HYMN OF THE "AKATHISTOS"
2. The Celebrants. His Holiness Pope John Paul II will preside at the
celebration in the Basilica of Saint Mary Major in Rome, together with
representatives of various Byzantine Catholic Churches. On other occasions, the
Holy Father has either expressed a desire for the Akathistos Hymn to be chanted
or has presided at the chant himself: in 1981, to commemorate the anniversaries
of the First Council of Constantinople (381) and the Council of Ephesus (431);
and during the Marian Year 1987-1988, as a means of highlighting the Solemnity
of the Annunciation on 25 March.
3. The ritual. The approaching feast of Christmas is the heartof what the Great
Jubilee commemorates. The Jubilee commemoration of the Birth of Jesus Christ
confers special significance on this celebration of the Akathistos Hymn. Indeed,
'the joy of the Jubilee would not be complete if our gaze did not turn to her
who in full obedience to the Father gave birth to the Son of God in the flesh
for our sake. For Mary 'the time to give birth' came to pass in Bethlehem (Lk
2:6), and filled with the Spirit she brought forth the first 'born of the new
creation' (John Paul II, Incarnationis Mysterium, 14). The Akathistos
Hymn is the ideal patristic and liturgical text for celebrating the Mother of
God in the mystery of Christ and the Church as Christmas approaches.
4. The celebration. In the Byzantine liturgy from which it is taken, the Akathistos was originally celebrated on the fifth Saturday of Lent, which was therefore called "Saturday of the Akathistos": and this not only because of its proximity to the feast of the Annunciation, in which a passage from the Akathistos still appears, but also because this Hymn, a matchless gem of Marian theology and spirituality, links the mystery of Christmas to the mystery of Easter, the birth of the Word made flesh to the Passover of his Death and Resurrection and our rebirth through the sacraments of regeneration, the motherhood of Mary at Bethlehem to her maternal presence at the baptismal font. Today's celebration underlines the fundamental character of the Hymn: its articulation of the entire Christmas cycle, which makes it 'a far' reaching remembrance of the divine motherhood, virginal and salvific, of the one whose 'spotless virginity gave the Saviour to the world' ' (Paul VI, Marialis Cultus, 5).
The celebration comprises many elements. All are centred on the Akathistos Hymn itself, set in a broader context of prayer which, as in other Byzantine celebrations, includes litanies, the Trisagion, the Our Father, troparia, psalms and psalmodic verses.
A place of honour is given to the 'poetical canon' of Joseph the Hymnodist ( 886), composed precisely for the celebration of the Akathistos, as a framework to give it greater lustre. Like most poetic canons, it consists of nine odes inspired by the nine biblical canticles from the Byzantine Morning Office (the second ode is omitted, being reserved to penitential seasons). The canon of Joseph is inspired by the themes of the Akathistos, but re-reads them in a different devotional setting, more laudatory and symbolic in temper.
5. The Akathistos Hymn. It is fitting to give a fuller introduction to the Hymn itself, for it is the heart of the celebration and as it were a declaration of the Marian doctrine and piety of the Churches of the Byzantine Rite. Besides celebrating it on the fifth Saturday of Lent and singing a section of it on the four preceding Saturdays, monks, priests and faithful recite the Hymn on many other occasions, even every day, because they have an instinctive sense of its beauty and depth of meaning. Almost all Byzantine monasteries and churches contain painted scenes from the Akathistos on the walls oftheir sacred buildings, on vestments, on liturgical furnishings, or surrounding the most celebrated icons.
Name. Akathistos is the title by which this fifth century Byzantine Hymn is universally known. It was and still is the model for the composition of many other hymns and litanies, both ancient and more recent. Akathistos is not the original title, but a rubric:'a-kathistos' in Greek means 'not-seated', because the Church stipulates that it be sung or recited 'standing', as when the Gospel is read, as a sign of reverence for the Mother of God.
Structure. The metric and syllabic structure of the Akathistos is inspired by the description of the heavenly Jerusalem in Chapter 21 of the Book of Revelation, from which it draws images and numbers: it sings of Mary in her identification with the Church, the 'Bride' with no earthly spouse, the Virgin Bride of the Lamb, in all her splendour and perfection.
The Hymn comprises 24 stanzas (in Greek oikoi), which is the number of letters
in the Greek alphabet, and the whole is structured according to the alphabet,
each stanza beginning with the succeeding letter. But it was skilfully planned
in two distinct parts, on the two closely related and superimposed planes of
history and faith, and according to the two interwoven and complementary
perspectives of Christology and ecclesiology, which envelop and illumine the
mystery of the Mother of God. Each of the Hymn's two parts is in turn very
subtly subdivided into two sections of 6 stanzas: this subdivision is clearly
presented in today's liturgical celebration. Yet the Hymn unfolds in a binary
mode, in such a way that each odd-numbered stanza finds its metrical and
conceptual equivalent in the even stanza which follows. The odd stanzas are
amplified by 12 Marian salutations, gathered around their narrative or dogmatic
centre, and they finish with the ephymnion or closing refrain: 'Hail, Bride
unwedded!' By contrast, the even stanzas, after announcing the theme, which is
almost always Christological in background, ends with the acclamation to Christ:
'Alleluia!' Thus the Hymn is both Christological and Marian, with the Mother
subordinate to the Son and the maternal mission of Mary subordinate to the
universal saving work of the one Saviour.
It sets forth in song the mystery of the Incarnation (stanzas 1-4), the outpouring of grace upon Elizabeth and John (stanza 5), the revelation to Joseph (stanza 6), the adoration of the shepherds (stanza 7), the arrival and adoration of the Magi (stanzas 8-10), the flight into Egypt (stanza 11), the meeting with Simeon (stanza 12). These are events which transcend the historical facts and become a symbolic reading of grace poured out, of the creature receiving grace, of the shepherds proclaiming the Gospel, of those from distant lands who come to faith, of the People of God which, rising from the baptismal font, goes forth on its light-filled way towards the Promised Land and comes to a profound knowledge of Christ.
The second part (stanzas 13-24) sets forth and sings of what the Church at the time of Ephesus and Chalcedon professed concerning Mary, within the context of the mystery of her Son the Saviour and of the Church which gathers all who are saved.
Mary is the new Eve, a virgin in both body and soul, who by the fruit of her womb leads mortals back to Paradise lost (stanza 13); she is the Mother of God who, in becoming the seat and throne of the Infinite One, opens the gate of heaven and leads us humans through (stanza 15); she is the Virgin who gives birth and reminds us to bow down before the mystery of the divine birth and to draw light from faith (stanza 17); she is the ever-Virgin, the dawn of the virginity of the Church consecrated to Christ, the Church's unfailing ward and loving protector (stanza 19); she is the Mother of the Easter sacraments, which purify and divinize us and feed us with heavenly food (stanza 21); she is the Holy Ark and the living Temple of God, who goes before and watches over the Church and the faithful on their pilgrim way towards the final Easter (stanza 23); she is the Advocate of mercy on the last day (stanza 24).
Theological value. The Akathistos is a truly inspired composition of immense importance:
- because of its sense of salvation history, embracing the entire plan of God for creation and for creatures, from the origins to the very end, towards the fullness which will be theirs in Christ;
- because of its pure sources: the word of God in the Old and New Testaments, always present either explicitly or implicitly; the doctrine defined by the Councils of Nicaea (325), Ephesus (431) and Chalcedon (451), from which it draws directly; the doctrinal treatises of the greatest of the Eastern Fathers of the fourth and fifth centuries, from whom it takes concepts and lapidary formulations;
- because of its knowing mystagogical approach, by means of which - adopting the most eloquent imagery from creation and Scripture - it raises the mind step by step and brings it to the threshold of the mystery contemplated and celebrated: the mystery of the Incarnate Word and Saviour, the mystery which, as the Second Vatican Council affirms, indicates in Mary the 'place' where the principal elements of the faith converge and echo forth to the world (cf. Lumen Gentium, 65).
Author. Almost the entire manuscript tradition considers the Akathistos Hymn to be the work of an anonymous author. The Latin translation edited by Bishop Christopher of Venice, around the year 800, which had a great influence on the piety of the mediaeval West, bears the name of Germanus of Constantinople ( 733). Today however scholars tend to attribute its composition to one of the Fathers of Chalcedon: as such, this venerable text would be the mature fruit of the most ancient tradition of the undivided Church of the first centuries. In this year of the Great Jubilee, therefore, it deserves to be taken up and sung by every Church and Ecclesial Community.
The Hymn is anonymous: and rightly so, for thus it belongs to everyone, because it belongs to the Church.