A Hymn to Stand For

by the Rev. Romanos V. Russo

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It was 25 March, the feast of the Annunciation, the day the church commemorates the Archangel Gabriel’s sudden visit to a village girl, his greeting “Hail Mary” and her cautious consent to become the Theotokos, the Mother of God.

In the great Roman church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, the primary church of the worldwide Dominican community, Pope John Paul II, numerous cardinals, hierarchs and a great number of priests, religious and faithful gathered in prayer.

In terms of popular piety, one equates the Dominicans with the rosary. What better way to honor this feast day than by reciting the rosary? But there was to be no rosary this day. The pope, clergy and laity of the universal church had gathered to pray the beautiful service in honor of the Mother of God, the Akathist hymn.

That the Akathist, an office from the Byzantine tradition honoring the Virgin Mary, was chosen to hallow so solemn an occasion should come as no surprise. For years the pope has been urging the church to breathe once again with both lungs, Eastern and Western.

For at least a millennium, the West’s Latin (Roman) Catholics considered themselves the universal church without taking into account the Orthodox tradition of the East. The various attempts at union, now accepted by all as ultimately unsuccessful, have resulted in the presence of a dozen Eastern churches in communion with the pope. These Eastern churches constitute the person of the absent brother, the Orthodox, with whom we are in, though not yet perfect, communion.

For more than two and a half hours, this 13th-century church would echo with the most sublime paean in honor of the Virgin. The Akathist is both a prayer and a poem; a hymn that’s theme would remind Latin Catholics of the joyful mysteries of the rosary.

The core of the service is the kontakion. The genre is taken from the word for scroll. It takes the form of a meditation on a scriptural theme or the event commemorated by the feast day, here, the Annunciation.

The Akathist consists of 24 strophes or stanzas, which correspond to each letter of the Greek alphabet. Each strophe begins with a word that parallels, in sequence, a letter of the Greek alphabet.

According to tradition, the hymn was composed by St. Romanos, the great sixth-century Byzantine hymnographer. However one of the poem’s two preambles used throughout the Lenten season as a hymn to the Theotokos refers to the deliverance of the Byzantine capital of Constantinople from the Persians – a century after St. Romanos’s death.

Some scholars have concluded that the poem’s author was not St. Romanos. But learned consensus seems now prepared to accept the saint’s authorship without the famous Ti Ipermakho preamble – as close as one can get to a Byzantine national anthem:

Triumphant Leader, to you belongs
our prize of victory!
And since you saved us from adversity
we offer you our thanks:
We are your people, 0 Theotokos!
So, as you have that invincible power,
continue to deliver us from danger,
That we may cry out to you:
“Hail, 0 Virgin and Bride ever pure!”

The authentic preamble refers to Gabriel’s reaction to the Son of God’s kenosis or self-emptying as he assumes the form of a servant in the Virgin’s womb:

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