Friday, November 19, 2021

The Feast of the Prophet Obadiah, and the Vigil of the Presentation

Purely by coincidence, today is the day on which the Roman Breviary reads the first half of the shortest book in the Old Testament, that of the Prophet Obadiah (“Abdias” in Greek and Latin), and also his feast day, as noted in the Martyrology. (This happens in any year in which the Dominical letter is c, and the 19th of November thus falls on a Friday.) With the exception of the so-called Maccabee brothers, the Church in the West has never generally celebrated feasts of Old Testament Saints. (The Carmelite Order venerates the Prophet Elijah as one of its founders, and some churches in Venice, which has many close cultural ties to the East, are dedicated to figures such as Moses, Job and Jeremiah.) On the other hand, in the Byzantine Rite, most of the prophets are celebrated liturgically. The Tridentine reform was very concerned to emphasize the common theological patrimony of the Western and Eastern parts of the church, as united witnesses against the innovations of the protestant reformers, and in function of this, Cardinal Baronius added many mentions of Old Testaments Saints to the Roman Martyrology, on or near their Byzantine feast day.
An illuminated letter at the beginning of the book of Obadiah, in a Bible made in southern France in the first quarter of the 12th century, now known as the Bible of Montpellier; British Library, Harley MS 4772, f° 288r.
Since he gives no information about himself, we know basically nothing about Obadiah; he is traditionally but mistakenly identified with a man of the same name who appears in 3 Kings 18, the servant of King Ahab who saved the prophets of the Lord from the wicked queen Jezabel. His prophecy concerns the fall of the kingdom of Edom, which was descended from Esau, the brother of the Patriarch Jacob, and which the prophet reproves thus: “For the slaughter, and for the iniquity against thy brother Jacob, confusion shall cover thee, and thou shalt perish for ever.” There are a number of similarities between his book and the oracles against Edom in Jeremiah 49, for which reason he is generally believed to be a contemporary of his fellow prophet, living around the year 600 BC.
The Byzantine tradition places his feast within the period of the Nativity fast, the equivalent of the Roman Advent, and it is simply presumed that like all the prophets, he foresaw the coming of the Redeemer as God in the flesh. Thus we read at Vespers of his feast, “Being filled with the light that knoweth no setting, and seeing the glory that surpasseth all knowing and understanding, and standing near to the Lord of all things, blessed Abdias, and having become the interpreter of God, beseech Him that peace and great mercy may be granted to our souls.” And likewise, in the canon of his feast, “Thou wast revealed to be like a wedding attendant of the Church, o blessed one, foretelling that the Savior would come forth from Zion, to Whom we cry out, ‘Glory to Thy power, O Lord!’ ” “Wedding attendant” explicitly associates the prophet with the last of his brethren, St John the Baptist, who says of himself, “the friend of the bridegroom, who standeth and heareth him, rejoiceth with joy because of the bridegroom’s voice.” (John 3, 29; at right, a Russian icon of Obadiah painted in 1912, from Wikimedia Commons.)
Vespers in the Byzantine Rite always belong liturgically to the following day, and so on November 19th, they are of the Forefeast of the Presentation of the Virgin Mary in the Temple, the equivalent of a Roman vigil. The Presentation was introduced to the West very late, and has never been celebrated with a vigil, but in the Byzantine Rite, it is one of the Twelve Great Feasts, those of the highest degree of solemnity after Easter. It therefore has both a forefeast and an afterfeast, the latter being the equivalent of an octave, although these vary in length, and that of the Presentation is only four days long. The most important variable texts sung at the Divine Liturgy, the troparion and kontakion, are as follows on November 20th; the former is also sung at the conclusion of Vespers the evening before.
Troparion Today, Anna foretells to us joy, having brought forth as a fruit assuaging grief the only ever-virgin, whom indeed today she bringeth rejoicing to the temple of the Lord, fulfilling her promises, as the true temple and pure Mother of God the Word.
Kontakion All the world is filled today with rejoicing at the great feast of the Mother of God, crying out, She is the heavenly tabernacle!

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