An Akathist is a highly ornate, multi-part hymn of praise to God or to one of the saints.

This article describes the history and use of akathists in the Byzantine Catholic Church. For musical details, see Singing an Akathist.

The origin and history of the akathist

The original Akathistos Hymn (the Akathist to the Mother of God) was sung in the Byzantine tradition at all-night vigils, particularly in times of turmoil, and was credited with repeatedly saving the city of Constantinople from danger. It consists of a preface (prelude or proemium) and twenty four stanzas, each of which begins with a successive letter of the Greek alphabet, from alpha to omega.

Here is the original prelude:

As soon as the angel had received his command, he hastened to Joseph's house and said to the ever-virgin: "Behold, heaven was brought down to earth when the Word itself was fully contained in you! Now that I see him in your womb, taking a servant's form, I cry out to you in wonder: Rejoice, O Bride and Maiden ever-pure!

And here is the first of the twenty-four stanzas:

An archangel was sent from heaven to greet the Mother of God. and as he saw you assuming a body at the sound of his bodiless voice, O Lord, he stood rapt in amazement and cried to her in these words:

Rejoice, O you through whom joy will shine forth;
Rejoice, O you through whom the curse will disappear!
Rejoice, O Restoration of the fallen Adam;
Rejoice, O Redemption of the tears of Eve!
Rejoice, O Peak above the reach of human thought;
Rejoice, O Depth even beyond the sight of angels!
Rejoice, O you who have become a kingly throne;
Rejoice, O you who carries Him who carries all!
Rejoice, O Star who manifests the Sun;
Rejoice, O Womb of the divine incarnation!
Rejoice, O you through whom creation is renewed;
Rejoice, O you through whom the Creator becomes a babe!
Rejoice, O Bride and Maiden ever-pure!

The first half of the entire hymn tells the story of the Incarnation of Christ and his early years, while the second half delves into the theology of the Incarnation and its effects. Alternating stanzas end with the refrains, "Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!" and "Rejoice, O Bride and Maiden ever-pure!" The stanzas may be numbered from 1 to 24, or the preamble and stanzas may be labelled "kontakion" and "ikos" in alternation. (Remember that at feast-day Matins, we sing the first two stanzas of one of the ancient kontakia, labelled kontakion and ikos. This first stanza is what we sing as the kontakion at the Divine Liturgy.)

Eventually, the preamble was replaced with a different one that emphasizes the protective role of the Mother of God:

O Theotokos, valiant defender, your servants offer you hymns of victory in thanksgiving, for you have delivered us. But since you have invincible power, free us from all peril, that we may exclaim to you: Hail, O Bride and Maiden ever-pure!

A few notes on translation:

This hymn is sung in its entirety as part of Matins on the fifth Saturday in the Great Fast, also called Akathistos Saturday. In the Greek tradition, it is also sung on Fridays in the Great Fast. For the complete text and music, see the MCI edition.

Akathists in the liturgical books

The Ruthenian Horologion or Časoslóv, which contains the services of the daily cycle, also includes a special section of canons and other hymns to be used as needed. In includes:

Other akathists have been written over the years and collected into their own liturgical book, the Akafistnik. Here are the contents of the Akafistnik published in 1893 in L'vov:

The rubrics for a moleben (supplicatory prayer service) state that, "if the priest desires", an akathist can be sung as part of a moleben; it is inserted just before the Gospel reading.

Finally, an akathist can be sung by itself, as part of either personal or public prayer. If used in church, it would be preceded with the usual beginning prayers, and concluded with a dismissal.

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