The Akathist or Akathistos, Greek for "not sitting", is a hymn or chant, used in the Orthodox Church. There are Akathists to Jesus and to some saints, but the most common is that to the Virgin Mary. She is also known as the Theotokos, Greek for God-bearer. This one was in existence in 532, traditionally composed by Saint Romanos, and was added to before its official recognition by the church in 626. Akathists consist of alternating short stanzas (Kontakion) and long stanzas (Ikos).

Mary being the especial protector of the Byzantine Empire and its "Queen City" of Constantinople, she was invoked for aid during a siege by Avars while Emperor Heraclius (610-641) was away fighting the Persians. Patriarch Sergius led a march along the walls of the city bearing an icon of the Theotokos, and the enemy fleet was said to have been miraculously destroyed. He then led an all-night service of thanksgiving, in which the worshippers remained standing. This gave the Akathist its name. They also added a Kontakion praising her as the invincible champion.

Although primarily part of the Eastern Orthodox tradition, it is not incompatible with Western churches, and was translated into English in 1934 by the Roman Catholic priest Vincent McNabb. There seem to be a number of translations out there and I won't choose any one: any web search for Akathist will give one, so I'll restrict myself to repeating a summary.

Akathist to the Theotokos

  1. Stanzas 1 - 6 tell of:
    a. The Annunciation to the Virgin Mary.
    b. The Virgin Mary's purity.
    c. The Virgin Mary's visit to Elizabeth.
    d. The doubts of Joseph the protector, and his joy upon learning of the supernatural Conception.
  2. Stanzas 7 - 12 tell of:
    a. The shepherds hearing the Angels praising the birth of the Lord and their visit to the manger.
    b. The adoration of the Magi.
    c. The flight of the Holy Family to Egypt and the falling of the idols.
  3. Stanzas 13 - 18 tell of:
    a. The new Creation which was wrought by the Incarnate Lord through the Theotokos.
    b. The call for the uplifting of our minds to Heaven from where God descended.
    c. The Lord's Omnipresence, that while He came to earth, He was no less in Heaven.
    d. The confounding of the philosophers and orators, who were at a loss to explain God's condescension.
  4. Stanzas 19-24 tell of:
    a. The Theotokos as a protector of all the devout, and those who choose to flee unto Her.
    b. God coming as one of us, amongst us, to draw us near to Him.
    c. Our inability to adequately sing the praises of God, whose mercies are countless.
    d. 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 contemporary composer Sir John Tavener has done a setting of a Russian Akathist of Thanksgiving composed by a priest just before his death in a Siberian gulag. It premiered in Westminster Abbey in 1988.

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