Wednesday, December 02, 2020

The Midnight Office of the Byzantine Rite

Two weeks ago, I wrote about the Byzantine custom of the Inter-Hours, the second Prime, Terce, Sext and None said after the main ones in certain fasting seasons, including the Nativity fast, which began two Sundays ago on the Gregorian calendar. As a follow-up, I thought I would write about another feature of the Byzantine Office that has no real parallel in the Western liturgies, the service known as the Midnight Office (Μεσονυκτικόν in Greek, Полунощница in Church Slavonic).
Unlike the Inter-Hours, which emerged relatively late in the history of the rite, and whose presence in the liturgical books is now something of an archaism, the Midnight Office is very ancient indeed, and still said in monasteries. It is attested in the 4th century in the Longer Rule of St Basil the Great (330-79) [1], and included in the regular cursus of Offices in the first complete euchologion [2], a manuscript in the Vatican library known as Barberini Greek ms. 336. I say that it has no parallel in the western Offices because although it is a vigiliary service, it has no readings like those of the western Matins. Even though the Byzantine liturgical day always begins with Vespers, many modern editions of the Horologion, the book that contains the basic structure of the Office and some of the more frequently used variable texts, begin with the Midnight Office, which is celebrated in four different forms.
The Repentance of King David, the episode which, according to the title of Psalm 50, led to its composition, “when the Prophet Nathan came to him after he had gone in to Bathsheba.” (2 Samuel 11-12) At the upper right, the hands of the personification of Repentance indicate contemplation, as David prostrates himself below her. (Illustration from the Paris Psalter, ca. 950 AD; Bibliothèque nationale de France. Département des manuscrits. Grec 139, folio 136v.)
On weekdays, it begins with the same opening formula as the other Hours, known as the Usual Beginning, which leads into Psalm 50. This is followed by the whole of Psalm 118, the longest in the Psalter, which the Roman Rite also traditionally said every day, but spread out over the four day Hours. It is divided unevenly into three parts (verses 1-72, 73-131, 132-176), each of which ends with the doxology, three repetitions of “Alleluja, alleluja, alleluja, glory to Thee, o God”, then “Lord, have mercy” three times, and the doxology again; whenever there is a switch between one section and another in this fashion, a different reader may take over, starting with the second part of the second doxology.
The Psalm is followed by the Nicene Creed, the Trisagion prayers, which are repeated from the Usual Beginning (omitting the first two parts and the last part), and then a series of three chants called tropars, with the two parts of the doxology between them. These do not vary according to the day or season, but are replaced by a single tropar on the Twelve Great Feasts, and their Fore- and After-feasts. The final tropar in any such group of three is always about the Virgin Mary.
“Behold the Bridegroom cometh in the midst of the night, and blessed is the servant whom He shall find watching; and again, unworthy is he whom He shall find heedless. Take care, therefore, oh my soul, lest thou be borne down with sleep, lest thou be given up to death, and be shut out of the kingdom; but rouse thyself, crying, Holy, Holy, Holy are Thou O God. Through the Mother of God, have mercy on us! Glory be…
This text is also sung at the beginning of Matins on the first three days of Holy Week, which are usually called “Bridegroom Matins.”
Considering that terrible day, o my soul, keep watch, keeping thy lamp alight and bright with oil; for thou knowest not when the voice shall some to thee, saying, “Behold the Bridegroom!” Beware, therefore, my soul, lest thou slumber and be left outside, knocking, like the five virgins; but be steadfast in thy watching, that thou may come to meet Christ with rich oil, and He may give thee the divine chamber of His glory. Both now…
We supplicate thee, the unassailable wall, the fortress of salvation, o Virgin Mother of God; scatter the counsels of our enemies, change the sorrow of thy people into joy, encompass thy city, fight with the king, encourage thy world, strengthen the pious, pray for the peace of the world, for thou art our hope, o Mother of God.” (The words in italics are omitted in some modern editions.)
On Saturday, Psalm 118 is said at Orthros, and so a different group of Psalms is said in its place at the Midnight Office, 64-66 (first part), 67 (second), and 68-69 (third). The three tropars are also different.
“Uncreated nature, maker of all things, open our lips so that we may proclaim Thy praise, crying out, Holy, holy, holy art Thou, o God. By the prayers of the Mother of God, o Lord, do Thou also save me. Glory be…
Imitating the powers above, we upon the earth bring to Thee the hymn of victory, o Good One; Holy, holy, holy art Thou, o God. By the prayers of the Mother of God, o Lord, do Thou also save me. Both now…
Having raised me up from my bed and sleep, o Lord, enlighten my mind, and open my heart and lips, to sing to Thee, o Holy Trinity. Holy, holy, holy art Thou, o God. By the prayers of the Mother of God, o Lord, do Thou also save me.”
There follows a series of elements also said at the other Hours except for Vespers and Orthros: Kyrie, eleison 40 times, the Prayer of the Hours, Kyrie, eleison 3 times, Glory be, a brief prayer to the Virgin (“Higher than the Cherubim…”), a conclusion said by the priestly celebrant, and then in Lent, a very well-known prayer of St Ephraim the Syrian, accompanied by three prostrations.
The reader than says a prayer attributed to a Saint called Mardarius [3], which is also said at Terce. “O Master God, Father Almighty, o Lord, Only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ, and Holy Spirit, one divinity, one power: have mercy on me a sinner, and by the judgments which Thou knowest, save me, Thine unworthy servant; for Thou art blessed unto the ages of ages. Amen.”
The Martyrdom of Ss Mardarius, Eustratius and Companions, depicted in the Menologion of the Emperor Basil II ca. 1000 AD. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.
From Sept. 22, the day following the After-feast of the Holy Cross, until Palm Sunday, a second prayer is added, which is attributed to St Basil.
“Lord Almighty, God of hosts and of all flesh, Who dwellest on high and lookest down on things that are lowly, Who searchest the hearts and depths, and knowest clearly the secrets of men; light without beginning and everlasting, in whom there is no change, nor even the shadow of variation: receive our supplications, o immortal King, which in the present time of the night, taking courage from the fullness of Thy mercies, we make to Thee from unclean lips; and forgive us the trespasses which we have committed in deed, word, and thought, those done knowingly or in ignorance, and cleanse us from every defilement of flesh and spirit, making us temples of Thy Holy Spirit. And grant us with watchful heart and sober thought to pass through the whole night of this present life, awaiting the coming of the bright day that shall suddenly appear of Thine Only-begotten Son, our Lord and God and Savior, Jesus Christ, on which the Judge of all shall come with glory upon the earth, to reward each according to his deeds; so that we may not be found fallen and sleeping, but watchful and vigilant in the doing of His commands, and readily go with Him into the joy and divine palace of His glory, where there is the ceaseless sound of those that keep festival, and the unspeakable delight of those that behold the ineffable beauty of Thy countenance. For Thou art the true Light that enlightenest and sanctifiest all, and all creation doth sing Thy praise, unto the ages of ages. Amen.”
The priest celebrant then raises his hands, and prays, “We bless Thee, o Most High God and Lord of mercy, Who ever doest with us things great and inscrutable, glorious and extraordinary, of which there is no measure; Who hast granted to us sleep as rest from our infirmities, and relaxation from the labors of our much-toiling flesh. We thank Thee that Thou hast not destroyed us together with our iniquities, but hast shown Thy wonted love for mankind, and as we were lying down in despair, didst raised us up that we might glorify Thy might. Therefore, we implore Thy boundless goodness: enlighten the eyes of our understanding, and raise up our mind from the heavy sleep of laziness. Open our mouth and fill it with Thy praise, that we may be able without distraction to sing and chant, and confess Thee Who art God, glorified in all and by all, the Father without beginning, with Thine Only-begotten Son, and Thine All-holy and good and life-creating Spirit, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen.”
On Saturday, the prayer of St Mardarius is followed immediately by another prayer, attributed to a Saint called Eustratius, and the prayer “We bless Thee” is omitted.
“Greatly do I magnify Thee, O Lord, for Thou didst look upon my lowliness and hast not enclose me into the hands of my enemies, but saved my soul from distress. And now, o Master, let Thy hand shelter me and let Thy mercy come upon me, for my soul hath been troubled, and is pained in its departure from this my wretched and defiled body, lest the evil counsel of the adversary overtake it and cause it stumble because of the sins done by me in this life, in ignorance and with knowledge. Be merciful unto me, o Master, and let not my soul see the gloomy and dark countenance of the wicked demons, but let Thy bright and shining angels received it. Give glory to Thy holy name, and by Thy bring me unto Thy divine judgment seat. When I am judged, let not the hand of the prince of this world take hold of me to draw me, a sinner, down into depths of hell, but stand by me and be unto me a savior and protector. Have mercy, o Lord, on my soul that has been defiled by passions of life, and receive it cleansed by penance and confession, for blessed art Thou unto the ages of ages. Amen.”
There now begins a second part of the service, which is mostly concerned with praying for the dead. This starts with the last section of the Usual Beginning, Psalms 120 and 133, the Trisagion prayers once again, and a group of four tropars.
“Remember Thy servants, o Lord, in Thy goodness, and forgive all the sins they have committed in life; for no one is without sin but Thee, who can give rest to those who have passed.
Thou who in the depth of wisdom arrange all things with love for mankind, and apportion to all what they need, o sole Creator; give rest, o Lord, to the souls of Thy servants, for they placed their hope in Thee, their Maker and Creator and Our God. Glory be…
With Thy Saints, give rest, o Christ, to the souls of Thy servants, where there is no toil, or grief, or sighing, but life everlasting. Both now… (This text is also sung as a prominent part of the funerary service.)
With all generations we bless thee, o Virgin Mother of God, for in thee, Christ our God, who is infinite, was pleased to be contained. Blessed are we also, having thee as our patron, for thou intercedest for us day and night, and the scepters of the kingdom are strengthened by thy prayers. Wherefore with hymns do we cry to thee, ‘Hail, o full of grace, the Lord is with thee!’ ”
There follow Kyrie, eleison twelve times, and the following prayers.
“Remember, o Lord, our fathers and brethren who have fallen asleep in the hope of rising to eternal life, and all those who have completed their lives in piety and faith; and forgive them their sins, voluntary and involuntary, (committed) in word, or deed, or in thought. And give them dwelling in places of light, cool and refreshment, whence have fled of all pain, sorrow, and sighing, where the visitation of Thy countenance gladdeneth all Thy Saints from the beginning of the age. Grant to them Thy kingdom a portion of Thy ineffable and eternal goods, and the enjoyment of Thy limitless and blessed life. For Thou art the the life, the resurrection, and the repose of Thy departed servants, Christ our God, and we give glory to Thee, with Thy eternal Father, and Thy all-holy, good, and the life-giving Spirit: now and ever, and unto all ages.
Glorious-above-all, ever virgin and blessed Mother of God, bring our prayer to thy Son and our God, and ask that He may save our souls through thee.
The Father is my hope, the Son, my refuge, and the Holy Spirit, my protector: O Holy Trinity: glory to Thee!
All my hope have I placed in Thee, o Mother of God, protect me beneath Thy shelter. Glory be… both now… Kyrie, elesion (three times) Give the blessing!
The priest says the common dismissal formula, but the service does not immediately end. There is then said a litany with a series of petitions “for the peace of the world”, the text of which varies according to various recensions.
On Sunday, the Midnight Office takes a very different and shorter form, in part because the Office of Orthros which follows it is much longer on Sundays. Immediately after the Usual Beginning and Psalm 50, Psalm 118 is replaced by a Canon to the Holy Trinity, which is conceptually very similar to the Roman Office of the Holy Trinity. A “canon” in the Byzantine Office is a long series of “hymns” [4] of different types; there is always one sung at Orthros, and often also at Compline. There are eight such canons for the Sunday Midnight Office, which are sung as part of an eight-week rotation of the Office propers according to the eight different musical tones, and each canon has at least 30 hymns, so I will here give just one, the first of the first tone, as an example. (In practice, canons are often abbreviated according to certain recognized conventions.)
“The Seraphim unceasingly glorify one Beginning in Three hypostases, without beginning, everlasting the maker of all things, incomprehensible, which every tongue also faithfully honoreth in song.”
The canon is followed by a group of hymns called Triadika (from the Greek word “Τριάς – Trinity”), of which there are four in the Greek books, and eight in the Slavonic. Here is the first one according to both uses:
“It is truly worthy to sing of the Trinity that is God above all, the Father without beginning, the word that is also without beginning, the make of all, begotten without change from the Father before all ages, and the Holy Spirit who proceedeth from the Father outside of time.”
After these, the reader says the Trisagion prayers, and then a chant called a Hypakoe is anticipated from Orthros. The name of this chant derives from the Greek verb “hypakouein – to obey”, and its theme is the obedience of the women who came to the tomb to anoint Christ’s body to the command of the angel to proclaim His Resurrection. Here is the Hypakoe of the first tone: “The repentance of the thief stole him Paradise, and the mourning of the Myrrh-bearing women revealed joy; for Thou didst rise again, o Christ our God, granting great mercy to the world!”
This is followed by the normal conclusion of the Hours and the litany as mentioned above; the entire second part, that which is largely concerned with praying for the dead, is omitted.
There is one final variant, which is that of Easter night; instead of the Canon of the Holy Trinity, the canon of Holy Saturday Matins, which is rightly considered one of the most beautiful in the entire rite, is repeated, and all the other proper hymns omitted. Here is its final set of hymns.
Weep not over me, Mother, as Thou beholdest me in the tomb, Thy Son whom Thou didst conceive in the womb without seed; for I shall rise and be glorified, and as God, shall unceasingly exalt in glory them that magnify Thee in faith and love.
Having escaped sufferings at Thy strange birth, I was exceedingly blessed, eternal Son; but now, seeing Thee, my God, without breath and dead, I am terribly pierced with the sword of grief! But rise, that I may be magnified.

The earth covers me of My own will, but the gate-keepers of Hades shudder, seeing me clothed in a garment, o Mother, made bloody with vengeance; for as God, having struck My enemies upon the Cross, I will rise again and glorify Thee.

Let all creation rejoice, let all that dwell upon the earth be glad; for the enemy Hades is despoiled. Let the women come to meet Me with myrrh, for I redeem Adam with Eve and all their descent, and on the third day I shall rise.

[1] See Fr Robert Taft’s The Liturgy of the Hours in East and West, pp. 84-87.
[2] The euchologion, like its western counterpart, the sacramentary, originally contained at least some of the prayers said by the celebrant of the Divine Office, in addition to those of the Eucharistic liturgy.
[3] The prayers attributed to Ss Mardarius and Eustratius are actually excerpted from the account of their Passion; their feast is celebrated on December 13th along with three other martyrs called Auxentius, Eugenius and Orestes.
[4] The Greek word “hymnos” is used generically for all of the variable propers of the Office, of which there is a bewildering variety, each with a proper name according to its function. As literary compositions, however, they are much more like the “antiphons” of the western Offices, and not at all like western “hymns.”

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