The Purpose of Orthodox Christian Hymnography

 Holy, Righteous Ancestor of God, Anna

Holy, Righteous Ancestor of God, Anna

My beloved spiritual children in Christ Our Only True God and Our Only True Savior,


Theological testimony finds great expression in the hymns of the Church. The soul of the Orthodox hymnographer must possess real piety, humility, inner wakefulness and understanding. God-inspired, the hymnographer is flooded with boundless love of God, exultation and gratefulness. Ecclesiastical poetry is a great gift of God to the Church. Saint Symeon the New Theologian says, "Every prayer and psalmody is a conversation with God in which we entreat Him to give us those things which are proper for God to give men, or we thank Him for His gifts, or we glorify Him for all the creatures which He has made, or we narrate His wonderful and timely deeds for the salvation of men and the punishment of the unrighteous, or we narrate the great mystery of the incarnation of the Son and Logos/Word of God, and the like." Some hymns unequivocally declare the great dogmatic truths, others the love of God, and others place our pain, problems and aspirations before God and His Saints. They have survived because they express Truth, therefore, their messages are always timely and eternal. They are also messages of victory and the resurrection.

Some of Orthodoxy's Hymnographers

Among our elect list of hymnographers from whom we have cited, we will make use of the works are Saint Andrew of Jerusalem and Bishop of Crete (660-740 AD), Saint Cosmas the Poet and Bishop of Maiouma (6th-7th century), Saint John the Damascene (675-750 AD), Saint Stephen of the Holy City (8th cen.), and Saint Theophanes the Poet and Bishop of Nicaea (+1381 AD). 

Other, ancient hymn writers that were outside the area of Palestine, whom we have enrolled to enhance and amplify our narratives, will include Saint Cassiane the Nun (9th century), Saint George the Bishop of Nicomedia (880 AD), Saint Germanos the Patriarch of Constantinople (653-733 AD), Saint John Mavropous the Metropolitan of Euchaites (+ 1079 AD), Saint Joseph the Hymnographer (+883 AD), Saint Theodore the Studite (759-826 AD), Anatolios, Andrew of Pyros (9th century), Basil the Monk (10th century), Byzas and Leo the Master.

We owe a special debt of gratitude to the two Syrian masters of chant: Saint Ephraim the Syrian (Syros) (306-373 AD) and Saint Romanos the Melodist (490-556 AD). To understand more about the development of certain forms of hymnography, we will briefly explain the role that each of these inspired deacons played.

Saint Ephraim the Syrian

The poet, Saint Ephraim the Syrian, combined an astonishing technical artistry with a richness of imagery. Throughout his homilies he displays that characteristic. Semitic love of parallelism and antithesis which, in his hands, proves an admirable tool for expressing the various paradoxes of the Christian mystery. This attitude and treatment of the Holy Bible are grace-filled, creative and inspired.

It is generally believed that the Syrian dramatic verses was the precursor of Byzantine dramatic and semi-dramatic homilies. The dramatic verses (soughitha), part of the religious literature developed in Syria, also affected the writings of Saint Romanos. They were sung antiphonically into which biblical episodes were introduced in the form of dialogues. They were sometimes written in strophes and attached to homilies; during religious festivals they were sung by choirs and often contained dialogue and an acrostic.

The madrascha (metrical sermon), were performed by a chorus. The complicated system of strophes found in the madrascha represent the highest development of Saint Ephraim Syros' technique. These always had a refrain, but not always an acrostic, which revealed a wider variety of meter, a refrain, an acrostic and rhyme.

Saint Romanos the Melodist

Saint Romanos, one of the greatest of the Byzantine melodists and Christian poets, authored about one thousand kontakia hymns. He belonged to the 6th century and exceeds all others in poetical genius and justly deserves the title "orator of God" (theo-rhetor). Much literature of that time has been neglected and scorned because of the long compendia and overly contrived verbosity that characterized the works of later centuries. However, Saint Romanos combines the solemnity and dignity of the sermon with the delicacy and liveliness of lyric and dramatic poetry. English literature contains no equivalent of the kontakion (sing.) It is religious drama set in a poetic sermon that was sung.

It contained highly dramatic features with dialogue passing from strophe to strophe. Saint Romanos, interestingly enough, did not call his compositions of rhythmical poetry kontakia (pl.), but poems, odes, or hymns. The word kontakion, probably derived from kontos (which was the shaft on which the parchment of a scroll was stretched), came into use in the 9th century.

Hymns That Amplify the Gospel Narratives

Thus, we shall see that there was a widespread tradition in Byzantine literature that cast certain feasts in semi-dramatic form; a technique which many God-inspired hymnographers would employ. Those familiar with Orthodox Christian Hymnography are aware of the poetical hymns related to the Theotokos at the Cross, known as the stavro-theotokia. Within these hymns, we may hear a dialogue between the Virgin and her crucified Son. The various Orthros (Matins) lamentations that we use on Great and Holy Saturday, still in ecclesiastical usage today, also contain purely rhetorical dialogues.

It was Saint Romanos Melodist, in particular, who attempted to add to his religious dramatizations the qualities of intuitive sympathy and imaginative perception. This might especially be seen in the Feast of the Annunciation when, not only Saint Romanos, but other Holy Fathers such as Saint Germanos and Saint John of Damascus, employ this same literary technique of creating dialogues which are purely rhetorical in character, yet dogmatical. Throughout our book we present examples from both the sermons of the Holy Fathers and the philological monuments to be found in our Orthodox service books. Thus, our readers will experience the rich poetic prose that serves to amplify Gospel narratives, all within the Holy Tradition of Orthodoxy. (The Life of the Virgin Mary, the Theotokos. Written and Compiled by Holy Apostles Convent in Buena Vista, Colorado).


"Glory Be To GOD For All Things!"--Saint John Chrysostom


With sincere agape in His Holy Diakonia,
The sinner and unworthy servant of God

+Father George