The Akathist Hymn (To the Theotokos)
In many dioceses, the first 5 Fridays of Lent are marked by the singing of the Akathist Hymn to the Theotokos. Since the hymn is so beautiful and rich, the church in her wisdom divides the service into 4 parts for the first 4 Fridays and then is chanted in its entirety on the 5th Friday.
An akathist is simply a set of stanzas which praise, honor and offer reflections and theology on the topic of that particular akathist. This website has a moderately extensive compilation of a variety of akathists and cannons alike. They may be prayed alone, after the Trisagion prayers or after the doxology in small compline, or the Creed in Great Compline. Akathists are written in chronological order and sometimes are acrostic, that is, each stanza begins with each letter of the alphabet of origin, in order.
The Akathist Hymn to the Theotokos (which will be hereon referenced simply as “Akathist”) holds a particular place of gratitude and honor for the Orthodox church due to the following story in Byzantium,
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 Virgin Mary without sitting. Hence the title of the Hymn “Akathistos”, in Greek meaning ‘not seated’.
During the Akathist we indeed hear the hymn,
To thee, the Champion Leader, we thy flock dedicate a feast of victory and of thanksgiving, as ones rescued out of sufferings, O Theotokos. But as thou art one with might which is invincible, from all dangers that can be do thou deliver us, that we may cry to thee: Rejoice, thou bride unwedded.
The hymn provides a marvelous way of focusing on the Lenten Season, albeit not technically a “Lenten” service.
The Narrative Stanzas
Stanzas 1-11 describe the Angel Gabriel’s amazement at the Virgin Mary, Elizabeth’s joy and Joseph’s confusion and later comprehension of the coming Incarnation of the Lord, the flight into Egypt and Simeon beholding Jesus.
The Doctrinal Stanzas
The second part of the Akathist describes the Virginal birth of Christ and Mary’s Divine Motherhood, the Angels amazement of God becoming human flesh, and lastly that all of our hymns are incapable of expressing Mary’s greatness. It is a beautiful statement and affirmation of our belief in the incarnation and who Jesus is. Without this understanding we cannot fully grasp the meaning of Christ’s death and Resurrection.
At the very end of the service we chant the hymn,
Awed by the beauty of your virginity, and the exceeding splendor of your purity, Gabriel stood amazed and cried to you, O Theotokos: What hymn of praise shall I offer to you? What name shall I call you by? I am lost and bewildered. And so as I was commanded I cry to you:rejoice, O you who are full of grace!
The service is so very rich in theology and imagry of the Theotokos, it truly serves as a learning opportunity every time we are called to worship with this service.