Singing Great Compline on Christmas Eve

The night vigil for the feast of the Nativity of the Lord is long and beautiful; it consists a combination of Great Compline with Litija and Matins. (See Christmas: Great Compline and Christmas Matins for details.) Some liturgical prayer books used by our people provided both services in their entirety, which others included selected "highlights", such as the singing of God is with us (S nami Boh). The entire vigil was celebrated in some parishes into the 1970's.

Meanwhile, versions of the service in English were scarce. In 1969, Monsignor William Levkulic published a short book with portions of Great Compline and Litija, along with the propers for the daytime Divine Liturgy and selected spiritual songs for Christmas, under the title Christ is Born - Glorify Him. This booklet was later expanded by the Metropolitan Cantor Institute, with updated translations and music. This article describes the celebration of this popular Christmas Eve service using the MCI book.

What you will need

The Metropolitan Cantor Institute has published an (unofficial) book for this service, with complete music:

Note that this is very abbreviated version of the entire all-night vigil! Here, we will refer to the shortened Great Compline with Litija as "the Christmas Eve service."

Time of celebration

The all-night vigil takes place after Vespers (which may include the Divine Liturgy) and a Holy Supper is there is one. Thus, it might be celebrated any time between, say 7 PM and 10 PM. In some places, it may be followed immediately by the Divine Liturgy for Christmas Day.

Great Compline

Because the night-time office for Christmas includes (at least theoretically) the service of Matins, the Great Compline portion of the Christmas Eve service begins with the opening blessing of Matins:

Glory to the holy, consubstantial, life-creating and undivided Trinity, always, now and ever and forever.

to which the faithful respond, "Amen." Then they chant the call to worship ("Come, let us worship our King and God") and three of the Six Psalms of Great Compline, all to the usual psalm tone.

The faithful stand for the singing of God is with us. This Scriptural canticle (from the book of Isaiah) consists of a refrain, sung initially to a matched pair of melodies:

Then the first verse is sung by the priest (or cantor). The following melody is traditional:

to which the faithful response with "God is with us" according to the first melody:

Then the priest sings the second verse, ending on a higher pitch:

and the faith respond with the second version of "God is with us":

The melodies are alternated in this way through the end of the hymn. Here is a recording sung by the PreŇ°ov Seminary choir, showing the use of the two different melodies.

Then the cantor and faithful sing the troparion and kontakion of Christmas.

Litija

The next part of the service is Litija, the solemn procession with prayers for all the needs of the world. This procession takes place from the nave of the church to the narthex, or even outside, as the hymns of Litija are sung. The deacon leads a special litany, and "Lord, have mercy" is sung many times. Then the clergy and faithful go back into the church in procession. The service of Litija is held on the eves of major feasts, but on Christmas and Theophany, it becomes part of the all-night vigil, between Compline and Matins.

The first set of hymns (the "hymns of Litija") are traditionally sung to the Bolhar melodies used for times of particularly intense prayer (for example, they are also sung during the funeral services). But because they are rather difficult, the service book for the Christmas Eve service also provides settings of these same hymns to the samohlasen tones.

The Litija hymns for Christmas are in tones 1, 5, and 6. If you choose to sing the Bolhar melodies, you can use the following tutorial articles to help you learn them:

There is no Bolhar melody for Tone 6, so the last of the Litija hymns is sung to the much easier samohlasen melody in Tone 6.

Normally the cantor will go in procession with the clergy and faithful, but if a second cantor is available, he or she may want to stay in the church or at the back of the procession, to support the singing.

Once the procession has stopped at the place where prayers will be intoned, there should be no surprises in the responses; "Lord, have mercy" is sung 12 times for a number of petitions, and if desired, the response may be alternated in several languages (English, Slavonic, Hungarian, Spanish, Greek, etc.) as appropriate.

After the concluding prayer, the procession returns to the church as the aposticha hymns are sung. These use the ordinary samohlasen melodies in Tone 2, Tone 3, and Tone 4. Whenever a verse is sung between hymns, it uses the verse melody in the Tone of the following hymn.

Conclusion

Because Litija was imported from Vespers into this service, it is followed by the conclusion of Vespers with Litija (these parts are omitted at Vespers on Christmas Eve and are sung here):

In the blessing of bread, wheat, wine, and oil, we ask God to multiply these things, and all good and necessary things, "in this city and throughout your world." The blessing of bread was also a practical matter, as the bread (dipped in the wine or oil) would be consumed by the faithful to sustain them through the all-night vigil, if it were conducted to its full length. Psalm 33 is a response to this blessing, ending with the verses:

Revere the Lord, you his saints.
   They lack nothing, those who revere him.
Strong lions suffer want and go hungry
   but those who seek the Lord lack no blessing.

With the solemn dismissal, the Christmas Eve service comes to an end; it is customary to continue singing Christmas carols and hymns into the night. The blessed bread may be distributed now, or after the morning Divine Liturgy. The oil blessed at Litija can be used to anoint the faithful now, at the canon of Matins (if Christmas Matins is celebrated), or after the morning Divine Liturgy.