The richness of the Byzantine liturgical life of prayer has overwhelmed many, particularly those of us who are tasked with leading singing the multitude of services and musical tones that undergird it. The principle of lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi dictates that the prayer life of the Byzantine faithful will also influence perspective and faith in the Scriptures. From a Biblical perspective, there is a deeper foundation beyond the musical complexity of the Byzantine rite that can be a blessing to anyone with ears to hear and eyes to see. This Biblical foundation is so central and yet so often overlooked that at many times one may spend a great deal of time ignorant of its depths and splendor. By reflecting upon some of the Biblical references in the Akathist hymn, I argue that the Bible is deeply foundational to the mystical perspective which pervades Byzantine spirituality.
The Akathist hymn to the Theotokos is attributed to St. Romanos the Melodist, who is said to have composed it in the 6th century. This hymn leads those who pray it through the life of the Mother of God and the prophetic foreshadowing of her life from the Annunciation to the Birth of Christ. Why does this matter in terms of Scriptural interpretation? As we shall see, the mystical viewpoint of the Byzantine Christian Tradition comes to life in this hymn. Parallels between the Old and New Testaments are made in ways that seem shocking to the perspective that literal Biblical fulfillment is the height of good exegesis. Instead, the perspective of Old Testament fulfillment and interpretation is centered upon mystical foreshadowing that is larger than the strict message of a given text. For the purpose of this essay, we will reflect on the sixth Kontakion and Ikos, which are below (online source: http://www.orthodoxa.org/GB/orthodoxy/spirituality/AkathistMotherGodGB.htm) .
Kontakion 6 Having become God-bearing heralds, the Magi returned to Babylon. Fulfilling Your prophecy, and having preached You as the Christ to all, they left Herod as a trifler, who knew not how to chant: Alleluia.
Ikos 6 Having shed the light of truth in Egypt, You expelled the darkness of falsehood; and unable to bear Your strength, O Saviour, her idols fell; and they that were set free from them cried to the Theotokos: Rejoice, Uplifting of men. Rejoice, Downfall of demons. Rejoice, you who trampled upon the delusion of error. Rejoice, you who censured the deceit of the idols. Rejoice, Sea which drowned the symbolic Pharaoh. Rejoice, Rock which refreshed those thirsting for life. Rejoice, Pillar of fire, guiding those in darkness. Rejoice, Protection of the world, more spacious than a cloud. Rejoice, Nourishment, successor to manna. Rejoice, Minister of holy joy. Rejoice, Land of promise. Rejoice, you from whom flows milk and honey. Rejoice, O Unwedded Bride.
First, let us note that the kontakion provides the context of the rejoicing in the subsequent Ikos. In the midst of the narrative of the Annunciation and Nativity, we reflect in the 6th section upon the Magi departing from Bethlehem in a new direction. Instead of going back towards Herod, they perceive his unbelief and journey to Egypt. The Ikos too then focuses on Egypt and speaks to the Mother of God in the light of her being the Mother, as well as in relation to the people of the Old Testament. While it is true that she sojourned there with the young infant Jesus and His foster father Joseph, the words relating her to Egypt and salvation in general shed light on the Byzantine view of Scripture.
After describing the Theotokos in general terms indicating that she brings light and salvation ultimately through her Son, the Ikos places her into the contexts of the Exodus of Moses and His people from Egypt. This key section of the Ikos proclaims that Mary is a great variety of salvific events and supernatural things from the Exodus account. In sum, she is called the sea that drowned the symbolic Pharaoh (Exodus 14:28), the Rock which brought forth water (Exodus 17:6), the pillar of fire which guides those in darkness (Exodus 13:21), the protection of the world that is symbolized by the cloud (Exodus 13:21), the successor to manna (Exodus 16:4), the minister who brought joy (here the connection is somewhat unclear to Exodus, likely Moses and/or Aaron), and lastly the Promised Land that flowed with milk and honey (Exodus 3:17).
There is so much that can be said about this mystical perspective on the book of Exodus given to us in the Akathist. We are given explicit terms such as “symbolic Pharaoh” and “successor to manna” which look beyond the times of Moses and his people to consider how the Old Testament is fulfilled through Christ and His Mother. At the same time we hear about terms such as the rock and the pillar in unqualified terms as though Christ and His Mother were present in Egypt during the times of Moses; this is less difficult to consider with Christ as the Eternal God, as compared to His Mother. What is this hymn teaching us through its own “lex orandi”? From these titles given to the Mother of God, we see that the nature of Old Testament fulfillment in the New Testament is not linear. We do not look at the Exodus event and attempt to find multiple means of protection and salvation in the Akathist’s rejoicing. In other words, John the Baptist is not the Sea, Mary is not the rock, Joseph is not the pillar, Jesus is not the manna, and heaven is not the Promised Land, in this narrative at least. Instead, we are praying to and focused on one person in all of the imagery, and the Theotokos is seen as the entire bridge from Egypt to the Promised Land for the people of God led by Moses, with all of the distinct aspects of each title that she receives in her Motherhood of Christ and His Body, the Church.
In terms of the first title, she is the one who defends and even destroys the Pharaoh who attacks us. As a rock flowing with water, successor to manna, land flowing with milk and honey, she is the one who nourishes us. As a pillar of fire by night and cloud by day, she is our guide and shelter who takes us through our wanderings and journeys towards the Promised Land. As a minister, she leads and instructs us, as did Moses and Aaron (and their successors). And as Promised Land itself, she is our home.
This vision painted by just one of the Ikoi in the Akathist gives us a sense that as we read the Scriptures, we encounter salvation in a multifaceted sense. We do not look for one to one correspondence between Old and New Testaments, nor do we necessarily need to consider all things typology. Instead, we can be wise and see parallels between Old and New Testaments as we pray. And when we read the stories from the Old Testament which may seem difficult to compare to our life in Christ, we can pause and be silent if we have not been given eyes to see by the liturgical tradition which nourishes us, or through prayer and beseeching the Holy Spirit.
In conclusion, the greatness of the Byzantine Tradition is that its complexity offers the one who prays with it a wealth of inspiration. Taking the Akathist as one example, we can approach the Bible with a mystical eye that sees hidden treasures that are brought forth as we think about how the Old and New Testaments compare to one another. We can see Christ and His Mother in so many aspects of the salvation of Israel, and thus in our own salvation. Space cannot allow us to also consider other aspects where these comparisons are made in the rest of the Akathist hymn, or the ways that the lectionary’s readings for Vespers paints a similar picture between the Old and New Testaments, or the way in which Psalms are chosen for Feasts, Vespers, Matins, the Hours, and the like. In each of these, the point is reinforced: the Bible is applicable to all of our life, and we only need to enter into this wealth of beauty with eyes of faith to grasp it.