Friday, December 23, 2016

The Royal Hours of Christmas Eve

The Royal Hours are a special service which is held three times a year in the Byzantine Rite, on Christmas Eve, Epiphany Eve, and Good Friday. It consists of the Hours of Prime, Terce, Sext and None, followed by a service called the Typika, the closest parallel to which in the Roman Rite would be the so-called dry Mass. (These five parts are said one after the other without interruption.) They are known as “Royal” from the tradition that the Byzantine Emperor and his court would attend them at Hagia Sophia in Constantinople; a memory of this is preserved in the singing of “Many Years” during the service in cathedrals and monasteries, now in a modified form, but originally for the Emperor, whose presence was understood to be an act of submission to Christ the King, and also for the imperial court and the ecclesiastical hierarchy.
Royal Hours of Good Friday at the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation in Toronto in 2014. (Photograph from Wikipedia by ΙΣΧΣΝΙΚΑ-888)
Several features mark the Royal Hours off from the service of the same Hours on other days. It is served by a priest and deacon in their sacred vestments, where these Hours are usually sung by a reader, with a priest saying only the conclusions of the prayers (e.g. “for Thine is the kingdom…”) and the blessing at the end. A bell is rung at the beginning of each Hour, once for Prime, thrice for Terce, etc., and twelve times for the Typika.

In addition to a large number of very beautiful proper chants, a group of Scriptural readings, consisting of a prophecy from the Old Testament, a New Testament epistle (called “the Apostle” in Byzantine terminology) and a Gospel are added to each Hour as well. (Normally, there are no Biblical readings at the minor Hours; however, they are often done at Vespers.)

The psalms of the Hours are the same every single day, but at the three sets of Royal Hours, special ones more appropriate to the day are chosen to replace some of the regular ones, although one of the daily ones is retained. (The Byzantine Rite does not have antiphons for the Psalmody analogous to those of the Roman Rite.) For those of Christmas, at Prime, Psalms 5, 44, and 45 are said, instead of 5, 89 and 100; at Terce, 66, 86 and 50, instead of 16, 24 and 50; at Sext, 71, 131, and 90, instead of 53, 54 and 90; and at None, 109, 110 and 85 instead of 83, 84 and 85. This selection is taken in part from the group traditionally known as the Messianic Psalms (2, 44, 71, 88 and 109), all of which are said in the Office of Christmas Day in the Roman Rite.

The readings which are added are as follows:
At Prime, Micah 5, 2-4, Hebrews 1, 1-12 (the Roman Epistle of the Day Mass of Christmas), and Matthew 1, 18-25.
At Terce, Baruch 3, 36 - 4, 4, Galatians 3, 23-29, and Luke 2, 1-20 (the Roman Gospels of the Midnight and Dawn Masses of Christmas.)
At Sext, Isaiah 7, 10-16, and 8, 1-4 & 8-10, Hebrews 1, 10 - 2, 3 and Matthew 2, 1-12, the Gospel of the Roman Epiphany, which is also read at the Divine Liturgy of Christmas.
At None, Isaiah 9, 6-7, Hebrews 2, 11-18, and Matthew 2, 13-23.

During the reading of the Apostle, there is always an incensation of the Church, whether at this or any other service; some churches add an extra incensation at the beginning of Prime and at the end of the Typika service as well. Another interesting feature is that the Royal Hours are considered to be a service for a fasting day, and penitential services may not be held on either Saturday or Sunday. Therefore, whenever Christmas or Epiphany falls on either a Sunday or Monday, the Royal Hours are said on the preceding Friday. This may seem rather odd, but in point of fact, Christmas is preceeded by a series of 5 days, December 20-24, which are known as the “pre-festal” days; the Royal Hours thus anticipated to either the 22nd or 23rd of December fall within this special period of preparation.

On the evening of December 24th, Vespers is served together with the Divine Liturgy of St Basil; this one of the ten occasions on which the anaphora of St Basil, which is much longer than the daily-use anaphora of St John Chrysostom, is said. The service contains a series of eight prophecies, although in practice, some of these may be omitted, since four of them are repeated from the Royal Hours. Here again we see a practice which is broadly analogous to that of the Roman rite, in which the Midnight Mass of Christmas was traditionally preceded by Matins and followed by Lauds. (The other occasions on which the Liturgy of St Basil is celebrated are St Basil’s feast day, January 1st, which is also that of the Circumcision; the eve of the Epiphany; the Sundays of Lent except Palm Sunday; Holy Thursday and Holy Saturday. However, if Christmas or Epiphany falls on Sunday or Monday, Vespers are celebrated without the Divine Liturgy at all, and the Liturgy of St Basil is used for the feast itself.)

The full text of both of these services can be read at the following links.
Royal Hours: http://www.antiochian.org/sites/default/files/liturgical_guides/1-nativity-royal-hours-both.pdf
Vesperal Divine Liturgy: http://www.antiochian.org/sites/default/files/liturgical_guides/2-nativity-vesperal-lit.pdf

Here is recording of both of services (3 hours and 10 minutes long altogether) by the superb choir of the Sretensky Monastery in Moscow.


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