Christmas - The Feast of the Nativity

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

Matins of the Nativity forms the second half of the night-time service of the feast. However, it is sometimes replaced in practice by the Divine Liturgy of the feast, celebrated immediately after Compline rather than in the morning.

This page describes the order, hymns and readings of the Matins service for the feast of the Nativity, as given in the liturgical books. For information about the prostopinije chant of the service, along with practical suggestions and commentary, see Singing Christmas Matins.

The order of the service

Beginning and the Six Psalms

Matins begins with the priest's opening blessing: "Glory to the holy, consubstantial, life-creating and undivided Trinity, always, now and ever and forever." (This blessing is used at the beginning of Great Compline if the two services are combined.)

Then the lector chants six psalms (Hexapsalmos) of Matins. In the liturgical books, these psalms of Matins are appointed to be sung by a single voice, "without melody", while the rest of the faithful listen with compunction; it is said that those are the psalms that will be sung by the angels during the last judgment. These psalms are followed by the Litany of Peace.

The troparion the feast will be sung next - but first the deacon sings, and the people repeat:

The Lord is God and has revealed himself to us.
Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!

These words, echoing both the Old Testament prophets and the cries of the crown who greeted our Lord as He entered Jerusalem before His passion, apply equally well to the feast of the Nativity.

Then the troparion of the feast is sung three times, as always on great feasts:

Your birth, O Christ our God,
has shed upon the world the light of knowledge;
for through it, those who worshipped the stars
have learned from a star to worship you, the Sun of Justice,
and to know you, the Dawn from on High.
Glory to you, O Lord!

Readings from the Psalter

At this point, two sets (kathismata) of psalms are appointed to be chanted, each set folowed by a set of "sessional hymns." (The name refers to the fact that the faithful are seated; the corresponding Slavonic term is sedalen.) Outside of monasteries, the kathismata of the Psalter are usually omitted.

Now the Polyeleos (verses from Psalms 134 and 135) is sung, followed by the exaltation of the feast:

We extol You, O life-giving Christ, for our sake you are now born in the flesh from the unbetrothed, all-pure Virgin Mary.

The magnification is sung after each of the psalm verses that follow:

V. Shout joyfully to the Lord, all the earth, sing praise to his name; give to him glorious praise.
V. The Lord has sent deliverance to his people.
V. The Lord said to my Lord, You are my Son; this day I have begotten you.
V. Before the Daystar, like the dew, I have begotten you. The Lord has sworn and He will not repent.

During the singing of the exaltation and its verses, the clergy carry the icon of the feast in procession from the holy Table (altar), through the Holy Doors, and enthrone it on the Tetrapod, where it is incensed.

Finally, the third sessional hymn of the feast is sung:

Come, O believers, let us see where Christ is born.
Furthermore, with the Magi, the kings from the East,
let us follow wherever the star goes.
The angels are praising Him there unceasingly;
the shepherds are singing a worthy song, saying:
Glory to God in the highest;
glory to Him who is born of the Virgin
in a cave in Bethlehem of Judea.

(Note that this part of Matins always has three readings or kathismata from the Psalter. On feast days, the Polyeleos, magnification and sessional hymns of the feast make up the third Psalter reading, which is taken even if the first two readings are omitted.)

Gospel

Before the Gospel, the following prokeimenon is sung:

Before the daystar, like the dew, I have begotten You. The Lord has sworn, and He will not repent.

V. The Lord said to my Lord: Sit at my right hand till I make your enemies your footstool.

The Gospel (always read by the priest at Matins, even if there is a deacon) is the story of the Nativity from the Gospel according to Saint Matthew (1:18-25), beginning with the betrothal of Mary and Joseph, and ending with the birth of Jesus. After the Gospel is read, the Gospel Book is placed on the tetrapod, for veneration during the Canon.

At Matins, the Church's great penitential psalm, Psalm 50, is always chanted after the Gospel. On ordinary Sundays. it ends with three short stichera; on days in the Great Fast, much longer stichera of repentence are sung. But on this feast, the stichera are quite short, and summarize the whole story of the Nativity:

All creation is filled with joy today; Christ is born of the Virgin!

All creation is filled with joy today; Christ is born in Bethlehem!

Glory to God in the highest and peace on earth.
Today Bethlehem receives the One who at all times sits with the Father.
Today the angels sing the praises of the newborn Infant.
Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace, good will to all.

Somehow, the events that took place 2,000 years ago are once again in our midst; we celebrate the feast both where we are, and with the angels in Bethlehem. This is the meaning of the Church's "today" - for a little while, we are privileged to glimpse the works of salvation in the light of eternity.

The Canon

The Canon of the Nativity that follows the Gospel is one of the masterpieces of Byzantine hymnography. (Actually, there are two canons, sung together, but the second is extremely difficult to translate, and is not included in Byzantine Catholic liturgical books in English.

Recall that a (full) canon consists of eight odes (nine during the Great Fast, when the penitential Ode 2 is sung). Each ode consists of:

A theme-song or "irmos"
Several troparia, each of which is preceded by a short refrain.

The irmos for the first ode of the Christmas Canon is a call to the faithful - in fact, to all the world - to respond to the announcement that we have just heard:

Christ is born; glorify him!
Christ comes down from heaven; go out to meet him!
Christ is on earth; let us exalt in joy.
All you, faithful, sing to the Lord,
for He has been glorified!

While the canon is sung, the faithful come forward to venerate the Gospel Book, and be anointed with the holy oil that was blessed by the priest at Compline.

After the third ode, we sing again the sessional hymns of the feast; after the sixth ode, we sing the kontakion and ikos of Christmas. Like the Great Compline hymn God is with us, these two hymns emphasize the cosmic significance of the Incarnation and birth of the Son of God:

Kontakion:
Today, the Virgin gives birth to the Transcendent One;
and the earth offers a cave to the Unapproachable.
The angels sing his glory with the shepherds;
the wise men journey with the star.
The eternal God is born for us as an infant child.

Ikos:
Bethlehem has opened up Eden for us.
Come and let us see the delights that we have found there in secret.
Come and let us gather the fruits of Paradise that are within the cave.
There, the unwatered Root has manifested itself,
and it has sprouted forgiveness.
There, the undug Well, of which David yearned to drink, is found.
There, the Virgin, who gave birth to the Infant,
immediately quenched the thirst of Adam and David.
Therefore, let us hasten to the place
where the young Infant, the Eternal God, is born.

Notice that we are not turning away from the prosaic details - the cave, the mother, the shepherds, the wise men; instead, we are being shown the wider significance and the great meaning of these events, in which the earthly and changing are brought together with the heavenly and unchanging. In the midst of all these things, salvation is coming into being.

Before the ninth ode, instead of the Magnificat, we sing the exaltation of the feast. We will hear this hymn, and the irmos of the ninth ode, again in the morning at the Divine Liturgy.

With the conclusion of the ninth ode, we reach the end of the Christmas canon, and sing the Hymn of Light (in Slavonic, svitilen) of the feast, three times:

Our Savior, the rising Sun more brilliant than any other sun,
has visited us today from on high.
We once were in darkness and the shadow of error,
but now we have found the truth;
for the Virgin gives birth to the Lord our God in Bethlehem.

This is the deep meaning of the feast. as seen in the light of the old Testament and the New: in Bethlehem, the city of David, God has come to visit, teach, and redeem his people.

The Praises and Great Doxology

The final part of matins is a service of praise (sometimes called Lauds).

This part of the service begins with the singing of "the Praises" - Psalms 148-150, which conclude the book of Psalms. On great feasts, the very last verse of the Psalter ("Let everything that lives are that breathes give praise to the Lord", Ps, 150:6) is sung first, along with the first verses of Psalm 148. Then remaining verses of the three psalms are simply chanted, with stichera accompanying the final psalm verses - just as is done with the Lamplighting Psalms at Vespers. (Unfortunately, the chanted verses are often omitted, and even the first, sung verses are sometimes skipped.)

For the feast of the Nativity, these stichera "at the Praises" show the entire universe are responding in joy and praise to the event that has taken place:

O holy ones, be happy; O heavens, be glad; and all you mountains, sing with joy because Christ our God today Is born. Behold, the Virgin is enthroned like the Cherubim, holding in her arms the incarnate Word of God. The shepherds glorify with hymns the newborn Babe; the Magi offer gifts to their Master; and the angels sing praises and say: O incomprehensible Lord, glory to You!

Finally, the Great Doxology - the Church's principal hymn of praise - is sung. It begins with the words of the angels to the shepherds, which have been repeated many times on this feast:

Glory to God in the highest,
and to people on earth, peace and good will.

At the conclusion of the Great Doxology, the Trisagion Prayers and the troparion of the nativity (sung three times) are followed by the Litany of Supplication and a festal dismissal.

The night-time service of the Nativity has come to an end.

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