Tuesday, February 13, 2024

Psalms in the Byzantine Lenten Office

On the Gregorian calendar, yesterday was the first day of Great Lent in the Byzantine Rite, so here is an interesting thing about the Byzantine Divine Office and its use of the Psalms in this season. (On the Julian calendar, the first day of Lent will be on the Gregorian date March 18, and Easter on May 5.) As with everything in the Byzantine Rite, exceptions abound, and this is not a comprehensive account of all the possible variations and substitutions.
The Hours of the Byzantine Office all have one or more Psalms as part of their permanent and mostly invariable structure, analogous to the Roman Rite’s daily use of Psalm 94 as the invitatory or the invariable Psalms of Terce-None and Compline (before the reform of 1911). So for example, Psalm 103 is said every day as part of the introductory rites of Vespers; the same three Psalms (5-89-100) are said at Prime 355 days of the year, etc.
However, the entire Psalter, including the Psalms that are also used elsewhere as structural elements, is also divided into 20 sections called “kathismata.” Each kathisma is subdivided into three “staseis”, each of which concludes with the doxology, then three repetitions of “Alleluja, alleluja, alleluja; glory to Thee, o God”, “Lord, have mercy” three times, and the doxology again. Normally, one kathisma is said at Vespers, except on Sunday evening, and two at Orthros. The whole Psalter is therefore read over the course of a week.
This first table shows how the Psalms are distributed through the kathismata; the number of psalms per stasis is irregular to account for their varying length.
This second table shows how the kathismata are normally distributed through the week. Two pairs of them are said out of order on Friday (19 and 20) and Saturday (16 and 17), since the 17th is said on weekdays at the Hour known as the Midnight Office, which I have described in a previous article. (This is one of the very few places where the Byzantine Rite makes a formal accomodation to the idea of keeping the Office from getting too long or too repetitive.)

In Lent, however, the Psalter is done TWICE in a week. On weekdays, three kathismata are said at Orthros instead of two, and one is added to the Hours from Prime-None, with three exceptions (Prime of Monday, and Prime and None of Friday.) In this Lenten system, the same kathisma, the 18th, which consists of the 15 Gradual Psalms, is said at Vespers on all the weekdays. This coincides with the custom by which the Divine Liturgy is not offered on the weekdays of Lent, permitting more time to be dedicated to the Office.
(Hours with no kathisma are left blank in this table, which accounts for the first four weeks and the sixth week of Lent. During the fifth week, there is an adjustment to the order to accomodate a special and spectacularly lengthy service held on Thursday of that week, which is too complicated to explain here.)
In the first round (from Saturday Vespers to Orthros of Wednesday), the 17th kathisma is omitted, again, because it said at the Midnight Office. On the other hand, there are three occasions (Terce of Monday, Prime of Tuesday, and None of Thursday) in which the same Psalm is said as one of the regular daily Psalms of those Hours, and then repeated almost immediately in the kathisma. On the last of these occasions, Psalm 85 is said twice back-to-back, once as the third of the daily Psalms of None (83-84-85), and immediately again as the first Psalm of the 12th kathisma.
It should be kept in mind that this system is generally only used in full in monasteries; in practice, other churches, especially parishes, will either abbreviate the kathismata or omit them altogether. For example, in Slavic practice, the first kathisma at Vespers on Saturday evening, Psalms 1-8, is often abbreviated into this very nice piece of music, which only includes a few select verses of these Psalms.
It should also be noted that the kathismata are basically done as readings by a single reader in a simple recitative tone. They have nothing analogous to Roman antiphons, and there is no melody to them analogous to a Roman psalm-tone. The recitation of the Psalms in this manner therefore does not take anywhere near as long as it would if they were being sung as they are in the Roman Rite.
The first proper chant of Orthros has two variations. On feasts and Sundays, a refrain from Psalm 117, “The Lord is God, and hath shone upon us; blessed is He who cometh in the name of the Lord”, is sung between verses of the same Psalm. Aliturgical days, however, are known as “days of Alleluja”, because this chant is replaced by a different refrain, three Allelujas sung between verses of Isaiah 26. In the following recording, it is sung together with the opening troparion of Matins of Holy Thursday and Good Friday. “When the glorious disciples were enlightened at the washing (of the feet) during the Supper, then was the impious Judas darkened, grown sick with avarice, and handed Thee, the just Judge, to lawless judges. See, o lover of money, the man who was brought by these things to the gibbet; flee from the insatiable desire that dared such things against the Teacher. Thou, who art good to all, o Lord, glory to Thee!”
Between this and the multiplication of the kathismata, the Byzantine Rite does the opposite of the Roman, greatly increasing the number of Allelujas said in Lent.
Last but not least, the kathisma system is dropped completely from Orthros of the morning of Holy Thursday until None of the Saturday of Bright Week (the Byzantine term for the Easter octave), and then resumed at Vespers of St Thomas Sunday; so the monks give themselves a break from the Psalter for ten days, the first three of which are nevertheless among the lengthiest of the entire year.
His yoke is easy, and His burden is light.

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