On this day, the Saturday of the fifth week of Great Lent, we celebrate the Akathist Hymn of our Most Holy Lady Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary.
In 626, when Heraclius (610-41) held the imperial authority of the Romans,(1) Chozroes, the king of the Persians, seeing that Roman resources had been extremely depleted by the previous emperor, Phocas the Tyrant (602-10), sent one of his satraps named Sarvaros with many thousands of troops in order to subjugate the entire East to himself. Prior to this, Chozroes had captured one hundred thousand Christians whom their enemies bought and killed. The chief satrap Sarvaros ravaged the entire East and even reached as far as Chrysopolis, which is now called Skoutarion. Emperor Heraclius, being destitute of public funds, converted the sacred vessels of the churches into currency, promising to later replace them with more and finer ones. And thus, crossing the Black Sea with his ships, he invaded the regions of Persia, which he vanquished, utterly defeating Chozroes with his army. Shortly thereafter, Chozroes' son Seiroes rebelled against his father and killed him; he assumed authority and made peace with Emperor Heraclius.
At that time, Chaganos, the ruler of the Mysians and Scythians, upon learning that the emperor was across the sea with the Persians, broke his treaties with the Romans and, marshaling together a great army, attacked Constantinople from the western regions, shouting blasphemies against God. Hence, the sea was at once full of ships, and the land swarmed with countless foot soldiers and cavalry. The Patriarch Sergius did much to convince the populace of Constantinople not to capitulate, but to commit their every hope wholeheartedly to God and to His Mother, the all-immaculate Theotokos. Indeed, Vonos, the patrician who at that time was managing the city, began taking the necessary measures to repulse the attackers (for, together with the aid from on high, we also must do what is in our power). The Patriarch, for his part, taking with him the sacred icons of the Mother of God, together with the entire multitude, compassed the city walls from above, thereby procuring their security. Then, Sarvaros from the east and Chaganos from the west began to set fire to the areas surrounding the city, and the Patriarch circled the city walls, bringing with him the icon of Christ Not-Made-by-Hands and the portions of the precious and Life-giving Cross, as well as the precious robe of the Mother of God. Chaganos the Scythian, with a countless multitude of well-armed forces, attacked Constantinople at the walls on the land side. There were so many enemy forces that clearly it was one Roman fighting against ten Scythians. But the invincible Champion Lady destroyed many of them with the very few soldiers who were stationed at her Church of the Spring. Deriving fresh courage from this, and bolstered by such an invincible general -- the Mother of God -- the Romans began mightily defeating the enemy. The city's nobles sought to make a peace treaty, but they were rejected by Chaganos, who replied, "Do not be deceived on account of the God in whom you believe, for tomorrow I shall by all means take your city." Upon hearing this, the inhabitants of the city lifted up their hands to God. So Chaganos and Sarvaros concurred, and they attacked both by land and by sea, eager to take the city by means of their war engines. But they were defeated by the Romans to such an extent that those who remained alive were not sufficient to burn their dead. The canoes full of armed soldiers had penetrated into the so-called Horn Bay and had landed at the Church of the Mother of God in BlachernŠ. Suddenly, a violent storm fell upon the sea and rent it asunder. As a result, the canoes and all the enemy ships were destroyed, and one could see the extraordinary masterstroke of the all-pure Mother of God. For all were washed up onto the shore at BlachernŠ, whereupon the people of the city quickly threw open the gates and utterly wiped them out, the women and children all performing courageously. The enemy leaders retreated weeping and lamenting. The God-loving people of Constantinople, on the other hand, exuberantly sang hymns of praise to the Mother of God all night without sitting (Gk. akathistos), ascribing to her the favor of having been vigilant for their sake, and having accomplished, by supernatural power, victory over the enemies.
So it was from that time that the Church instituted the tradition of dedicating such a feast to the Mother of God in remembrance of this great and supernatural miracle. It was named Akathistos because all the clergy and the people stood during the service.
Some thirty-six years later, during the reign of the emperor Constantine Pogonatos (641-68), the Moslems marshaled together countless forces and once more attacked Constantinople. And they besieged it continually for seven years; for they encamped and spent the winters in the regions of Cyzikos, where they ravaged much of the local population. Afterwards, they gave up and retreated with their fleet. But when they reached the Sylaeo, they all sank at sea, due to the all-pure Mother of God's guardianship of her people.
Yet a third time, during the reign of Emperor Leo the Isaurian, the Moslems -- many tens of thousands in number -- first vanquished the kingdom of the Persians, then Egypt and Libya, and also invaded the regions of India, Ethiopia, and Spain. Finally, in 717 under the Saracen leader Maslamah, they marched against the very Queen of Cities itself, together with a fleet of eighteen hundred ships. Having surrounded the city, they expected to take it at once. The pious people of Constantinople propitiated God with tears, circling the city walls with the venerable wood of the precious and Life-giving Cross and the august icon of the Mother of God, the "Directress." With optimistic expectations, the Moslems divided into two groups: the one marching against the Bulgars and incurring over twenty thousand casualties, the other remaining to take the city. Hindered by the chain that extended from Galatas to the city walls, and almost entering the so-called Sosthenion, there a north wind fell on them, and most of their ships were broken and destroyed. The remaining forces encountered great famine and were forced to eat human flesh mingled with dung. Then, retreating to the Aegean, they sank at high sea, together with all their ships, on the eve of the Annunciation, March 24, 718, for a hailstorm fell upon them from heaven which caused the sea to boil, dissolving the pitch on the ships. And thus, that immense fleet with all its crew utterly perished except for three crafts, which were spared in order to report the event.
So, it is because of all these supernatural wonders of the all-pure Mother of God that we celebrate this feast. It was named Akathistos because the entire population sang the Hymn to the Mother of the Logos that night without sitting, and also because we customarily sit for all other oikoi -- or hymns -- whereas for these oikoi to the Mother of God, we listen to them standing.
Through the intercessions of Your Mother, the Unassailable Champion, O Christ our God, redeem us from besetting calamities, and have mercy on us and save us, as the only Lover of Mankind. Amen.
(1) The Byzantines were "Roman" in the sense that they were the legitimate continuation of the Roman Empire and inheritors of the Roman legacy. Due to the sins of mankind, the empire ceased as a political entity on May 29, 1453, when Constantinople, the New Rome, that Queen of Cities, was captured by the Moslems under the leadership of Sultan Mohammed II.