Canonical hours are a type of special, fairly brief divine offices that mark certain times of day, at which a certain important event of the Savior’s earthly life occurred. There are four hours in the worship practice of the Orthodox Church, namely, the Ninth Hour, the First Hour, the Third Hour, and the Sixth Hour. The principal topic of the Ninth Hour is the death of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ on the Cross. The First Hour reminds of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, as well as the trial of the God-man at the Caiaphas’ court and His Passion. The Third Hour is devoted to the Descent of the Holy Spirit on the apostles, while the Sixth Hour reminds of the Lord’s Crucifixion. The names of the hours can be traced back to Jewish customs. The ancient Jews divided the day into four parts, hence the hours’ names. The tradition of fixed prayers at regular intervals dates back to the Old Testament but it acquired a new meaning in Christianity. The Ninth Hour is at 3 p.m., the First Hour is at 7 a.m., the Third Hour is at 9 a.m., and the Sixth Hour is at 12 p.m. Currently, the Hours are appended to longer services out of convenience. The Ninth Hour is appended to the Vespers, the First Hour is appended to the end of the Matins, and the Third and Sixth Hours are served before the Liturgy.
However, the worship practice of the Church includes Great Hours—alternatively referred to as Royal Hours—too. They are served on the greatest Orthodox holidays, three times a year: on Holy Friday, Christmas Eve, and Theophany Eve.
They are called Great because they are served in an especially solemn manner. A priest wears a phelonion. The Royal Door is open. The beginning of each hour is marked by censing, with the entire church censed at the first and the final hour, with a lit candle, like during the polieley. There are paroemias (Greek, ‘proverbs’ — special readings from the Old Testament) read at every hour, followed by the Epistle and the Gospel readings. The Scripture readings are selected to match the holiday. Apart from that, Psalms, prokeimenons, troparions and kontakions—in fact, almost all prayers of the Great Hours—are dedicated to the celebrated event (the Nativity of Christ, the Baptism of the Lord, or the Passion of Christ).
This service is called Royal because Byzantine emperors had a habit of attending them due to their grandeur. It underlined not only spiritual and liturgical importance of these services but also their public value.
Heortologically (Greek root heortē means ‘feast’, thus, heortology is a branch of theology, which studies religious holidays), Christmas Eve and Epiphany Eve are twin holidays. Their liturgical structures are similar. It can be attributed to the fact that the Nativity of Christ and the Baptism of the Lord were celebrated as one holiday, called the Holy Theophany, in the past. Christmas was first celebrated as a separate holiday only in the 4th century.
According to the contemporary tradition of the Church, the Great Royal Hours are celebrated one by one in the following order: 1, 3, 6, 9. Usually, a bell strikes the number of the hour at its beginning.
This year, the Great Hours will be held on Friday (because Christmas is on Monday). There is no Liturgy on that day. According to the rubrics, the Royal Hours service starts at 8 a.m.
The Royal Hours, filled with Scripture readings and prayers, introduce us to the celebration of Christmas and tune our hearts and souls up for the holiday.
We often can’t find the road to Bethlehem due to the chaotic shopping spree and because we’re busy cooking a festive meal for the traditional family reunion. We tend to forget about the main reason for the season, i.e., the birth of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world. We often forget that we should come to Him, and not to our relatives, first. We can enjoy being with your families later. First of all, we must come to Baby Jesus.
The Royal Hours are our first step to Him. We enter the church as if it were the cave where God is waiting for us. We must be united with Him to the best of our abilities. We’ve got to honor Him in the first place. We should fill our hearts and minds not with public traditions of celebrating the feast (they can wait) but with the spirit of Christmas, which sets everything in motion. We can acquire this spirit at the divine offices of these wonderful, glorious, and happy days of remembrance of the salvation that God brought for the human race.
Dear brothers and sisters, I’d like to wish you all to be able to see that tender shimmering star that leads us to the Divine Baby on this merry holiday of the Nativity of Christ, in spite of all troubles and worries of this world.
Translated by The Catalog of Good Deeds