The Akathist Hymn
Among the most widely celebrated services of worship in our Church, outside the daily cycle, is the Akathist Hymn. The word akathistos is a Greek term meaning literally non-sitting (hymn). It designates a special type of song of praise in honour of Christ, the Mother of God, or the saints, the solemnity of which is stressed by the standing prayer posture. Akathists can be celebrated communally in church or privately. Traditionally akathists are composed of twelve songs that comprise twenty-four strophes. This number corresponds to the twenty-four letters of the Greek alphabet. Each letter begins a new strophe, forming an acrostic, that is, a phrase derived from the first letters of each verse. This phrase conveys the akathist’s contents.
Each of the songs of the akathist consists of (i) a kontakion, which announces the theme of the prayer and concludes with “Alleluia;” and (ii) an oikos, which elaborates on the announced theme. The entire akathist ends with a repetition of the oikos and kontakion of the first song. In this way, the uninterrupted duration of Christian prayer—where the “end” becomes a new “beginning”—is expressed.
The most ancient among the known akathists is that dedicated to the most holy Mother of God. It is sung at Matins on the fifth Saturday of Great Lent, but it is chanted on other days of the liturgical year. Following the model of this akathist, other akathists were composed to the Most Holy Trinity, to Jesus Christ, to the Precious and Life-Giving Cross of Christ, and to the angels and saints. There are also akathists in honour of wonder-working icons and even for spiritual needs (for the deceased, in preparation before Communion, and others).
Akathists to Jesus Christ, the Mother of God, and to the saints combine a prayerful exchange with the holy person along with a commemoration of events of their life and a theological interpretation of these events. They also include the prayer of the heart through the rhythmic repetition of key words such as “Alleluia” and “Rejoice.”
Prayer Services of Intercession and Thanksgiving (Molebens)
A prayer-service (in Ukrainian, moleben; in Greek, paraklesis, meaning advocacy or consolation) is a thanksgiving or intercessory service addressed to Christ, the Mother of God, or the saints. It is served on the occasion of particular events in the life of the ecclesial community, society at large, or individual persons and their needs. In these intercessory prayer-services we ask for God’s mercy, protection, and help. In thanksgiving, or praise services, we thank God for his gracious deeds. These prayer services are offered in conjunction with joyous events—or tragic episodes—in the life of a nation. The thanksgiving can be for graces received from God, while prayers for protection can relate to natural disasters (droughts, floods, and famines) or enemy invasions and the like. Frequently, the faithful request such services in connection with diverse circumstances in their lives, for example, the health of a sick person. Prayer-services (molebens) are also celebrated on the occasion of particular events in the life of an ecclesial community. Thus they can take place during the patronal feast of a church or on saints’ feast days.
The variety of prayer-services (molebens) is grounded in the desire to render human activity spiritual, to engage in it with God’s help and blessing. Replete with intercessions, these services have the character of insistent, profound prayer, which unites those praying in a moving love for God and one another.