Christmas - The Feast of the Nativity

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

The Divine Liturgy of the Nativity is the fulfillment of the Christmas services. For forty days, we fasted and looked forward to this feast; on the Sundays before Christmas, we recalled the Old Testament figures who looked forward to it. In the evening and nighttime services we welcomed the newborn King. Now, during the morning service of Christmas, we welcome Him among us in the sacrament of the Eucharist.

This page describes the order, hymns and readings of the daytime Divine Liturgy 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 the Divine Liturgy for Christmas Day.

The Antiphons of the Divine Liturgy

The Christmas Divine Liturgy begins with three festive antiphons which are proper to this day. The First Antiphon is taken from Psalm 9:

I shall thank you, O Lord, with all my heart; I shall declare all your wondrous deeds.

The remaining verses (from Psalm 110) praise the "works of the Lord." Thus, it is the actions of God in achieving our redemption that we come together to praise.

The Second Antiphon, from Psalm 111, praises the "just man" and the blessings God will give to his house:

Happy the man who fears the Lord, and greatly delights in his commands.

The following verses of the antiphon (not given in the Divine Liturgies book) show that the "just man" is first of all Christ, "whose justice stands firm forever". Thus, his posterity, "who will be powerful on earth" and "blessed", are not descendents in the ordinary sense, but the children of God by adoption. The Hymn of the Incarnation, sung at the end of the Second Antiphon, is particularly apt today!

The Third Antiphon is a prophecy of the Messiah, taken the Psalm 109, which we have heard several times in the Christmas services:

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

Here, it is King David who speaks: he hears God the Father ("the Lord") addressing the Messiah ("My Lord"), foretelling his eventual conquest over sin and death. In a later verse, He tells Him, "Yours is princely power from the day of your birth, in the splendor of holy ones." Each verse of the third antiphon is followed by the singing of the troparion of the Nativity:

Your birth, O Christ our God,
has shed upon the world the light of knowledge.
For through it, those who worshipped the star
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.

As the clergy enter the altar, the people sing another verse from the same psalm:

From the womb, before the morning star, I have begotten You.
The Lord has sworn, and he will not repent.
You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizadek.

Here the Messiah is placed in a line from Melchizadek, King of Salem - a mysterious figure whose parentage is never given; a priest who offered bread and wine to the Most High God. It is Jesus, our High Priest, who will be both priest and sacrifice in the Eucharist that follows.

The office of antiphons concludes with the singing once more of the Christmas troparion, along with the Christmas 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.

The Trisagion

In place of the usual trisagion ("Holy God, Holy and Mighty"), we sing the following in the same manner:

All you who have been baptized into Christ has been clothed with Christ. Alleluia!

This hymn is sung on the ancient baptismal days of the Church, including the feast of the Nativity.

The readings

The prokeimenon that precedes the apostolic reading brings us back to the note that opened the Liturgy:

Let all the earth worship you and sing praise to you; let everyone sing praise to your name, O Most High.
V. Shout joyfully to the Lord, all the earth; sing praise to his name, give to him glorious praise.

The Epistle reading (Galatians 4:4-7) is very short, beginning with the wondrous event that took place in Bethlehem, it tells of the grace of adoption and the two-fold sending-forth of God's plan of salvation. (We will celebrate the second sending-forth at Pentecost.)

When the designated time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to deliver from the law those who were subjected to it, so that we might receive our status as adopted sons. The proof that you are sons is the fact that God has sent forth into our hearts the Spirit of his Son which cries out "Abba" ("Father!") You are no longer a slave but a son! And the fact that you are a son makes you an heir, by God's design.

Curiously, during this feast the Church has waited till now to speak clearly of this adoption. We have been told that God's mighty deeds would conquer sin and death; now we come to the center of these mysteries.

The reading from the Holy Gospel according to Saint Matthew (2:1-12) continues where we left off at Vespers on Christmas Eve. This morning, we hear the story of the three Magi "from the east" who came to see the new-born King. Bringing their gifts, they represent the Gentiles who, along with the Jews who accepted Jesus as Lord, would likewise be received as adopted sons of God.

The Eucharist

The Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom (or under certain circumstances the Liturgy of Saint Basil) continues from this point. As usual, we see that the central part of the Eucharist varies little from one feast to the next; the same primary mysteries of our salvation are recalled and made present. Our Lord comes to us under the appearances of the bread and wine we have offered at the hands of the priest.

After the consecration, at the commemoration of the departed, the hymn to the Theotokos, "It is truly proper", is replaced with the magnification and irmos from the ninth ode of the canon at Christmas matins:

Extol, O my soul, Christ the King, born in a cave.

I see a strange and marvelous mystery:
heaven is a cave;
the cherubic throne, a virgin;
the manger has become the place
where the incomprehensible God lies down.
Let us praise him and extol him.

Here we encounter a word that was also used at Matins, and may cause some confusion. To "comprehend" something is to surround it, either physically or (more usually) with the intellect. Here, to say that God is "incomprehensible" does not mean that He is either confusing or irrational; instead, it means that He is simply too much for our minds to completely understand. We cannot put God "in a box" with our minds any more than we can enclose Him in space – but miraculously, the one who fills the heavens has enclosed Himself in a limited, frail, human body.

When the time comes for the faithful to receive that same body in Holy Communion, the Communion Hymn recalls to us the true meaning of the feast:

The Lord has send deliverance to his people. Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

Recommended Reading