Acathistus (Gr., akathistos; a privative, kathizo, “sit”; i.e. not sitting; standing).—The title of a certain hymn (ho akathistos humnos) or, better, an Office in the Greek Liturgy, in honor of the Mother of God. The title is one of eminence; since, while in other similar hymns the people are permitted to sit during part of the time, this hymn is partly read, partly sung, all standing (or, perhaps, standing all night). The word is employed sometimes to indicate the day on which the hymn is said (i.e. the Saturday of the fifth week of Lent), as on that day it must be said by clergy and laity alike,” none ceasing from the divine praises”, as the long historical Lesson of the Office remarks. It is proper to note in this connection that, while the whole Office is to be said on this day, portions of it are distributed over the first four Saturdays of Lent. When recited entire, it is divided into four parts or stations, between which various Psalms and Canticles may be sung sitting. Francis Junius wrongly interpreted Acathistus as one who neither sits nor rests, but journeys with child; as for instance when the Blessed Virgin was brought by Joseph to Bethlehem. Gretser [Commentarius in Codin. Curop. (Bonn, 1839), 3211 easily refutes the interpretation by citing from the Lesson in the Triodion. The origin of the feast is assigned by the Lesson to the year 626 when Constantinople, in the reign of Heraclius, was attacked by the Persians and Scythians but saved through the intervention of the Mother of God. A sudden hurricane dispersed the fleet of the enemy, casting the vessels on the shore near the great church of the Deipara (Mother of God) at Blachernae, a quarter of Constantinople near the Golden Horn. The people spent the whole night, says the Lesson, thanking her for the unexpected deliverance. “From that time, therefore, the Church, in memory of so great and so divine a miracle, desired this day to be a feast in honor of the Mother of God… and called it Acathistus” (Lesson). This origin is disputed by Sophocles (Greek Lexicon of the Roman and Byzantine Periods, s.v.) on the ground that the hymn could not have been composed in one day, while on the other hand its twenty-four oikoi contain no allusion to such an event and therefore could scarcely have been originally composed to commemorate it. Perhaps the kontakion, which might seem to be allusive, was originally composed for the celebration on the night of the victory. However the feast may have originated, the Lesson commemorates two other victories, under Leo the Isaurian, and Constantine Pogonatus, similarly ascribed to the intervention of the Deipara.
No certain ascription of its authorship can be made. It has been attributed to Sergius, Patriarch of Constantinople, whose pious activities the Lesson commemorates in great detail. Quercius (P.G., XCII, 1333 sqq.) assigns it to Georgios Pisides, deacon, archivist, and sacristan of Saint-Sophia, whose poems find an echo both in style and in theme in the Acathistus; the elegance, antithetic and balanced style, the vividness of the narrative, the flowers of poetic imagery being all very suggestive of his work. His position as sacristan would naturally suggest such a tribute to Our Lady, as the hymn only gives more elaborately the sentiments condensed into two epigrams of Pisides found in her church at Blachernffi. Quercius also argues that words, phrases, and sentences of the hymn are to be found in the poetry of Pisides. Leclercq (in Cabrol, “Dict. d’archeol. chret. et de liturgie”, 8. v. “Acathistus”) finds nothing absolutely demonstrative in such a comparison and offers a suggestion which may possibly help to a solution of the problem.
In addition to several Latin versions, it has been translated into Italian, Ruthenian, Rumanian, Arabic, German, and Russian. Its very great length precludes anything more than the briefest summary here. It is prefaced by a troparion, followed by a kontakion (a short hymnodal summary of the character of the feast), which is repeated at intervals throughout the hymn. As this kontakion is the only part of the hymn which may clearly refer to the victory commemorated, and may have been the only original text (with repetitions interspersed with psalms, hymns, etc., already well known to the populace) composed for the night-celebration, it is translated here:
“To thee, O Mother of God, unconquered Empress, do I, thy City freed from evils, offer thanks for the victories achieved; but do thou, by thy invincible power, deliver me from every kind of danger; that I may cry to thee. Hail, maiden Spouse!”
The Hymn proper comprises twenty-four oikoi (a word which Gretser interprets as referring to various churches or temples; but the Triodion itself indicates its meaning in the rubric, “The first six oikoi are read, and we stand during their reading”—oikos thus clearly referring to a division of the hymn) or stanzas (which may fairly translate the word-stanza, like oikos, having an architectural value). These oikoi are alternately longer and shorter, and their initial letters form a Greek abecedary. The last (a shorter) one, beginning with the letter omega, reads:
“O Mother, worthy of all hymn-tributes, who didst bring forth the Word, Most Holy of all the holy, accept the present offering, deliver all from every evil, and save from future suffering all who cry to thee. Alleluia.”
This Alleluia follows each one of the shorter stanzas. The longer ones begin with a sentence of about the same length, which skillfully leads up to a series of salutations beginning with “Hail”. All of these longer stanzas, except the first (which has fourteen) comprise thirteen such sentences, including the last, which, as a sort of refrain, is always “Hail, maiden Spouse!” The first stanza narrates the mission of Gabriel to Mary; and his astonishment at the condescension of the Almighty is so great that he bursts forth into:
Hail, through whom joy shall shine forth!
Hail, through whom evil shall end!
Hail, restorer of fallen Adam!
Hail, redemption of Eve’s tears!
—etc. The second stanza gives the questioning of Mary; the third continues it and gives the answer of Gabriel; the fourth narrates the Incarnation; the fifth, the visit to Elizabeth, with a series of “Hails” prettily conceived as being translations into words of the joyful leapings of the Baptist; the sixth, Joseph’s trouble of mind; the seventh, the coming of the shepherds, who begin their “Hail” very appropriately:
Hail, Mother of the Lamb and of the Shepherd!
Hail, Sheepfold of rational sheep!
In the ninth stanza the Magi, star-led, cry out in joy:
Hail, Mother of the unwestering Star!
Hail, Splendor of the mystic Day!
In the tenth the Magi return home to announce Alleluia; the eleventh has appropriate allusions to the Flight into Egypt:
Hail, Sea that didst overwhelm the wise Pharaoh!
Hail, Rock that gavest life to the thirsty!
—with other references to the cloud, the pillar of fire, the manna, etc. The twelfth and thirteenth deal with Simeon; the fourteenth and twenty-second are more general in character; the twenty-third perhaps consciously borrows imagery from the Blachernian Church of the Deipara and perhaps also alludes distantly to the victory (or to the three victories) commemorated in the Lesson:
Hail, Tabernacle of God and the Word!
Hail, unshaken Tower of the Church!
Hail, inexpugnable Wall!
Hail, through whom trophies are lifted up!
Hail, through whom enemies fall down!
Hail, healing of my body!
Hail, safety of my soul!