FEAST DAYS

AND SERVICES

TO THE THEOTOKOS

Presentation Given by His Grace Bishop Demetri
At the First Biennial Antiochian Archdiocese Clergy Symposium

Chicago, Illinois
July 1978

 

Ever since the Archangel Gabriel first said, “you are blessed among women,” to the Virgin Mary, these words of praise have inspired the faithful of the Christian Church. Their love for Christ, and desire to honor all that He honored has led them to also praise His glorious Mother. Thus they continue to fulfill the words of the Holy Spirit spoken through her, “behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed” (Lk. 1:45). The Church has honored the Most Holy Lady in many ways. Theologians have defended her doctrinally and theologically. Authors have composed hymns dedicated to her. The faithful have sought her intercession in their prayers. Finally, the entire Church has celebrated feast days commemorating certain events in her life or miracles performed through her mediation. After the Council of Ephesus (431 AD), however, the number of hymns and services to the Theotokos increased and flourished. All feast days seem to have their historical foundations during or after this great Council, which defended the doctrine of the Person of Christ and the dignity of the Mother of God.

During and after the establishment of the feast days of the Theotokos clergy and laity emphasized her praise through hymns written in her honor. The most famous work of this kind is the Akathist Hymn, a Kontakion written by the 6th century deacon, St. Romanos the Melodist. The Paraclesis is another poetic work dealing with another aspect of veneration of the Virgin, her role as Protectress of Christians. Orthodox use this service, instituted almost 1000 years after Romanos wrote his Kontakion in times of trouble and temptation. Both services are in general use in Orthodox churches today. It is then the purpose of this presentation to deal with these forms of piety which have taken deep root in the Orthodox Catholic conscience, to trace their beginnings where possible, and to demonstrate their relevance for us today.

Since Her beginnings in Jerusalem, the Christian Church has set aside certain days important to Her tradition and life. The Book of Acts testifies to the apostolic recognition of feast days by recording that the Church celebrated Sunday as the weekly commemoration of the Resurrection (Acts 20:7). This first history of the Church also reports that St. Paul desired to be in Jerusalem for Pentecost (I Cor. 16:8. Later a controversy over the celebration of Easter indicates further development of the cycle of feasts by the Pre-Nicene Church. The Post-Nicene Church dedicated feast days to the celebration of celebrate the Nativity of Christ, His Baptism, and other important feasts (Dix, p. 357).

The feast days of martyrs developed next, although the Martyrdom of St. Polycarp gives a vivid example of the Pre-Nicene origin of the celebration of the memory of martyrs beginning as parochial or congregational memorials. The presence of the relics of martyrs further stimulated the growth of feast days of the martyrs.

The feast days dedicated to Mary were among the last to develop. Dom Gregory Dix concludes that the feasts of the Virgin came about more slowly due to the lack of relics which would spur the development of commemorations, as had been the case with the martyrs. Even the two earliest feasts of the Virgin—the Annunciation and the Presentation of Christ were originally feast days of our Lord. They were gradually changed to manifest a definite Marian context. The Feast of the Deposition of the Veil at Blachernae, initiated in 469 AD, is probably the earliest feast specifically dedicated to Mary. The reason for this feast seems to have been the recovery her veil, the only existing relic of the Virgin. (Dix, 376)

However, many Marian feasts appeared as afterthoughts in the life of Christ. Christ was born. Therefore Mary had to have a birthday which the Church should celebrate. Christ was brought to the Temple. Therefore, Mary, in accord with Jewish tradition, was brought to the Temple, and took up residence there, again an event to be celebrated.

Pre-Nicene churches had certain collections of writings, some of which dated from the earliest times of Christianity, which related certain stories about the Mother of Our Lord, her birth, her entrance into the Temple, her Dormition and her Assumption. The Church read these apocryphal books along with the other gospels, epistles, and prophetic books. Although the Church ceased reading from non canonical books in services following the canonization of the New Testament, these feasts had already been established in the practice of some congregations.

Marian devotion was even strong in the Pre-Nicene Church. St. Justin the Martyr and St. Irenaeus alluded to Mary as the New Eve. St. Ignatius of Antioch called her the Mother of God in his earliest writings. (St. Ignatius to the Ephesians 18, 2). Devotion to her even led to the development of collyridianism, condemned by St. Ephiphanios of Cyrus in 379. This heresy distorted Marian devotion to the point that its followrs consecrated the bread and wine at their liturgies as the “Body and Blood of Mary.”

The Council of Ephesus in 431 AD began a liturgical chain-reaction for Marian piety. Hymns dedicated to her as Theotokos multiplied and her existing festal services were enhanced and new ones were added. Because the universal Church did not accept them all at one time, it is very difficult to place these feasts in a chronological order. There is sometimes a span of several centuries between the general celebration of a feast, its incorporation by a decree of an emperor or a Church Council, and the universal acceptance by the Church. There are, however, seven important feasts which will be discussed in greater detail, these being:

1. The Nativity of the Theotokos

2. Placing of the Veil at Blachernae

3. The Synaxis of the Theotokos

4. The Annunciation

5. Hypapante

6. The Entrance into the Temple

7. The Dormition—Assumption

The Nativity of the Virgin is one of the oldest of the Marian feasts. It’s celebration stems from the Protevangelion of St. James a 2nd century apocryphal book supposedly written by James the Brother of the Lord, which describes the birth of Mary to her elderly parents, Joachim and Anna. The story runs much like the biblical account of Abraham and Sarah or that of Zachariah and Elizabeth; two elderly people considered cursed by God because of the woman’s barrenness were suddenly promised a child by God. Although the Church probably placed this feast in its official liturgical cycle between the 7th and 8th centuries, a kontakion written by St. Romanos (6th Century) indicates the celebration of the feast began much earlier.

This feast reminds us that Mary is one of us, a human being, born like us in original sin. It refutes those who, like the Collyridians, who attempted to deify her and desecrate her dignity by calling her something she is not. The feast reminds those, such as the Docetists, who believed that Christ was only a phantom, having no real human body, that His Mother was a real human being, born of the generation of David; therefore, the one born of her must in the same way partake of her nature.

The second feast we will discuss is the Placing of the Veil at Blachernae, instituted in the year 469 AD to celebrate the recovery of the sole relic of the Virgin. An early legend relates that Mary entrusted her veil upon which some drops of milk had fallen as she fed the infant Jesus to two women in her company. Finally a Jewish woman obtained it, kept it in a casket and performed miracles with it. Later two patricians stole it and brought to Constantinople (Graeff, p. 139). A later legend (8th Century) states that in 451 AD, the Empress Pulcheria asked Bishop Juvenal of Jerusalem for the body of Mary. He replied that he did not have it, since it was taken to heaven. However, he did have the veil, which she wore and sent this to the Empress (Graeff, 138). The Synaxarion after this feast (August 30), that Arcadios, son of the Emperor Thodosios took the Veil from Jerusalem. It also tells of a miracle, which took place 310 years later when the Emperor Leo cured his wife Zoe of demons through the Veil’s miraculous power.

The next important feast day of the Virgin is called the Synaxis, because it commemorates her distinct role in the Incarnation. Sometime between 500 and 530 AD Justinian introduced this feast, occurring on the 26th of December (Essey, 46). The term Synaxis is a Greek compound meaning “also worthy” and is meant to commemorate that person or persons who played the most important secondary role in any feast of Our Lord. Just as Epiphany has its Synaxis of the Forerunner, The Feast of the Nativity of Christ has its Synaxis of the Theotokos. This feast was celebrated in the West (Rome) eight days after Christmas in commemoration of the reality of Mary’s Motherhood of Jesus. Later the Feast of the Circumcision replaced it. (Dix 377)

The fourth feast, the Annunciation is among the oldest Christian feasts. It originally began as the Feast of the Conception of Christ, However, with the ever-growing devotion to His Mother, and the increasing consciousness of her role in the Divine Economy, the feast soon took on a distinctly Marian character.

The earliest records of this celebration are found in homilies written by Patriarch Proclus of Constantinople and Peter Chrysologos, both from the middle of the 5th Century. (Essey, 40). Even at that early date, the feast was celebrated on March 25, exactly nine months before Christmas. The sermons and hymns about the Annunciation vary in their content and style, sometimes being beautiful, and at other time’s monotonous elaboration on the conversation between the Virgin and the Archangel Gabriel. Whether this custom began with St. Romanos, who wrote no less than 3 Kontakia on this scene, or from an earlier source, cannot be certain. These Kontakia, the Canon of the 9th century poet Theophanes the Branded, the homilies of Sergius the Monothelite, Germanos of Constantinople and others have all given very elaborate and deep interpretations to the simple declaration of the Angel. The hymns of the Annunciation show Mary’s role as the New Eve, defined by the Ancient Fathers. Eve’s disobedience brought death to man. Mary’s obedience brought man life and salvation.

The Presentation of Christ in the Temple, known in the West as The Purification and among the Greeks as Hypapante is another originally Christ-centered feast.. Although the Latin Church has retained much of the Christ-centered elements, it therefore, appears to be a feast “shared” by Christ and the Virgin. The Diary of Sylvia contains the first reference to this feast. This 4th century document relates that in Jerusalem, the celebration of this feast included a procession, a homily on Luke 2:22-26 and the celebration of the Liturgy (Essey 41-2). The Emperor Justinian officially recognized this feast in Constantinople in 542 AD (Essey 42). It was brought to Rome during the first half of the 7th Century or earlier.

The sixth important feast of the Theotokos to be discussed is the Entrance into the Temple of the Virgin. The feast is an old one, having its sources in the apocryphal gospels. It was celebrated, along with the Feast of the Conception of St. Anna in the 4th century, although the Byzantine Church did not “officially” recognize it until 1166. Most sermons dealing with this feast come from the period of the Iconoclastic Controversy, or directly after it. St. Germanos of Constantinople (733 AD) treats the subject of the Virgin’s Entrance into the Temple as Mary, the true and eternal Temple of God, sanctifying the Temple of the Old Covenant. She makes the Temple holy, although she had come to receive a blessing there.

In the hymns of this feast, the Church reflects upon the Ecclesia-Maria parallel, i.e., the concept of Mary as the Prototype and symbol of the Christian Church as first displayed in the Apocalypse. The presence of this feast also leads us to believe that the Virgin Mary, while in the Temple, had conversed with the angels, among them Gabriel. This would explain why she, when confronted by Gabriel in Luke 1, was not so much taken aback by the fact that he was an angel as she was by what he told her.

The last feast to be discussed is also the last major feast day of the Christian calendar, the Dormition. The Emperor Maurice officially incorporated it in the year 600 (Graeff 134), although there is evidence that it was celebrated sporadically in certain areas years before this. Maurice ordered the celebration of the feast on January 18. A special feast dedicated to St. Mary on the Sunday Before Christmas also existed in most of the West, and in the East. Only Christians in Palestine celebrated the Dormition on August 15.

Belief in the bodily presence of Mary in Heaven is very old, stemming from a tradition which produced the apocryphal document Transitus (Graeff 134) which describes the Virgin’s death and resurrection. Other traditions relate such details as the Apostles assembling for her passing, being transported miraculously to Jerusalem for the event. The legend contains suspiciously intriguing parallels to the gospel narrative regarding the resurrection of Christ. Both Christ and Mary rise on the third day. The Apostle Thomas plays a part in the proof of both resurrections, and of both stories, the last words to the witnesses are “I am with you always.” These legends many times tend to obscure the theological significance and necessity of the Virgin’s assumption and bog us down in mire of medieval pietism, which also helps to make the feast seem foolish to those of non-Catholic faiths.

The celebration of the Dormition presupposes belief in the Assumption of the Virgin. Although the “title” of the feast means “falling asleep” and seems to deal only with her death, many of the hymns speak about her “translation” to heaven. St. Gregory Palamas proved her bodily assumption theologically sound and necessary. For both Orthodox Christians and Roman Catholics this feast is one of the most popular of the Church calendar because it underlines the promise of our Lord to raise up to life again those who believe in Him. It inspires our hope for future glorification. The feast also strengthens love for the Blessed Virgin as the Mother of all believers and makes dynamic hope in her intercession.

 

THE AKATHIST HYMN

Having discussed the particular feasts dedicated to the Mother of God; we shall now concentrate on two special liturgical services devoted to her.

Preeminent among any service or feast dedicated to the Theotokos is the Akathist Hymn. This service is served in its entirety on the fifth week of Great Lent. Sections of it are also performed on the four proceeding weeks. The smaller, sections of this service are called The Salutations, taking their name from “hail”, the greeting of the archangel Gabriel at the Annunciation.

The Akathist Hymn is a many faceted service. It is a hymn praising the Incarnation of Our Lord, directing its force to Him through His Mother. The praises refer to her as the salvation of mortals, the ladder and bridge to heaven, the Bearer of the Universe. These salutations would be blasphemous if directed toward Mary for her own sake. However, it is taken for granted that the listener believes that she is really these things because she bore God in the Flesh. As such, the Akathist Hymn is also a vast poetic- dogmatic exposition of the Dogma of the Person and work of Christ and a melodic Anathema against those who confess the Nestorian heresy.

The Hymn is also a prayer of thanksgiving to Mary personally. Because she said, “behold the handmaid of the Lord”, and “let it be according to your word”: the Theotokos brought about the salvation of the human race. Her role as the New Eve is portrayed to its logical zenith in the Akathist Hymn. Through her accomplishment, “creation was renewed”, “the devil crushed”, and “Mankind was uplifted”. The population of the saved therefore, offers her this hymn of praise.

The Akathist is also one of the epics of Christian hymnography. It deals mainly with the happenings in the first chapters of the Gospel of St. Luke, i.e., the Annunciation, the Nativity, and the Visit of the Shepherds and Magi. It is the way they are related to the listener, however, that makes this hymn one of the most imaginative and beautiful in Church hymnody. There is detail unparalleled here. There is introspection on the part of the actors of this drama. Each verse gives us insight we did not have previously, as to the inner doubts of Joseph, the madness of Herod, the devotion of the Magi, and the confusion of the archangel.

Today the Hymn is celebrated within the context of the Small Compline service. This skeleton contains the Kontakion, which is the Akathist Hymn proper, and a canon to the Theotokos. This canon precedes the Salutations but is interspersed within the Kontakion when the Akathist is performed in its entirety. The Kontakion is considered the most beautiful part of the service of the Akathist, and, actually is the Akathist Hymn.

After years of research scholars have ascertained that the composer of the Akathist Hymn is the famous St. Romanos the Melodist, a 6th Century deacon from Syria. A Jew by birth, he was born in Emesa on the Orontes, and became a deacon at Berytus. He went to Constantinople in the days of Athanasios I (491-518) where he joined the clergy of the Church of the Theotokos. Some of the Synaxaria (Oct. 1) relate that he had a terrible, grating voice that made people wince when he rose to sing. Through a miraculous vision of the Theotokos, he received both a sweet voice and the ability to write Kontakia. According to tradition he composed over a thousand such hymns; however, only a very few have survived the holocaust of the Iconoclastic Period (Wellesz, 183).

However, the maturity of diction in the Kontakia of St. Romanos, his mastery of the problems which the form offered to the Melodist make it difficult to believe that he invented the new form in a moment of inspiration. The antecedents of the Kontakion probably existed in Syrian ecclesiastical poetry which Romanos, being of Syrian origin, knew well. His great achievement was adapting them to the spirit of Byzantine hymnography, then introducing the new form into the liturgy of Constantinople. (Wellesz, 184) In his book Byzantine Music and Hymnography, Egon Wellesz has demonstrated the influence of St. Ephrem the Syrian on Romanos through a simple comparison of poetry written on the same subject (p. 187). St. Romanos also borrowed form and content from Ephrem, developed it, made it more concise, and added a strictly Byzantine flavor to the form, thus producing the Kontakion.

St. Romanos wrote The Akathist Hymn mainly as a sermon on the Incarnation for the Feast of the Annunciation. However, certain historical and theological factors played a role in its composition. In the years preceding Romanos’ birth, a great controversy took place in Constantinople, which shook the Church for several years. This is the Nestorian heresy, which questioned the Divinity of Jesus Christ and the name Theotokos applied to the Virgin Mary. This controversy still raged when Romanos was born; even though the Council of Ephesus had decided the issue and the voice of the Church had been heard. Because the Nestorians, congregated in Syria, and among other places, it is more than likely that Romanos had had contact with them before coming to Constantinople. Romanos adequately displays his Orthodoxy in his exposition of the dogma of Christ’s Person in the Akathist Hymn. He wrote:

“Praising your son, we all praise you O Theotokos, as a living temple;

for dwelling in your womb, the Lord, Who holds the Universe in his

hand, sanctified and glorified you…” (Savas, p. 22)

and

“Having seen the strange birth, let us estrange ourselves from the

world, lifting our minds to heaven. For this reason the Most-High

God appeared on earth, as a humble man, wishing to draw on

High those who call out to Him: Alleluia.” (p. 18).

The Akathist is one of the most perfect expositions of the Orthodox dogma of the Incarnation and the Person of Christ in existence. The Council of Ephesus defined the dogma of the Church, but St. Romanos delivered it to the people who heard his hymn. The Akathist still offers the same exposition to those who hear it. Although the original Greek version is written in almost perfect poetry, much of the poetic quality of the hymn is retained in an English translation.

Later the Faithful used the Akathist as a “song of victory, ” a hymn of thanksgiving to the Theotokos for military victories. It was used for this particular purpose on at least four occasions: for a victory of Heraclios over the Persians in 673, for a victory of Constantine IV in 673, for a victory of Leo III in 719 and for Manuel II in 1421. The Akathist received another Procemion after the siege in 626 (Essey, 46-7). Up until that time, the Procemion had been the troparion, “With mystic apprehension…,” which many consider the only proper introduction to the Akathist Hymn. The second Procemion, rumored to have been composed by the Patriarch Sergius at this period, is political in nature and seems out of place anywhere except ancient Constantinople. The reason it is still sung is mainly due to a tradition that has outlived its usefulness.

It is for this aspect of thanksgiving that the Akathist Hymn received its name. The term akathistos means literally “unseated”. The term came into use when the people of the city, celebrating the miraculous defeat of their invaders, stood all night in church giving thanks to the Mother of God through this hymn.

Today, the Akathist Hymn is sung along with a canon. A canon is a later poetic form dating from the seventh century consisting of series of hymns, divided into stanzas called odes. The odes are metrically and musically independent. However, they are all sung in the same more or tone. Thus, if a canon’s first ode is in the fourth tone, the rest of the canon must also be in the fourth tone. The canon is a less refined form of poetry, containing simpler, less complicated language and thought. Unlike the Kontakion, a canon usually does not have any type of chronological progression in its format. Thus, it does not usually tell a story. In the modern Akathist service, the canon begins after the opening section of Small Compline. Then, the Kontakion is chanted in sections of four stanzas, called staseis equally dispersed throughout the canon. The staseis contain twenty four sections called oikoi arranged as an acrostich according to the Greek alphabet with six oikoi to each stasis. The four staseis relate the following themes to the listener.

The first stasis deals with the Annunciation, the Virgin’s purity, the visitation to Elizabeth, and the doubts of Joseph.

The second stasis deals with the Adoration of the shepherds, the worship of the Magi, the flight to Egypt, and the Presentation of Christ in the Temple.

The third stasis talks of the new creation through the birth of Christ from the Theotokos, calls the worshippers to lift their minds to heaven, and the divine Condescension—God omnipotent willing to take a manger as His bed, and the inexplicableness of the Incarnation.

The final stasis reveals the Theotokos as Protectress, Theosis, and the inadequacy on the part of man to praise God, destruction from Adam’s curse, and petitions of intercession to Mary. (Essey, p. 48)

During the first four weeks of Great Lent, one stasis is chanted after the canon is sung in its entirety. On the fifth week, however, all four stasis are chanted in this manner: The first stasis is said before the beginning of the canon, the second after the third ode, the third stasis after the sixth ode, and the last after the ninth ode. The service of Small Compline resumes after the completion of the canon. The hymn, “To thee our Champion Leader…” is sung before each stasis. The original Procemion is used before the first stasis on the fifth week as an introductory Troparion.

The beauty, the majesty, and the meaningfulness of this great monument of Orthodox Christian hymnography have been best expressed by Egon Wellesz who wrote:

“None of the homiletic writers, his forerunners, nor any of the contemporary hymnographers were equal to Romanos in power of expression, poetic vision, boldness of similes, and perfect harmony of line; and in no other hymn does his greatness shine more perfectly than in the Akathistos” (Essey p. 49)

PART III.: THE PARACLESIS SERVICE

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