Akathists and Novenas are special prayer services in the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches. These services are often devoted to a particular saint, and in many cases this saint is Mary. One of the most beloved Akathists in the Eastern Orthodox Church is in honor of Mary, and is usually referred to simply as “The Akathist Hymn.” This hymn dates back to about the middle of the sixth century, and is usually attributed to Saint Romanos the Melodist.
The word Akathist literally means “not sitting.” Akathist hymns give honor to a particular holy person, and for this reason, people stand while praying them. The Akathists alternate between repetitive verses and unique stanzas. “The Akathist Hymn” uses poetic language to demonstrate the cohesiveness of the Scriptural message. Many Old Testament images that are often linked to Mary are mentioned in the Akathist. Mary is called the “Heavenly Ladder by which God came down,” a reference to Jacob's Ladder, as well as the “Tabernacle of God the World.” The Akathist also features language that demonstrates the way in which the Virgin Mary is symbolic of all of creation. She is seen as the earth, while Christ is the lifegiving wheat that comes from it. Likewise, just as Christ will ultimately become “The Bread of Life” through his sacrifice on the cross, the Virgin Mary is seen in this hymn as the table upon which the feast is spread. These images express the multiple ways through which creator and creature were unified in the person of Christ, all of this made possible by the Virgin Mary's willingness to bear the seed of God in her womb.
The Akathist also describes Mary as the star causing the sun to shine. Star imagery surrounding the Virgin Mary comes up quite frequently. Just as a star led the shepherds to the manger where the Virgin had given birth, and the Virgin Mary is often adorned with stars in her icons, the term Stella Maris or “Star of the Sea” is frequently used as an image of Mary's guiding presence through the storms of life.