March 31, 2023

THE AKATHIST HYMN (Its Historical - Doctrinal - Symbolic Elements)

By Panagiotis S. Martinis, ThD

Among the solemn services of Great Lent is also included the Service of the Akathist Hymn, this wonderful Hymn to the Mother of God with its many historical, doctrinal and symbolic elements, which make it unparalleled from a literary point of view.

As is well known, many of the events associated with the Mother of God are related to the Queen City of Constantinople, since the Theotokos was its "Champion General" and its overseer.

In particular, the Service of the Akathist Hymn was connected to the Monastery of Blachernae, where, after the siege of the Avars and the Persians, it was chanted at every vigil of the monastery. The composition of this Hymn is attributed to the famous hymnographer of the 6th century, Romanos the Melodist, the creator of the Kontakion.

The main events that this Hymn wants to highlight are two: The Annunciation of the Theotokos and the Incarnation of the Savior. Thus, biblical, symbolic, doctrinal and encomiumistic elements are intertwined in this service. Also, in the same hymn the Service of Small Compline coexists, as well as the well-known Canon, "I shall open my mouth..." by Joseph the Hymnographer (9th century).

In more detail, the content of the Hymn, the body of which constitutes the Kontakion of Romanos, "An Angel of the first rank...", could be divided into three parts: Historical - Theological - Encomium. Of course, this division is formal and is done for methodological reasons, since historical, theological and encomiumistic elements coexist and are intertwined in the Hymn.

The historical events are based on the relevant narratives of the Gospels, which the hymnographer deepens and analyzes with his wonderful poetic talent. These elements occupy the first two oikos' of the Hymn, from the 1st oikos: "An Angel of the first rank..." to the 12th oikos: "You were presented as a babe to Symeon...". In the remaining two oikos', from the 13th oikos: "The new creation revealed the Creator...", to the 24th, "You, all-laudable Mother who gave birth to the Logos...", we have the theological (Christological - Soteriological) elements of the Hymn.

Finally, in all 24 oikos' we have abundant encomiumistic elements towards the Mother of God. The entire Akathist Hymn is a continuous encomium to the Theotokos. She is praised as the Mother of God: "Rejoice, for you are the throne. of the King; Rejoice, for you hold him who sustains everything." The Theotokos unites heaven with earth, the uncreated with the created, and this fact is highlighted in the verse: "Rejoice, heavenly ladder by which God came down; Rejoice, bridge leading those from earth to I heaven." The Theotokos is also praised as the "ship" and "harbor" for those who navigate the sea of life. "Rejoice, ship for those wishing salvation; Rejoice, harbor for life's navigators."

She is the protector of monks and those who follow the path of virginity, since she is praised as the "wall of virgins" and as "the pillar of virginity".

But there are also many doctrinal elements (Christological and Soteriological). The Mother of God remains a virgin before and after the birth, since Her Son "...sprouting up from an unseeded womb, while preserving it just as it was, unspoiled...", in order to emphasize the "ever-virginity" of the Panagia as a great doctrinal truth.

The Lord as the God-man is in heaven and on earth at the same time, since, according to the hymnographer, "Present below completely but in no way absent from on high was the uncircumscribable Logos."

The Lord came into the world as a savior. The Lord himself teaches this truth: "I did not come to judge, but to save the world" (Jn. 15:47). This truth is emphasized by the hymnographer in the next verse as well: "Wishing to grant pardon for ancient debts, he who cancels the debts of all people came himself and dwelt among those who were estranged from his divine grace; and tearing apart the record of sin, he hears from everyone: Alleluia."

And this most beautiful Hymn closes with a laudatory outburst by the poet, which brings together all the encomiums to the Theotokos and reveals their deepest meaning to the "Champion General": "You, all-laudable Mother who gave birth to the Logos, the holiest of all who are holy...."

The Mother of God, as she who "gave birth to the Logos", contributed decisively to the mystery of the divine economy, which aimed at the redemption and salvation of the world from the fall and corruption, in the victory over death. And all the above elements, biblical, doctrinal and symbolic, are also included in the Canon, which is chanted in the Service of the Akathist Hymn.

Indicatively, we will refer to some biblical elements, especially symbolic ones, that the hymnographer of the Canon has borrowed from the Old Testament.

In the 2nd troparion of the 4th ode, is chanted: "From you has dripped the refreshing dew that quenched the flame of idolatry. We therefore cry aloud to you: Rejoice, O Virgin, fleece cover with dew which Gideon foresaw."
The Virgin, according to the hymnographer, is the fleece covered with dew, i.e. Christ, that was distilled.

The symbolism is based on the book of Judges from the Old Testament (6:37-38), when the Judge Gideon asked God to assure him that He would be with him in a difficult mission that He sent him.

Then we come to the 7th ode which begins: "The godly-minded did not adore creation but the Creator, and bravely trampling upon the threat of the fire they rejoiced chanting...." They are the well-known three children who were cast into the furnace of fire, but "they sang joyfully", since, as the verse of the 8th ode adds, "they were rescued by the offspring of the Theotokos". This is the event described to us by the prophet Daniel, in the book of the Old Testament which bears his name (3:1-23), which we hear on the morning of Holy Saturday in the Matins of the Divine Liturgy.

And we find a third symbolism in the 2nd troparion of the 8th ode. "The great mystery of your childbirth did Moses perceive within the burning bush," chants the psalmist. Thus, it takes us to the book of Exodus (3:1-2), when Moses was tending the sheep and "the Angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire from the midst of a bush. So he looked, and behold, the bush was burning with fire, but the bush was not consumed." In this event the poet of the hymn sees "the great mystery" of the "offspring of the Theotokos." It is, according to the fathers, the "offspring" of the Theotokos, which, like the bush burns with fire and is not consumed, so the Theotokos remained incorruptible, ever-virgin, before and after the birth of Her Son.

The Akathist Hymn influenced many hymnographers, who wrote similar hymns, just as it inspired many fathers to write sermons with similar content. It is worth quoting a passage from the 7th homily of Saint Photios for the Annunciation of the Theotokos. He writes: "Rejoice, therefore do I cry out with great striving and desire, both with my mind and my tongue, O Virgin, refuge of my weakness and indigence. Rejoice, you who are full of grace, through whom what had been diseased is strengthened, and what had been crushed is recreated, and the devil who strikes with the heel and is  the cause of our crushing is slain, suppressed and trampled down. Rejoice, you who are full of grace, through whom the bitter verdict against our kind is wiped off by the sweetness of thy tidings, and putting off the ugliness of transgression, we are crowned with the beauty of the divine advent that is from thee ... Rejoice, you who are full of grace, workshop of the world's joy, in which the condemnation of the first curse has been melted down, and the dignity of joy through thee has been forged."

Along with the Akathist Hymn, during the period of Great Lent, many other solemn services are celebrated with hymns to the Theotokos.

"All those do you shelter, O Good One, those who in their faith flee unto you, with your strong hand, you protect...", the believer whispers at the end of the Solemn Vespers.

"Spotless, undefiled, immaculate, unstained, pure Virgin, Lady, and Bride of God...", prays the person praying at the end of the Small and Great Compline.

Also, in the most theological Great Canon of Saint Andrew of Crete, which is chanted on Wednesday of the 5th week of Lent, of the 250 troparia it contains, a large part of them, the well-known "Theotokia" refer to the Panagia.

Finally, in the Triodion hymns of Holy Week, in the lamentations of Great Friday and in the cross-resurrection Canon "The waves of the sea...", the Panagia is praised as the central figure after her Son, for her participation in the mystery of the Divine Economy.

Being the center of the Akathist Hymn, but also other liturgical services which also praise the Theotokos, the "Champion General", let us address to her the last prayer of Compline: "All my hope is in you, Mother of God, keep me under your protection."

Source: Translated by John Sanidopoulos.

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