The historic Axion Esti icon from the all-male monastic community of Mount Athos was transported on Wednesday to Athens and will be exhibited for public veneration and viewing for the next two weeks at the Athens Metropolitan Cathedral.
The icon, which rarely leaves Mount Athos, was welcomed with honours accorded to a head of state at the Athens Cathedral by Archbiship Hieronymos of Athens and All Greece, who had requested the action on the occasion of the bicentennial of the Greek Revolution in 1821.
The event had been postponed due to the coronavirus epidemic.
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The Byzantine-era icon depicts the Virgin Mary with the infant Jesus, and is covered in silver on all but the faces, and is an object of great veneration. The Axion Esti is considered the rarest object at the monastic community.
The Athens Metropolitan Cathedral will hold special liturgies on the occasion, including a morning service and an evening prayer. In addition, a more extensive liturgy led by prelates will be held on Sunday (May 7), Wednesday (May 10, mid-Pentecost), and Sunday (May 14).
Axion Estin is also the name given to the icon of the Theotokos (Mother of God) before which, according to tradition, the hymn was revealed. It stands in the high place of the altar (sanctuary) of the katholikon (main church) of Karyes on Mount Athos.
According to tradition, an Elder and his disciple lived in a cell on Mount Athos. One Saturday night the Elder left to attend the All-Night Vigil in Karyes. He told his disciple to chant the service alone.
That evening an unknown monk who called himself Gabriel, came to the cell, and they began the Vigil together. During the Ninth Ode of the Canon, when they began to sing the Magnificat, the disciple sang the original hymn "More honorable than the Cherubim…" and afterwards the visiting monk chanted it again, but with "It is truly meet…" preceding the original Irmos.
As he sang, the icon began to radiate with Uncreated Light. When the disciple asked the visiting monk to write the words of the new hymn down, he took a roof tile and wrote on it with his finger, as though the tile were made of wax.
The disciple knew then that this was no ordinary monk, but the Archangel Gabriel. At that moment the Archangel disappeared, but the icon of the Mother of God continued to radiate light for some time afterward.
The Eleousa ("merciful") Icon of the Mother of God, before which the hymn "It Is Truly Meet" was first chanted, was transferred to the katholikon (main church) at Karyes, known as the Protaton. The tile, with the hymn written on it, was taken to Constantinople when St. Nicholas II Chrysoberges was Patriarch (984-996).
Since that time the icon has been considered the protector of the Holy Mountain and its holiest object.
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