When you think of great military leaders throughout the world, do certain names spring to mind? If you know World War II history, you might think of Earl Mountbatten of Burma or American generals like Douglas MacArthur and Dwight D. Eisenhower. If you go further back in time, you might recall Alexander the Great or Attila the Hun.
But did the Mother of God, the Virgin Mary, make your list of great generals?
During Great Lent, Byzantine parishes chant the Akathist to the Theotokos. An often-repeated hymn to the Panaghia during these services is known as “O Champion General.”
Why does the Church refer to the Virgin Mary as a general? And what’s with all the standing?
First, let’s talk about what an akathist actually is, then the history behind it.
What Does “Akathist” Mean?
An akathist (Greek, akathistos) is a hymn dedicated to a saint, a holy event, or a member of the Holy Trinity. The word akathist itself means “not sitting.”
The akathist hymn is included in the Salutations to the Theotokos service, which is inserted into the Compline service. The Salutations service is known in Arabic as the Madayeh.
Quick Life Pro Tip: These various service titles are good clues in terms of shodding your feet before you head to your parish. Of course there are many times when we stand during worship, but when you see the words akathist or salutations on the church calendar, expect a lot of standing. Maybe 45 minutes of it. Or more.
Now, those of you attending parishes with no pews may be thinking, “What else would we be doing? Of course we’ll be standing!” I am a member of a parish with pews, and I am not ashamed to admit that I’m a wimp. I like to be able to sit sometimes and rest my feet and lower back. It’s not a coincidence that when I visit parishes that feature pews only along the walls for those who can’t stand for long periods of time, the people standing around me are all wearing sensible shoes.
So, if you are attending a church with pews and you see an akathist or salutations service on the schedule, remember: Ladies, this is not the time to wear your killer new heels. And gentlemen, those stiff dress shoes are not a good choice either. Think about comfort, and be prepared.
Seeing the beauty of your Virginity, and how resplendently shone forth your chastity,
amazed was Gabriel who cried to you thus, O Theotokos:
What shall I present to you as a worthy encomium? What shall I address you as?
At a loss and perplexed am I. As ordered, therefore, thus do I shout to you:
Rejoice, O Maiden who are full of grace! (Translated by Hieromonk Seraphim Dedes)
Contents and Structure of the Akathist
When people say “the Akathist Hymn” they are usually referring to the hymn from the 6th century, the prototype: the Akathist to the Theotokos. The hymn is a beautiful devotional poem commonly attributed to St. Romanos the Melodist, although the authorship is a matter of some debate. It features 24 stanzas, alternating between long and short, and the hymn is an acrostic: each stanza begins with one of the 24 letters of the Greek alphabet, in order. The short stanzas end with “Alleluia,” and the longer ones end with, depending on the translation, “Hail, O Bride Unwedded!” or “Hail, Bride without bridegroom!”
The article “The Akathist Hymn” (https://www.goarch.org/akathisthymn) from the GOA website explains the service’s content:
The Akathist hymn consists of praises directed to the Mother of God, beginning with the salutation of the Archangel Gabriel: “Rejoice.” As the hymn is chanted, all of the events related to our Lord’s Incarnation pass before us for our contemplation. The Archangel Gabriel marvels at the Divine self-emptying and the renewal of creation which will occur when Christ comes to dwell in the Virgin’s womb. The unborn John the Baptist prophetically rejoices. The shepherds recognize Christ as a blameless Lamb and rejoice that in the Virgin “the things of earth join chorus with the heavens.” The pagan Magi, following the light of the star, praise her for revealing the light of the world.
Many different akathists have been written over the centuries—to the Theotokos, in honor of the Great Feasts, and to multiple saints. The clarity of the structure of an akathist hymn has led to a flowering of composition, especially in the Slavic world, which is blessed with many akathists. Only a few of them have been translated into English.
But why the expectation of standing during an akathist? For the answer, we have to go back in time. But first, let’s look at the akathist more closely.
The akathist hymn is divided into four sections of six stanzas each, sung in Byzantine churches on the first four Fridays of Lent. The sections center on themes of the Annunciation, Nativity, Christ, and the Theotokos herself. Here is the GOA’s explanation for these four sections:
The first part of the hymn is about the Annunciation to the Virgin Mary by the Angel. It describes Mary’s surprise at the news, her visit to her mother and Joseph’s doubts as to her innocence. The second part is about the birth of Christ, the worship of the Shepherds and Magi, the flight to Egypt and the visit to Saint Simeon in the Temple. In the third part the hymn directs our attention to the renewal of the world by Christ’s coming, and the amazement of the Angels and the wise men at the sight of the Incarnation of God’s Son. The fourth and the last part is once more a lyric and rhetorical appraisal of Virgin Mary, whom the poet adorns with the most beautiful of adjectives asking her to accept his poetical offering and to intercede for the salvation of human race from the earthly sin.
On the fifth Friday of Great Lent, all 24 stanzas are chanted. That’s a really long service, so be prepared.
So, why is the Virgin Mary described in the akathist as the “Champion Leader” or “Champion General”? Well, there’s a story behind that.
Rejoice, Virgin Bride of God! Through you was Adam restored to life
and Hades was put to death. O blameless one, rejoice!
Since you bore the King, * we say you are His palace,
the fiery throne of the Ruler of all. Rejoice!
The Theotokos as “Champion General”
In June of the year 626, the Persians and a pagan people called the Avars began an assault on the fortress-like walls of Constantinople. At the time of the attack, the Byzantine army was away on a separate campaign, and the city held only 12,000 troops to face about 80,000 enemies.
As I recount this story, I am sitting at my desk in my office—a spare bedroom of my comfortable suburban home. I have never experienced war or invasion first hand. My city has never been bombed. I have never suffered the cold, hunger, devastation, and death that our Ukrainian brothers and sisters are experiencing right now.
I can only imagine the terror of living in a city filled with women, children, old people, and a comparatively small amount of soldiers while enemies surround the walls, intent on theft, murder, torture, and destruction. For the people of seventh-century Constantinople, their enemies wanted both to destroy their home and obliterate the Christian Faith of the people. Their fear must have been overwhelming.
The situation became desperate, and while the Avars prepared for a siege, Patriarch Sergius led prayerful processions along the tops of the walls. He carried with him the icon of the Panaghia Blachernae, also known as the Blachernitissa icon of the Virgin Mary.
After about six weeks of pummeling, as the enemies were preparing a final attack, a great whirlwind arose. The Byzantine fleet surrounded and destroyed the invaders’ rafts and galleys and repelled the land assaults. The enemy army was dispersed, and, against all odds, Constantinople was saved. (See Wikipedia, “Avar-Byzantine Wars.”)
The Christians of the city gave credit for this victory to the Mother of God. The akathist hymn to her had already been a part of the Church, but now the faithful sang a particular long stanza of the hymn with tremendous gratitude and jubilation. In Greek, the words for “champion general” are pronounced something like Ti Ypermácho, or “super-macho”—an adjective that I would never have considered for describing the Virgin Mary. They sang the hymn while standing at attention, honoring the Theotokos as their champion leader, or general.
The words in the GOA translation are:
O Champion General, I your City now inscribe to you
Triumphant anthems as the tokens of my gratitude,
Being rescued from the terrors, O Theotokos.
Inasmuch as you have power unassailable,
From all kinds of perils free me, so that unto you
I may cry aloud: Rejoice, O unwedded Bride.
We can hear the relief, the gratitude, and the fervent devotion in these words. A miraculous military victory in the seventh century is the reason this service for the Theotokos is an akathist—a “not-sitting” service. We stand in honor of her—for her faith as the first among the saints, for her model of obedience that healed the wound of Eve’s disobedience, and especially for her “super-macho” role in interceding for and protecting the city of Constantinople.
And now you know “the rest of the story.” Now that I know a bit more of the why behind our standing at attention, I find my attitude improving. We are standing in honor of the Theotokos, and we are standing in a long line of believers across the centuries and around the world, together sharing our joy, our gratitude, and our veneration.
If you’d like to hear a version of the kontakion that uses the translation “To Thee the Champion,” you can click on the title and listen to it on YouTube. Special thanks to Pres. Stacey Dorrance for allowing me to use the music of Eikona.
Good strength to you all!
What a beautiful choice of a topic!
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