Christmas - The Feast of the Nativity

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

The Vespers of the Nativity (Christmas Vespers) is the first service of the feast. Sung on the afternoon or evening of December 24, it marks the transition from the 40 days of the Christmas fast to the joyous celebration of the birth of Christ in Bethlehem.

This service usually consists of Vespers, followed immediately by the Divine Liturgy of Saint Basil the Great. This order of services is followed on three days of the liturgical year, all of which are fast days:

If December 24 falls on a Saturday or Sunday, then the Nativity Vespers is celebrated without Divine Liturgy, to avoid having two Eucharistic Liturgies in the same church on the same day. See Arrangement of services.

This page describes the order, hymns and readings of the service, as given in the liturgical books. The complete texts can be found in the menaion entry. For information about the prostopinije chant of the service, along with practical suggestions and commentary, see Singing Vespers for Christmas and Theophany.

Vespers with Divine Liturgy

Vespers with the Divine Liturgy can be celebrated in the afternoon or evening of December 24. Historically, it has been anticipated as early as noon. However, in the Typikon of the Byzantine Catholic Church, it is considered to be a service of the feast itself, and should be celebrated later in the day. In some eparchies, attendance at this service satisifes the holyday obligation to attend the Divine Liturgy of Christmas.

The service begins with the opening blessing of the Divine Liturgy, "Blessed is the kingdom of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit", and the singing of Psalm 103, the opening psalm of Vespers, followed by the Litany of Peace and the Lamp-lighting Psalms: "Lord, I have cried to you, hear me", with its references to incense and the hour of evening. As these psalms come to an end, the Lamplighting stichera are sung, with the cantor intoning the psalm verses and the faithful singing the stichera. These hymns range from the theological:

Come, let us rejoice in the Lord; let us proclaim the present mystery by which the partition has been broken and the flaming sword withheld. Now the Cherubim shall let us all come to the Tree of Life. As for me, I am returning to the bliss of Paradise from which I had been banished by disobedience. Behold! The Image of the Father and his unchangeable eternity has taken the form of a servant. Without suffering He has come forth to us from an all-pure Virgin, and yet He has remained unchanged. He is true God as He was before, and He has taken on himself what He had not been, becoming man out of his love for all. Therefore, let us raise our voices in hymns, singing: O God, born of the Virgin, have mercy on us.

to the homely and touching:

O Christ, what shall we offer You for your coming on earth in our humanity for our sake?
Every creature that has its being from You gives thanks to You:
the angels offer hymns of praise,
the heavens give a star;
the Magi present their gifts
and the shepherds, their wonder;
the earth provides a cave
and the desert, a manger.
As for us, we offer a Virgin Mother.
O God who are from all eternity, have mercy on us.

The final sticheron (the "hymn at Glory", or doxastikon) firmly places the feast in its historical setting, and explains the parallels between that setting and what Christ has come to accomplish:

When Augustus became supreme ruler of the world, the many kingdoms among the people came to an end. Likewise, when You became Incarnate of the Immaculate One, the worship of many gods had to cease. The cities came under a universal power, and the Gentiles believed in one supreme Divinity. Nations were registered in the name of Caesar Augustus, and we, the faithful, were registered in your divine name, O Incarnate One. O Lord, great is your mercy; glory to You!

This part of the service concludes as the lights are lit and the faithful sing the evening hymn, "O Joyful Light". During the singing, the clergy incense the sanctuary and the faithful.

The faithful sit to listen to the evening prokeimenon of the day of the week, and to Old Testament readings that follow.

Note: there is a special "great Prokeimenon" that is appointed to be sung at Vespers ON the feast of the Nativity. But if Christmas falls on Saturday, this prokeimenon would conflct with the ancient prokeimenon of Sunday, "The Lord reigns, he is clothed in majesty." In this case, the great prokeimenon ("What God is as great as our God? You are the God who works wonders") is sung on Friday evening, at the service we are describing now.

There are nine readings in all, with responsorial hymns sung after each set of three readings.

The first three readings are as follows:

After the third reading, the cantor and faithful sing a troparion:

You were born in a cave, hidden from the eyes of all; but the heavens revealed You to all by means of a star, O Savior. It brought the Magi to You; they worshiped You in the fervor of their faith. Have mercy upon all of us.

The cantor sings a series of verses from Psalm 86, describing the glories of Mount Zion, and the city of God, Jerusalem, and how people from all nations will come to her. After each verse, the people sing the second part of the troparion:

It brought the Magi to You; they worshiped You in the fervor of their faith. Have mercy upon all of us.

At the end, the cantor and faithful sing the entire troparion once more.

The next three readings are as follows:

After these readings, another troparion is sung as before, with verses from Psalm 92:

You have shone forth from the Virgin, O Christ, Sun of Justice. A star found You, whom nothing can contain, manifested in the cave. It led the Magi to adore You. With them, we worship You, O Giver of Life; glory to You!

The last two readings are from the Prophet Isaiah:

With the conclusion of the readings, followed by a Small Litany, the Divine Liturgy of Saint Basil the Great begins at the Trisagion ("Holy God").

The prokeimenon of the Divine Liturgy is the prophecy of King David:

The Lord said to my Lord: You are my Son; this day have I begotten you.

The reading from the Letter to the Hebrews that follows (Hebrews 1:1-12) interprets many of the preceding prophecies and psalm verses, showing how they point to the Messiah.

Finally, the Gospel (Luke 2:1-20) is sung, telling the story of the holy Birth: the journey to Bethlehem, the cave, the angels and shepherds.

And at this, we come to the great action of thanksgiving, the Eucharist. As noted earlier, the Liturgy of Saint Basil is the traditional liturgy of the city of Constantinople; it recounts the whole of salvation history: from the Creation, through the Incarnation, suffering, death and Resurrection of Christ, his ascension and sending of the Holy Spirit, and looks forward to His glorious second coming. See the article on Singing the Anaphora of Saint Basil. In some places, the irmos of the ninth ode of the Matins canon for December 24 in sung instead of "In you, O Woman Full of Grace":

Be not amazed, O mother, as you see as an infant him whom the Father begat from within himself before the morning star; for I have come to restore and glorify with me the nature of fallen humanity, who magnifies you with faith and love.

The Communion Hymn is the usual one for Sunday, which appears in a new light when we sing it on Christmas Eve, after we have just heard of the announcement by the angels of the birth of the Messiah:

Praise the Lord from the heavens; praise him in the highest. Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

After the priest's Ambon Prayer, the church may be darkened, and a lit candle is placed on a stand in the middle of the church. Standing beside it, the the cantor sings the troparion and kontakion of the feast day:

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!

Glory... now and ever...

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.

As the service concludes, we depart, as did the shepherds, "glorifying and praising God."

Vespers without Divine Liturgy

When December 24 falls on a Saturday or Sunday, there is no Divine Liturgy in the evening, and the order of the Vespers service is as follows.

The opening blessing of Vespers: "Blessed is our God, always, now and ever and forever."
Psalm 103
Litany of Peace
"Blessed is the man" (the first kathisma of the Psalter)
Psalm 140 and stichera (as above)
Prokeimenon of the day
Old Testament readings and troparia (as above)
Litany of Fervent Supplication ("Let us all say with our whole soul..."
Hymn of Glorification ("Make us worthy, O Lord')
Litany of Supplication ("Let us complete our evening prayer to the Lord")
Troparion and kontakion of the Nativity (cantor only)

The Prayer of Simeon ("Now you shall dismiss your servant, O Lord") and the aposticha are not sung at this Vespers service, but at Great Compline during the night office of Christmas.

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