Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Sviata Techera: Christmas Eve with Byzantine Slavs - Guest Article by Prof. Kyle Washut

NLM is once again very pleased to offer this article by Prof. Kyle Washut, a specialist in the Slavic Byzantine tradition, on one of the most beautiful services of the Byzantine Rite, the "Royal Hours" of Christmas Eve.
The liturgical days leading up to Christmas are deliberately designed to parallel the liturgical preparations for Easter. Since we prepare for Easter with a forty day fast, similarly there is a forty day fast for Christmas. Just as there is a special Vespers service for each day of Great and Holy Week leading up to Easter, so are there special Vespers for the five days leading up to Christmas. It is the services for Christmas Eve, however, which are most like the feel of the Great and Holy Week. In some ways, Christmas Eve is like Palm Sunday, in some ways Great and Holy Friday, and in some Great and Holy Saturday.

First and foremost, the Church only observes the daily office of Prime, Terce, Sext, and None as she does on Christmas Eve on two other days of the year: the vigil of Theophany (Jan. 5) and Good Friday. This observance is called the “Royal Hours.” The Orthodox Church in America offers a good explanation of the name here:
All Divine Liturgies in the Orthodox Church are preceded by the chanting of the Hours services, consisting of psalms, hymns and prayers. But in the great cathedral of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, the Byzantine Emperor was present each year at the service beginning the celebration of the Nativity of Christ. Therefore, the Hours preceding the Vespers and Liturgy of Saint Basil the Great on Christmas Eve are given the name “Royal Hours.”
The Emperor's attendance at the service was in part a demonstration of his humble acknowledgment that Jesus Christ reigns over all mortal beings. The third psalm is Psalm 44, “My heart overflows with good tidings as I sing my ode to the King; my tongue is like the pen of a skillful scribe. Thou art the fairest of the sons of men; grace is poured upon Thy lips; therefore God has blessed Thee forever. Gird Thy sword upon Thy thigh, O mighty one, in Thy splendor and beauty. Draw Thy bow, ride forth in triumph and reign, for the sake of truth, and meekness, and righteousness.” Such words could apply to only one Sovereign.
The structure of the Royal Hours includes the three normative psalms for each of the daily hours, along with various hymns that meditate on the birth of Christ from various perspectives, and three readings for each hour: a prophet, an epistle, and a Gospel. The full text of the service (without musical notation) is available here. The Ruthenian metropoly has made an abridged version for parish use, which under the influence of the Latin Rite’s revised Liturgy of the Hours, they call the Office of Readings. (See here).

The service is beautiful, and clearly shows that the second axis of the liturgical year across from Pascha is the dual feast of Christmas/Theophany. In the service, the faithful are told a story similar to that of Good Friday: a cruel politician is jealous of his power against a new king. For Good Friday, the focus is on the law-givers of the Jewish people, but here it is Herod, who “was filled with alarm when he saw the righteous wise men. Overcome by fury, he determined precisely when the child was born. Mothers were robbed of their infants: Their tender lives were reaped as a bitter harvest.” On Good Friday, we identify with Peter, Judas, and the Good Thief experiencing desolation and doubt, and each having their own end; today, however, it is St. Joseph, who is full of confusion, anguish and doubt about this mysterious conception. But finally, through the study of very prophets read in the service, Joseph concludes, “I have searched the prophets, and I have been warned by a Angel, and I am persuaded that Mary will give birth to God in a way beyond explanation. To worship him Magi will come from the East, honouring him with precious gifts.” And lastly, we have Mary. On Good Friday we see her pierced with grief and yet ever faithful, and so too today, does the Theotokos stand out as a model of unwavering faith when she speaks to Joseph: “Why are you so troubled? Why are you in misery seeing me with child? Do you not understand at all? I bear a fearful mystery! Cast your fears away, and learn a strange wonder: God in His mercy descends from heaven to earth. Within my womb He has taken flesh! When He is pleased to be born, you will see Him. You will rejoice, and worship Him, your Creator.”
St. Joseph speaking with prophet Isaiah about his doubts in this traditional icon of the Nativity (detail).
Like Holy Saturday, however, we end this day with a glorious Eucharistic celebration. There is a Vespers service attached to the Divine Liturgy of St. Basil, something done, again, only 3 times a year: Christmas Eve, Theophany Eve, and Easter Saturday. This service, like the one on Easter, opens with readings from the Book of Genesis, continues through the Old Testament (eight readings in all), culminating with the Epistle to the Hebrews, and the Gospel of Luke’s account of the Nativity. (The full text can be read here, or with musical notation and pastoral adaption here.) Unfortunately, many Ukrainian Catholic Churches in North America, especially in Canada, no longer observe this service. Falling under the modern West’s mis-understanding of vigil liturgies, they turn the Christmas Vigil, into the children’s liturgy for Christmas day. In so doing, we lose the great and holy Christmas Vigil that stands in such glorious correspondence to Holy Saturday.

After the Vigil liturgy, which traditionally takes place in the late afternoon, the faithful retire to their homes for the Holy Vigil Supper. Up until this point, the ascetical observance of the day has corresponded to that of Good Friday and Holy Saturday: no food or drink should pass your lips. But after the Eucharistic liturgy, we observe the “festive fast” like we do on Palm Sunday. Palm Sunday is the only Sunday of Lent where fish is permitted, and similarly, while Christmas Eve is still dairy free and meat free, we have a festive twelve course meal that includes fish, oil, and wine. As with Palm Sunday there is still a fasting note: we are not at the feast yet, we still await it. But there is also a celebratory note: the King has been announced, creation is waiting to acclaim Him in song, and so while we abstain from certain foods, this is a joyful supper nonetheless. Again, we see here the importance of not merely making Christmas Vigil an early version of Christmas Day. The fast is still in place until midnight; Christmas is not yet here.

At midnight, the faithful gather at the Church for Great Compline. Sometimes the Divine Liturgy for Christmas immediately follows. The highlight of the Great Compline service is the hymnal proclamation that Immanuel has come. As the shepherds heard the proclamation in the dead of night, so too do we hear it. Taking the words of Isaiah for her own, the Church sings: “God is with us! Give ear all you nations, and be humbled! For God is with us!”
Christmas Compline Chant from St. Elias Ukrainian Catholic Church, Brampton Ontario.

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