Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Divine Services on the Nativity of Christ

Next to Pascha, the Nativity of Christ is the most joyous festival, and may justly be called the "Winter Pascha." The celebration of the Nativity of Christ was established very early, possibly already in the first century. But until the end of the fourth century, the Nativity of Christ was celebrated with His Baptism on the 6th of January (the 19th according to the New Style) and was called Theophany. Beginning in the fourth century, the Nativity of Christ began to be celebrated on the 25th of December (on the day of the pagan festival in honor of the "Invincible Sun"). At present, this takes place on the 7th of January according to the Gregorian Calendar. The Church prepares the faithful for a worthy celebration of the Nativity of Christ by a forty-day fast, which begins on the 15 th/28th of November, on the day after the commemoration of the Apostle Philip (hence "Philip's Fast"). Orthodox Christians spend the Eve of the Nativity of Christ in strict fasting. According to the Typicon, on this day one may only eat sochivo (boiled wheat with honey), so this day is called Sochel'nik.

On the Eve of the Nativity of Christ, the "Royal Hours" are performed. This divine service differs from the usual "Hours" by the reading of special "paremias" (readings from the Bible, primarily from the Old Testament) corresponding to the feast. Furthermore, the Apostol and Gospel are read.

The Liturgy of St. Basil the Great is then performed with Vespers. At this Vespers, the stichera on "Lord, I have cried," depict both the inner significance and the outward picture of the Nativity of Christ. Thus, we hear how, with the Incarnation of the Son of God, the strife between God and men ceases, the fiery sword of the angel (blocking the entry to paradise) is turned back, and we receive access to paradise. We also hear of the doxology of the angels, of Herod's confusion, and of the unification of all men under the authority of the Roman emperor Augustus.

Additional paremias are read at Vespers. The first paremia (Gen. 1:1-13) speaks of the creation of man by God. The second (Num. 24:2-9, 17-18) speaks of the prophetic significance of the star out of Jacob and the birth of the Messiah, to whom all men will submit. The third (Micah 4:6-7, 5:2-4) speaks of the birth of Christ in Bethlehem. The fourth (Isaiah 11:1-10) speaks of the Rod (i.e., the Messiah) that would come forth from the root of Jesse and of the fact that the Spirit of God would rest upon Him. The fifth (Baruch 3:36-38; 4:1-4) speaks of the appearance of God on earth and of His life among men. The sixth (Dan. 2:31-36, 44-45) prophecies the restoration of the Heavenly Kingdom by God. After the conclusion of the Liturgy, the priests stand before the icon of the feast in the middle of the Church, and glorify Christ with the singing of the troparion and the kontakion of the feast.

In the evening, on the Eve of the Nativity of Christ, a solemn All-night Vigil is served. This begins with Great Compline and the triumphant singing of the verses: God is with us, containing a prophecy of the birth of the Messiah (see Isaiah 7:14, 8:8-15 and 9:6-7). The stichera at the Litia express the triumph of heaven and earth, of angels and men, who rejoice over the descent of God to the earth and the spiritual and moral change in men that followed. The stichera for the Aposticha proclaim that a most glorious miracle has been performed: the Word is born incorruptibly from a Virgin and is not separated from the Father. After "Now lettest Thou Thy servant depart," the following troparion is sung.


Thy Nativity, O Christ our God, shined the light of knowledge upon the world: for therein they that adored the stars were taught by a star to worship Thee, the Sun of righteousness, and to know Thee, the Dayspring from on high: O Lord, glory be to Thee.

Before the reading of the Six Psalms at the beginning of Matins, the church choir joins with the heavenly choir to sing: Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace, good will among men.

In the Canon, the thought is expressed that He Who was born of the Virgin is not a simple man, but God, Who has appeared in the flesh on earth for the salvation of men, as was foretold concerning Him in the Old Testament. In the Canon, Jesus Christ is called the Benefactor Who has reconciled us with God, and the Father Who has freed us from the authority of the devil and saved us from sin, the curse and death (see the Canon of Matins below). After the sixth ode of the Canon and the Small Litany is sung the following kontakion.


Today the Virgin giveth birth to Him Who is beyond being, and the earth offereth a cave to Him Who is unapproachable; angels doxologize with shepherds, and Magi journey with a star; for a young Child, the pre-eternal God, is born for our sake.

On the very feast of the Nativity, at the beginning of the Liturgy, instead of the psalms "Bless the Lord, O my soul" and "Praise the Lord, O my soul," special antiphons are sung. The prokeimenon before the Apostol expresses the worship of Jesus Christ by all creation: Let all the earth worship Thee and chant unto Thee; let them chant unto Thy name, O Most High. The reading from the Apostol explains how, through the incarnation of Jesus Christ, we have become children of the Heavenly Father: But when the fullness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, to redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons. And because ye are sons, God hath sent forth the Spirit of his Son into your hearts, crying, Abba, Father. Wherefore thou art no more a servant, but a son; and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ (Gal. 4:4-7). The Gospel reading tells of the adoration by the Magi of the Lord Who had been born.
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