The church was packed, filled with the citizens of the whole city. Nobody was seated – the passions and emotions surging through the congregation removed all their physical needs and united them. Heads, eyes, hearts and souls lifted as one, with feelings and respect not abating for a single moment during the service, which lasted the whole night and during which Archibishop Sergios sang a long hymn in praise of the Virgin.
"Xαίρε Νύμφη Ανύμφευτε... (Rejoice, O Bride Unwedded)
The church: Aghia Sophia (once the largest cathedral in the world)
The place: Constantinople
The time: 626 AD
How the Akathistos Ymnos was born
The reason for this gathering? It was a Thanksgiving for a miracle that took place earlier that day.
Their city, Constantinople, was threatened from East and West by barbarian enemies. The city was besieged from land and sea. The emperor Heracles was absent at the time.
The citizens, realising how outnumbered they were and unable to defend their city, raised their heads, hearts, souls and minds to the Virgin, praying for the protection of their beloved city.
It was at the point when no hope remained but all hope was directed to the Virgin that the unexpected happened.
Suddenly, an enormous storm sunk the enemy vessels in the Hellespont (known today as the Dardanelles, the narrow strait connecting the Aegean Sea to the Sea of Marmara).
This miracle filled everybody with courage. They attacked the enemy on land and set them to flight.
It was at this point that they all went to the Aghia Sophia church.
Heretismi and the Akathistos Ymnos
The sermon held , since then, every Friday evening during the 50 days of fasting before Easter in honour of the Virgin Mary is called Xαιρετισμοί (Heretismi) – ‘Greetings’ or ‘Rejoicings’.
The hymn sung during this sermon came to be known since that night – when everybody was standing in the Aghia Sophia church all night long – as the Aκάθιστος Ύμνος (Akathistos Ymnos – literally, the Unseated Hymn). It is one of the most poetic texts of the medieval lyrical writings, the lyrical outpouring of redeemed souls.
Each new verse of the hymn sung that night by Archibishop Sergios started with a different letter of the Greek alphabet (24), and the triumphant victory was depicted in the singing of this special hymn.
How the Akathistos Ymnos is sung today
Nowadays the Akathistos Ymnos – or Akathistos Hymn – is divided into four parts (Στάσεις), sung each week on the first four Fridays during the fifty fasting days before Easter. On the fifth Friday the whole of the Akathistos Ymnos is sung.
Last Friday we went to church to the third part of the Akathistos Ymnos:
"Χαίρε, φιλοσόφους ασόφους δεικνύουσα…"
(Unwise is the wisdom of wise men in the face of your miracle…)
After the service, even if life's adversities hurt your soul and occupy your mind, you come home to a simple wholesome vegetable soup served with olives and παξιμάδια (paximadia – crunchy pieces of dried bread).
You then raise your head, your eyes, heart, soul and mind with gratitude for the courage you have been given... Because there is a tomorrow and there are blessings waiting to come to you. You know it has happened before, and you know it will happen again.
Enjoy the soup, and know that there is a tomorrow and there is a bright sunrise for all hopeful and bright things waiting for you!
Listen to part of the Akathistos Ymnos here.