Preaching is a venerable Christian practice. From Christ's not overly successful attempts to teach in the Nazareth synagogue ( Mark 6: 1-8) and Paul's speeches at Antioch or Athens ( Acts 13-17) to Pastor Niemoeller's denunciation of Nazi paganism, pulpit oratory has been an essential element in the mission of the Church. It has also been a somewhat awkward component of almost every sort of Christian liturgy. For, however eloquent St. John Chrysostom ("Golden Mouth"), St. Bernard of Clairvaux, John Wesley, or Phillips Brooks, their sermons constituted a distinct break in the sacred action. In medium, purpose, and tone, oratory -- even sacred oratory -- often has more in common with the lecture than with ritual. The term "rabbi" (teacher) in the Judaic tradition and the title "Preacher" in some evangelical Christian communities emphasize this aspect of the ministry. Sermons tend to intrude into the solemnly biblical Liturgy of the Word, not to mention the far more ritualized celebration of the Eucharist. There was, however, a magnificent exception to the overriding distinction between homily and ceremony. This book seeks to explain the historical and literary context of that anomaly and to exemplify, in English, some of the "sung sermons" which constitute that swerve in the tradition of pulpit oratory.
During the age of the Byzantine emperor Justinian the Great (527-565 C.E.), in the Eastern capital of Constantinople, there occurred a moment unique in the entire history of preaching. Inside the domed basilica of Hagia Sophia and within other churches of the imperial metropolis, the congregation listened -- and contributed -- to a most improbably exotic hybrid in the development of Christian liturgy. This new and dynamic homiletic form was the kontakion, a sermon that was sung, poetry written to be chanted from the pulpit.