Trying to get back on track with the last third of this book. :D
This section deals with the Akathist Hymn, which was written around AD 520.
We spoke, briefly, in the previous section about the transmission of oral traditions. However, with the Akathist Hymn, we have a very carefully written work. One that is meant to convey Scriptural allusions and theological paradoxes to listeners who are illiterate. Who cannot read the texts for themselves.
This is not because the Bible was kept locked away from them, because they 'lacked understanding' or anything like that. The simple fact of the matter is that literacy wasn't yet a standard thing. The higher classes learned to read, but they were always a minority. Even those who could read were less than likely to have their very own copy of the Bible, or even books of the Bible. We're still 900 years away from the invention of the printing press. Every copy of every book had to be written by hand. It was time consuming and expensive.
The author-composer of hymns such as these must take profound theological ideas and make them accessible to an audience who will only experience them through the hearing of the hymn. The facts need to be condensed down into memorable nuggets. And setting them to music always helps. :)
"The Akathist Hymn is regarded as the brightest example of a hymn form, the kontakion, which accomplishes these tasks magnificently."
But the composer, St. Romanos, did not at first seem naturally inclined to such a task. He was born in Syria around AD 475 and served first as a deacon in Beirut and then in Constantinople. He was attracted to the church of Blachernae and settled there. In this Eastern capital he was far out of his depth. The city priests mocked his country manners, his lack of theological education and his sour singing voice. The elaborate liturgies required a great deal of vocal skill, and in Constantinople poor chanters were not welcome.
On the night before Christmas, Romanos prayed and wept in the church until he fell asleep. He dreamed, and in the dream the Theotokos appeared to him and gave him a scroll which she instructed him to swallow. The next day, at the service for the Nativity of Christ, Romanos sang a new hymn in a voice of unearthly beauty:
Today the Virgin gives birth to the Inexpressible,
and the earth offers a cave to the Unapproachable;
angels and shepherds together give glory,
and the Magi are guided by a star,
when for our sakes was born, as a new babe,
The one who from eternity is God.
His hymns are still sung in the Orthodox church today.