Every Friday of Great Lent it’s a tradition in the Orthodox Church to chant the Akathist hymn to the Theotokos. I was about to go on and mention that the Akathist is a nine stanza hymn to the Theotokos, which is proceeded by a canon, and inserted into Small Compline. But that probably only means something to Eastern Catholics and Orthodox, so if you’re interested please read on.
When I was a lapsed Protestant visiting Orthodox services, I was a bit confused by their meaning of “service,” so perhaps it needs a word of explanation. First, what it isn’t. The way Orthodox speak of services, they aren’t simply a gathering of people singing and talking about God, even though at least the first part is usually included, and the latter often is, though not necessarily as part of the service proper. For instance, at the OCF conference we got together one evening and, among other things, people sang Christian songs and gave testimonies. That is not a service. When the church here in Tuluksak assembles to sing hymns, read from the Bible, and have someone talk about the verses, that is not, strictly speaking, a service. It’s something good and worthwhile and perhaps necessary, but not, using this meaning, a service. On the other hand, an Orthodox service *is* the reading and chanting of certain proscribed verses, psalms, etc. to and about God and the saints. We are not at liberty to change them as we wish, but new services and hymns do get written and eventually adopted – I’m not certain how. There are basic kinds of services, usually oriented around the liturgical hours – usually Matins (or Orthros), Vespers or Compline – or one of the sacraments. So, for instance, The Akathist to the Theotokos is a compline service to Mary, whereas the service of Paraklesis is a Matins service to Mary. So there are all these variations, and after a year or so of going to different kinds people just learn to recognize them. There are Small Vespers and Great Vespers and Forgiveness Sunday and Vesperal Liturgy services, and vigils that include part of Vespers. There’s normal Matins and Sunday Matins and Bridegroom Matins and Paraklesis and so on. If you have to change something, there’s a specific way to change it. Services are not the time or place for “creativity,” and isn’t much aimed at teaching or socializing either. It’s not unusual, therefore, to have a service proceeded or followed by a class or Bible study or social event.
Then, a few words. Akathist means, basically, “said standing.” That’s to say, everyone stands the entire time as a sign of respect. Theotokos means “God-bearer” – that’s the Virgin Mary. Small Compline is the evening service, after Vespers (the sunset service), and before going to bed. Usually the order would be Vespers, then dinner, then go to sleep.
So that being said, The Akathist begins in the manner of Small Compline, and after reading some Psalms, the doxology, the Creed, and other things, goes to the Akathist Canon. A canon is a kind of long chanted poem. You know how modern Christian music often has a form with verses, choruses, bridges, and one or two phrases repeated ad infinitum? Well, the form of a canon is made up of odes and refrains, like this:
Ode 1: I shall open my mouth, and the Spirit will inspire it, and I shall utter the words of my song to the Queen and Mother: I shall be seen radiantly keeping feast and joyfully praising her wonders.
Refrain: Most holy Theotokos, save us.
Beholding thee, the living book of Christ, sealed by the Spirit, the great archangel exclaimed to thee, O pure one: Rejoice, vessel of joy, through which the curse of the first mother is annulled.
Most holy Theotokos, save us.
Rejoice, Virgin bride of God, restoration of Adam and death of hell. Rejoice, all-immaculate one, palace of the King of all. Rejoice, fiery throne of the Almighty.
Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit.
Rejoice, O thou who alone hast blossomed forth the unfading Rose. Rejoice, for thou hast borne the fragrant Apple. Rejoice, Maiden unwedded, the pure fragrance of the only King, and preservation of the world.
Both now and ever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen.
Rejoice, treasure-house of purity, by which we have risen from our fall. Rejoice, sweet-smelling lily which perfumeth the faithful, fragrant incense and most precious myrrh.
Yes, you really did just read “Most Holy Theotokos, save us.” No, that wasn’t a misprint. No, I can’t explain that right now. But anyway, that’s the first of nine odes. It goes verse to the subject of the canon–>refrain–> verse to the subject of the canon–> refrain–> Glory–> verse to the Trinity–> Both Now and Ever–> Theotokion verse. And if that didn’t make sense either – people have been working on these forms for something like 1800 years, so don’t be too surprised if they’re complicated!
And then, during Lent, we chant “To Thee O Champion Leader.” In American churches there are about as many translations as there are parishes, making it somewhat difficult. In Greek, however, it always sounds like this:
And then, finally, comes the Akathist itself. It is also a kind of chanted poem. This one is the first that was ever written, but people liked the form so well they later used it for hymns to Christ, the angels, and other saints. It’s form is made up of kontakions and Ikos,’ which alternate thrice to form a stasis. A kontakion always ends with Alleluia. Each line of the Ikos always starts with “rejoice” (the archangel Gabriel’s greeting at the Annunciation), and ends with “Rejoice O Bride Unwedded.” Each stasis is read a different week of Lent, and the fifth week all the stasis’ are read with a section of the canon between each. I’m not going to get into that much further than to say that you can read the whole thing here, and it looks like this:
Seeing herself to be chaste, the holy one said boldly to Gabriel: The marvel of thy speech is difficult for my soul to accept. How canst thou speak of a birth from a seedless conception? And She cried: Alleluia!
Seeking to know knowledge that cannot be known, the Virgin cried to the ministering one: Tell me, how can a son be born from a chaste womb? Then he spake to Her in fear, only crying aloud thus:
Rejoice, initiate of God’s ineffable will:
Rejoice, assurance of those who pray in silence!
Rejoice, beginning of Christ’s miracles:
Rejoice, crown of His dogmas!
Rejoice, heavenly ladder by which God came down:
Rejoice, bridge that conveyest us from earth to Heaven!
Rejoice, wonder of angels sounded abroad:
Rejoice, wound of demons bewailed afar!
Rejoice, Thou Who ineffably gavest birth to the Light:
Rejoice, Thou Who didst reveal Thy secret to none!
Rejoice, Thou Who surpassest the knowledge of the wise:
Rejoice, Thou Who givest light to the minds of the faithful!
Rejoice, Thou Bride Unwedded!
And that, pretty much, is the Akathist hymn.