Not all Christians observe the season of Lent, but for those who do, this 40-day period is often spent focusing on prayer, fasting and repentance.
In the weeks leading up to Easter, or Pascha, as they call it, Orthodox Christians also pay particular attention to Mary, the mother of Christ.
Many Orthodox Christians have a special service on the first five Fridays of Lent to honor Mary. The basis of these salutation services is what's known as the Akathist Hymn. A hymn of thanksgiving to Mary, it's considered by many to be a masterpiece of poetry.
The original Akathist Hymn was written in Greek and arranged in 24 stanzas. It also has been translated into other languages, including English. According to the book The Lenten Triodion, the hymn is "one of the greatest marvels of Greek religious poetry, with a richness of imagery that is the despair of any translator."
The Rev. Nicholas Verdaris, priest of Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church in Little Rock, said the Akathist Hymn service is an ancient one within the church, dating to sometime in A.D. 600. Authorship of the hymn is often attributed to St. Romanos.
"It's a devotional, very poetic, addressing or singing praises to Mary as an example to all of us in terms of fidelity to God," Verdaris said. "The hymn, as it unfolds, speaks in poetic language to the Lord's Incarnation and how different people throughout Scriptures encounter the Lord and his mother."
Akathist (or Akathistos) is a Greek word meaning "not sitting," so much or all of the service is done while standing. The service has specific readings and responses for the priest, the choir and the congregation. The service is broken into four parts for the first four Fridays of Lent, and each includes one of the salutations to Mary.
"It's actually emulating, spiritually, the archangel Gabriel addressing Mary when he informs her she is to bear the Christ," Verdaris said. "So we address her and speak to the mystery of the Incarnation."
The hymn continues on to address the birth of Christ and the visit of the Magi, the family's flight to Egypt and on to the Presentation at the Temple.
According to the website of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, the third portion of 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 final portion is filled with poetic praise for Mary.
The series culminates on the fifth week when the entire Akathist Hymn is prayed and sung.
Verdaris said the hymn fits in with the Lenten season's focus on spiritual renewal.
"While focusing on our relationship with the Lord we look to the example of a human being who truly committed the entirety of their being to the will of God, which would be Mary his mother," he said. "We are also to be mindful that we have seen God. He has walked this earth in his Incarnation in the person of Jesus Christ. So we are not commemorating the invisible but our relationship to the visible God, his only begotten son. The service highlights that by reminding us of the Incarnation."
Verdaris said the vast majority of the service is either sung or intoned.
"It's a joyful address but also respectful and full of praise," he said. "The stanzas of these salutations are always sung, and in the original Greek each of them were in Greek alphabetical order so the structure was like the forming of a house. There was this order, but it's very much a service of melody and praise."
The congregation of Annunciation Church will have its Akathist Hymn service at 6:30 p.m. Friday. The church is at 1100 Napa Valley Drive.
The Rev. John Atchison, priest at St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in Springdale, said his congregation uses the English translation of the hymn. Like some Orthodox congregations, St. Nicholas has only one Akathist service, on the fifth Friday, and it features the complete hymn. The church, at 3171 S. 48th St., will have its service at 6 p.m. Friday.
"It's a high, high honor to Mary," Atchison said. "To me it's like an allegory. Jesus' mother gave him his physical body, and she's offering the baby Jesus to the world. It makes her the primary example of a Christian because we're supposed to offer Jesus to the world."
Atchison's wife, Marilyn, directs the church choir, which has a back-and-forth role with the priest during the service.
"It's a beautiful service," she said. "It's a dialogue between the priest and the choir and it's very heartfelt."
An icon of Mary is positioned in the middle of the church and at specific times in the service the priest will use a censer filled with incense to "cense the icon" so that the smoke will drift over it. He will do the same to the congregation. The smoke symbolizes the prayers rising to heaven.
"It elevates every person," Atchison said.
Atchison, who converted to the Orthodox Church after serving as an Assemblies of God pastor, said that church didn't put much emphasis on Mary or the other saints.
"The greatest pearl that I have found in the Orthodox Church is Mary," he said.
Marilyn Atchison, too, has a special relationship with Mary. She considers Mary to be her patron saint.
"We encourage people to feel like they are being chosen by a saint, and I feel like Mary chose me," she said. "Mary helps me in being a mother and grandmother. She's been a very stable force in my life and has helped me appreciate my own mother. The strength I've gained from her is amazing."
Marilyn Atchison said she's inspired by Mary's willingness to do God's will.
"I get speechless because it's so overwhelming to me," she said.
As for Verdaris, he said Orthodox Christians don't worship Mary and don't consider her equal to God or divine. But she is held in high regard.
"We've always had this high regard for the mother of Jesus Christ, then added to that is the fact that not only does she have the high honor of being selected by God to give birth to the Christ, but also she's a wonderful example of faithfulness and fidelity," he said. "Mary was not forced to do anything. She accepted God's will and chose to do it even if it meant changing her plans, her aspirations and dreams, all in obeying and following God.
"The church always looks to her then, not only as this extremely privileged person to have given birth to Christ, but also as a profound example of obedience and fidelity to God."
Religion on 03/25/2017
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