Christmas is the second most significant feast of the Church year. It is no coincidence that people sometimes call it the Winter Pascha. In the liturgical texts, we find a similar description: “Christ’s Nativity, the Pascha, a three-day feast.” The way the Church prepares its faithful for the Pascha follows from this vision.
The distinct manner of celebrating the Nativity of Christ is also visible from the Church Calendar. The first Christmas chants are sung at church as early as one month before the feast; more chants are added later into the Nativity Feast, and we hear them most frequently in the last six days before the Nativity. So let us explore in more detail the differences in Christmas worship, and look specifically at the differences in the hymns sung at Christmas time and on ordinary days.
It will not skip the eye of an attentive worshipper that the hymns of the forefeast of the Nativity are quite similar to those that we hear during the Passion Week. For example, the chant of the Great Sunday before the Pascha starts with these lines: Of old Thou didst bury the pursuing tyrant beneath the waves of the sea. Now the children of those who were saved bury Thee beneath the earth.” Compare this with the first lines of a similar chant on the eve of the Nativity: “Of old Thou didst bury the pursuing tyrant beneath the waves of the sea. Now Herod is seeking to slay the One hidden in the creep.” These parallels are drawn across the entire worship on Nativity Eve – our beautification of the Lord’s earthly life and the beginning of its beginning is intertwined, telling us that our salvation began did not begin on Mount Golgotha, but in the humble nativity crib in Bethlehem.
On the last Sunday before the feast of the Nativity, we celebrate its forefeast, and the way we do it is remarkable. It begins the Week of the Holy Fathers, during which we remember all the righteous men of the Old Testament who lived before Christ. The reading for that day is the first chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, which names the ancestors of Jesus Christ. In the Hymns, we glorify the saints of the Old Testament: “Adorned with the glory of divine communion, Adam rejoices today, as he is the foundation and support of the wise Ancestors. With him, Abel leaps with joy, and Enoch makes glad; Seth dances, and Noah with him; the all-praiseworthy Patriarch Abraham sings; Melchizedek beholds from afar the birth that is without a father.”
In these lines, we hear the names of Forefather Abraham, Prophet Daniel and three righteous youths named Hananiah, Azariah and Misael, whom King Nebekenezer ordered to be thrown into the fire for refusing to bow to an idol.
The reasons for the special veneration Abraham and Daniel are given in the following hymn of the day: “The beginning of the fathers – Abraham the Patriarch, the founder of the law and goodness, and Daniel the Divine, having met this day shall we honour with faith; for, as the prophet of God he presaged the Nativity of Christ from the Virgin. God named Abraham the father of all faithful, it was from him that He created His chosen people. Prophet Daniel is honoured for his accurate prediction of the time of the coming of the Saviour: “Seventy weeks are decreed for your people and your holy city. Then transgression will stop and sin will end, guilt will be expiated, Everlasting justice will be introduced, vision and prophecy ratified, and a most holy will be anointed.” (Daniel 09:24)
The sparing of the three youths from death in the fire are seen by the Church as the antecedent of the Nativity of Christ. One of the hymns may be translated as follows. “The fire presented us the image of a breathtaking miracle: for the youths taken it did not burn, like the Divine Fire of the Virgin’s womb into which it descended.”
The services on the eve of the Nativity are also noteworthy. They feast is referred to in the liturgical texts as “the Vigil of the Nativity of Christ”, and is also known under the popular name of Christmas Night. The day’s special morning service is called the Royal Hours. Saint Sophronius of Jerusalem wrote it in the Seventh Century (we also remember him as the writer of the life of Saint Mary of Egypt). Possibly, it owes its name to the Byzantine custom of celebrating it in the presence of the king and singing glory and many years to him and the Patriarch. The hymn “Many years” is still sung today to the Patriarch, the Metropolitan and the Assembly. Unlike the regular services of the hours performed in a church every fifth day, this service has readings from the Holy Scripture – the Old Testament, the Apostle and the gospels. Each of the four services begins with the reading of a prophecy of the Nativity of Our Lord, followed by a commentary in light of the epistles from the Apostles. The reading close with the passages on the Nativity itself.
The Royal Hours are succeeded by a special liturgy, It consists of pre-nativity chants, and readings from the Old Testament prophesies (passages from the Old Testament are not read in a regular liturgy). In the old times, the services ended towards the evening of the Christmas night with the rise of the first star, which symbolised to the faithful the ascent of the start of Bethlehem seen by the magi. Today, the service is performed in the morning, shortly after the Royal Hours. At the end, a candle is put in the middle of the church symbolising the rise of the Bethlehem star, and the clergy and choir inaugurate the celebration of the Nativity Feast by singing the Troparion and the kontakion.
Attending the unique Christmas worship services is your way to experience most fully the feast of the Nativity and to prepare your spirit for the ascent of the Star of Bethlehem.
Translated by The Catalogue of Good Deeds