Beloved, on this evening and the four following Fridays we chant the most sublime and sweet service to our Lady, the Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary. So moving and compunctionate is this service that many faithful read this regularly, especially in times of sorrow or need.
Presented here is more information about this lovely service and its significance in our worship life.
THE AKATHIST HYMN
The Akathist Hymn is a profound, devotional poem or chant, which sings the praises of the Holy Mother of God (Theotokos). It is chanted in all Orthodox Churches throughout the world during the five Fridays in the Great Lent, and constitutes a very concrete spiritual preparation for the Holy Week and Easter Services. In Greek, each ode contains couplets beginning with Chaire, meaning Rejoice. It is for this reason that the Akathist is also called the Chairestismi in Greek, or Salutations – for it was the Archangel Gabriel that greeted our Lady with the news that she had been chosen to be the Mother of God her Saviour.
Devotional Hymns to the Theotokos are as ancient as the first Christian Church. The Byzantine Empire from its very inception at Constantinople during the fourth century, closely allied itself to the Theotokos and always sought Her protection or intercessions. This is very evident from the Prayer Services to the Theotokos between the fifth and eighth centuries, and the reference to Constantinople as the ‘Queen City’
The Akathist Hymn, which in its present form was added to by many Ecclesiastical Hymnographers, existed for most part even before it was formally accepted by the Church in 626 AD. The Kontakion “To thee the Champion Leader… “was added then, and came to be recognized as the Akathist Hymn, because of the following described miracle attributed to the intercession of the Theotokos.
While the Emperor of Byzantium Heracleios was on an expedition to fight the aggression of the Persians on their own grounds, there appeared outside the walls of Constantinople barbaric hordes, mostly Avars. The siege lasted a few months, and it was apparent that the outnumbered troops of the Queen City were reaching desperation. However as history records, the faith of the people worked the impossible. The Venerable Patriarch Sergius with the Clergy and the Official of Byzantium Vonos, endlessly marched along the great walls of Constantinople with an Icon of the Theotokos in hand, and bolstered the faith of the defenders of freedom. The miracle came soon after. Unexpectedly, as the chronicler narrates, a great storm with huge tidal waves destroyed most of the fleet of the enemy, and full retreat ensued.
The faithful of Constantinople spontaneously filled the Church of the Theotokos at Vlachernae on the Golden Horn, and with the Patriarch Sergius officiating, they prayed all night singing praises to the Theotokos without sitting. Hence the title of the Hymn “Akathistos”, in Greek meaning ‘not seated’.
The Akathist Hymn is a very important and indeed an integral part of our religious and ecclesiastical life. Spiritually speaking, when we are present during the first Friday Service, we firmly realize that we commence to ascend the spiritual steps of the lengthy Lenten period, to finally reach the peak with our Lord’s Glorious Resurrection. The service is also quite didactic, mentioning many important events in the life of the Theotokos and presenting the unfolding of God’s plan of salvation for mankind.
The Akathist Hymn was not strange to the Latin West even though apart from the Eastern Church. Pope Benedict XIV granted on May 4, 1746 an indulgence of 50 days to the Latin and Eastern Rite Roman Catholics, for each recitation of the Hymn.
Interestingly, when Fr. Vincent McNabb, a Roman Catholic Priest in London, translated the Hymn into English in 1934. In his forward remarks he stated “No apology is needed for introducing the Akathistos to the Christian West. Indeed the West might well be apologetic about its neglect, or ignorance of such a liturgical and literary masterpiece”.
In any of our Service Books we can readily see that our glorious and Ever-Virgin Theotokos is the center of many of our Orthodox Services in which prayers abound for Her interceding to Her Son, and our God, for our Salvation. The Theotokos is the most exalted and most honoured person by God. She is the most revered and most loved by humans. She is a binding force for all Christians. She is the Unique Personality of the world, because of the unique fact of the Lord’s Incarnation. She is the daughter of Grace and the Crystal Vessel of the Grace of the Holy Spirit (see Luke 1:26-56). Countless are the icons that have been written, depicting the help that she has bestowed on the faithful.
Faith in the Almighty God is primary and all important to the Holy Orthodox Church. Our dependence on God is always beyond question, and from this faith we should strive not to stray. Therefore, Services, like the Akathist Hymn, should be a must and attended by all. Moreover, this particular Service links us so beautifully with a great and glorious period of our Christian history; it is also a very live tradition, which has never ceased in the Orthodox Church since its official acceptance in 626 AD.
Living in these trying times, when we are besieged by many forces of evil, it is hoped that the Akathist Hymn as well as our other Services may become the bulwark to withstand, and indeed to overcome these forces.
The Akathist Hymn is divided into 4 main parts and covers the following events:
1. Stanzas 1 – 6
a. The Annunciation to the Theotokos.
b. The Theotokos’s purity.
c. The Theotokos’s visit to Elizabeth.
d. The doubts of Joseph the protector, and his joy upon learning of the supernatural Conception.
2. Stanzas 7 – 12
a. The shepherds hearing the Angels praising the birth of the Lord and their visit to the manger.
b. The adoration of the Magi.
c. The flight of the Holy Family to Egypt and the falling of the idols.
3. Stanzas 13 – 18
a. The new Creation which was wrought by the Incarnate Lord through the Theotokos.
b. The call for the uplifting of our minds to Heaven from where God descended.
c. The Lord’s Omnipresence, that while He came to earth, He was no less in Heaven.
d. The confounding of the philosophers and orators, who were at a loss to explain God’s condescension.
4 Stanzas 19 – 24
a. The Theotokos as a protector of all the devout, and those who choose to flee unto Her.
b. God coming as one of us, amongst us, to draw us near to Him.
c. Our inability to adequately sing the praises of God, whose mercies are countless.
d. The Lord canceling all the ancient spiritual debts, and the granting of His Grace to all. Our prayers and petitions to the Holy Mother to protect us from misfortunes and save us from the future condemnation.
Adapted from: St Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church, Dallas Texas