he was ordained a deacon and served in the Church of the Resurrection in Beirut. He moved to Constantinople probably in the reign of Anastasius I, sometime between 491 and 518 AD, where he served as a sacristan, reader, and singer at Hagia Sophia. In the time of St. Romanos, readers were not only expected to read the lessons during services; they were also expected to sing solo, sometimes extemporaneously, hymns of praise to God, the Theotokos, and the saints. The legends about St. Romanos tell us that his voice was mediocre to awful (some tales note that the congregation cringed when he stood up to take his turn), and some say he was tone deaf as well. He had no talent for composing poetry on the spot, which was an absolute necessity in his job. We’re told that he burned with humiliation and shame every time he had to read in church, because in spite of his lack of gifts, he loved singing and he loved the poetry of the church. He was acutely aware of how little talent he had, and longed to be able to praise God in melody and hymnody as well as He deserved.
In spite of his lack of qualifications for the job he was hired to do, he was favoured by the Patriarch for his simple faith and his humility. Because of this, and because of his poor gifts, the other readers and singers in the church were less than kind, and teased him unmercifully.
The legend tells us that one Nativity Eve, he was chosen to lead the singing in Blachernae Church at the All-night Vigil. Various tales give different accounts of just how awful it was, but regardless of the details, it’s pretty clear it was the worst night of his life, and he was unable to continue. He crept away and hid in shame, eventually falling asleep in the church. During the night, he had a dream that the Theotokos appeared to him and instructed him to swallow the scroll she held. He did. When he woke, it was Nativity and he was again scheduled to sing. This time, the legend tells us, he had no trouble at all. He took his place, opened his mouth, and not only did his voice sound like the angels themselves, he composed, on the spot, the Nativity Hymn we still sing today: “Today the Virgin gives birth to the transcendent One . . ”
Whether the legend is true or not, the fact remains that most people acknowledge St. Romano’s genius, and several experts have said he is the greatest ecclesial poet of all time.
He’s credited with writing over 1,000 kontakia, but this is probably exaggerated. We still have between fifty and eighty of the hymns he wrote, and they are still used in the church. Some of his compositions concern the Nativity, such as the kontakia noted above, and the Martyrdom of St. Stephen, and some are Pre Lenten hymns, notably the Last Judgement and the Prodigal Son as well as Holy Week psalms, such as the Raising of Lazarus, Adam’s Lament, and the Treachery of Judas, as well as a kontakion that is used in the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete, which we sing on the fifth Sunday of Great Lent (that begins, “My soul, my soul, why sleepest thou . . .”). He’s also credited with composing the Akathist Hymn to the Theotokos, but scholars are less certain about this one.
He died peacefully on the first of October. He was buried in the Church of the Theotokos in Constantinople. We think he may have died in 555, or slightly later, because he makes reference in some of his work to events that happened in 552, 554, and 555 AD in the Near East.
We hear his work in the kontakia we sing, but what we sing is less than a tenth of what he composed. In his day, kontakia were sung sermons, with about twenty-five “strophes” or sections, each of which contained anywhere from eighteen to thirty verses. Additionally, if we sing a translation of his work, we miss the acrostics he put in every one of them. The first letter of every line, when written out, make words and sentences related to the topic of the kontakion.
His work was both simple and profound, something that appealed to the congregation, that they could easily understand and appreciate, but which used profound theology and literary devices that would sink in over time, and help to deepen the listener’s faith and understanding.
Whether his gift came in the way the legend tells us, or whether he always had this talent, is really immaterial – the gift, however he gained it, was from God, and he used it to praise and glorify God and His mother. He used it to teach and exhort, and to deepen the faith of the people who listened to his words, both those who had the privilege of hearing his voice, and us, 1600 years later, who can still join with him, and the Heavenly choir to praise and glorify the God of us all in the words he composed.
Sweet Song: A Story of Saint Romanos the Melodist, by Jane Meyer, Ancient Faith Publishing.
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