Christmas - The Feast of the Nativity

Introduction - Arrangement of Services - Vespers - Great Compline - Matins - Divine Liturgy

The service of Great Compline for the feast of the Nativity forms the first half of the night-time service of the feast. It is held during the evening hours of December 24, often preceded by the singing of Christmas carols, and (according to the liturgical books) followed by Matins. In North America, however, it is often followed by a celebration of the Divine Liturgy, to form a Byzantine Rite analog of the Western "Midnight Mass" of Christmas.

This page describes the Great Compline service of Christmas, as given in the liturgical books. For information about the prostopinije chant of the service, along with practical suggestions and commentary, see Singing Christmas Compline.

About the service of Great Compline

Great Compline is celebrated on the eves of a small number of great feasts (Christmas, Theophany, and the Annunciation) and on certain weekdays during the Great Fast. However, since many of the faithful only encounter it at the feast of the Nativity, it is sometimes thought of specifically as a "Christmas service."

Great Compline actually consists of three separate services:

On Christmas and Theophany, these are combined with a litija service - an intercessory procession with prayers for the whole world.

The beginning of the service

Great Compline begins with the priest's opening blessing: "Blessed is our God, always, now and ever and forever." This is followed by the usual beginning prayers: "Glory to you, our God, glory to you", "Heavenly King", and the Trisagion prayers, concluding with the Our Father.

However, if Matins will immediately follow Great Compline, then the combined service begins with the opening blessing of Matins: "Glory to the holy, consubstantial, life-creating and undivided Trinity, always, now and ever and forever", and the beginning prayers are omitted.

The first part of the service

Each of the three parts of Great Compline begins with the same invitation to prayer:

Come let us worship our King and God.
Come let us worship Christ, our King and our God.
Come let us worship and bow before the only Lord Jesus Christ, our King and our God.

Then the lector begins the six psalms of Great Compline. Like the six psalms of Matins, they are divided into two groups of three psalms, and appointed for singing "without melody" by a single voice.

(It is said that the six psalms of Matins are the hymns that will be sung by the angels during the Last Judgment, and for this reason the faithful are instructed to listen "with compunction" while the lector chants then on a single pitch. However, especially when only a few of the psalms are taken, it has become customary for the entire congregation to chant these psalms.)

The first psalm (Psalm 4) is the usual bedtime psalm that begins Small Compline, and contains the words, "I lie down in peace and sleep comes at once, for you alone, Lord, make me dwell in safety."

But that is not the end of the story. It is followed by two psalms (Psalm 6 and Psalm 12) of anguish, asking for God's assistance and mercy during times of trial. They end with a note of hopeful expectation; the cry, "How long, O Lord, will you hide your face?" yields to "As for me, I trust in your merciful love."

The next three psalms (Psalm 24, Psalm 30 and Psalm 90) are songs of confidence and hope: the Lord will look with favor on those who trust him, and keep his commandments.

Psalm 90 is followed by the liturgical hymn God is with us (in Slavonic, S nam'i Boh):

God is with us!
Understand, all you nations, and submit yourselves,
For God is with us.

This refrain, which is sung by the people in alternation with the cantors or clergy), should not be understood as a claim that God is with us and NOT with "the nations"; instead, as the verses the follow make clear, it is a hymn of joy that God-with-us, Emmanuel, has come into the world, and that He brings us the saving help promised in the preceding psalms.

Then the cantors and faithful chant a series of verses in praise of the Holy Trinity, and invoking the prayers of the angels and saints. After chanting the Nicene creed, those present again beg the prayers of the Mother of God, the angels, prophets and martyrs, and conclude by begging God's protection and mercy. This series of petitions ends with the Trisagion prayers and the Our Father.

The singing of the troparion of the Nativity and a short set of concluding prayers closes the first part of the service.

The second part of the service

The second part of the service - the penitential vigil - begins with the invitation to prayer "Come, let us worship the King, our God"), as before.

Then two psalms of repentence are chanted (Psalms 50 and 101), along with the Prayer of Manasseh, King of Judah. Manesseh was one of the most idolatrous of the Kings of Judah, but after being captured by the Assyrians, he repented of his idolatry and begged for God's mercy (2 Chronicles 33:10-17). The king's penitential prayer was included in the Septuagint Bible.

The Prayer of Manasseh is followed by the chanting of the Trisagion prayers and the Our Father.

The singing of the kontakion of the Nativity and a short set of concluding prayers closes the first part of the service.

The third part of the service

The third part of the service - the vigil of praise - begins once more with the invitation to prayer "Come, let us worship the King, our God").

Then two psalms of trust in God (Psalms 69 and142, from the ordinary Small Compline service) are chanted, followed by the Lesser Doxology. This hymn takes on particular significance at Christmas, since it begins with the hymn of the angels (Luke xx:yy):

Glory to God in the highest,
and to people of earth, peace and good will!

The litija

The Doxology is immediately followed by litija - an intercessory procession to the entrance ("narthex" or porch) of the church, where prayers will be said for the whole world and its needs.

As the clergy make their way to the church entrance, the cantors and people sing the "hymns of the litija":

May heaven and earth rejoice prophetically this day.
May angels and people spiritually celebrate,
for God appeared in the flesh to those groping in the darkness and resting in a shadow.
Having been born of a Virgin, a cave and a manger received Him.
Shepherds relate a miracle;
the Magi from the East bring gifts to Bethlehem,
while we, with unworthy lips, render Him angelic praise:
Glory to God in the highest and peace on earth,
for the hope of nations has arrived.
Having come, He has saved us from hostile bondage.

Today In Bethlehem I hear from the angels:
"Glory to God in the highest; "
glory to Him whose good pleasure it was that there be peace on earth.
The Virgin is now more spacious than the heavens.
Light has shone upon those in darkness
and has exalted the lowly who sing like the angels:
Glory to God In the highest!

The Persian Magi clearly recognized the heavenly King born on earth.
Led by a bright star,
they arrived at Bethlehem bearing choice gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh;
and falling down, they adored Him;
for they saw the eternal One, lying as a Child, in the cave.

Angels rejoice in heaven,
and people exalt today,
and all creatures leap with joy
because Of the birth of the Lord Savior in Bethlehem;
for all deceit of idolatry has ceased,
and Christ reigns forever.

At the church entrance, the deacon calls for prayers

for our most reverend metropolitan (Name), for our God-loving bishop (Name); for our spiritual fathers and for all our brothers and sisters in Christ,

and for every Christian soul that is troubled and afflicted and in need of God's mercy and help;

for the protection of this city and those who dwell here;

for the peace and serenity of the whole world,

for the stability of the holy Churches of God;

for the salvation and assistance of our fathers and brothers and sisters who labor and serve with diligence and fear of God;

for those who are absent and for those who are traveling;

for the healing of those who are confined by illness;

for the repose, blessed memory, and remission and forgiveness of sins of all our true-believing fathers and brothers and sisters who have gone before us;

and for all our brothers and sisters who are present at these services;

and for all who have served and now serve in this holy church

After this litany, as the clergy return to the sanctuary, the cantors and people sing the "aposticha" of the Nativity:

A great and glorious miracle was wrought today:
to Virgin gives birth without corrupting her virginity;
the Word is made flesh without separation from the Father;
the angles and shepherds give praise, and we exclaim with them:
Glory to God in the highest and peace on earth.

Today the Virgin gives birth to the Creator of all,
Paradise offers a cave,
and a star presents Christ as the Sun in darkness;
the Magi with their gifts, enlightened by faith, adore;
the shepherds behold a miracle,
while the angels exclaim:
Glory to God in the highest.

When the Lord Jesus was born In Bethlehem of Judea,
the Magi, coming from the East, adored God made man,
and unfolding their treasures, they brought precious gifts:
the purest of gold as to the eternal King;
and incense as to the God of all;
and myrrh as to the immortal dead of three days.
Come all nations,
let us adore Him who is born to save our souls.

Evening prayers and dismissal

When Great Compline includes litija (as it does on Christmas and Theophany), it ends just like Great Vespers with litija.

First, the Prayer of the Holy Prophet Simeon ("Now you shall dismiss your servant, O Lord") is sung, followed by the Trisagion prayers.

Then the troparion of the feast is sung, and bread, wheat, wine and oil are blessed, signifying the blessing of all the world's goods:

Lord Jesus Christ our God, you blessed the five loaves in the wilderness and fed the five thousand. Likewise bless these loaves, wheat, wine, and oil, and multiply them in this city and through your whole world. Sanctify your faithful who will partake of them, for you yourself bless and sanctify all things, O Christ our God, and we give glory to you with your eternal Father and your all-holy, good, and life-creating Spirit, now and ever and forever.

Psalm 33, used in ancient times for Holy Communion, and also for the distribution of blessed bread (either that left over from the Divine Liturgy, or that blessed at litija), is chanted by the people.

Finally, the dismissal of the priest is given, and Great Compline of the Nativity comes to an end.

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