07 January 2009

The Nativity Kontakion of St Romanos the Melodist

Most Orthodox are probably familiar with the kontakion of the Nativity (Third Tone) by St Romanos the Melodist. The Byzantine melody is lovely and serene, and even the Russian melody is quite nice (you can see what a pariah I am in the Russian Church Abroad)! The translation in the Jordanville Prayer Book, 4th ed. (Jordanville, NY: Holy Trinity Monastery, 1996), p. 160, reads:

Today the Virgin giveth birth to Him Who is transcendent in essence;* and the earth offereth a cave to Him Who is unapproachable.* Angels with shepherds give glory;* with a star the Magi do journey;* for our sake a young Child is born, Who is pre-eternal God.
But we mustn’t forget that originally, the kontakion was not merely a single stanza inserted after the 6th Ode of the canon, but a much more substantial genre. In fact, the canon did not assume its present rôle until the end of the 7th century, whereas the kontakion became a part of the Byzantine liturgy in the early 6th century. Indeed, the canon was a sort of replacement for the original kontakion which, according to Egon Wellesz, was made up of from eighteen to thirty or more stanzas, each ending in a repeated refrain (Egon Wellesz, A History of Byzantine Music and Hymnography, 2nd ed. [Oxford: Oxford U, 1971], p. 179). Wellesz writes that the kontakion had its origin in a type of Syriac poetical homily called the memrâ, which was a sort of paraphrase of the Matins Gospel. With the Greek kontakia, however, there was a loss of the homiletic charactre of the memrâ, and the development into a poetical description of the feast in line with elements of other Syriac poetical forms (Wellesz, pp. 184-5), although Fr Ephrem (Lash) still sees fit to call the kontakion ‘a homily or sermon in verse that was chanted to music’ (Archim. Ephrem [Lash], Introduction, Kontakia On the Life of Christ, by St Romanos the Melodist [San Francisco: HarperCollins, n.d.], p. xxviii). When, in 692, the Council in Trullo made preaching obligatory, the still somewhat homiletical kontakion was finally replaced by the more purely hymnodic canon (Wellesz, p. 204).

Anyway, the point of all this is that the familiar Nativity kontakion is but one stanza, the ‘prelude’, of a hymn that consists of twenty-four more stanzas. Much of the kontakion describes a dialogue between the Mother of God and the Magi, and each stanza ends with the refrain, ‘παιδίον νέον, τὸν πρὸ αἰώνων Θεόν’. The first stanza is still chanted as the ikos just after the prelude—that is, just before the 7th Ode of the canon of the Feast of the Nativity (Mr Mary and Archim. Kallistos [Ware], trans., The Festal Menaion [South Canaan, PA: St Tikhon’s Seminary, 1998], pp. 277-8)—but the rest of the stanzas aren’t chanted at all anymore. It seems a pitiful fate for the work of a man who has been called ‘the outstanding figure in Byzantine hymnography’ (Wellesz, p. 190).

Fortunately, we still have roughly sixty authentic kontakia of St Romanos (Fr Ephrem, p. xxvii), and some of these have been translated into English. Fr Ephrem (Lash), an extremely amusing, learned old gentleman, monk of Gregoriou, and archimandrite of the Œcumenical throne, has published a wonderful translation of eighteen of these kontakia, all dealing with events in the life of Christ (see the citation of Fr Ephrem’s book above). I thought it would be fitting to post Fr Ephrem’s translation of the last three stanzas of the full Nativity kontakion (Fr Ephrem, pp. 11-2).

When the blameless Virgin saw the magi bringing
new and radiant gifts and worshipping,
the star showing him, the shepherds praising him,
she implored the Maker and Creator of all these, saying,
‘Accept, my Child, a trinity of gifts,
grant her who gave you birth three requests.
I pray to you for the seasons
and for the fruits of the earth and for those who dwell on it.
Be reconciled to all, because through me you have been born
a little Child, God before the ages.

‘For I am not simply your mother, compassionate Saviour;
it is not in vain that I suckle the giver of milk,
but for the sake of all I implore you.
You have made me the mouth and the boast of all my race,
and your world has me
as a mighty protection, a wall and a buttress.
They look to me, those who were cast out
of the Paradise of pleasure, for I bring them back.
May all things understand that, through me, you have been born
a little Child, God before the ages.

‘Save the world, O Saviour. For this you have come.
Set your whole universe aright. For this you have shone
on me and on the magi and on all creation.
For see, the magi, to whom you have shown the light of your face,
fall down before you and offer gifts,
useful, fair and eagerly sought.
For I have need of them, since I am about
to go to Egypt and to flee with you and for you,
my Guide, my Son, my Maker, my Redeemer,
a little Child, God before the ages.’
Addendum: inspired by Kevin Edgecomb's wonderful, even heroic catalogue of the St Vladimir's 'Popular Patristics Series', I thought it might be worthwhile to list all of the kontakia translated by Fr Ephrem in the book I've cited above. These are the subjects, plus the numbering of the kontakia in respectively, the Oxford and Sources Chrétiennes editions:

On the Nativity (1; 10)
On the Mother of God (37; 12)
On the Meeting of Our Lord (4; 14)
On the Holy Theophany (5; 16)
On the Leper (8; 20)
On the Samaritan Woman (9; 19)
On the Harlot (10; 21)
On the Five Loaves (13; 24)
On the Prodigal Son (49; 28)
On Judas (17; 33)
On Peter's Denial (18; 34)
On the Lament of the Mother of God (19; 35)
On the Victory of the Cross (22; 38)
On the Resurrection (29; 40)
On the Apostle Thomas (30; 46)
On the Ascension (32; 48)
On Pentecost (33; 49)
On the Second Coming (34; 50)
I suppose I could also list what Fr Ephrem gives as the Biblical sources of the kontakia, but that would be a lot of trouble indeed!


Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

My weakened fingers thank you for the praise!

aaronandbrighid said...

Greater love hath no man than that he lay down his fingers for his friends. Or, at least, it's a pretty good love.