The Hours are four relatively brief prayer services of the Daily Cycle that mark the various hours of the day, corresponding to principal events in the earthly life of the Saviour. The liturgical practice of the Orthodox Church includes four hours: the ninth, first, third and sixth. Respectively, they signify the Lord’s Death on the Cross; the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, as well as the judgement of the God-man by the council of Caiaphas and His subsequent Passion; the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles; and the crucifixion of the Lord on the Cross. The numerical names of the hours are taken from the ancient Jewish tradition of dividing the day into four prayer offices. The Old Testament tradition of observing these prayer offices at certain times of day has been adopted by Christianity and acquired a new meaning. Today the ninth hour corresponds to 3PM, the first – to 7AM, the third – to 9AM and the sixth – to 12 noon. In modern practice the hours are joined for convenience to longer daily services. The ninth hour is read at the beginning of Vespers, the first – at the end of Matins. The third and sixth hours are served before the beginning of the Liturgy.
The service of the Royal hours is held on the eves of such important Orthodox holidays as the Nativity of Christ and Theophany, as well as on Holy Friday.
This service is also called Great Hours because it is celebrated very solemnly. The priest is vested in a phelonion, and the Holy Doors are open. Censing is performed every hour, during the first and the last of which censing the entire church is performed with a burning candle, as in a polyeleos service. Every hour is accompanied by a reading of the paremias (specific Old Testament readings, from the Greek – parable) and followed by the Apostle and the Gospel. The readings from the Holy Scriptures and almost all the prayers of the great hours (the psalms, prokimeni, troparia and kontakia) are dedicated to the celebrated event (the Nativity of Christ, the Baptism of the Lord, or the Passion of Christ).
The name Royal Hours originated from the tradition of Byzantine emperors to attend these solemn services, emphasizing their liturgical, spiritual importance, as well as their social significance.
In the heortological sense (Heortology – from the Greek “eorthos”, a feast – the study of the history and significance of the feasts and seasons in the ecclesiastical calendar) the services on Christmas and Epiphany Eves are similar to each other. This is due to the fact that in the ancient Church the Nativity and the Baptism of Christ were celebrated as one feast, called the Holy Epiphany. The tradition of celebrating the Nativity of Christ separately originated in the 4th century.
In the modern church practice, the royal hours are served immediately one after another in the following order – 1, 3, 6, 9. Usually, at the beginning of each hour, the bell rings the corresponding number of times. The Scripture readings and prayers of this service tune a Christian’s heart into the spirit of celebrating the Nativity of Christ.
In one of his Nativity poems, J. Brodsky writes:
When it’s Christmas we’re all of us magi.
At the grocers’ all slipping and pushing.
Where a tin of halvah, coffee-flavored,
is the cause of a human assault-wave
by a crowd heavy-laden with parcels:
each one his own king, his own camel.
Nylon bags, carrier bags, paper cones,
caps and neckties all twisted up sideways.
Reek of vodka and resin and cod,
orange mandarins, cinnamon, apples.
Floods of faces, no sign of a pathway
toward Bethlehem, shut off by blizzard.
Indeed, the Christmas shopping, fancy dinners and receiving friends and relatives, often eclipse the trail to Bethlehem in our hearts. We forget about the first and foremost meaning of Christmas being the Nativity of Christ, the Savior of the world.
The Royal hours help us make the first step towards Him. Crossing the threshold of the church, we enter the cave where God is waiting for us. It is Him that we should honor and cling to before we observe the social traditions. In doing so, we become filled with the true Spirit of Christmas, from which everything begins. This spirit can be attained during the church services celebrated on these beautiful, joyful and majestic days, commemorating the events of our salvation by God.
In the same poem Brodsky further writes:
But when drafts through the doorway disperse
the thick mist of the hours of darkness
and a shape in a shawl stands revealed,
both a newborn and Spirit that’s Holy
in yourself you discover; you stare
skyward, and it’s right there: a star.
On the bright holiday of the Nativity of Christ, I would like to wish all of us to see this gentle shining star leading us through the chaos of the world to the Infant Christ.
Translated by The Catalogue of Good Deeds