Singing a Sermon

Reading a little about liturgical drama and convinced that the liturgy is the work of the people, in which God speaks and the people answer, I’ve wondered whether we can restore antiphony and responsory – along with some dramatic element – to public worship. As well as demanding the believer’s response, these may appeal to the ear and the imagination, using drama and beauty to inscribe the truth of God’s word upon the hearer’s heart.


I ask with Mickey Hodges, ‘Can the epic sweep and dramatic flair of the kontakion captivate today’s congregations as it did in the past?’ In the Byzantine empire, 1500 years ago, kontakia were essentially sermons in verse accompanied by music. These poetic homilies, chanted after the Gospel reading, had a refrain that the hearers could anticipate and sing back in response to each stanza, with confessional force. The prelude to Romanos’ Kontakion on the Nativity of Christ (pdf), for example, says this (the refrain is italicized):

Today the Virgin gives birth to him who is above all being,
and the earth offers a cave to him whom no one can approach.
Angels with shepherds give glory,
and magi journey with a star,
for to us there has been born
a little Child, God before the ages.

The stanzas of the kontakion’s main body are in a different metre, but each ends with the same refrain. If you read the verses, you also see that they dramatize and reflect theologically on the biblical account, engaging the congregation’s reason, imagination and affections. I think this is a tradition worth reviving for some occasions.

Of course, the Church must take care that the drama of her liturgy not elicit applause. As John Chrysostom thundered against it in his day, so now as well: speech, song and gesture should be so restrained as to exclude the possibility of applause. Nevertheless, as kontakia have been used before in an edifying way, and nothing renders them inappropriate for the present, shall we?


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