New York.- By Vicki James Yiannias
Photos: Dimitrios Panagos
The Akathist Hymn (Ακάθιστος Ήμνος) beseeching the Virgin Mary, Protector of the Great City of Constantinople, was written during one of the many sieges of the City. The prelude hymn to the Akathist, Τή Υπερμάχoi Στρατηγo (Unto the Defender General), addresses the Theotokos as the savior of Constantinople in the siege of 626. On Friday, March 6, the recitation of this poetic work in Orthodox Christian churches pierced through the mist of the intervening centuries back to the 6th century, invoking faith in the Theotokos to save today’s world besieged by a pandemic virus and other crises of survival.
In New York, His Eminence Archbishop Elpidophoros and Father John Vlachos, Dean of the Archdiocesan Cathedral of the Holy Trinity conducted the first part of the 6th century Akathist Hymn to the Theotokos, the ”Salutations to the Theotokos” service (Χαιρετισμοί).
The name Akathist derives from the fact that during the chanting of the hymn the congregation is expected to remain standing in reverence, without sitting down. This hymn is split into four parts and sung at the Χαιρετισμοί, ”Salutations to the Theotokos” service on the first four Friday evenings in Great Lent: the entire Akathist is then sung on the fifth Friday evening. Traditionally, it is included in the Orthros of the Fifth Saturday of Great Lent, which for this reason is known as the “Saturday of the Akathist.”
The Akathist is divided into four sections corresponding to the themes of the Annunciation, the Nativity, Christ, and the Theotokos herself. The hymn itself forms an alphabetical acrostic—that is, each oikos begins with a letter of the Greek alphabet, in order—and it consists of twelve long and twelve short oikoi. Each of the long oikoi includes a seven-line stanza followed by six couplets employing rhyme, assonance and alliteration, beginning with the greeting Χαιρε, and in the words of Re. Nikon D. Patrinacos, “ending with the famous, almost untranslatable in any language refrain,” Χαιρε, νυμφη ανυμφεφτε (“Hail, thou Bride unwedded!”). In the short oikoi, the seven-line stanza is followed by the refrain, Alleluia.
The Akathist had also the political function to celebrate military victories, or to ask during wars for divine protection intermediated by prayers of the Theotokos. The origin of the feast is assigned by the Synaxarion to the year 626, when Constantinople, in the reign of Heraclius, was attacked by the Persians and Avars but saved through the intervention of the Most Holy Theotokos: A sudden hurricane dispersed the fleet of the enemy, casting the vessels on the shore near the Great church of the Theotokos at Blachernae, a quarter of Constantinople inside the Golden Horn. The people spent the whole night, says the account, thanking her for the unexpected deliverance. “From that time, therefore, the Church, in memory of so great and so divine a miracle, desired this day to be a feast in honor of the Mother of God … and called it Acathistus” (Synaxarion). This origin is disputed by Sophocles (Greek Lexicon of the Roman and Byzantine Periods, s. v.) on the ground that the hymn could not have been composed in one day, while on the other hand its twenty-four oikoi contain no allusion to such an event and therefore could scarcely have been originally composed to commemorate it. Perhaps the kontakion, which might seem to be allusive, was originally composed for the celebration on the night of the victory. However the feast may have originated, the Synaxarion commemorates two other victories, under Leo III the Isaurian, and Constantine Pogonatus, similarly ascribed to the intervention of the Theotokos.
Icons of the Akathist Hymn appear in monastery refectories and in churches. They are most common in Greece as part of the design of Late Byzantine churches. The Akathist Hymn cycle is a series of scenes, there are 24 stanzas and each stanza starts a series of verses; each icon shows a separate scene in the verses. In churches, the icons usually appear in the narthex, sometimes starting at one end and going clockwise, with the whole cycle of verses arranged to read from left to right.
The Icon of the Theotokos “Of the Akathist” is on the iconostasis of Hilandar Monastery on Mt. Athos. In 1837 a fire occurred at this monastery, and the monks were chanting the Akathist Hymn in front of this icon. Though the fire caused great destruction around it, the icon itself remained untouched by the flames.