The Akathistos is the most beautiful hymn by which the Byzantine Church celebrates the divine motherhood of the Blessed Virgin Mary, solemnly proclaimed at the Council of Ephesus in 431 A.D. (cf. Byzantine Leaflet Series 1983, No. 27). It celebrates the Virgin ‘s role in the mystery of the Incarnation.
The hymn soon became a hymn of thanksgiving for Mary’s heavenly intercession and help, and was celebrated throughout the liturgical year. Finally, it was assigned as the special feature to the fifth Saturday of Lent, thus called the Akathistos Saturday.
Since the hymn was chanted while the congregation remained standing, it was named the Akathistos, meaning in Greek a non-sitting service.
1. In the Byzantine Rite the most popular liturgical hymns are the troparion and the kontakion. The troparion is usually a short poetic hymn, serving as a theme song for a given liturgical celebration.
The kontakion offers a brief explanation of the given celebration and can be considered a short sermonette in a poetic form. Today’s kontakion is only one strophe of the original lengthy poem, written on a scroll, hence its name: kontakion, a Greek word for a scroll.
The original kontakion consisted of twenty to thirty stanzas or strophes, all metrically identical, so that each strophe might be chanted to the same melody. Usually the soloist was chanting individual stanzas, while the people responded to each stanza with a certain refrain. The kontakion form of hymnody became popular at the turn of the fifth century and was chanted after the reading of the Gospel at the Matins (cf. Byzantine Leaflet Series 1984, No. 31) with the intention to inspire and instruct the congregation.
The father of the kontakion form of hymnody is generally acknowledged to be St. Roman the Melodist (d. about 560 A.D.), who came to Constantinople as a deacon from Syria at the beginning of the sixth century. We are not sure how many kontakia were composed by St. Roman, but there must have been hundreds of them. Only eighty-five kontakia have survived. All of our kontakia for the major feastdays, except those for Dormition and the Transfiguration, were written by St. Roman the Melodist, who is generally considered as the “greatest religious poet of all times.”
2. At the end of the seventh century the kontakion hymnody was supplanted bv the kanon, which soon occupied a central position iOn the morning services, the Matins. Tradition attributes its invention to St. Andrew of Crete (d. about 740 A.D.), who is hailed by the scholars as the father of the kanon (cf. Byzantine Leaflet Series 1982, No. 24). During the eighth century, the kontakia were reduced to only a single introductory strophe.
The only original kontakion poem preserved in its entirety and used as a special service today is the Akathistos, the greatest literary achievement of the Byzantine Church. It combines the kontakion form of a poetic sermon of twenty-four stanzas with a series of salutations addressed to the Blessed Mother of God.
It is believed that originally the Akathistos Hymn was composed for the feast of the Annunciation, celebrated on March 25. However, the celebration of Akathistos on that day can be traced only to the tenth century, mentioned for the first time in the Mount Sinai Kontakarion. At some later date the celebration of the Akathistos was assigned to the fifth Saturday of Lent, called from that time the Akathistos Saturday. Why and when this change was made, we just don’t know.
Starting with the seventh century the original introductory stanza was replaced by the present one, “For you, 0 Mother of God,” since the Akathistos was also celebrated as a ” thanks offering” to the Blessed Mother for her heavenly intercession and help. As the Thanksgiving Hymn to the Blessed Mother, it was celebrated after the “miraculous” deliverance of Constantinople from a siege in 626 AD., then again in 673 A.D. and 718 AD., as described by the Synaxarion for the Akathistos Saturday.
3. Although the Akathistos is one of the most famous liturgical hymns of the Byzantine Rite, nevertheless neither the time of its composition nor the name of its author have been definitively established.
The main reason for such uncertainty is the fact that the text of the Akathistos Hymn was transmitted anonymously and later manuscripts are offering us various names. Generally it is assumed that the hymn was composed sometime near the end of the sixth century, certainly before 626 AD., and that St. Roman the Melodist is probably the author. The noted scholar in the field, Professor E. Wellesz, concludes:
“None of the contemporary melodists was equal to Romanos in power of expression, poetical vision, boldness of similes, and perfect harmony of line. And in no other hymn does his greatness shine more brightly than in the Akathistos” (ct. E. Wellesz, The Akathistos Hymn, Copenhagen, 1957, p. XXXII).
In the composition of his Akathistos the author was inspired by the Church Fathers, especially St. Ephraem the Syrian (d. 373), St. John Chrysostom (d. 407), and St. Proclus (d. 446). There is also a commanding influence ofthe homily On the Annunciation, ascribed to Basil of Seleucia (middle of the 5th century). Of course, the Gospel narrative of St. Luke (1:26-38) served as the basis for the composition of this classic sermon in verse, celebrating the Virgin’s all important role in the mystery of the incarnation and, consequently, of our salvation.
4. The Akathistos Hymn is a poetic composition of 24 stanzas (Greek: oikoi), arranged to form an acrostic ofthe Greek alphabet with 24 letters. It is a work of genius that cannot be duplicated either in the Old Slavonic or in the English translation. The first twelve stanzas constituting the first part of the Akathistos, represent a dramatic narrative of the Nativity of our Lord, beginning with the annunciation and ending with the flight into Egypt.
As the Archangel Gabriel greets Mary as the Mother of God, she questions him about the virginal motherhood. In a series of salutations the Archangel explains, to her, her mysterious conception by the power of the Holy Spirit, and she agrees to become the Mother of God. After her conception Mary hastened to visit Elizabeth, whose unborn child (John the Baptist) joyously salutes the Blessed Virgin as the Mother of God. Distressed Joseph, after learning of Mary’s “conception by the Holy Spirit,” praises God by singing Alleluia.
The nativity scene is introduced by the Angels singing and the shepherds adoring the infant Christ in the lap of Mary, all of them praising the “Mother of the Lamb and the Shepherd.” The magi who had been following the star then arrive. After worshipping the Lord in the “form of a slave,” they present Him with their gifts and extol His Mother with many praises. On their return the magi abandoned King Herod, who did not know how to sing Alleluia, but instead announced the coming ofthe Savior to their people.
By His flight into Egypt our Savior dispersed idolatry there, and the enlightened people highly praised Mary as the Mother of God. The first part of the Akathistos then ends with the 12th stanza, presenting the righteous Simeon holding the child Jesus in his arms. After recognizing Him as “perfect God,” Simeon then cries out, Alleluia!
5. The 13th stanza begins the second part of the hymn, in which the doctrinal explanation of the mystery of incarnation and Mary’s role in it are presented.
At the incarnation of the Son of God the Angel became filled with wonder, while the people welcomed His coming with the cry,Alleluia!The virginal birth of Mary makes us praise her, Rejoice, flower of immortality. Although the great orators were unable to explain the virginal birth of Mary, the faithful accepted it as a miracle and praised the Virgin as the Mother of God, through whom “the Savior is worshipped.”
Christ became man in order to save us, and for that reason He wishes to hear us sing Alleluia! Mary, by becoming the Mother of God, became “defense” of all those who “turn to her in prayer.” Therefore, inspired from above, we praise her, Rejoice, gate of salvation! Even though we are not able to thank our Savior enough for the “multitude of His mercies,” we still try to sing to Him in faith Alleluia! Then, in turn, we praise the Holy Virgin for she enlightens us and leads us to “divine knowledge.”
The next two strophes (22 and 23) emphasize the coming of Christ as our Redeemer, “to cancel our old debts.” He came to us through the Blessed Virgin Mary, consequently we glorify her as the “Mother of God,” and as “living temple, a tabernacle of God.”
Finally, the closing stanza (see Back Cover) is a poetic prayer to Mary, the Mother of the Word, asking herto accept this hymn as our offering and to deliver us from every disaster and punishment, as we cry out Alleluia!
6. By the 14th century the Akathistos Hymn became so popular that some other such hymns were composed in imitation ofthe original one. Thus Patriarch Isidore (d. 1349) composed an Akathistos in honor of St. Nicholas of Myra, while Patriarch Philoteus (d. 1376) composed an Akathistos in honor of Christ’s resurrection.
There are some Akathistos Hymns, such as those in honor of the Patronage of the Most Holy Mother of God and of the Holy Ascension of Christ, that were originally written in the Old Slavonic and thus belong to the proud heritage of the Byzantine-Slavonic Rite.
All ofthese Akathistos services are collected in the book The Akathistos Book, in Old Slavonic, Akafisnik. The Zhovkva edition of 1905 contains 23 various Akathistos, Services in honor of Jesus, the Blessed Mother, and the Saints. This great variety of the Akathistos Hymns proves how popular they had become during the later centuries.