December, Part II

December is the fourth month of the liturgical year in the Byzantine Rite. This article covers the most important liturgical aspects of the days from December 25 through December 31; the earlier part of the month is here. See the online menaion and the Lectionary for the hymns and readings of each day.

The feast of the Nativity of Christ

On December 25, after nine months of expectation (since the feast of the Annunciation on March 25), forty days of fasting, two pre-festive Sundays, and five pre-festive days, we are ready to celebrate the Nativity (birth) of our Lord Jesus Christ.

This is an extremely ancient feast of the Church, and very rich on theology. Its hymns and readings focus on the meaning for us of the fact that God has become man, come to dwell among us. See the article on Christmas for more about these themes and their development.

The feast begins, in Byzantine fashion, on the evening of December 24, with the service of Vespers for the Nativity, normally combined with the Divine Liturgy. There are nine Old Testament readings, with the singing of responsorial troparia. If there is a Divine Liturgy, we hear the Gospel account of the Nativity from the Gospel of Luke, and the anaphora of Saint Basil is used, since its prayers recount the whole history of salvation.

We say "normally" because if it Saturday or Sunday, then the day's Divine Liturgy has already been celebrated earlier, and so the even service on Christmas Eve consists of Vespers only. See Christmas: Arrangement of Services. The Old Testament readings are included, but instead of hearing the story of the Nativity, the Gospel reading is Matthew 13:31-36, describing the reign of God. In this case, some pastors will ignore the prescriptions of the Typikon and simply celebrate Vespers with Divine Liturgy on the evening of December 24, even if falls on Saturday or Sunday.

By custom, Vespers on Christmas Eve is followed by a "holy supper" (on Monday through Friday, no meat is eaten, since it is a day of strict fast). Then the liturgical books appoint a night-time vigil consisting of:

Bread and wine are blessed at the Litija and distributed to the faithful after Matins to sustain them through the long night-time prayer. In practice, this all-night vigil is often severely abbreviated. The Christmas Divine Liturgy may follow immediately, or be celebrated in the morning.

While the Royal Hours and the services on Christmas Eve consider the "homelier" aspects of the feast of the Nativity - the journey to Bethlehem, the cave, and the shepherds - the Divine Liturgy for the morning of December 25 is intensely theological and deep. The hymns of this Divine Liturgy can be found on pages 289-294 of our Divine Liturgies book:

As with most feasts of the Lord, there are proper antiphons (chosen for the feast), with the troparion of the feast sung after the third antiphon as a refrain. There is also a proper entrance hymn, sung to the melody of the troparion:

Entrance Hymn for Nativity

and then the troparion is sung again, followed by the kontakion.

Like the feast of Saint Nicholas, this feast has many spiritual songs associated with it, like our Western Christmas carols, but usually with richer theological content. One of these hymns, Wondrous News (Divnaja novina) is used for setting the Cherubic Hymn on Christmas Day, and this melody (used also for the acclamation, "We praise you, we bless you", and the Communion Hymn) is the one provided in the Divine Liturgy books on pages 292-293:

This melody is also given for the Communion Hymns from Christmas through the Sunday after Theophany (January 6). But as with the feast of Saint Nicholas and O kto kto, there is no requirement that cantors use these particular settings; other melodies may be chosen.

You may notice that instead of two musical settings for the irmos (simple and solemn), there is only one. The Music Commission and bishops chose to do this because the original melody for the Nativity irmos is both well-known, and fairly easy to sing. Thus, there was no need for a "simpler" version to be provided. (The same decision was made for the feast of Theophany, which also has a recognizable and easy-to-sing irmos melody.) See Magnification and Irmos for the Nativity.

The post-festive days of the Nativity

Christmas is a feast of the Lord, and so, as we saw for the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross in September, the first and second antiphons, magnification, and irmos are sung at the Divine Liturgy on each of the post-festive days from December 26 through December 31, while the third antiphon and entrance hymn are changed to include a reference to the feast:

Come, let us worship and bow before Christ. O Son of God, born of the Virgin, save us who sing to you: Alleluia!

Music for the post-festive hymns can be found on page 295 in the Divine Liturgies book.

The first two post-festive days have commemorations of their own.

The Synaxis of the Theotokos

December 26 is the Synaxis of the Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary. In the Byzantine tradition, a synaxis (assembly) is a celebration immediately following a major feast (usually the next day) which highlights one of the figures associated with the feast. For example:

At the Divine Liturgy on this day, we sing the post-festive antiphons, troparion, and Communion Hymn of Christmas, together with the proper hymns for the Synaxis, which can be found on pages 294-297 of our Divine Liturgies book:

The prokeimenon and Alleluia are the common ones for the Theotokos, which we have seen used at most of her feasts.

If you examine the calendar of saints, you may notice that the mark (Great doxology) beside the entry of December 26 marks it as a feast of Great Doxology rank - not normally a feast which would be included in our Divine Liturgy book. Its presence is a sign of a way of ranking liturgical feasts which is parallel to, but different from, the one in the liturgical books. On the calendar prepared every year for our church and published by the Byzantine Seminary Press, certain days are marked as:

So this system tells pastors when they ought to make a particular effort to celebrate the "full" liturgical observance (not made explicit, but presumably consisting of Vespers, Matins, and Divine Liturgy) or at least a feast-day Divine Liturgy, and also that for these days, a convenient time should be set for the Divine Liturgy so that the faithful can attend.

The feast of the Synaxis is a "solemn holy day," and December 27, the feast of Saint Stephen, is a "simple holy day." The Divine Liturgy book includes all the necessary texts and music for both simple and solemn holy days.

Saint Stephen, the first martyr

On December 27, we celebrate the feast of the deacon and first martyr ("promartyr") Stephen. Martyrs are those who demonstrated their willingness to give up everything, including their lives, for their belief in Christ. Along with the holy innocents slain by King Herod (whom we commemorate on December 29) and John the Baptist, Saint Stephen is considered to be one the first such witnesses; certainly he was the first among the apostles to do so.

In our tradition, "apostle" can have two different meanings: it can refer to the twelve apostles who accompanied Christ, or to the seventy apostles whom he sent out to spread the Gospel (Luke 10:1-24). Each of the twelve apostles has his own feast day, usually of polyeleos rank, and we commemorate them together on June 30. Some of the Seventy have their own feast days, and we commemorate all of them on January 4.

Saint Stephen was one of the most illustrious of the Seventy, and his feast is of polyeleos rank (Polyeleos feast). The hymns of the Divine Liturgy on this feast can be found on pages 298-300 of our Divine Liturgies book, and consist of the post-festive hymns of the Nativity, together with a proper troparion and kontakion for Stephen and the common prokeimenon, Alleluia, and Communion hymn for apostles.

The kontakion shows how the liturgy brings out the connections and contrasts that are so important to Byzantine liturgy:

Yesterday, in human flesh the Master came to us; * today, from the flesh, his servant departs. * Yesterday, the King was born in the flesh; * today, his servant is killed by stoning. * Thus the holy Stephen, the first martyr, is brought to perfection.

Many of the days that make up the end of December are feasts of martyrs. (December 31 is the leave-taking of the Nativity.) It may seem strange to us to combine a celebration of the witness and death of a martyr with the festivities surrounding the birth of Christ, but this is the Church's way of showing up the sufferings undertaken by Christ as part of the Incarnation, and also the joy reserved for those who are willing to endure any hardship for their belief in Him.

The Saturday after the Nativity

Like the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, the feast of the Nativity of the Lord has special hymns and readings for the Saturday and Sunday after the feast.

The Divine Liturgy for the Sunday after the Nativity has its own prokeimenon, Alleluia, and Communion Hymn, which can be found on pages 301-302 of our Divine Liturgies book. The prokeimenon is from Wednesday of Bright Week; the Alleluia is from the Synaxis of the Theotokos, and the Communion Hymn is from the Nativity of the Theotokos (September 8).

The Sunday after the Nativity

The Sunday after the feast of the Nativity, from December 27 to 31, commemorates the "blood-relatives" of Christ, and most specifically our Lord's foster father Joseph (who is not otherwise commemorated in the Byzantine church year), his ancestor King David, and his cousin James, who became the first bishop of Jerusalem.

This is another complicated Sunday, combining the ordinary Sunday hymns (troparion, prokeimenon, and Communion Hymn) with the hymns of the Nativity (post-festive antiphons and entrance hymn, troparion, kontakion, magnification, and irmos) and the hymns for the relatives of Christ (troparion, kontakion, prokeimenon, Alleluia, and Communion Hymn).

The hymns for the relatives of the Lord can be found on pages 303-305 of our Divine Liturgies book:

The Sunday after the Nativity is simpler than the Sunday before the Nativity, because the complexity added by pre-festive days is absent. But it is possible for the Sunday after the Nativity to be dropped entirely, if that Sunday falls on or after January 1. If that happens the commemoration of Joseph, David, and James is moved to a weekday; see the Annual Typikon for details.

One might reasonably ask: isn't the Theotokos, too, one of the relatives of the Lord? And with that in mind, go back and look at the hymns for the Saturday after the Nativity. It seems that the Church has decided to quietly honor the Lord's closest relative, his mother, the day before the rest of his relatives are commemorated and acclaimed.

For more about these days, see From Christmas to Theophany.

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