On October 1st we welcome a new month with the monthly blessing of the waters (Αγιασμό). The Orthodox Church also commemorates a renowned Saint on this day: Romanos the Melodist. He is the patron saint of chanters. St Romanos lived during the late 5th Century to mid 6th Century. He was from Emesa in Syria and born from Jewish parents. Later on, he was baptized a Christian and soon after ordained a deacon.
Many scholars claim Romanos the Melodist was the founder of Byzantine Music. The irony is the Saint was not initially talented at all. Once, during the eve of the Nativity of Christ, the Saint was reading the verses of the kathisma. He read so poorly that another reader had to take his place.
Saint Romanos felt so humiliated and was ridiculed by some of the clergy. Due to weariness and sorrow he fell asleep. Legend has it, as he slept, the Theotokos appeared to him with a scroll in Her hand. Another account says the Theotokos appeared to St Romanos in a vision while he was praying before Her Κυριώτισσα icon. The Theotokos commanded him to eat the scroll. At that very moment, St Romanos was given the gift (χάρισμα) of understanding, composition and hymnography.
After eating the scroll, St Romanos awoke and immediately received a blessing to chant from the Patriarch of Constantinople. He beautifully chanted his first kontakion: Today, the Virgin bears Him who is transcendent, and the earth presents the cave to Him who is beyond reach. Angels, along with shepherds glorify Him. The Magi make their way to Him by a star. For a new child has been born for us, the God before all ages (Kontakion for Nativity of Christ).
The Church's pipe of divine songs, the Holy Spirit's lyre, composer and musician, who chirped like a cicada, whose voice was like a nightingale's, now presents entertainment in melody for all who prayerfully listen, and he delights those of godly mind by means thereof (Sticheron of Festal Vespers).
All the hymns of St Romanos became known as kontakia, in reference to the Virgin’s scroll. He was also the first to write the oikos which was incorporated into the vigil. It is called οίκος because that is the Classical Greek word for house or residence where the Saint composed it.
The kontakion and oikos are part of the matins (orthros) service, read after the 6th Ode of a canon and just before the synaxarion. The kontakion is also chanted by either the priest or the chanter just before the Trisagion, in the Divine Liturgy. The synaxarion starts begins with: on this day, we remember… Like a chronology, it commemorates the Saints and events that occurred on that particular day.
While serving as a deacon, St Romanos was also a teacher of music. He composed in total nearly a thousand hymns of which only about eighty have survived. The Saint reposed peacefully around the year 556 AD.
The shining lamp that is very brilliant and very clear, the sweet and tuneful zither, and the harp-string of lucid sayings of the Spirit distinctly now sings and instructs all in every place to send up glorification in ceaseless hymns to the Godhead's single radiance (Festal Sticheron of Vespers).
St Romanos the Melodist is an image of Prophet and King David of the Old Testament. David was skilled in playing the lyre and among the authors of the Book of Psalms. The icon of King David shows him holding a harp which signifies that he was a musician. In total, there are 150 Psalms. They are sacred songs or poetry used as prayer and praise before God. Praise him with the sound of trumpet; praise Him with the harp and lyre
(στίχος from Αίνοι in Matins, part of Psalm 150).
The Psalter is the foundation of the liturgical services of the Church. All the Psalms reach their fulfillment in Christ, foretelling of several significant events of Christ’s earthly life. Each Psalm has its own theme, as noted in its title.
Just as David both prayed and praised God with the Psalms, the “new David,” St Romanos the Melodist praised Him with the kontakia. Since St Romanos is the patron saint of chanters, all those who are studying byzantine music, especially those with difficulty, seek the intercessions of this Saint for help and encouragement.
The story of St Romanos the Melodist is indeed a paradox. Someone who lacked skill, not even being able to read, went on not only to sing angelically but be blessed to compose so many liturgical hymns that we sing today. This affirms that with God all things are possible (Mt 19:26).
In you, O Father, is preserved undistorted what was made in the image of God; for taking up the cross, you followed Christ and by example taught, that we should overlook the flesh, since it passes away, and instead look after the soul, since it is immortal. And therefore, O devout Romanos, your spirit rejoices with the angels (Festal Apolytikion).
A graduate of Long Island University, College of Pharmacy, and Saint Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary, John works to share the richness and beauty of the Orthodox Faith with the wider community.
Want more from Y2AM? Subscribe to our email list and get a weekly reflection every Saturday!
BONUS: Y2AM has released a brand new ministry training course. And check out our "Be the Bee" episode on why we sing in Church: