When Preaching Was Pure Poetry

Can the epic sweep and dramatic flair of the kontakion captivate today's congregations as it did in the past?

When's the last time you left church singing the sermon? Drop into a Divine Liturgy in Constantinople around the time of Justinian 1500 years ago, and you might have done just that.

True, every line of the Byzantine Orthodox liturgy served to dramatize the worship of God and the work of Christ. But for several centuries, even the homily itself took on the form and nature of a dramatic performance, an eternal "opera" that drew both clergy and laity into the divine mysteries of the faith. Instead of merely listening to the words of a preacher, all participated in bringing to life the events and Scripture readings for a Sunday or a particular feast day through the chanting of the kontakion, a type of poem that peaked in popularity during the 5th, 6th, and 7th centuries.

C. A. Trypanis, author of a recent survey of Greek poetry, has praised the kontakion as the most singular literary achievement of the Byzantine Empire. It solidified the shift in Greek poetry from classical rules to metrical forms dependent on syllable count and stress accent, an approach more acceptable to the various nationalities that comprised the Eastern Roman Empire. This was in keeping with changes that had occurred in the Greek language during the Hellenistic period. The most beloved hymn of the Greek Orthodox Church, the Akathist Hymn (still chanted today in toto during Lent), is a richly embellished variation on the kontakion.

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Even now, though quite abbreviated, the kontakion finds a place in the liturgy of the Eastern Orthodox Church.

A single stanza sits between the sixth and seventh canticles of the Canon sung during Matins, and as the variable hymn or "collect" after the Little Entrance in the Divine Liturgy. Many Orthodox Christians today assume that the one or two stanzas found in the service books are the complete kontakion. Clergy and monastics, who tend to be most familiar with the Orthodox liturgical cycle, express surprise when they learn about the original structure and length of the kontakion and its use as a poetic sermon. This ignorance likely stems from the fact that only those stanzas still used in the liturgy have been translated from the original Greek.

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