Yesterday evening I went to Pusey House to listen to the singing of the Akathistos Hymn about which I posted in The Akathistos Hymn at Pusey House on May 28th and where there is a link to the text of the piece.
We began with an introductory talk by Bishop Kallistos of Diokleia, who is always a stimulating and interesting preacher and speaker. He outlined the historty ofg the hymn, which is dated to the first half of the sixth century, and pre-dates the fixing of the feast of the Annunciation under Justinian. It may be the work of the greatest Byzantine hymnographer St Romanus. Given its date it may have originally been intended for the feast of the Synaxis of Our Lady on December 26th.
The current Greek use is to sing sequential parts of it on the Fridays of Lent, but the more ancient or traditional practice is preserved in the Russian use, where it is sung in its entirity on the fifth Friday5 of Lent.
In the Orthodox tradition, unlike the western one, the feast of the Annunciation is never transferred - thus if it falls on Good Friday its celebration has to follow that of the passion. This cannot happen with the modern calendar, but with the Julian calendar such a coincidence with Good Friday can sometimes occur
Bishop Kallistos drew attention to three themes in the hymn. The first was that of Joy - the repeated call upon the Virgin, and the believer, to rejoice in all that she embodied and represented.
The second point was the Christological thought of the hymn - Mary, however exalted, is always subordinate to her Son.
The third point was the mystery and paradox described by the hymn in its account of the Incarnation and how they are integral to the life and story of the Virgin Mother of God.
The hymn is now prefaced and followed by the singing of a kontakion in which the City - that is Constantinople - gives thanks for deliverance from its assailants. this appears to originate with the 626 Persian siege, and the kontakion being the work of Patriarch Sergius after its lifting. The hymn also gives thanks for the delivery of the city from the 718 siege by the Arabs, and that of 846 by the still pagan Russians.
The hymn was sung in its entirety in English in a liturgical translation published by the Ecumenical Society of the Blessed Virgin Mary together with another by Roger Green which draws out the richness of the original Greek. Green himself describes the expereince of the hymn as being "caught up in a brilliant firework display." Copies of this translation were available for purchase.
To someone used to the western tradition the most obvious parallel is with litanies such as that of Loretto, but in the case of the Akathistos Hymn the officiant and schola divide the piece between them as a series of collects and invocations, whilst the icon of Our Lady is censed throughout the rite.
Listening to the hymn and looking at the text I was reminded of Fr Hunwicke's point that for the most advanced expressions and forms of Marian devotion one should look to the Orthodox tradition
Icon of the Mother of God "of the Akathist"
The Vatican Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy (December 2001) lists many approved "popular pieties" and devotions outside the Liturgy, and includes the Akathistos Hymn. This seems to have been a particular favourite of the late Pope John Paul II.