Jane G. Meyer’s Sweet Song is a sweet story about St. Romanos the Melodist.

St. Romanos lived in the sixth century, and there isn’t a lot known about him for sure. He is said to have composed over 1,000 hymns celebrating the saints and feasts of the Church. Fewer than a hundred of his works survive.

The very first hymn he wrote is one of the survivors. It’s sung in Christmas services in Orthodox churches to this very day. And Sweet Song is the story of this hymn.

Romanos was a favorite of the Patriarch. He worked hard, lighting lamps, cleaning chalices, mending vestments. And he should have sung portions of the Liturgy. There was just one problem.

Romanos couldn’t sing.

That wasn’t the only problem Romanos had, of course. There was also the fact that he had trouble reading. And then there were the people who laughed at him and mocked him because he couldn’t do what came so easily to everyone else.

On Christmas Eve, the church was packed. Both the patriarch and the emperor were there, and as many people as could be crowded in. When it was time to sing the praises, the other readers pushed Romanos out onto the ambo to sing.

And he couldn’t. Nothing came from his mouth. He fled and found a quiet hiding place, while someone else sang the praises.

The dream of St. Romanos

Later, when the church was empty, Romanos went to the icon of the Theotokos, where he cried and prayed and cried some more. Eventually, he fell asleep. And in his sleep, he dreamed.

In St. Romanos’s dream, the Theotokos came to him. She had a scroll in her hand. She touched it to his lips and told him to swallow it. He did. And then he woke up. There was still a sweet taste in his mouth.

And when he got to the church and opened his prayer book, he realized that he could read. He tested his voice, and he could sing.

And during the Liturgy on the morning of the Nativity of Christ, the patriarch blessed St. Romanos to sing a hymn honoring Christ’s birth. And this is what he sang:

Today the Virgin gives birth
To the One who transcends all
And the earth offers a cave
To the One who cannot be approached.
The angels with the shepherds
Sing His glory.
And the Wise Men
With the Star travel on their way.
For our sake a young child is born
Who is God from all eternity.

Here it is, sung by the choir of St. Mary’s Orthodox Church in Minneapolis. While we have St. Romanos’s words, we don’t have his melody. The choir at St. Mary’s uses my favorite melody for the hymn. I think you’ll love it, too.

At the back of Sweet Song, Meyer includes a page with more information about St. Romanos.

Illustrations by Dorrie Papademetriou

I knew Dorrie Papademetriou’s name from one of her earlier works, The Story of Mary, The Mother of God, which she wrote and illustrated. I love The Story of Mary (as you can read in my review) And I love her illustrations in Sweet Song, too. The illustrations fill every page from edge to edge. The colors are rich and saturated. It’s just beautiful.

Besides illustrating picture books, Papademetriou has worked in fashion, advertising, and museum curation. She’s is the founder and designer of MudGirl Studios. MudGirl Studios helps homeless and disadvantaged women learn job skills and earn supplemental incomes. Its goal is to help the women they serve transition from poverty to self-sufficiency.
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Charlotte Riggle, author of Catherine's Pascha and The Saint Nicholas Day Snow
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