“On the Crucifixion” by St Romanos the Melodist

[April 19,2018]

In the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete (written about 725 AD) there’s a break after the 6th canticle, and then there’s something labeled “Kontakion.” It’s memorable to anyone who’s attended the Great Canon (Orthodox sing it during Lent), because this verse breaks in and seems so different, like it comes from a different source.

“O my soul, O my soul, arise; why are you sleeping?

The end is drawing near and you will be confounded.

Awake and watch that Christ God may spare you,

Who is everywhere present and fills all things.”

I always wondered about that thing labeled “Kontakion,” because a Canon and a Kontakion are two different forms of hymn—like a sonnet and a haiku are two different forms of poetry. St Andrew invented the Canon form of hymn, and a Canon has 9 major sections, each based on one of the 9 Biblical canticles (ie, songs sung by people in the Bible, like Moses’s “I will sing unto the Lord for he has triumphed gloriously”).

A Kontakion is different; it has perhaps 22 – 24 sections, and they alternate longer and shorter. (Often you find in Orthodox worship that just the first verse of a Kontakion is sung, and it is labeled “Kontokian” all by itself; that seems to be the case here.) It was St. Romanos, born 475 AD in Beirut, who perfected the Kontakion form and produced about a thousand of them, of which about 60 have been preserved till today. The best known is the “Akathist Salutations to the Theotokos,” but many others are just as beautiful. (St. Romanos perhaps inherited the idea of kontakia from his predecessor St Ephraim the Syrian, who lived in the 300s.)

I began looking for “O my soul arise” among the kontakia from St Romanos that are available in English, but couldn’t find it. Perhaps it wasn’t even by St Romanos, but someone else. I couldn’t turn anything up. An Orthodox scholar told me it was probably lost! Then Fr Michael Carney, pastor of St. Herman of Alaska ROCA Church in Lansing, MI, responded to my Facebook post and told me it was Romanos’s “On the Crucifixion.” At last I was on the right track.

I couldn’t find this in English. It was included in a collection published about 50 years ago, but I couldn’t find a copy to buy online; however I found a review of the book that said it was full of translation errors!

My fellow-parishioner Carole Monica Burnett, editor of the Fathers of the Church series from Catholic University Press, located a copy in Greek, which I paste in here below. I can’t read Greek well enough to make a good translation, but just enough to trace along some of the lines, and I find it so moving. So I’m looking for a volunteer who wants to translate it into English, and perhaps by next Holy and Great Friday we’ll be able to read it during our prayers. Would you like to give it a try? Email me at email hidden; JavaScript is required.

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Frederica Matthewes-Green

About Frederica Matthewes-Green

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a wide-ranging author who has published 10 books and 800 essays, in such diverse publications as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), a columnist for the Religion News Service, Beliefnet.com, and Christianity Today, and a podcaster for Ancient Faith Radio. (She was also a consultant for Veggie Tales.) She has published 10 books, and has appeared as a speaker over 600 times, at places like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Wellesley, Cornell, Calvin, Baylor, and Westmont, and received a Doctor of Letters (honorary) from King University. She has been interviewed over 700 times, on venues like PrimeTime Live, the 700 Club, NPR, PBS, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She lives with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Johnson City, TN. Their three children are grown and married, and they have fourteen grandchildren.

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