A Feast Worthy of Special Treatment
Three times each year, and only three times, the Church offers a special service known as the Royal Hours. This service is a special combined service of the First, Third, Sixth, and Ninth Hours, which in the ancient Church, and still today in some monastic communities, were prayed separately throughout the day.
Each hour has a special theme, independent of which Feast is being celebrated. For each of these three Feasts, the Church includes additional hymns and readings unique to a particular feast. Today’s Royal Hours of Christmas, naturally, included hymns and readings about Christmas.
The similarities don’t end with the structure of the service. As part of the Ninth Hour in each one of these days, the chanter stands in the middle of the Church singing a hymn calling our consciousness to Christ and the Feast. One of my favorite connections takes place in this moment.
For the Royal Hours of Christmas, the Hymn states: Today, He who holds the whole world in His hand is born from a Virgin. He who is impalpable in essence is wrapped in swaddling clothes as a mortal. God, who in the beginning established the heavens of old, is lying in a manger as a newborn babe. He who rained down manna for the people in the wilderness is nursed by His mother. He who is the Bridegroom of the Church is summoning the Magi. And He is accepting their gifts, now as the Son of the Virgin. “We adore Your Nativity, O Christ. Also show us Your divine Epiphany.”
For the Royal Hours of Pascha sung on Holy and Great Friday, the hymn begins and finishes in a similar style. “Today is hung upon and Tree…..We bow down to your crucifixion, show us also your Holy Resurrection.”
This is a hint for us today. Just as the crucifixion is directly connected to the resurrection, so the nativity is directly connected to Epiphany. Just as the resurrection is the natural result of the crucifixion, Epiphany is the natural result of the Nativity. You cannot have one without the other.
You may be wondering why the Church takes the opportunity to celebrate such special services only a few times per year. In truth, the greater the Feast, the older the tradition. We can therefore deduce from this, that such celebrations were more popular in the ancient Church but have fallen out of common usage today. Keep in mind the services all week have been focused on the Christmas theme, just as the week leading up to Pascha, another similarity we cannot appreciate today.
We should remember the ancient Church gathered every day for services, whereas we have become a predominately “Sunday Only” Church. This unfortunate situation should change as we lose not only the opportunity to pray together, but the larger context of the beautiful services and traditions of our Church.
In the meantime, we can rejoice that on Feasts like Christmas, the Church recalls our ancient traditions and provides us a greater celebration. May our Lord, Who was born in a cave and lay in a manger for our salvation, bless you this Feast and every day.