By Archbishop Stylianos Harkianakis of Australia
The period of compunction containing Salutations to the Mother of God commenced a short while ago. For five Consecutive weeks, the Churches and our souls will resound with the multiple “hail” that are chanted to her. We were taught this “greeting” to the Virgin Mary by the Archangel but, as we repeat it, we desperately try to find our own personal “share” of this joy. For, it is true that the “hail” (which in Greek means “rejoice”) expressed in worship sounds like a provocation and an irony against the mournful background of Great Lent, and indeed of the more mournful activities of everyday futility.
Nevertheless, in a world which chose “orphanhood” of its own accord as a supposed “freedom”, the journey of the faithful cannot be anything but one of continual resistance. Against the current. Truth and serenity were never issues of “popular vote”. If falsehood implies wandering, instability and insecurity, then the truth (when guaranteed by God) is lived out in silence and “solitude” as “cessation”.
This has to do with an internal “affirmation” which has no need of “external witness”. It is therefore expressed as an immovable attitude to life. The person who possesses even a minimal degree of piety in accepting that God created the world and “all that is therein”, has already been established “on the rock of faith”. Then all of creation, both inside and outside the person, becomes a cause for doxology. He or she does not even have time to comprehend or record the given “data”, which is why it would be impious but also absurd to chase utopian “desirables”.
The urgent priority for the faithful, therefore, is that which is already given. Even if it is only a portion of them:
“Hail, you who are full of grace, the Lord is with you…”
This is not simply a “greeting”, like those which we exchange between ourselves; the latter greeting is not binding and is two-way, and you can either reciprocate or ignore it. Here, the “greeting” is a divine message, and does not return. As it comes from the mouth of an Archangel, it announces and proclaims a truth of life. This is precisely why it concerns not only the Virgin Mary, but all those who wish to live. Here, the word “hail” does not remain suspended in the air as, for example, the ancient Greeks used the same word to commence any communication between them with an almost impersonal “rejoice”.
Here the word “hail” (which in the Greek haire means “rejoice”) does not only mean “joy”, a concept which is so fluid and indefinite, and which anyone can interpret according to one’s own desires. Joy is in this instance determined by its source. This is why its nature and extent are characterized simultaneously. We can see – if we look carefully – that it is not expressed by blind instinct, but as the precious product of a special favour and blessing. The adjective used to describe the Virgin Mary in the Greek original (κε-χαριτωμένη) expresses not simply the grace from above, but the fullness of grace, which is indeed explained by the direct presence of the Lord (“the Lord is with you”).
It is therefore revealed to us that “joy”, which is certainly everyone’s most spontaneous and justifiable pursuit, cannot be conceived as an individual achievement, nor can it be reduced to an individual manner of living. True joy is not manufactured arbitrarily; it is granted, thereby creating substantial “communion” between free and unselfish persons.
This free and deepest form of communion, as expressed in the “great mystery” of marriage, was rightly called “joy”, now a synonym for marriage. The intelligible triangle of Lord-grace-joy which we have seen in the greeting of the Archangel leads us to the conclusion that the communion of persons in freedom cannot continue to be called joy when it remains on the merely horizontal level. Joy (χαρά) has the necessary presupposition of grace (χάρη) from above, which is why the horizontal must continually be enriched and sanctified by the vertical. This almost mystical and unacknowledged, but clearly religious, dimension of joy is still hidden, like a forgotten note, in most languages of Christian peoples. And by this we do not only mean the word “bless” which, in the vocabulary of the Athonite monks, has replaced every other ordinary greeting.
We also mean the daily “grub Gott” of the Bavarians (ie greet God) and the “salute” of all languages of Latin origin which, although it means a simple greeting, on a deeper level retains the decisive word “salus” which means “salvation”. One may encounter instances in the language of the faithful in regions of Greece, such as Thessaloniki and northern Greece, in which the “greeting” is not a secular convention of human Society, but has instead an almost exclusively religious usage. There, instead of saying “we venerated” an icon or the Epitaphiosetc, the people say “we greeted” the icon.
However the pinnacle of the relationship between joy and salvation as “communion” and communication, in terms of both the horizontal and the vertical, can be seen in the following verse of the Akathist Hymn, indicative of the incomparable spiritual sensitivity of the Byzantine people: “O cause for joy, endow our thoughts with grace that we may cry to you”. Here, the words “joy” and “grace” have been placed so closely together that it seems as if they have the same etymological root.
From what has been presented, we can say in conclusion that all the grammatical correlations and alliterations in the whole text of the Akathist Hymn point to one goal only: to show that joy – which is undoubtedly the final surpassing of the fear of death – is inseparably bound up with the grace of God’s omnipresence. For, this is mainly the inexhaustible gift of His love: that we experience Him always not as a vague idea, or as an unknown and inaccessible Principle, but rather as “Emmanuel” according to His own revelatory affirmation.
Accordingly, Christian joy is not merely something corresponding to the “happiness” or the “pleasure” of the ancients. For, it does not have the chance of happiness, nor the conventionality of pleasure. Since it is given out of the utter love of God alone, and constitutes a completely free gift of His grace, it is lost only when one rejects that grace, ie when one denies the presence of God everywhere. The Church therefore rightly chants to the Mother of God: “Hail, you who are full of grace, the Lord is with you, and through you He is with us”.
Source: “Voice of Orthodoxy” March, 1999