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Friday
Mar152013

The Akathist Hymn

This version of the Akathist Hymn is my translation, from my book “Mary as the Eastern Christians Knew Her.”  (Note: this is a paperback version of a book published a few years ago in hardback as “The Lost Gospel of Mary.” We decided to change the title, since the “Lost Gospel” meme has passed.)

The main thing I wanted to do was to provide footnotes for all the verses from Scripture and other references St. Romanos makes, since just singing it in church it goes by so quickly. It is a beautiful hymn, very profound, and makes a good text for study and prayer.

St. Romanos, author of the Akathist Hymn, was born in Beirut in 475 AD. He wrote a thousand hymns, and invented this particular form or pattern of hymn, called an akathist. Since this particular one is the best known of them all, it is often called simply “the Akathist Hymn” or sometimes “The Akathist Salutations to the Virgin.”

This hymn is in 24 stanzas, short followed by long, over and over. In Greek, each stanza starts with a lettter of the alphabet, in order: alpha, beta, gamma, delta, etc. The first half of the akathist traces the history of Christ’s Incarnation from the Annunciation to the visit of the Magi. The second half explores the theological meaning of his Incarnation and the Virgin’s pregnancy, drawing on many Scriptures. I have put in footnotes to supply the text of those Scriptures, and also explain some of the points St. Romanos is making, or wordplay in Greek.

This beautiful hymn is offered during Lent, even though it has no reference to Lent, because it is based in the Annunication, which comes on March 25—almost always, during Lent. In the first week of Lent many Orthodox churches offer the hymn as a service, 1/4 of it each Friday in a row and the whole hymn on the 5th Friday.

 

The Annunciation Hymn

 Oikos 1

 An Archangel was sent from heaven to cry “Rejoice!” to the Theotokos;[1]

and, O Lord, as he saw you taking bodily form

at the sound of his bodiless voice,

he stood wonder-struck[2]

crying out such things as these:

 

Rejoice, for through you joy will shine forth,

Rejoice, for through you bondage will cease,

Rejoice, arising of fallen Adam,

Rejoice, release of weeping Eve,[3]

Rejoice, height surpassing all human thought,

Rejoice, depth profoundly beyond angels’ sight,

Rejoice, for you furnish a kingly throne,

Rejoice, for you hold him who upholds all,

Rejoice, star in which the sun is revealed,

Rejoice, womb in which God takes on flesh,

Rejoice, for through you creation is reborn,

Rejoice, for through you we worship the Creator![4]

Rejoice, O Unmarried Bride!

 

 

Oikos 2

 

Seeing herself pure, the holy maiden

spoke to Gabriel boldly:

The strange wonder you tell appears hard to my soul,

for you speak of a birth

from a seedless conception, crying aloud:

Alleluia![5]

 

Oikos 3

 

Seeking to know what cannot be known,

the Virgin spoke to the one who came to her:

Tell me, how can a chaste womb bear a son?

But in fear he replied,

crying out only this:

 

Rejoice, initiate of ineffable counsel,

Rejoice, faith keeping silence in stillness,

Rejoice, inauguration of Christ’s mighty deeds,[6]

Rejoice, crown of his excellent teachings,

Rejoice, ladder of heaven by which God descends,[7]

Rejoice, bridge that guides the earthly to heaven,

Rejoice, jubilant wonder to angels,

Rejoice, disastrous wound to the demons,

Rejoice, for you give birth to Light inexpressible,

Rejoice, for you told no one how it was done, [8]

Rejoice, understanding surpassing the wise,

Rejoice, dawn enlightening faithful minds,

Rejoice, O Unmarried Bride!

 

Oikos 4

 

Then power from the Most High

overshadowed[9] the maiden unto conception;

and her fruitful womb was revealed as a fertile field

to all who wish to reap salvation,

as they sing:

Alleluia!

 

Oikos 5

 

Enclosing God within her womb,

the virgin hastened to Elizabeth,

whose unborn babe at once recognized her greeting,

and rejoiced with leaping as if with songs[10],

crying out to the Theotokos:

 

Rejoice, branch of unwithering bud,

Rejoice, orchard of unfading fruit,

Rejoice, sustainer of him who sustains human love,

Rejoice, care-giver of him who cares for our life,

Rejoice, farmland rich with boundless compassion,

Rejoice, table laden with bountiful mercies,

Rejoice, for you awaken the meadows of joy,

Rejoice, for you offer a harbor for souls,

Rejoice, worthy incense of intercession,

Rejoice, mercy seat of all the world,[11]

Rejoice, good pleasure of God toward mortals,

Rejoice, assurance[12] of mortals toward God,

Rejoice, O Unmarried Bride!

 

Oikos 6

 

A storm of doubtful thoughts roiled within the prudent Joseph,

for he looked on you unwedded

and he feared a stolen union, O Blameless One;

but on learning your child-bearing

was of the Holy Spirit, he said:

Alleluia!

 

Oikos 7

 

Hearing angels singing of Christ’s coming in the flesh,

the shepherds ran as to a shepherd;

and when they saw the spotless lamb[13]

who had pastured in the womb of Mary,

they sang her praise and said:

 

Rejoice, mother of both Lamb and Shepherd,[14]

Rejoice, fold of sheep made wise,[15]

Rejoice, sure wall against foes unseen,

Rejoice, opener of Paradise-gates,

Rejoice, for the heavens exult with the earth,[16]

Rejoice, for the earthly sing praise with the heavens,

Rejoice, never-silenced voice of apostles,

Rejoice, never-conquered courage of martyrs,

Rejoice, firm foundation of faith,

Rejoice, bright revelation of grace,

Rejoice, through you Hades is stripped bare,[17]

Rejoice, through you we are gloriously robed,

Rejoice, O Unmarried Bride!

 

Oikos 8

 

The Magi beheld a star leading toward God

and they followed its brilliance,

and holding it as a lamp they went seeking a king.

And having approached the Unapproachable,[18]

with rejoicing they cried to him:

Alleluia!

 

Oikos 9

 

The sons of the Chaldees beheld in the hands of the Virgin

the one whose hand fashioned all of mankind.[19]

And knowing him as master, though in the form of a servant,[20]

they hastened with gifts to honor him,

and to the Blessed they cried:

 

Rejoice, mother of the unsetting star,[21]

Rejoice, dawn of the mystic day,

Rejoice, for you extinguish the flames of deceit,

Rejoice, for you enlighten the Trinity’s worshipers,[22]

Rejoice, downfall of the tyrant who hates mankind,

Rejoice, arising of Christ, the Lord who loves mankind,

Rejoice, liberation from barbarous rituals,

Rejoice, deliverance from ugly works,[23]

Rejoice, the end of the worship of fire,

Rejoice, deliverance from fiery cravings,[24]

Rejoice, guide of the faithful to chastity,

Rejoice, delight of all generations,

Rejoice, O Unmarried Bride!

 

Oikos 10

 

God-bearing heralds the Magi became when they

came back to Babylon; they fulfilled the prophecy,

and proclaimed you to all as the Christ.

And Herod they abandoned as a babbler[25]

who knew not how to sing:

Alleluia!

 

Oikos 11

 

Lighting in Egypt the lamp of truth,

you cast out the darkness of falsehood, O Savior.

For those idols could not resist your might and they fell;

and those who were freed from them[26]

cried aloud to the Theotokos:

 

Rejoice, uplifter of mankind,

Rejoice, downfall of demons,

Rejoice, trampler of misleading error,

Rejoice, exposer of fraudulent idols,[27]

Rejoice, sea that drowns the noetic Pharaoh,[28]

Rejoice, rock that refreshes those thirsting for life,

Rejoice, fiery pillar, leading those in darkness,

Rejoice, shelter of the world, broader than a cloud[29],

Rejoice, nourishment better than manna,

Rejoice, minister of holy delight,

Rejoice, good land that had been promised,

Rejoice, from which flows honey and milk,

Rejoice, O Unmarried Bride!

 

Oikos 12

 

Very near to departing from this deceitful age

was Simeon when you were brought to him as a babe,[30]

but he recognized you as perfect God.

Overwhelmed, therefore, by your ineffable wisdom,

he cried out:

Alleluia!

 

Oikos 13

 

A new Creation was revealed by the Creator

to us whom he had made;

for he budded from a seedless womb

and preserved it as it was, unchanged,[31]

so that we who see this wonder may cry aloud and sing:

 

Rejoice, flower of incorruption,

Rejoice, crown of chastity,[32]

Rejoice, for you prefigure the bright Resurrection,

Rejoice, for you model the life of the angels,[33]

Rejoice, fruitful tree, feeding the faithful,

Rejoice, leafy tree, sheltering many,

Rejoice, for you bore a guide for the wayward,

Rejoice, for you delivered a deliverer of captives,

Rejoice, supplicant before the just Judge,

Rejoice, mercy for many who stumble,

Rejoice, robe adorning those stripped of assurance,[34]

Rejoice, tenderness conquering unwanted desires,[35]

Rejoice, O Unmarried Bride!

 

Oikos 14

 

Having seen this strange birth-giving,

let us become strangers to the world

and be brought over into heaven.

The Most High appeared on earth in humble human form,

for he wished to draw on high those who cry out unto him:

Alleluia!

 

Oikos 15

 

Wholly present among those below,

yet in no way absent from those above,

was the Word that cannot be encircled by words;

for thus did God condescend, and not merely descend to a different place.[36]

He was born from a God-receiving virgin, who hears these words:

 

Rejoice, homeland of the boundless God,[37]

Rejoice, doorway of sacred mystery,

Rejoice, dubious myth to the faithless,

Rejoice, confident boast of the faithful,

Rejoice, all-holy chariot of him above the cherubim,

Rejoice, all-virtuous home of him above the seraphim,[38]

Rejoice, for you draw opposites into harmony,

Rejoice, for you join childbirth with virginity,

Rejoice, you through whom transgression is annulled,

Rejoice, you through whom Paradise is opened,

Rejoice, key of the kingdom of Christ,

Rejoice, hope of eternal good things,

Rejoice, O Unmarried Bride!

 

Oikos 16

 

Every order of angels[39] was amazed at your mighty work

when you assumed human nature;

for they saw the one who is unapproachable as God

become approachable to all as man,

dwelling among us, and hearing from all:

Alleluia!

 

Oikos 17

 

We see eloquent orators voiceless as fish

before you, Theotokos, for they cannot explain

how you are a virgin and yet can give birth;

but in awe at the mystery,

in faith we cry out:

 

Rejoice, vessel of God’s wisdom,

Rejoice, treasury of his providence,

Rejoice, for you show the worldly-wise barren of wisdom,

Rejoice, for you prove the logicians empty of logic,[40]

Rejoice, subtle debaters are turned into fools,

Rejoice, myth-makers must wither away,

Rejoice, for you smash the traps of Athenians,

Rejoice, for you fill the nets of the fishermen,[41]

Rejoice, drawing us up from the depths of ignorance,

Rejoice, bringing many to bright understanding,

Rejoice, ship of those who yearn for salvation,

Rejoice, harbor for those faring over life’s sea,

Rejoice, O Unmarried Bride!

 

Oikos 18

 

Desiring to save the world, the world-maker

came down upon it by his own free will.

As God he is our shepherd from eternity,

yet for our sake he showed himself in our own likeness;

and having called from like to like,[42] as God he hears:

Alleluia!

 

Oikos 19

 

You are a battlement to virgins

and to all who run to you, Virgin Theotokos;

for the maker of heaven and earth

prepared you, O Pure One, dwelling in your womb

and teaching all to call to you:

 

Rejoice, pillar of virgins,

Rejoice, gate of salvation,

Rejoice, beginning of noetic restoration,

Rejoice, bestowal of God’s benevolence,

Rejoice, new birth for those conceived in shame,

Rejoice, new understanding for those whose minds were plundered,

Rejoice, for you destroy the seducer of thoughts,[43]

Rejoice, for you give birth to the Sower of chastity,

Rejoice, bridal chamber of a virgin marriage,

Rejoice, for you wed believers to the Lord,

Rejoice, fair nursing-mother of virgins,

Rejoice, betrother of holy souls,[44]

Rejoice, O Unmarried Bride!

 

Oikos 20

 

Every hymn that seeks to recount the multitudes

of your many mercies must fail; for even if we offered songs

as numerous as the sands, O Holy King,

we accomplish nothing worthy of what you have given us,

who cry to you:

Alleluia!

 

Oikos 21

 

We behold the holy Virgin as a light-bearing beacon

shining on those in darkness;

for by kindling the immaterial light she guides all to divine knowledge,

illuminating the mind with radiance,

and her we honor with this cry:

 

Rejoice, ray of the noetic sun,

Rejoice, beam of the unsetting moon,

Rejoice, lightning flashing upon our souls,

Rejoice, thunder smashing our enemies,[45]

Rejoice, for through you the many-starred light now dawns,

Rejoice, for through you the many-streamed river now flows,

Rejoice, life-model of the baptismal font,

Rejoice, removal of the stain of sin,

Rejoice, laver for the cleansing of conscience,[46]

Rejoice, wine-bowl for the mixing of joy,[47]

Rejoice, fragrance of the sweetness of Christ,

Rejoice, life of mystic festival,

Rejoice, O Unmarried Bride!

 

Oikos 22

 

Wishing to forgive the ancient debts of all mankind,

the Creditor himself came

and dwelt among those who had departed from his grace,

and tearing up the written charge

he hears from all:[48]

Alleluia!

 

Oikos 23

 

We praise your Child, and likewise hymn you

as a living temple, Theotokos;

for the Lord who holds all things in his hand dwelt within your womb,

and hallowed and glorified you,

and taught all to cry to you:

 

Rejoice, tabernacle of God the Word,

Rejoice, greater Holy of Holies,

Rejoice, Ark made golden by the Spirit,

Rejoice, inexhaustible treasury of life,

Rejoice, precious diadem of godly rulers,

Rejoice, honorable boast of reverent priests,

Rejoice, unshakable tower of the Church,

Rejoice, unbreachable wall of the kingdom,

Rejoice, for through you trophies are raised up,

Rejoice, for through you enemies are cast down,

Rejoice, healing of my body,[49]

Rejoice, salvation of my soul,

Rejoice, O Unmarried Bride!

 

Oikos 24

 

O all-praised Mother, who bore the Word,

the Holiest of all holy ones,

as you now receive this offering, deliver from all calamity,

and rescue from impending punishment

those who cry to you:

Alleluia!

 


[1] As Luke tells us, “The angel Gabriel was sent from God … to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph” (Luke 1:26–27).

 

[2] The angels are sometimes called “bodiless powers,” emphasizing that these creatures who serve God’s will do not participate in the matter of the universe. The astonishment of the angels at Christ’s Incarnation is a common theme in Eastern hymns. As Gabriel cries out to Mary with a “bodiless voice,” he perceives the “bodily form” of the immaterial and immortal Son of God beginning to appear.

 

[3] Gabriel’s first address to the Virgin considers the conception of Christ in light of the earliest moments of human history, and recollects the Creation and Adam and Eve’s fall, as found in Genesis 1–3.

 

[4] “Creation is reborn.” In “On the Incarnation” (ad 320), St. Athanasius says that when a portrait is damaged it is not thrown away, “but the subject of the portrait must go in and sit for it again, and then the likeness is redrawn on the same material.” Christ’s Incarnation likewise redraws the “image of God” on material human life. He fills damaged human nature with divinity, healing and restoring it to its first beauty.

 

[5] Luke writes, “But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and considered in her mind what sort of greeting this might be” (Luke 1:29). The Gospel of Luke presents the events of Christ’s conception and birth from Mary’s point of view. Luke was an educated man, a physician and friend of St. Paul (Colossians 4:14), born in Antioch and probably fluent in both Greek and Aramaic. The Gospel he wrote is the most literary of the four. Luke is something of an investigative reporter; he explains in his first chapter that his aim was to “compile a narrative of the things … delivered to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses” (Luke 1:1–2).

                One of the most important eyewitnesses “from the beginning” would, of course, be the Virgin Mary. Tradition holds that Luke paid her a visit, while she was peacefully living out her last days in the home of St. John. She is the only possible source for the events of the Annunciation, or for details like “Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Luke 2:19). It is appealing to imagine the elderly peasant woman and the bright young man sitting together, he taking rapid notes while she draws up from the well of memory the unforgettable moments of decades before.

 

[6] The Gospel of St. John identifies the miracle at the wedding in Cana, in which Christ turned water to wine, as “the first of his signs” (John 2:11), but the angel here points to the Incarnation as a miracle preceding even that.

 

[7] Jacob “dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven” (Genesis 28:12). This ladder foreshadows the Virgin’s role in enabling God to descend in human form. Jesus said to the Apostle Nathaniel, “Truly, truly I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man” (John 1:51).

 

[8] Gabriel’s emphasis on silence and stillness is fitting for a miracle that cannot be expressed in words.

 

 

[9] The angel told Mary, “The power of the Most High will overshadow you” (Luke 1:35). Readers of the Septuagint found a foreshadowing in Habakkuk 3:3, “God shall come out of …  a mountain overshadowed.”

 

[10] Luke writes, “And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb” (Luke 1:41). Romanos here imagines what the joyous leaping of the unborn John would be communicating if expressed in words.

 

[11] God instructed Moses to make a “mercy seat,” a golden platform, and place it on top of the ark (the golden chest containing the tablets of the Law). On the mercy seat were set two carved cherubim (plural of “cherub”), facing each other with wings touching. This was understood to be the throne of the invisible God, the place where humans find mercy and are reconciled to God. Mary herself now becomes the mercy seat of the whole world. In icons that depict the Ark being carried into Solomon’s temple, an image of the Theotokos is shown engraved on the side of the Ark.

 

[12] “Assurance” is an attempt to translate parresia, which means being able to speak freely—for example, a commoner who has been so welcomed by a king that he feels he can say honestly whatever is on his mind. This is one of the first steps in prayer.

 

[13] The first letter of St. Peter says Jesus is like “a lamb without blemish or spot” (1 Peter 1:19). God’s instructions for the Israelites at the first Passover required a lamb “without blemish” (Exodus 12:5).

 

[14] Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd” (John 10:11).

 

[15] The shepherds, naturally, draw their analogies from sheepfolds and lambs. The phrase here is literally “logical sheep,” but the term is misleading; it does not imply “rational” so much as “enlightened.” The “sheep” who receive the light of Christ have been freed from delusion and darkness of mind, and can newly perceive God permeating and ordering his good Creation.

 

[16] Psalm 96:11 says, “Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice.”

 

[17] “Death and Hades gave up the dead in them” (Revelation 20:13).

 

[18] St. Paul writes to Timothy that God “dwells in unapproachable light” (1 Timothy 6:16).

 

[19] Job says, “Thy hands fashioned and made me” (Job 10:8).

 

[20] St. Paul writes to the Philippians: “he … emptied himself, taking the form of a servant” (Phil. 2:6–7).

 

[21] The “sons of the Chaldees” are seen as Zoroastrians, fire-worshipers, and their address to Mary is full of references to sunlight and fire.

 

[22] Mary extinguishes the fire of evil, and brings light to true worshipers. The parallelism in these two lines is not as obvious as it would have been to someone who lived before the invention of the electric bulb. For most of history, light inevitably meant fire; any reference to God as light would carry a note of respect for fire’s uncompromising power. The idea of light that is cool, harmless, and tame would be as strange to this hymn’s earlier hearers as the idea of “dry water” is to us.

 

[23] Literally, “muddy” or “slimy” works. The Greek term is borboros, a fine echo of barbaros in the preceding line.

 

[24] I have used the word “cravings” to translate the Greek word pathon here. It is usually translated “passions” in spiritual literature, but the literal meaning is “sufferings.” It refers to the habitual cravings that make us suffer, impulses like anger and greed, which unsettle us, disrupt our peace in God, and damage our relationships. The term embraces both the imperious power of the urges, and the passive helplessness we feel under such attacks. The singular is “pathos.”

 

[25] A lerode, one who says silly, nonsensical things. When the women returned from Christ’s empty tomb and told the apostles what they had seen, the apostles dismissed their words as “leros” (Luke 24:11).

 

[26] When the fugitive family arrives in Egypt, the presence of the infant Christ causes idols to topple. This recalls Isaiah’s prophecy: “Behold, the Lord is riding on a swift cloud and comes to Egypt; and the idols of Egypt will tremble at his presence” (Isaiah 19:1). The coming of this Jewish family to Egypt frees the Egyptians who had been enslaved to idols, just as the Jews were freed from slavery in Egypt, thousands of years before. Christianity was established in Egypt very early; the Coptic Church traces its founding to the preaching of St. Mark in Alexandria, in ad 45.

 

[27] Idol worship is not merely forbidden; it is a fraud. The idea that a physical object has magical powers twists the inborn human faculty for worship into something ruled by manipulation and fear. It is hard for us to conceive of how liberating it was for ancient peoples to discover that the real God transcended all those dumb, terrifying objects—and, what’s more, that he loved them, and had personally come to earth, and died to free them from Death. There’s a reason that the Gospel was called the “Good News.”

 

[28] “The noetic Pharaoh” is the Evil One, who meddles in the realm of spiritual perception (the arena of the nous, hence the adjective “noetic”) to capture human minds. By misleading, confusing, intimidating, and disturbing human beings, he wrecks their ability to perceive the world in God-centered tranquility.

                From here through the rest of this oikos, the analogies are all to the experience of the Jews when freed from Egypt: they escaped Pharaoh, were given water from a rock, were led by a fiery pillar at night and a cloud by day, ate manna, and came into a promised land flowing with milk and honey.

 

[29] In our rainy climates, a cloud suggests disappointment: “a cloud came over the gathering.” But in arid lands where the sun beats down mercilessly, a cloud is a sign of blessing, and an emblem of shelter and safety.

 

[30] Simeon was a citizen of Jerusalem, aged and devout, who had received a promise from God that he would not die before seeing the “anointed one,” the Christ. He was in the temple when Mary and Joseph brought in the infant Jesus, to make the customary presentation of a first-born son with the sacrifice of two doves.

 

[31] Mary’s virginity before and after childbirth are here understood as the inbreaking of a new kind of Creation. Another hymn to Mary says, “Wherever God wills, the order of nature is overthrown.”

 

[32] Chastity is here paired with immortality; a body that is untouched and virginal is like one that has escaped the corruption of death.

 

[33] Monastic life, by definition chaste, aims to replicate the life of angels.

 

[34] The term again is parresia. We can imagine a person who is too intimidated to speak in the presence of a king, who feels naked of worth. But the part Mary played in salvation is a reminder of God’s loving outreach toward humanity, and provides a robe of confidence.

 

[35] Readers of C. S. Lewis’s The Four Loves would recognize the word translated “tenderness” as storge, the kind of love that characterizes family life. Mary’s motherly tenderness strengthens our resistance to tormenting desires.

 

[36] Romanos is at pains to communicate that Christ’s life on earth did not mean he was absent from heaven; it was a “condescension” rather than a mere “descent.” This is a difficult concept, but when it is expressed in song and in a memorable turn of phrase, any worshiper could take hold of it and retain it for further contemplation.

 

[37] A brilliant paradox, more tidy in Greek: Mary is the chora of God, who is himself achora.

 

[38] Because of the two carved golden cherubim atop the “mercy seat,” God is often hailed in Scripture as “enthroned above the cherubim” (2 Kings 19:15, 1 Chronicles 13:6, Isaiah 37:16). Seraphim (singular, “seraph”) on the other hand are mentioned only once in Scripture: Isaiah recounts a vision he had in the temple, in which he saw God on a high throne, surrounded by six-winged angels who sang “Holy, Holy, Holy” (Isaiah 6:1–7).

 

[39] The term “angel” means simply “messenger.” The traditional Christian understanding (adopted from the fifth-century writings of St. Dionysius) is that there are nine ranks of these heavenly beings, of which angels and archangels are in the lowest order, while cherubim and seraphim are in the highest.

 

[40] The philo-sophers (lovers of wisdom) are a-sophos and the techno-logists(crafters of logic) are a-logos. The early Christians did not admire the Greek philosophers as much as Christians did later on in the West. In the early centuries, the term philosopher meant a pagan opponent of Christianity, and a clever debater at that. Saints’ victories over “philosophers” are still celebrated in some of the Eastern Church’s hymns. For example, the kontakion of St. Sophia says, “Sophia, the namesake of wisdom, by grace has shown all that Greek wisdom is foolishness.” And the kontakion of St. Catherine, who bested philosophers in debate, tells us that she “trampled the serpent down and spat on the knowledge of the eloquent.”

 

[41] This is a wonderful series of lines, which turns from the cleverly woven (ploke) rhetorical traps of Athenian philosophers to the humble nets of the apostolic fishermen. You can almost feel the journey: into the net, up from the depths, into the light, onto the ship, safe in the harbor. The startling image of orators “voiceless as fish” now gets tied into an evolving metaphor.

 

[42] God became like us in order to reach us. Once I saw a hawk fly into a window and drop the young squirrel it was carrying. As I walked further on, I began to hear the squirrel’s parent squeaking and searching for it. I couldn’t figure out any way to bring them closer together; for them to trust me, I would have had to become a squirrel. God had to become one of us. He calls “from like to like,” and in return hears our Alleluia.

 

[43] Sins are the end result of a process that begins long before, with damaged or corrupted thoughts and perceptions. Temptations are the Evil One’s attempts to sow this disordered thinking, a project calculated to hit each person in his weak point. “Each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin; and sin when it is full-grown brings forth death” (James 1:14–15).

 

[44] These lines make it clear that the Virgin is not herself the focus of salvation, but a beloved and admirable friend who helps us to that goal: she is bridal chamber, nursing-mother, and betrother.

 

[45] The “enemies” are the lying demons, in hymnography as in Christian reading of the Psalms. A line like “Happy shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!” (Psalm 137:9) may have had a horrifying meaning when it was penned, but to Christians it now means vigilance against the Evil One and the sneaky little devil-planted thoughts and deeds that infiltrate and poison our relationship with God. An Eastern Christian hymn in honor of the Holy Cross expresses a similar idea: “Through the Cross we have been found worthy to smash the heads of invisible enemies.”

 

[46] The laver was a very large bronze vessel, in which priests washed their hands and feet before participating in sacrifices. To Christians it became an emblem of the baptismal font, and St. Paul uses the same term in his letter to Titus: “the laver of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit” (author’s translation, Titus 3:5).

 

[47] A wine-bowl, or krater, was a large bowl in which wine and water were mixed before serving. “Wisdom has . . . mixed her wine, she has also set her table” (Proverbs 9:1–2). This oikos begins with images of light, then moves to images of water, and proceeds from the baptismal font to joyous feasting.

 

[48] In this beautiful summary God does it all: the “Creditor” comes to those who had fled from him and cancels their debt.

 

[49] Only in these concluding lines does Romanos drop into the first person. He has completed a hymn to the Theotokos that is remarkable in its brilliance and concision; his strong love for her is shown by every line. But here, at the conclusion, in two brief lines he speaks personally.

                Is it improper for him to call her “healing of my body” and “salvation of my soul?” Certainly, only God deserves such praise. But it’s clear from the rest of this work that Romanos was not confused on that point. He repeatedly emphasizes God’s initiative in salvation, and Mary’s role as vessel, facilitator, “betrother.” Yet here by a kind of poetic license he sums up the joy of salvation and thanks Mary for her unique role. You could call it “kissing the messenger.”

                May we learn from his example how to honor, and even love, this woman whom Jesus knew as mother, whom he has given to us as well.

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Reader Comments (1)

Frederica,

You are a joy! Thank you for this piece. As one who is learning about the Orthodox faith, I am learning so much about Mary that I never knew or considered. I'm learning to be comfortable with the Theotokos . . . to love her as my own mother.

I look forward to finding treasure in your posts.
May God Bless you!
May 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDavid Brent

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