On Wednesday 23 December 2020 at the Holy Cross Capuchin Church of Floriana, in Malta, precisely at 6.00 pm, the Akathist was sung. The fifth century hymn, so theologically, spiritually and poetically profound, is one song of praise made up of many praises which are dedicated to the Holy Mother and Ever-Virgin Mary (Theototoks). It was sung during this time as a tangible spiritual preparation for the solemnity of Christmas. The service was beautifully presided by Papas Archimandrite George Mifsud Montanaro, Parish Priest of the Greek Catholic Church in Valletta and Papas Martin Zammit.
Historically speaking, the Akathist, or the prayer that is sung standing, is intimately linked with the Byzantine Empire. In fact, the Byzantines used to sing this hymn to the Virgin Mary because in her they always sought and experienced Her protection and powerful intercession. In the introduction to the Akathist the reference to the “Queen City” is, obviously, to the imperial city of Constantinople with the Mother of God as its divine protectress.
The text is centred around the person of Mary within the salvation history. It is divided into four main parts. From stanzas 1-6 we have the recounting of the annunciation of the Virgin Mary, her purity, her visit to Elizabeth, the doubts of Joseph the protector and his joy upon learning of the supernatural Conception. In the second part, precisely from stanzas 7-12, we encounter the shepherds hearing the Angels praising the birth of the Lord and their visit to the manger, the adoration of the Magi and the flight of the Holy Family to Egypt and the falling of the idols. In the third part of the Akathist, from stanzas 13-18, we find the new Creation which was wrought by the Incarnate Lord through the Theotokos, the call for the uplifting of our minds to Heaven from where God descended, the Lord’s Omnipresence, that while He came to earth, He was no less in Heaven and the confounding of the philosophers and orators, who were at a loss to explain God’s condescension. In the fourth and conclusive part of the Akathist, from stanzas 19-24, the Virgin Mary is the Theotokos as a protector of all the devout, and those who choose to flee unto Her, God coming as one of us, amongst us, to draw us near to Him; Our inability to adequately sing the praises of God, whose mercies are countless and the Lord cancelling all the ancient spiritual debts, and the granting of His Grace to all. Our prayers and petitions to the Holy Mother to protect us from misfortunes and save us from the future condemnation.
The air of the Akathist is certainly a festive one. Throughout the whole akathist hymn the most widely used word is Rejoice. But why is it so? I personally find the answer given by Hieromonk Job (Gumerov) very instructive. He said:
“The word ‘rejoice’ pronounced repeatedly is taken from the Gospels. This is how the Archangel Gabriel greeted the Mother of God when he brought her the annunciation of the Messiah Who would be born of Her: Rejoice, Thou who are full of grace! The Lord is with Thee. Blessed art Thou among women (Lk. 1:28). In Akastists written to saints, which were composed according to the example of this first Akathist, the call, ‘rejoice’ is also present. The Gospels also give a basis for this. Through their labors of faith and life, the saints were made worthy of the reward about which the Savior speaks in His beatitudes: Rejoice and be glad, for great is your reward in the heavens (Mt. 5:12).”
Let us now appreciate some of the Akathist’s high mariology that it certainly contains thanks to its theologically and spiritually rich invocations to the Mother of God. Our Lady is hailed as the Redemption of the tears of Eve; Womb of divine Incarnation; Pinnacle of His commandments; Bridge leading those from earth to Heaven; Miracle, much marveled of Angels; trauma, much dirged of demons; knowledge superceding the wise; enlightener of the minds of the faithful; branch of the unwithering Vine; Land yielding the untainted Fruit; Husbandry of the merciful Husbandman; birthgiver to the Planter of our life; Field bearing abundant compassion; Table laden with an abundance of mercies; acceptable Incense of intercession; Oblation for all the world; Favour of God to mortals; Access of mortals to God; Mother of the Lamb and Shepherd; Fold of the rational sheep; Defense against invisible foes; Opener of the gates of Paradise; firm Support of the Faith; Tabernacle of God the Word; never-silent Voice of the Apostles; never-conquered Courage of the Martyrs; shining Token of grace; Mother of the never-setting Star; Dawn of the mystic Day; Guide of the faithful to chastity; Delight of all generations; Uplifting of men; Downfall of demons; Sea which drowned the symbolic Pharoah; Rock which refreshed those thirsting for life; Pillar of fire, guiding those in darkness; Protection of the world, more spacious than a cloud; Nourishment, successor to manna; Minister of holy joy; Land of promise; Flower of incorruption; Crown of self-restraint; O shining Token of Resurrection; Tree of delectable Fruit that nourishes the faithful; well-shaded Tree under which many find shelter; Intercession before the righteous Judge; Forgiveness for many transgressors; Robe of confidence for those bare of courage; Tenderness conquering all desire.
If Mary is all of this and much, and much more, how can we skip the daily Rosary? How can we not start our days with our consecration to Her Immaculate Heart? How can we not invoke her in every moment of our lives, particularly in our trials?
In his book My Life in Christ, St John of Kronstadt writes: “When you are about to pray to our Lady the Holy Virgin, be firmly assured, before praying, that you will not depart from her without having received mercy. To think thus and to have confidence in her is meet and right. She is, the All-Merciful Mother of the All-Merciful God, the Word, and her mercies, incalculably great and innumerable, have been declared from all ages by all Christian Churches; she is, indeed, an abyss of mercies and bounties, as is said of Her in the canon of Odigitry.”
Whereas St Faustina, in her Diary, in entry 1746, writes: To give worthy praise to the Lord’s mercy, We unite ourselves with Your Immaculate Mother, For then our hymn will be more pleasing to You, Because She is chosen from among men and angels. Through Her, as through a pure crystal, Your mercy was passed on to us. Through Her, man became pleasing to God; Through Her, streams of grace flowed down upon us”.
This is Mary! The Mother of God! Your and my Mother!
Fr Mario Attard OFM Cap