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Eastern Devotion to God’s Mother

“Christians of the East pay high tribute, in very beautiful hymns, to Mary ever Virgin.” – Vatican II Decree on Ecumenism

“Christians of the East pay high tribute, in very beautiful hymns, to Mary ever Virgin.” — Vatican II Decree on Ecumenism

When we Catholics of the West speak of prayer to our blessed Lady, our thoughts revolve about the rosary, the Angelus, the Memorare, the Salve Regina, May processions, and novena exercises to her under one of her various titles.

Our fellow Christians of the East follow an older tradition more centered on the liturgy and the liturgical calendar, on the holy images of the Virgin called icons, on the major feasts of our Lady, and those truths of faith of which she is witness and touchstone.

All the great feasts of the Virgin Mary were, naturally, first celebrated in the East. So it was with the observance of the Immaculate Conception, for instance, and that of the Asumption which is called in the East the Falling Asleep of our Lady. Only later were those feasts liturgically observed in what was then the barbaric West. It was her title, Theotokos, the Godbearer, the Forth-bringer, that was formally defined in 431 A.D. by the Third Ecumenical Council at Ephesus. So our Lady is usually referred to in the East as the “all-holy Mother of God.” A whole generation before Ephesus the celebrated Eastern bishop and Doctor of the Church, St. Gregory Nazianzen, wrote, “If anyone does not receive the Holy Mary as Mother of God, he is separated from the Godhead.”

One of our western writers has noted, “The East always exceeds the West in the ardor of the reverence paid to the Blessed Virgin Mary as also in the wealth of language with which it invoked her.” The same author then goes on to note, “Of all the generations that have called her blessed none has done so with such eloquence as the Eastern Christians, and devotion to our Lady is still a special mark of all these Churches.”

The most celebrated of many devotions to our Lady in the Byzantine rite is known as the Akathistos (Standing) Hymn. This office in our Lady’s honor is sung in the Byzantine Churches in parts on the first four Saturdays of Lent, and in its entirety on the fifth which is accordingly called Akathistos Saturday. It is also used throughout the year for private devotion.

The Akathistos ode, practically unknown to Western Christians, is dedicated to the “Holy Immaculate, Most Blessed Glorious Lady, Mother of God, and Ever-Virgin Mary.” It consists of 24 stanzas, alternately longer and shorter, whose initial letters are successively those of the Greek alphabet. The shorter stanzas end with Alleluia; the longer ones include an opening verse followed by 13 greetings to our Lady each beginning with the salutation, “Hail.” The longer stanzas all end with the same apostrophe, “Hail, Bride Unbrided.”

The 17th and 18th stanzas reproduced here reveal the richness and emotional intensity of Eastern devotion to the Virgin:

All angel-kind marvelled at your great work of flesh-taking; they saw the hidden God become accessible to all as a man, dwelling with us and hearing from all: Alleluia

Men the most eloquent we see become as dumb fishes before you, O Forth-bringer, helpless to say in what way you, being still a maid, were able to bring forth. But we, marvelling at the mystery, cry out in faith:

Hail! casket of God’s wisdom.
Hail! treasury of His providence.
Hail! undoing the wisdom of the wise.
Hail! making babble of men’s eloquence.
Hail! for the deep thinkers are made foolish.
Hail! for the makers of myths have failed.
Hail! you who rend the word-webs of Athens.
Hail! you who fill the nets of the fishers.
Hail! you who lift from the deeps of the unknowing.
Hail! you who enlighten many in knowledge.
Hail! bark for those who seek salvation.
Hail! harbor of this life’s seafarers. Hail! Bride Unbrided.

Many of the praises of the Akathistos Hymn appear to be borrowed from St. Ephrem the Syrian, a Doctor of the Church, also known as the “Harp of the Holy Spirit.” There is no unanimity among historians as to the origin of the hymn, although it seems to have been used in the Sixth Century, or even earlier. The Byzantine office ascribes its writing to the year 626 when Constantinople, the God-protected city, was delivered by our Lady’s intercession from the attack of the Persians and the Avars. In thanksgiving, the people spent the whole night standing and singing their praise and gratitude to the Virgin for deliverance from death.

The language is certainly deeper, more poetical and emotionally charged than that, for example, of our Litany of Loretto which is – in Roman style – more rational, condensed, and very sober. Eastern piety is more apt to contemplate a mystery without seeking to define it. Hence, the Orthodox and other Eastern Churches have never accepted the dogmatic definitions of the Immaculate Conception nor the Assumption. Certainly, though, they hold the same truths as we Catholics of the West regarding these privileges of our blessed Lady.

It should be our hope that the all-holy Virgin, Mother of God, will reunite in the fullness of faith in her Son, all those of the East and West who venerate her with unstinting devotion.

F.X. Morelle, an executive, has previously appeared in our pages. He has traveled extensively throughout the East.

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