Friday, December 20, 2019

Byzantine Advent

Several years ago, I attended a Divine Liturgy at which the well-known liturgical scholar Archimandrite Robert Taft SJ was the main celebrant and preacher; the time of year was late November or early December, and the subject of his sermon was Advent in the Byzantine Rite. He began by noting that the Byzantine Rite does not have an Advent as a formal liturgical season analogous to Lent, such as the Roman Rite does; nevertheless, “names are names, and things are things”, as he put it, and there are several ways in which it does indeed have a season of preparation for the birth of Christ.

In addition to Great Lent, the Byzantine Rite keeps three other fasts, those of the Apostles, of the Dormition, and of the Nativity. The first of these begins on the Monday after the feast of All Saints, which is celebrated on the Sunday after Pentecost, and continues until the day before the feast of Ss Peter and Paul; because of the variable date of Pentecost, this can be as long as 42 days, and as short as 8. The Dormition fast goes from August 1-14, and is the strictest of the three. The fast of the Nativity is also known as St Philip’s fast, since it begins on November 15th, the day after the feast of the Apostle Philip. Traditionally, one abstains from eating meat and eggs, dairy, fish, oil, and wine, but the latter three may be eaten on Saturdays and Sundays, and some of the more important feast days that occur within the period, such as Ss Andrew the Apostle and Nicholas.

There is no daily mention of the coming of Christ in the texts used during the Nativity fast, as there traditionally is in the Roman Advent. However, beginning fairly early on, references to His impending birth are made on a number of occasions. Each of the four fasts has at least one major feast that occurs within it; during the Nativity fast, the first of these is the Entrance of the Mother of God into the Temple on November 21st. At the very long and complicated service known as Orthros (historically, a combination of different services, and variously called Matins or Lauds in English), a group of hymns called Katavasiai are sung, and the texts for these are same ones that are used on Christmas day. The first of them (there are 8 in total) reads as follows: “Christ is born, glorify Him; Christ from heaven, come to meet him; Christ upon the earth, be ye exalted. Sing to the Lord, all the earth, and in rejoicing, sing hymns, ye people, for He has been glorified.” These are repeated on several other major feasts throughout the season.

The Byzantine Rite has many feasts of Old Testament Saints, but in the days of the Nativity fast, all such feasts are those of prophets: Obadiah on November 19th, Nahum on December 1st, Habakkuk on the 2nd, Zephaniah on the 3rd, Haggai on the 16th, and Daniel and the Three Children on the 17th. (Some of their names are different in Greek: Abdias, Ambakum, Sophonias, and Aggaios.) Several liturgical texts of their feasts refer to them as prophets of the Incarnation.

Habakkuk: “From Theman, God Incarnate came to dwell, as thou foretold, enlightened by Him from afar, o thrice-blessed Ambacum, and made the world resplendent with light.” (This refers to the words “God will come from Theman” in the canticle of Habakkuk, 3, 3, one of the nine Odes of Orthros.)
Zephaniah: “The Lord of the universe was shown to us according to thy prophecy, o blessed one, calling all to the knowledge of Him; and He hath delivered us from servitude.”
Haggai: “Thou didst show Thy prophet the spiritual temple which Thou didst take from the Virgin, o Christ; and with him we cry ‘Glory to Thy might!’ ”
Daniel: “Now let Daniel, the greatest among the prophets, be honored, for he saw Christ our God as the stone cut without hands from the mountain (2, 34), the holy Mother of God. With him let also the Three Children be honored, whom He saved unharmed from the fire of the furnace; and this is a symbol of the Virgin, divine and ineffable; and through Him the world has been saved.”

A Greek icon from the second half of the 18th century, signed by the painter, Konstantinos Adrianoupolitis, now in the Benaki Museum in Athens. The whole lower part of the image shows the episodes of the third chapter of the book of Daniel: the adoration of the Emperor Nebuchadnezzar’s golden statue, and the Three Children in the Furnace. In the upper right, the representation of the Three Children follows the opening words of Psalm 136, “Upon the rivers of Babylon, there we sat and wept, when we remembered Sion: on the willows in the midst thereof we hung up our instruments.” To the left of them, and further back within the image, is the episode of Daniel in the Lion’s Den, with the Prophet Habakkuk bringing him food.
References to the birth of Christ are also made in the proper texts of the some of the other important celebrations, which are closer in tone to the Roman Advent’s character as a season of preparation. One of the loveliest examples of these is this hymn sung at Vespers of St Nicholas, and repeated on several other days. “Be thou made ready, o cave, for the ewe has come, bearing Christ in her womb; and receive Him, o manger, who by His word released us who are born on this earth our irrational doings. Shepherds keeping watch, bear witness to the awesome miracle, and Magi from Persia, bring gold, frankincense and myrrh to the King; for the Lord hath appeared from the Virgin Mother. And She, in the manner of a servant, bowed down and worshipped Him, and spoke to the one in Her arms: how wast Thou sown in me, or how wast Thou planted in me, my redeemer and God!”

The hymn is sung after the last part of the doxology, which is included in this recording.
In the Byzantine tradition, Easter is ranked above all other feasts in a class by itself, below which comes a group known as the Twelve Great Feasts, eight of Our Lord (Christmas, Epiphany, the Presentation in the Temple, Palm Sunday, Ascension, Pentecost, the Transfiguration, Exaltation of the Cross) and four of Our Lady (Nativity, Entrance into the Temple, Annunciation and Assumption.) Most of these are preceded by a Forefeast, the equivalent of the Roman vigil, and then continued with an Afterfeast, the equivalent of the Roman octave, although these vary in length; the final day is called a Leave-taking. [Note below.]

The Forefeast of Christmas is actually five days long, running from today, December 20th, to the 24th; but since the liturgical day always begins at the Vespers of the preceding day, the evening of the 19th is also part of it. The first hymn sung at these Vespers sets the tone for the rest of the period. “Let us keep the Forefeast of Christ’s Birth, ye peoples, and lifting up the mind, let us be lifted up to Bethlehem in our thoughts, and behold the Virgin, meditating in our souls as She hastens to give birth in the cave to Our Lord and God. And Joseph, beholding the greatness of these miracles, supposed that he beheld a man, wrapped in swaddling clothes like a child, but from His deeds, suspected that he was the True God, who granteth great mercy to our souls.”

For three of the Twelve Great Feasts, Christmas, Epiphany and the Exaltation of the Cross, the Saturday and Sunday preceding them, and the Saturday and Sunday following, have special readings assigned to them at the Divine Liturgy. The Sunday before Christmas, which is called “the Sunday of the Fathers”, is unique among them in that it also has a set of its own hymns for the Divine Office. This custom was later expanded with the addition of another Sunday of preparation called the Sunday of the Forefathers (coinciding, therefore, with the Roman Gaudete Sunday). Just as the difference in their title is small, there is also very little to distinguish the two Sundays conceptually; the liturgical texts of both refer to them as commemorations of all the just who lived before Christ. At Vespers of the Forefathers, for example, the following hymn is sung: “O Lord, who delivered the holy children from the fire, and Daniel from the mouth of the lions; who blessed Abraham, and Isaac Thy servant, and his son Jacob; who wast pleased to be born of their seed in our likeness, that Thou might save our forefathers who had fallen: Thou wast crucified and buried, and broke the bonds of death, and raised up all those who from the beginning of the world were among the dead, adoring Thy eternal kingdom, o Christ!”

A Russian icon of the Geneaology of Christ, dated 1567. (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)
The Sunday of the Fathers, the older of the two and the one closer to Christmas itself, specifically commemorates Christ’s ancestors according to the flesh; however, its scope has been expanded to include other Old Testament personages. The Epistle, Hebrews 11, 9-10 and 32-40, begins with the words “By faith Abraham abode in the land…”; the Gospel is the whole first chapter of St Matthew, beginning with the genealogy of Christ from Abraham to Joseph. The day’s Synaxarion, the equivalent of the Martyrology, names all the persons in this genealogy, all those in the second part of St Luke’s genealogy (from Abraham’s father back to Adam), but also the twelve sons of Jacob, seven prophets (Melchizedek, Job, Moses etc.), and fourteen prominent women of the Old Testament. This makes for a total of 95 entries, in a reading of over 1600 words; as is so often the case in the Byzantine Rite, most of it may in practice be omitted, and only the introduction read. “On this day, the Sunday before the birth of Christ, we have been commanded to keep the memory of our holy and god-bearing Fathers, all those who have pleased God from the beginning, from Adam to Joseph, the husband of the All-Holy Virgin, according to the genealogy as the Evangelist Luke accounted it in his history, and likewise the prophets and prophetesses.”

[Note: Easter, Ascension, Pentecost and Palm Sunday have no Forefeast; the Forefeast of Christmas is five days long, that of Epiphany four, the rest one. Palm Sunday has no Afterfeast, for obvious reasons.]

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