By John Fountoulis
In the official liturgical language this service is called "Akathist Hymn", or in one word "Akathist" meaning "standing upright", which the faithful observe throughout the duration of its chanting.
In this way through both the words and the posture of the body there is expressed the honor, the special reverence, and our thanksgiving towards her to whom we address our salutations.
In our current liturgical practice this service operates within the framework of the Small Compline service.
It happens like this on the first four Fridays of Lent, and even the Friday of the Fifth Week, during which after its partial chanting during the first four weeks, the entire hymn is then chanted. In the monasteries, as well as in the practice of parishes today and in some rubrics of the past, there are other frameworks in which the chanting of this hymn functions: in the service of Matins, Vespers, Pannychida, or an idiorrhythmic Constantinopolitan Theotokarion service known as the "presveia". In all these circumstances, at a particular point of the common service there occurs an insertion. The Canon of the Theotokos is chanted as well as all or partially the kontakion and oikoi of the Akathist.
We will proceed to address the contentious issue of the year of its authorship as well as the author of the Akathist. Many allege the poet to be either: Romanos the Melodist, George of Pisidia, or the patriarchs of Constantinople Sergios, Germanos I, the Sacred Photios, or George of Nikomedia (Sikeliotis), who are all poets that lived between the 6th and 9th centuries. Tradition is very shaky and some recent scholars, relying on a few internal indications in the text, prefer one author while others prefer another of the alleged poets.
A historic event to which the tradition of the chanting of the Akathist is bound could help orient us in our research: the siege during the time of Emperor Heraclius and the wondrous saving of Constantinople on the 8th of August in the year 626. According to the Synaxarion, after being delivered from the siege this hymn was chanted in the Church of the Theotokos of Blachernae, as a glorification and thanksgiving for their salvation, which was attributed to the miraculous powers of the Theotokos, the protectress of the City. Sergios was the Patriarch then, who led the struggle for the defense. It is easy to attribute to him the authorship of the hymn, even though the hymnographer is unknown to us, nor was Sergios Orthodox. Rather, the hymn must be older, because if it was written for the salvation of the City, it would not be possible to not refer to it and not address other issues, as we shall see below. However, the chanting of the Akathist is bound according to historical sources with other similar events: the siege and salvation of Constantinople under Emperors Constantine Pogonatus (673), Leo the Isaurian (717-718) and Michael III (860).
But whoever was the author and for whatever historical event mentioned above, and if there is a primary connection, there is one undeniable element given to us from reliable sources: that the hymn was chanted as an ode of thanksgiving to the Champion Leader of the Byzantine Empire during the thanksgiving pannychidas' which were celebrated in commemoration of the above events. According to the observations of the author of the Synaxarion, the hymn is called "Akathist" because at that time after the City was saved, and even until today, when the oikoi of these hymns were chanted, "everyone stood upright" to show thanksgiving to the Theotokos, while during the oikoi of the other kontakia "it was the custom" to sit.
Why is it chanted during Great Lent? The deliverance from the sieges mentioned above do not correspond to this period. August 8th was the deliverance from the siege during the time of Heraclius, in September under Pogonatus, August 16th is celebrated the commemoration of the salvation of the City under Leo the Isaurian, and June 18th was the deliverance from the siege during the time of Michael III. It is likely associated with Great Lent for another liturgical reason: during the period of Lent the Great Feast of the Annunciation of the Theotokos almost always falls. It is the only Great Feast, due to the mournful character of Great Lent, that lacks a forefeast and an afterfeast.
It is exactly for the lack of these days that the chanting of the Akathist fulfills, partially during the Complines of Friday and completely on the Fifth Saturday of Great Lent. Friday evening liturgically belongs to Saturday, a day that together with Sunday are the only days of the week during Great Lent in which is permitted the celebration of joyous events, and in which, as we have seen, are transferred feasts of the week. According to some rubrics, the Akathist is chanted five days before the Annunciation, and according to others during the Matins on the day of the feast. The Akathist Hymn is the kontakion of the Annunciation, the hymn of the Incarnation of the Word of God. When the Akathist is tied to the historic events we mentioned, then it is synthesized with a new special prelude (prooimion), full of thanksgiving and supplication, famously known as "To thee the Champion Leader". To the Champion Leader, the City of the Theotokos, which was redeemed by her grace from sufferings, ascribes the victory and supplicates her who has the irresistible power to free it from various dangers, to be glorified as we cry: "Rejoice, thou Bride unwedded!" The hymn is chanted in Plagal of the Fourth tone:
To thee, the Champion Leader, we thy servants dedicate a feast of victory and of thanksgiving as ones rescued out of sufferings, O Theotokos; but as thou art one with might which is invincible, from all dangers that can be do thou deliver us, that we may cry to thee: Rejoice, thou Bride Unwedded.
Source: Translated by John Sanidopoulos