Wednesday, May 21, 2008

"Sing a New Song"

Continuing his series on the Fathers, today's Audience saw the Mozart-loving B16 turn to a composer among the group who even he admitted "isn't well known": the fifth-century theologian Romanus the Melodist:
Romanus is known in history as one of the most representative authors of liturgical hymns. At the time the homily was for the faithful practically the only opportunity of catechesis. Thus Romanus was not only an eminent witness of the religious sentiment of his day, but also of a lively and original method of catechesis. Through his compositions we can see the creativity of this form of catechesis, of the creativity of the theological thought, of the aesthetic and the sacred hymnography of the era.

The place where Romanus preached was a shrine on the outskirts of Constantinople: he would ascend the pulpit, located in the center of the Church, and he would speak to the community using a rather elaborate setting -- he used images on the walls or icons on the pulpit to illustrate his homilies, and even used dialogue. He recited chanted metrical hymns, called kontakia. The word "kontakion" --"small rod" -- seems to make reference to the small rod around which he rolled the scroll of the liturgical manuscript, or another such scroll. There are 89 kontakia attributed today to Romanus, but tradition attributes a thousand to him.

In Romanus, each kontakion is composed of stanzas, at the most 18-24, with the same number of syllables structured according to the model of the first stanza (irmo); the rhythmic accents of the verses of all the stanzas are modeled according to the "irmo." Each stanza ends with a refrain (efimnio), in general identical, to create poetic unity.

Furthermore, the beginning of each stanza indicates the name of the author (acrostico), frequently preceded with the adjective "humble." A prayer referring to the celebrated or evoked events ends the hymn.

Upon ending the biblical reading, Romanus sung the Proemium, generally in the form of a prayer or supplication. He thus announced the theme of the homily, explaining the refrain that was repeated all together at the end of each stanza, which he recited aloud in cadence.

A significant example is the kontakion for Holy Friday: It is a dialogue between Mary and her son that takes place on the way of the cross.

Mary says: "Where are you going, son? Why have you completed the path of you life so rapidly? / I would never have thought, my son, that I would see you like this. / And I could never have imagined that that the fury of the wicked could go so far, / laying their hands on you against all sense of justice."

Jesus responds: "Why are you crying, mother? [...] I shouldn't go? I shouldn't die? / How will I save Adam?"

Mary's son consoles his mother, but also reminds her of his role in salvation history: "Lay down, then, mother, lay down your pain: / It is not fitting for you to cry out, for you were called 'full of grace.'" (Mary at the Foot of the Cross, 1-2; 4-5).

In the hymn on the sacrifice of Abraham, Sarah reserves for herself the decision on the life of Isaac. Abraham says: "When Sarah hears, my Lord, your words, / upon knowing your will, she will tell me: / If the one who has given wants to take back, why has he given? / [...] You, watchful one, leave me my son, / and when he who called you wants him, he should say so to me" (The Sacrifice of Abraham, 7).
Romanus did not use the solemn Byzantine Greek of the imperial court, but the simple Greek that was close to the language of the people. I would like to cite here an example of his lively and very personal way of speaking about the Lord Jesus: he calls him the "spring that does not burn and the light against the shadows," and says: "I desire to have you in my hands like a lamp; / in fact, he who carries the light among man is illuminated without being burned. / Illuminate me, then, you who are the light that never burns out" (The Presentation, or Feast of Encounter, 8).

The strength of conviction in his preaching was based on the great coherence between his words and his life. One prayer says: "Make clean my tongue, my savior, open my mouth / and, after having filled it, penetrate my heart so that I may act / that I be coherent with my words" (Mission of the Apostles, 2)....

Palpitating humanity, arduous faith and profound humility pervade the songs of Romanus the Melodist. This great poet and composer reminds us of the entire treasure of Christian culture, born of faith, born of the heart that has found Christ, the Son of God. From this contact of the heart with the truth that is love, culture is born, the entire great Christian culture.

And if the faith continues to live, this cultural inheritance will not die, but rather it will continue to live and be current. Icons continue to speak to the hearts of believers to this day, they are not things of the past. The cathedrals are not medieval monuments, rather houses of life, where we feel "at home": where we find God and each other. Neither is great music -- the Gregorian chant, Bach or Mozart -- something of the past, rather it lives in the vitality of the liturgy and our faith.

If faith is alive, Christian culture will never be "outdated," but rather will remain alive and current. And if faith is alive, we can respond to the imperative that is always repeated in the psalms: "Sing an new song unto the Lord."