At Matins on Saturday [typically sung Friday evening in anticipation], there is sung the Akathistos Hymn to the Mother of God. One of the greatest marvels of Greek religious poetry, with a richness of imagery that is the despair of any translator, the Akathistos Hymn has twenty-four main stanzas, alternatively long and short: each long stanza bears the title ‘ikos’ and ends with the refrain ‘Hail, Bride without bridegroom,’ while each short stanza is termed ‘kontakion’ and ends with the refrain ‘Alleluia.’ The title ‘Akathistos’ means literally ‘not sitting,’ the Hymn being so called because all remain standing while it is sung. The greater part of the Hymn is made up of praises addressed to the Holy Virgin, each beginning with the salutation of the Archangel Gabriel, ‘Hail’ or ‘Rejoice’ (Luke 1:28). The Hymn passes in review the main events connected with Christ’s Incarnation, starting with the Annunciation (first ikos) and ending with the Flight into Egypt (sixth ikos) and the Presentation in the Temple (seventh kontakion).
The Akathistos Hymn, so it seems, was originally composed at an epoch when the Annunciation was still celebrated together with Christmas and had not yet become a separate festival. Perhaps at one time it was sung on 26 December, the Synaxis of the Most Holy Theotokos. It was probably during the reign of the Emperor Justinian (527-65) that the Annunciation first began to be celebrated on 25 March; and either when this happened or else soon after – and in any case not later than 718 – the Akathistos Hymn was also appointed to be sung on 25 March. More recently, perhaps during the period of the Turcocratia after the fall of Constantinople (1453), the Hymn was transferred from the fixed to the movable calendar, and instead of being sung on 25 March it was appointed for Saturday in the fifth week. The custom of singing a portion of the Hymn at Compline on the first four Fridays of Lent is more recent still: while found among the Greeks, such a practice is not part of the Slav use.
The link between the Akathistos Hymn and the Feast of the Annunciation still continues to be much in evidence: for example, most of the texts at Friday Vespers before the Vigil of the Akathistos are taken directly from the office of 25 March. The Annunciation almost always falls within the period of the Great Fast, and that is why this special office of praise to the Mother of God has found a place in the Lenten Triodion.
At the beginning of the Akathistos Hymn, there is sung a Kontakion greatly loved by the Orthodox people, ‘To thee, our leader in battle and defender…,’ celebrating the deliverance of the city of Constantinople from its enemies through the aid of the Mother of God. It seems that this Kontakion was not originally part of the Akathistos Hymn, for in the Hymn itself there is nowhere any allusion to such a deliverance. Most probably the Kontakion was written by Patriarch Sergios to celebrate the escape of the Byzantine capital from the attack of the Persians and Avars in 626; in that case, the Akathistos Hymn is almost certainly more ancient that the Kontakion. Perhaps this Kontakion, and the Akathistos Hymn itself, were also sung at the thanksgiving celebrations after other deliverances of Constantinople: from the Arabs in the mid-670s, from the Arabs again in 717-18, and from the Russians (not yet converted to Orthodoxy) in 860. Understood in a broader sense, the Kontakion expresses, in the conscience of the Orthodox faithful, their sense of continuing dependence on the protecting intercession of the Holy Virgin at all moments of crisis and peril.