It was 25 March, the feast of the Annunciation, the day the church commemorates the Archangel Gabriels 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 Wests 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 thats 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 poems 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. Romanoss death.
Some scholars have concluded that the poems author was not St. Romanos. But learned consensus seems now prepared to accept the saints 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 Gabriels reaction to the Son of Gods kenosis or self-emptying as he assumes the form of a servant in the Virgins womb:
As soon as the angel had received his command, he hastened to Josephs house and said to the ever-virginal one: Behold, heaven was brought down to earth when the Word Himself was fully contained in you! Now that I see him in your womb, taking a servants form, I cry out to you in wonder Hail, 0 Bride and Maiden ever-pure!
Of the 24 strophes the odd ones all end in a cascade of Hails, which culminate in the untranslatable Khaire, Nymphe Anymphefte: Hail, O Bride without Bridegroom, a tender reference to the perpetual virginity of the Mother of God.
The great Dominican theologian Vincent McNabb prepared a beautiful translation of the Akathist and had it bound by hand on handmade paper. His translation, though archaic and idiosyncratic, seems to preserve better than others the rhythm and balance of the original:
An angel chieftain was sent from heaven to greet the Forth-bringer of God with Hail! Then seeing thee, 0 Lord, take flesh he is wonder-rapt, and standing crieth out with no lips of flesh to her:
Hail! by whom true hap has dawned.
Hail! by whom mishap has waned.
Hail! sinful Adams recalling.
Hail! Eves tears redeeming.
Hail! height untrodden by thought of men.
Hail! depth unscanned by angels ken.
Hail! for the kingly throne thou art.
Hail! for who beareth all thou bearest?
Hail! 0 star that bore the sun.
Hail! of God enfleshed the womb.
Hail! through whom things made are all new made.
Hail! through whom becomes a babe their maker.
Hail! through whom the maker is adored.
Hail! Bride unbrided.
However, even this remarkable translation fails to suggest the complexity of St. Romanoss Greek original. For example, the first two Hails contain internal rhymes and resonances that are suggested by hap has dawned and mishap has waned. The former refers to the dawn of grace, the latter to the devastation of the fall: Khaire, di is i khara eklampsi; Khaire, di is i ara eklipsi.
The even-numbered strophes end with Alleluia.
Seeing this pilgrim-babe let us be pilgrims in this world by fixing our heart in heaven. To this end did the God of heaven appear on earth as a lowly man, because he wished to draw heavenward all those who cry to him: Alleluia.
Today the Akathist is divided into four parts. The first asks the venerator to meditate on the Annunciation, the Visitation and the predicament of Joseph. The second asks the believer to contemplate the Nativity, the Adoration of the Shepherds and Magi, the plotting of Herod and the Flight into Egypt. The third focuses on Jesus who enriches the poverty of fallen humanity with his divinity. The final section trains the believers gaze on the channel of grace, the Theotokos:
We see the Blessed Virgin as a lamp of living light shining upon those in darkness; she enkindles an unearthly light to lead all unto divine knowledge; she, the radiance that enlightens the mind, is praised by our cry:
Hail! ray of the spiritual Sun.
Hail! Ray-flash of never-waning light.
Hail! lightening flash illumining souls.
Hail! thunder-clap frightening foes.
Hail! scent of Christs sweetness.
Hail! life of mystical feasting.
Hail! Bride and Virgin ever pure.
On the fifth Friday of Lent the entire Akathist is chanted. It usually happens that his occurs near the feast of the Annunciation. The faithful stand during the entire hymn. Anyone who has ever attended a performance of Handels Messiah will recall the moment when the fanfare announcing the Hallelujah Chorus blazes forth. Following the custom of King George at its world premiere, all stand. The music is so stirring that none can remain seated. So too with the Akathist whose very name means hymn during which no one sits.
At the services conclusion the faithful approach the icon of the Virgin Mary; making a holy kiss. As they do so, the choir intones a beautiful melody:
At the magnificence of your virginity and the exceeding splendor of your purity Gabriel stood amazed and cried out to you, O Mother of God, What hymn of praise can I offer that is fitting for you. By what name call upon you? I am lost in an ecstacy. But I shall do as I was commanded and cry out to You: Hail! O you made perfect in grace!
The pope, too, seems to have experienced delight in the Akathist. Later he expressed his gratitude for so great a blessing and enriched the Akathist with a plenary indulgence to encourage its practice throughout the universal church. The church breathes with both lungs once more!
Father Romanos is a priest of the Melkite-Greek Catholic Eparchy of Newton, Mass.