Singing Vespers for Christmas and Theophany

The feasts of the Nativity of the Lord and Theophany begin (as all feasts in the Byzantine tradition do) with the celebration of Vespers on the eve of the feast (December 24th or January 5th). If this day is also a day of strict fasting (that is, if December 24th or January 5th falls on a Monday through Friday), Vespers leads immediately into the celebration of the Divine Liturgy.

Note: Depending on local circumstance, some parishes celebrate Vespers with the Divine Liturgy even if December 24th or January 5th is a Saturday or Sunday. If this is the case in your parish, celebrate the service in accordance with the directives of the pastor or celebrant.

What you will need

The Metropolitan Cantor Institute has published (unofficial) books for these services, with complete music:

Since our Epistle book does not include all the readings for these services, the MCI has collected them in PDF form:

You may also want to print or assemble a collection of spiritual songs (paraliturgical hymns) for the feast being celebrated, to be sung after the service.

Time of celebration

According to the monastic typikon, Vespers for the Nativity begins at 1 PM (the "seventh hour of the day"), and Vespers for Theophany begins at 11 AM (the "fifth hour of the day"). This ensures that the meal that follows would take place around 3 PM. (The Theophany service is longer because of the blessing of water.)

But Vespers is fundamentally an evening service, and the church is assumed to be in darkness at the end of the service for the singing of the troparion and kontakion. So in parishes, Vespers for these feasts is normally celebrated between 4 PM and 7 PM, with the earlier time prefererred if Vespers will be followed by a Holy Supper.

The start of Vespers

The lights of the church should be dimmed before the start of the service. (You will see why below.)

The priest begins with one of two blessings, depending on whether or not the Divine Liturgy will be celebrated:

This is followed by the call to prayer ("Come, let us worship"), chanted by the faithful to the usual psalm tone, and Psalm 103 sung to the festive psalm tone (which you can listen to here). These are followed by the Litany of Peace, sung with the same responses used at the Divine Liturgy.

If Vespers is celebrated normally (that is, without the Divine Liturgy), then after the Litany of Peace we sing selected verses of Psalm 1 ("Blessed is the man") with a triple Alleluia refrain, to a special znammeny chant melody. The cantor sings the verses, and the people sing the refrain. This can be especially effective if two cantors lead the two sides of the church, or one cantor leads the men and one the women, in singing the verses in alternation. If the church is divided in this way, then the conclusion of the entire hymn should be sung by the whole congregation.

The Lamp-lighting Psalms

The Lamp-lighting Psalms, together with the readings, form the main part of the Vespers portion of the service, and consist of psalms traditionally associated in the Liturgy with the evening: Psalms 140, 141, 129, and 116. The final verses of the psalms will be accompanied by the hymns called stichera. As the Lamp-lighting Psalms are sung, the deacon or priest incenses the church while the congregation stands; they sit once the incensing is complete. (Remember that the church is still in partial darkness.) If you are the cantor and sing from a place visible to the congregation, consider giving them a cue to be seated when the deacon is done incensing and returns to the sanctuary.

The opening verses of Psalm 140 (beginning with "O Lord, I have cried to you, hear me...") are always sung to the same melody that will be used for the first sticheron.

Then the remaining verses of the Lamp-lighting Psalms are chanted to the usual psalm tone until we come to the stichera. If you have two cantors, you may want to try alternating the verses of the psalms between the two sides of the church, or between men and woman.

Christmas and Theophany have eight stichera at Vespers (this is the usual number for great fasts), consisting of four different hymns, each one repeated twice. In a monastic setting, each sticheron would be sung by half the monks or nuns, then repeated by the other half. These repetitions are included in the MCI books for Christmas and Theophany Vespers, but omitted from the books for Vespers with the Divine Liturgy.

So once you reach a point

we switch from chanting to singing. The cantor sings the verse and then leads the congregation in singing the sticheron, using the melodies for stichera in the appropriate tones. In the case of Christmas and Theophany this is particularly easy, since we stay in Tone 2 throughout.

In some places, it is quite customary (and should be encouraged) for the faithful, or additional cantors, to harmonize with the singing of the stichera, as long as the melody line is clear. But each psalm verse (also called a stich or pripiv) should be sung by a single cantor.

Then the faithful stand, while the cantor sings "Glory.... now and ever" again, to the samohlasen verse melody in Tone 2. As the cantor and congregation sing one last sticheron (the doxastikon, or "hymn at glory"), the clergy go in procession through the church, stopping before the holy doors. When the doxastikon comes to an end, the deacon (or priest) intones, "Wisdom! Be attentive!", and the cantor starts the singing of the Hymn of the Evening, "O Joyful Light," as the clergy and servers enter the sanctuary and all the lights in the church are raised. (In previous times, the oil lamps or candles in the church would have been lit during the singing of stichera.)

The readings of Vespers

Now that the church is brightly lit and the clergy are assembled in the sanctuary, the cantor and faithful sing the Vespers prokeimenon of the day. This is a particularly ancient element of Byzantine Vespers, and the prokeimenon for the day of the week is hardly ever replaced by another hymn.

The events of Christmas and Theophany are crucial elements of salvation history. That is why the Divine Liturgy of Saint Basil is celebrated on these feasts, and also why there many Old and New Testament readings appointed for Vespers (these may have once accompanied baptisms which were once held at this service.) All these elements help us understand the meaning of these feasts in the light of God's plan of salvation.

The readings themselves are listed and described in the articles on Christmas Vespers and Theophany Vespers. (See the links at the start of this article for the readings in PDF form.) In most parishes, only a selection of these readings are taken. The readings should be decided on between the celebrant, deacon (if there is one) and cantors, so the deacon knows how many readings to intone for.

The deacon (or priest) does not need to know WHAT each reading is; that is the reader's job. Before each reading, the deacon intones "Wisdom!", which is the signal for the reader to announce the title of the book. (The title to be used for each book of Scripture can be found on page 28 of the Cantor's Companion, or in this handout.) Then the deacon intones "Let us be attentive!" The people sit, if they have been standing to this point, and the reader begins to read. (Remember: in church, "read" always means to chant in a reading tone!) After each group of readings, the priest blesses the reader(s) and intones, "Peace be to you, reader(s)."

For services such as these, with many readings, it is a very good idea to assign several readers, even one for each reading if this can be done without disruption. Reading should be from the middle of the church, facing East (toward the holy place). If at all possible, the cantor should NOT be the one chanting the readings.

The responsorial troparia

For Christmas and Theophany, there are special "responsorial troparia" sung between the sets of readings. In the MCI books, these are set to the troparion melody in Tone 6; the second part of each troparion is used as a refrain, which is sung by the congregation after the cantor chants each new verse. At the end, the entire troparion is repeated.

The responsorial troparia form an important part of the congregational participation in these liturgies, and the cantor should practice them in advance (possibly even WITH the congregation, in advance of the service.)

The Divine Liturgy

If it is a weekday evening (Monday through Friday), the Divine Liturgy of Saint Basil is now celebrated. The transition takes place with a Small Litany (one which begins, "Again and again, in peace let us pray to the Lord'). After this litany, we follow the order for the Liturgy of Saint Basil, beginning with the singing of "All you who have been baptized into Christ" (again, because of the connection of these feasts with Holy Baptism).

After "All you who have been baptized", the Divine Liturgy has its own prokeimenon, Epistle, Alleluia, and Gospel. Since the Divine Liturgy of Saint Basil is celebrated, choose and sing one of the sets of responses on pages 96-103, including the hymn, "In you, O Woman Full of Grace", in place of the usual hymn to the Mother of God, "It is truly proper to glorify you."

Note: some Ruthenian books prescribe a different hymn to be sung in place of "It is truly proper to glorify you", namely the irmos of the ninth ode of the canon at Compline for the feast. The MCI books give this as an option, since one of our eparchies has prescribed its use in the past.

For more about these responses, see Singing the Anaphora of Saint Basil the Great.

The Communion Hymn on the eves of the Nativity and Theophany is the same as the one for Sundays:

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

Because we sing this so often, it is easy to miss the reason we sing it here. For Christmas, it reminds of the angels announcing the Birth, singing "Glory to God in the highest!" For Theophany, it reminds us that the Holy Spirit descended from the heavens in the form of a dove, accompanied by the voice of the Father. If you have a choir setting of this Communion Hymn, you might consider using it for these services.

At Christmas in particular, there may be many communicants, so plan in advance what you will be singing during Holy Communion. Our bishops have directed that only liturgical and Scriptural texts be sung during liturgical services, so Christmas carols, etc. should generally be sung before and after the service rather than at Holy Communion; but consult with your pastor.

If it is the eve of Theophany, water may be blessed in church immediately after the Ambon Prayer. See the article on the Great Blessing of Water, and use this leaflet for texts and music.

Finally, after the concluding blessing, a lighted candle is placed on a stand in the middle of the church. (The lights of the church can be dimmed, particularly on Christmas, making this part of the service more memorable. According to tradition, Christ was born in the middle of the night.) The cantor goes to stand beside the candle and sings the troparion and kontakion of the feast.

If there is no Divine Liturgy

If December 24 or January 5 falls on a Saturday, our liturgical books call for the celebration of the Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom on Saturday morning. (This is the reason for the special music for December 24 on a Saturday on page 288 in our Divine Liturgies book). If December 24 or January 5 falls on a Sunday, then the Divine Liturgy of the Sunday Before the Nativity or the Sunday Before Theophany (with special vigil propers) is celebrated.

In either case, since a Divine Liturgy is held in church in the morning, proper Byzantine practice is to omit the Divine Liturgy in the evening, and celebrate Vespers. Of course, this may be modified by pastoral necessity, in which case Vespers with the Divine Liturgy can be celebrated as above.

If Vespers is celebrated without the Divine Liturgy, the readings of Vespers are followed by a second Liturgy of the Word (prokeimenon, Epistle, Alleluia, and Gospel); these readings are not the same ones used at Vespers with Divine Liturgy.

Since the Litija, aposticha, and Canticle of Simeon that are normally part of Vespers will be sung at Great Compline, the remainder of Vespers is very simple:

Finally, after the concluding blessing, a lighted candle is placed on a stand in the middle of the church. (The lights of the church can be dimmed, particularly on Christmas, making this part of the service more memorable. According to tradition, Christ was born in the middle of the night.) The cantor goes to stand beside the candle and sings the troparion and kontakion of the feast.

Remember that if Vespers is celebrated without the Divine Liturgy on the eve of the feast, then the Divine Liturgy on the feast itself should be the Divine Liturgy of Saint Basil the Great, with the magnification and irmos of the feast instead of "It is truly proper to glorify you" or "In you, O Woman Full of Grace."