The Akathist Hymn is a profound, devotional poem or chant, which sings the praises of the Holy Mother and Ever-Virgin Mary (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.
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 Virgin Mary and always sort Her protection or intercessions. This we see 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 the Invincible Champion… we ascribe the victory” 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 Virgin Mary 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. 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 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.
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 Virgin Mary 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).
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. Moveover, 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.