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.

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.

Simply put, the kontakion was a "sung sermon." It served to instruct the clergy and laity on the subject of a feast day relating to the life of Christ, His Mother, or one of the saints venerated by the Orthodox Church.

The kontakion's original form consisted of a series of 18 to 30 stanzas written in the same meter. The meters used were based on stress accents and the syllable-count in each line. These stanzas were preceded by a prelude of one to four stanzas, composed in a different meter, that introduced the refrain found at the end of every stanza. This refrain was typically sung by the people. The initial letter of each stanza, when strung together, formed an acrostic that either followed the Greek alphabet, spelled out a simple message, or gave the name of the composer.

One compelling characteristic of the kontakion is its use of dramatic dialogue. The composers did not hesitate to place words in the mouths of their characters. The anonymous Lament of Adam finds Adam beseeching Paradise itself to intercede on his behalf: "O paradise, embrace your now landless landlord/And by the rustle of your leaves entreat our Maker/To keep you open." Romanos' kontakion "On the Victory of the Cross" finds Hades describing his reaction as the cross shatters the gates of hell: "Go on, wake up, Belial," Hades cries, "Run, unveil your eyes and see the root of the tree within my soul." Such imagery heightened the congregation's sense of participation in the cosmic drama of Christianity.

While various threads of the kontakion can be traced back centuries, it appears in complete form in Greek quite suddenly. Orthodox tradition attributes its birth to Saint Romanos, a deacon in the Church of the Virgin at Blachernae in Constantinople, and credits him with composing over 1,000 kontakia. Originally from Emesa in Syria, he moved to Constantinople during the reign of Emperor Anastasius I (491-518). The synaxarion for the feast day of St. Romanos the Melodist, October 1, records that in a dream he received his most famous kontakion, "On the Nativity (Today the Virgin)," and performed it at the church on the feast of the Nativity of Christ. By far the most celebrated of the composers of the kontakion, his name is attached to over 80 that have survived to this day.

Romanos died in the latter half of the 6th century. Kontakia continued to appear, but at the end of the 7th century a twofold blow hastened its demise in the liturgical life of the Orthodox Church. First, the church council at Trullo in 692 (the Quinisext Council) ruled that priests needed to address the laity directly in their homilies. Poetry would take a back seat to preaching. Second, the increasing influence of Orthodox monasticism in the life of the church led to the kontakion's virtual replacement in the liturgy by the canon, a poetic form more suitable for prayer and contemplation than the operatic kontakion.

Sadly, the kontakion has been reduced to the liturgical equivalent of reading the first page of Milton's Paradise Lost. Its epic sweep and dramatic flair no longer captivate the congregation as it did in the age of Justinian. As one Catholic hierarch lamented, "It is aggravating to think that these magnificent prayers have ceased, for more than a thousand years, to nourish Christian piety." Perhaps one day the kontakion in its full glory will again ascend to the pulpit and by its poetry inspire the faithful to piety.

Then, once again, humming the homily would be good for the soul.

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