Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Night Vigil of the Presentation at the Pontifical Russian College in Rome

In the Byzantine Rite, the feast of the Virgin Mary’s Presentation in the Temple is one of the Twelve Great Feasts of the liturgical year; these feasts are often kept with a vigil service the evening before, consisting of various hours of the Divine Office and certain particular ceremonies. This liturgy, one of the most beautiful in the Byzantine tradition, is regularly done the evening before each of the Twelve Feasts at the Pontifical Russian College in Rome, according to the abbreviated form in general use in parishes among the Slavs. The service is nevertheless over an hour and a half long; these few photographs give only a very slight idea of it, and my description of them is not even a remote attempt to be complete. It also contains some of the finest and most moving liturgical music in Old Church Slavonic, and we are particularly blessed to have a very good choir these days at the “Russicum”.

On the left, i.e., closer to the iconostasis, a stand is prepared for the icon of the feast, which is brought from the sanctuary towards the end of the service. In front of it, a small table holds a plate with three unlit candles, five small loaves of bread, and three vessels, one containing wheat, one containing wine, and a third containing rose-scented oil.

The celebrant and servers at the Little Entrance

A reader sings three readings from the Old Testament; for the vigil of the Presentation, the readings (from Exodus 40, 3 Kings 7-8 and Ezechiel 43) all refer to the temple of the Old Covenant as a prefiguration of the Virgin Mary, the "temple of the Savior." (Kontakion of the feast.)

The celebrant and servers leave the sanctuary and proceed through the nave to the doors of the church; after incensing the faithful, the celebrant sings various litanies and prayers, including long lists of Saints. When blessing the people with the words "Peace be with you", he faces the doors of the church, as if imparting the peace of Christ to the entire world.

The three candles on the plate are lit; the celebrant comes forward and blesses the bread and oil, and incenses them while walking around the table several times.

More litanies and prayers are said by the celebrant and the lector.

The celebrant and two other priests bring the icon of the feast from the sanctuary down to the middle of the nave, and place it on the stand prepared for it. The celebrant incenses the icon while walking around it several times, holding a candle in his other hand. Note the blue vestments, commonly used in Slavic countries on Marian feast days.

The Gospel book is brought from the altar, and laid on a second stand placed next to that of the icon. The celebrant then sings the Gospel of the Vigil, with the same ceremonies used at the Divine Liturgy. All those who are present come forward and kiss first the Gospel book and then the icon.

After each person has venerated the icon, the celebrant paints a cross on their forehead with the rose-scented oil. (Priests, however, receive the brush from him and put the oil on their own foreheads.) They then receive a portion of the blessed bread, tinged with wine, from the plate held by the acolyte. The Gospel book is returned to the sanctuary, but the icon remains in its place for the feast.

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