Thursday, January 05, 2017

The Royal Hours of Epiphany 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.)

Even though “epiphany” is a Greek word, the proper name for the feast in the Byzantine Rite is “Theophany - the manifestation of God”, and the principal manifestation which it celebrates is the Baptism of the Lord. The proper texts of the Royal Hours on the vigil of the Theophany are all chosen in regard to this event. (The visit of the Magi, the feast’s principal focus in the Roman Rite, is part of Christmas in the Byzantine tradition, and the relevant Gospel, Matthew 2, 1-12, is read during the Royal Hours of Christmas at Sext, and as the Gospel at the Divine Liturgy on the feast itself.)

Just to give one example of the chants, the following sticheron is sung at Terce.

“The right hand of the Fore-runner and Baptist, even the Prophet who was honored above all the prophets, trembled when he saw the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sins of the world, and constrained by anxiety, he cried out, ‘I dare not touch Thy head, o Word; do Thou sanctify and enlighten me, o merciful one, for Thou art the life, and light, and peace of the world.’ ”

A Russian icon of the Baptism of Christ, end 15th century.
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 psalms is retained. (The Byzantine Rite does not have antiphons for the psalmody analogous to those of the Roman Rite.) For those of Epiphany, at Prime, Psalms 5, 22, and 26 are said, instead of 5, 89 and 100; at Terce, 28, 41 and 50, instead of 16, 24 and 50; at Sext, 73, 76, and 90, instead of 53, 54 and 90; and at None, 92, 113 and 85 instead of 83, 84 and 85.

Many of these contain references to either water or “enlightening”, commonly associated with the Sacrament of Baptism, such as the beginnings of Psalm 26 “The Lord is my light (illuminatio) and my salvation,” and Psalm 41 “As the hart panteth after the fountains of water; so my soul panteth after thee, O God.” Psalm 28 at Terce was certainly chosen because of St Basil the Great’s interpretation that the words “the voice of the Lord is upon the waters” refer to John the Baptist at the Jordan. (The sermon in which gives this interpretation is read in the Breviary of St Pius V during the Octave of St John the Baptist’s Nativity.)

The readings which are added are as follows:
At Prime, Isaiah 35, 1-10, Acts 13, 25-32, and Matthew 3, 1-6.
At Terce, Isaiah 1, 16-20, Acts 19, 1-8, and Mark 1, 1-8.
At Sext, Isaiah 12, 3-6, Roman 6, 3-11 and Mark 1, 9-11.
At None, Isaiah 49, 8-15, Titus 2, 11-14 and 3, 4-7, and Luke 3, 1-18.

The prophecies from Isaiah all continue the theme of water and cleansing; “waters are broken out in the desert, and streams in the wilderness” (35, 6 at Prime) is especially appropriate as a reference to the Baptist in the desert. We may also note that the two parts of the Epistle at None are read at the Midnight Mass (less one verse) and the Dawn Mass of Christmas in the Roman Rite. The Gospel at Prime stops short of the actual Baptism of Christ, because the continuation of it (verses 13-17) is read at the Divine Liturgy.

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 Sunday or Monday, the Royal Hours are said on the preceding Friday. This may seem rather odd, but in point of fact, Epiphany, like Christmas, is preceded by a series of days known as the “pre-festal” days (five for Christmas, four for Epiphany); the Royal Hours thus anticipated to either the 3rd or 4th of January fall within this special period of preparation.

On the evening of January 5th, Vespers is served together with the Divine Liturgy of St Basil; this is 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 thirteen prophecies, although in practice, some of these may be omitted, especially the two which are repeated from the Royal Hours; this does not make the service inordinately long, as one might imagine it would, since altogether, they add up to fewer than 100 verses of Scripture, an average of fewer than 8 verses each. (The other occasions on which the Liturgy of St Basil is celebrated are the eve of Christmas; St Basil’s feast day, January 1st, which is also that of the Circumcision; 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:
Vesperal Divine Liturgy:

Since we did Old Church Slavonic in the version of this article which covered the Royal Hours of Christmas, here is a recording of the Royal Hours of Theophany in Greek, from the Jerusalem Patriarchate.

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