The Akathistos is the most beautiful hymn by which the Byzantine Church celebrates the divine motherhood of the Blessed Virgin Mary, solemnly proclaimed at the Council of Ephesus in 431 A.D. It celebrates the Virgin ‘s role in the mystery of the Incarnation. Over the years, this hymn has been adopted by the Roman Catholic Church and is nowadays considered as important as the Blessed prayer of the Holy Rosary.
The late Bishop of Gozo, Mgr Nicholas J. Cauchi translated this hymn into the Maltese language so that it would be appreciated better by local congregations. As part of the 400th Anniversary celebrations of the Holy Image of Our Lady of Ta’ Pinu that is devoutly revered in Gozo, Dr John Galea was commissioned by Rev. Fr Gerard Buhagiar, Rector of Ta’ Pinu Sanctuary to set this hymn to music, performing it during this 4th centenary year. Akathistos would therefore be concluding the Marian Year held throughout the Gozo Diocese and will be performed on the Ta Pinu Church Parvis on Sunday, 18th August 2019 at 20.30 hrs.
This new composition would be involving the participation of a number of seasoned soloists from Chorus Urbanus, a vocal quartet, as well as the full engagement of Chorus Urbanus and the Urbanus Junior Choir. These will be accompanied by an orchestral ensemble under the direction of the composer and musical director of Chorus Urbanus, Dr John Galea. The Juniors will be under the direction of Ms Maureen Zerafa.
This world premiere of John Galea’s latest work will feature soloists Yvonne Galea (s.), Ruth Portelli (s.), Antonella Rapa (s.), Hilda Grima (m.s.), Charles Buttigieg (br.), Fabian Galea (ten.), Noel Galea (b.)and Joseph Aquilina (ten.). The SATB vocal quartet features Marvic Baldacchino, Antoinette Gambin Camilleri, Joseph Camilleri and Ivan Vella. The 21-piece Orchestra will be led by David Lang, while Jamie Camilleri is producing the event. The composer Dr John Galea will be conducting the performance that is expected to be patronised by H.L. Mons. Mario Grech, Bishop of Gozo and H.L. Giovanni Cefai, Bishop of Arequipa, Peru.
But what is “Akathistos”?
The Akathistos hymn soon became a hymn of thanksgiving for Mary’s heavenly intercession and help, and was celebrated throughout the liturgical year. Finally, it was assigned as the special feature to the fifth Saturday of Lent, thus called the ‘Akathistos Saturday’.
Since the hymn was chanted while the congregation remained standing, it was named as the ‘Akathistos’, meaning a standing-up service in Greek.
In the Byzantine Rite the most popular liturgical hymns are the ‘troparion’ and the ‘kontakion’. The ‘troparion’ is usually a short poetic hymn, serving as a theme song for a given liturgical celebration.
The kontakion offers a brief explanation of the given celebration and can be considered a short sermonette in a poetic form. Today’s kontakion is only one strophe of the original lengthy poem, written on a scroll, hence its name: ‘kontakion’, a Greek word for a scroll.
At the end of the seventh century the kontakion hymnody was supplanted bv the ‘kanon’, which soon occupied a central position in the morning services, the Matins. Tradition attributes its invention to St. Andrew of Crete (d. about 740 A.D.), who is hailed by the scholars as the father of the ‘kanon’ . During the eighth century, the ‘kontakia’ were reduced to only a single introductory strophe.
The only original kontakion poem preserved in its entirety and used as a special service today is the Akathistos, the greatest literary achievement of the Byzantine Church. It combines the kontakion form of a poetic sermon of twenty-four stanzas with a series of salutations addressed to the Blessed Mother of God.
It is believed that originally the Akathistos Hymn was composed for the feast of the Annunciation, celebrated on March 25. However, the celebration on that day can be traced only to the tenth century, mentioned for the first time in the Mount Sinai documents. At some later date the celebration of the Akathistos was assigned to the fifth Saturday of Lent, called from that time the Akathistos Saturday. However no-one knows why and when this change was made.
Starting with the seventh century the original introductory stanza was replaced by the present one, “For you, Mother of God,” since the Akathistos was also celebrated as a ” thanks offering” to the Blessed Mother for her heavenly intercession and help. As the Thanksgiving Hymn to the Blessed Mother, it was celebrated after the “miraculous” deliverance of Constantinople from a siege in 626 AD., then again in 673 A.D. and 718 AD., as described by the Synaxarion for the Akathistos Saturday.
Although the Akathistos is one of the most famous liturgical hymns of the Byzantine Rite, nevertheless neither the time of its composition nor the name of its author have been definitively established. The main reason for such uncertainty is the fact that the text of the Akathistos Hymn was transmitted anonymously and later manuscripts are offering us various names. Generally it is assumed that the hymn was composed sometime near the end of the sixth century, certainly before 626 AD., and that St. Roman the Melodist is probably the author.
In the composition of his Akathistos the author was inspired by the Church Fathers, especially St. Ephraim the Syrian (d. 373), St. John Chrysostom (d. 407), and St. Proclus of Constantinople (d. 446). There is also a commanding influence of the homily ‘On the Annunciation’, attributed to Basil of Seleucia (middle of the 5th century). Of course, the Gospel narrative of St. Luke (1:26-38) served as the basis for the composition of this classic sermon in verse, celebrating the Virgin’s all important role in the mystery of the incarnation and, consequently, of our salvation.
The Akathistos is a poetic composition of 24 stanzas (Greek: oikoi), arranged to form an acrostic of the Greek alphabet with 24 letters. It is a work of genius that cannot be duplicated either in the Old Slavonic or in the English translation. The first twelve stanzas constituting the first part of the work, represent a dramatic narrative of the Nativity of our Lord, beginning with the Annunciation and ending with the flight into Egypt.
As the Archangel Gabriel greets Mary as the Mother of God, she questions him about the virginal motherhood. In a series of salutations the Archangel explains, to her, the mysterious conception by the power of the Holy Spirit, and she agrees to become the Mother of God. After her conception Mary hastened to visit Elizabeth, whose unborn child (John the Baptist) joyously salutes the Blessed Virgin as the Mother of God. A much distressed Joseph, after learning of Mary’s “conception by the Holy Spirit,” also praises God by singing Alleluia.
The nativity scene is introduced by the Angels singing and the shepherds adoring the infant Christ in the lap of Mary, all of them praising the “Mother of the Lamb and the Shepherd.” The magi who had been following the star then arrive. After worshipping the Lord in the “form of a slave,” they present Him with their gifts and extol His Mother with many praises. On their return the magi abandoned King Herod, who did not know how to sing Alleluia, but instead announced the coming of the Saviour to their people.
By His flight into Egypt our Saviour dispersed idolatry there, and the enlightened people highly praised Mary as the Mother of God. The first part of the Akathistos then ends with the 12th stanza, presenting the righteous Simeon holding the child Jesus in his arms. After recognizing Him as “perfect God,” Simeon then cries out, Alleluia!
The 13th stanza begins the second part of the hymn, in which the doctrinal explanation of the mystery of incarnation and Mary’s role in it are presented. At the incarnation of the Son of God the Angel became filled with wonder, while the people welcomed His coming with the cry, ‘Alleluia!’The virginal birth of Mary makes us praise her, ‘Rejoice, flower of immortality’. Although the great orators were unable to explain the virginal birth of Mary, the faithful accepted it as a miracle and praised the Virgin as the Mother of God, through whom “the Saviour is worshipped.”
Christ became man in order to save us, and for that reason He wishes to hear us sing Alleluia! Mary, by becoming the Mother of God, became “defence” of all those who “turn to her in prayer.” Therefore, inspired from above, we praise her, ‘Rejoice, gate of salvation!’ Even though we are not able to thank our Saviour enough for the “multitude of His mercies,” we still try to sing to Him rejoinders of Alleluia! Then, in turn, we praise the Holy Virgin, for she is the one who enlightens us and leads us to “divine knowledge.”
The next two strophes (22 and 23) emphasise the coming of Christ, our Redeemer, who came “to cancel our old debts.” He came to us through the Blessed Virgin Mary, consequently we glorify her as the “Mother of God,” and as “living temple, a tabernacle of God.”
Finally, the closing stanza is a poetic prayer to Mary, the Mother of the Word, asking her to accept this hymn as our offering and to deliver us from every disaster and punishment, as we cry out Alleluia!
By the 14th century the Akathistos Hymn became so popular that some other such hymns were composed in imitation of the original one. Thus Patriarch Isidore (d. 1349) composed an ‘Akathistos’ in honor of St. Nicholas of Myra, while Patriarch Philoteus (d. 1376) composed an ‘Akathistos’ in honor of Christ’s resurrection.
There are some Akathistos Hymns, such as those in honor of the Patronage of the Most Holy Mother of God and of the Holy Ascension of Christ, that were originally written in the Old Slavonic and thus belong to the proud heritage of the Byzantine-Slavonic Rite.