Thursday, December 24, 2020

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, although it has no Scriptural readings. (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 celebration of the same Hours on other days. It is served by a priest and deacon in their sacred vestments, where these Hours are usually done 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 series 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, is added to each Hour as well. (Normally, there are no Biblical readings at the minor Hours; however, they are often done at Vespers.) Several of the chants are evidently inspired by the Scriptural readings that follow them.

Prime starts with the group of prayers that are normally said at the beginning of the Hours, helpfully named “The Usual Beginning.” Whenever Hours are said together as a group, at those that follow the first one, this is reduced to just its final element, “Come, let us worship etc.” In either case, there immediately follows a group of three Psalms, which are said by a single reader. The Byzantine Rite does not have antiphons for the psalmody analogous to those of the Roman Rite, but after the third Psalm are said the doxology, and three repetitions of “Alleluja, alleluja, alleluja, glory to Thee, o God!”

Ordinarily, the psalms of the Hours are the same every single day outside of Easter week, but at the three sets of Royal Hours, special ones more appropriate to the day are chosen to replace two of the regular psalms, with one of the daily ones retained. 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 rest (45, 66, 86, 90, 110 and 131) are either daily Psalms in the Roman Rite, or said somewhere in the Office of either Christmas or Epiphany.

There follow the first part of the doxology, and a chant called a troparion, which is the same at all four of the Hours.
“Mary was registered of old in Bethlehem with the elder Joseph as one of the seed of David, being pregnant and bearing without seed. Now the time of Her childbearing was nigh, and there was no place in the inn, but the cave was shown to the Queen as a delightful palace. Christ is born, Who will raise the image that had fallen long ago.”
Then the second half of the doxology is said, and the regular daily tropar of the Virgin Mary, which changes from Hour to Hour.
Next are sung a group of three chants called Idiomels, with verses of the canticle of Habakkuk and the doxology between them. The rubric in the liturgical books says that each chant is done twice, the second after each of two verses of the canticle, the third after each part of the doxology. In practice, they are usually just sung once as noted here.
The Idiomels at Prime: Prepare thyself, o Bethlehem, and let the manger make ready, let the cave receive. The truth hath come, the shadow hath passed, and God hath appeared to mankind from the Virgin, having taken on our likeness and deified our nature. Wherefore Adam is made new with Eve, as they cry out “Goodwill hath appeared on earth to save our race.”
verse (Hab. 3, 3 and 1) God shall come from Theman, and the Holy One from the mountain thick with shadow. O Lord, I heard Thy report, and grew afraid; I knew Thy works, and was amazed.
Now urgeth on the time for the prophecy once made to be fulfilled, that mystically said, “And thou, o Bethlehem of Judah, art not least among princes, who goest before and preparest the cave; for out of thee shall come to me a ruler of nations, incarnate from the Virgin Maid, Christ God, who shall shepherd His people, the new Israel. Let us all give glory to Him.” (The prophecy mentioned here is part of the group of Scriptural readings that follows.)
Glory to the Father…
The altar in the church of the Nativity in Bethlehem over the site of Christ’s birth. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons by Berthold Werner, CC BY-SA 3.0
Thus saith Joseph to the Virgin: “O Mary, what is this matter which I have beheld in thee? Verily, I am at a loss and astonished, and my mind is amazed. Henceforth do thou secretly depart from me at once! O Mary, what is this matter which I have beheld in thee? For thou hast brought me shame instead of honor, sorrow instead of gladness, blame instead of praise. I can no longer bear the rest, the reproach of men; for I received thee from the priests out of the Lord’s temple (a reference to the traditional story of the Virgin’s presentation in the temple) as one blameless, and what is this which is now seen? (This text, inspired by the reference to St Joseph’s doubt in the Gospel that follows, will be corrected by the parallel texts at the following Hours.)
The three Scriptural readings that follow are introduced a brief psalmodic chant called a prokimen, but there is no Alleluja before the Gospel. 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.
The readings at Prime:
Micah 5, 2-4
Hebrews 1, 1-12 (the Roman Epistle of the Day Mass of Christmas)
Matthew 1, 18-25 (the first four verses of which are the Roman Gospel of Christmas Eve).
The Idiomels at Terce: This is our God, none other shall be reckoned beside Him (Bar. 3, 36, from the first reading of this Hour), even He that was born of a Virgin, and dwelt among men. The Only-begotten Son, being laid in a poor manger, is seen as a mortal (Bar. 3, 38), and the Lord of glory is wrapped in swaddling clothes. And the star leadeth the Magi to worship Him; and we sing, “O Holy Trinity, save our souls.”
God shall come from Theman etc.
Before Thy birth, o Lord, the spiritual hosts beheld the mystery with trembling, and were amazed; for Thou wast pleased to live as a newborn babe, Who didst adorn the heavens with stars, and to lie in a manger of the dumb beasts, Who holdest all the ends of the earth in Thy palm; for by such a dispensation was Thy compassion made known, O Christ, and Thy great mercy; glory to Thee.
Glory to the Father …
O Joseph, tell us how thou dost now bring the Maiden, whom thou didst receive from the holy places (also a reference to the Presentation of the Virgin), to Bethlehem great with child? I searched the Prophets, he saith, and being warned by an angel, am persuaded that Mary shall bear God in a manner that cannot be explained; and Magi shall come to His worship from the East, adoring Him with honorable gifts. Thou who was incarnate for our sake, glory to Thee.
The readings:
Baruch 3, 36 – 4, 4
Galatians 3, 23-29
Luke 2, 1-20 (the Roman Gospels of the Midnight and Dawn Masses of Christmas.)
The Idiomels at Sext: Come, ye faithful, let us be lifted up in inspiration, and behold the divine condescension, revealed to us in Bethlehem from on high; and being purified in mind, let us in our life bring virtues in place of myrrh, faithfully preparing the coming-in of the Nativity among the spiritual treasures, crying out, “Glory in the highest to God Who is in the Trinity, through Whom good-will hath appeared among men, to deliver Adam from the original curse, as one Who loveth mankind.”
God shall come from Theman etc.
Hear, o heaven, and listen, o earth: let the foundations be shaken, and let trembling seize hold of those upon the earth; for He that is both God and Creator hath put on a creation of flesh; and He Who with a mighty hand made creation is seen as the child of His creation. O the depth of riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments, and His ways beyond searching out! (The Greek word “splankhnon”, here translated as “child”, literally means “inner parts”, like the Latin “viscera”, whence “womb”, and therefore also “child.” But it also means “the seat of affection”, and in this sense, is used very often in Byzantine hymns in the compound adjective “eusplankhnos – compassionate.” This is a particular beautiful expression of how God saves the human race in the fullness of the Incarnation, from conception, growth in the womb, birth etc. to the Passion, death and Resurrection.)
Glory to the Father …
Come, ye Christ-bearing peoples, let us behold a wonder that astonisheth all understanding, and devoutly worshipping in faith, let us sing: Today the Maiden who conceived cometh to Bethlehem to give birth to the Lord. The choirs of angels hasten before, and seeing these things, Joseph the bridegroom shouted, “What is this strange mystery in Thee, o Virgin? And how shalt thou give birth, o maid who knowest not wedlock?”
The readings:
Isaiah 7, 10-16, and 8, 1-4; 8-10
Hebrews 1, 10 – 2, 3
Matthew 2, 1-12, which is also read at the Divine Liturgy of Christmas. (In the Byzantine Rite, the feast of the Epiphany is wholly dedicated to the Lord’s Baptism, and the adoration of the Magi is read as the Gospel of Christmas day.)
The Idiomels at None: Herod was astonished, seeing the piety of the Magi, and being overcome with wrath, he closely inquired about the time of the birth. The mothers were robbed of their children, and all untimely were the babes bitterly reaped; the breasts dried up, and the springs of milk were stopped short. Great then was the fearful deed! Wherefore, being gathered, ye faithful, in pious worship, let us adore the Nativity of Christ. (This looks forward to the Gospel of this Hour, which recounts the Massacre of the Innocents.)
God shall come from Theman etc.
When Joseph was wounded with grief, o Virgin, as he repaired to Bethlehem, thou didst cry unto him, “Why art thou gloomy and troubled, seeing me with child, wholly ignorant of the awful mystery that is in me? Put away from thee henceforth all fear, considering the unexpected mystery; for God cometh down upon the earth for mercy’s sake, and in my womb hath now taken flesh, Whom thou shalt see as He is born, as it pleased Him, and being filled with joy thou shalt adore Him as thy Creator; Whom the Angels unceasingly praise and glorify with the Father and the Holy Spirit.”
Glory to the Father…
(The final idiomel is sung slowly by the leader of the choir, standing in the middle of the church.)
– Today is born of the Virgin He Who holdeth all creation in His palm. (thrice)
– He who in His essence cannot be touched is wrapped in a strip of cloth.
– God is laid in a manger, Who long ago did fix the heavens at the beginning.
– From the breasts is He nourished with milk, Who in the wilderness showered manna on the people.
– The bridegroom of the Church calleth the Magi.
– Take their gifts, o Son of the Virgin.
– We worship Thy Nativity, O Christ. (thrice)
– Show us also Thy divine Theophany!
The readings:
Isaiah 9, 6-7
Hebrews 2, 11-18
Matthew 2, 13-23
Once the reading are done, the Hours follow their normal pattern: a series of Scriptural verses, which change from Hour to Hour but not from day to day; the Trisagion prayers, which are the same as the Usual Beginning, without its first and last part; then a single chant called the Kontakion, which is the same at all four Hours and the Typika service.
“Today the Virgin comes to the cave to bear ineffably the Word who is before the ages. Rejoice, all the world, as Thou hearest this: with the Angels and the Shepherds, glorify Him who willed to be seen as a new-born child, even He that is God before the ages.”
Each Hour concludes with the same series of elements as on the other days: Kyrie, eleison 40 times, the Prayer of the Hours, Kyrie, eleison 3 times, Glory to the Father, a brief prayer to the Virgin (“Higher than the Cherubim…”), a conclusion said by the priestly celebrant, and a final prayer said by the reader, after which the next Hour begins.
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 preceded 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 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 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:

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