Monday, December 25, 2006

Byzantine Hymns and Readings for the Nativity

Praying for each of you a joyous celebration of our Lord's Nativity and the glorious season of His Birth, here are the proper hymns and readings for Christmas according to the Melkite calendar.

Happy Christmas!



You Nativity, O Christ our God, has shed the light of knowledge upon the world. Through it, those who had been star-worshipers, learned through a star to worship You, O Sun of Justice, and to recognize in You the One who rises and who comes from on high. O Lord, glory to You!

O Little Child lying in a manger, by means of a star, heaven has called and led to You Magi, the first-fruits of the Gentiles, astounded to behold, not scepters and thrones, but extreme poverty. What, indeed, is lower than a cave? What is humbler than swaddling clothes — and yet the splendor of your divinity shone forth in them resplendently. O Lord, glory to You!

Today the Virgin gives birth to the Transcendent in Essence, and the earth presents a cave to the Inaccessible. The angels with the shepherds sing His glory, and the Wise men with the Star travel on their way, for to us is born a New Child, who is God from all eternity.
("HOLY GOD...")

As many as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. Alleluia



Chanter: All those on earth worship You and sing to You. (All repeat)

Chanter: Sing Alleluia to God, O all the earth.

All: All those on earth worship You and sing to You.

Chanter: All those on earth worship You.

All: And sing to You.


BRETHREN: When the time had fully come, God sent forth His Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, "Abba! Father!" So through God you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son then an heir.

I will tell of the decree of the LORD:
He said to Me, "You are my Son, today I have begotten You.

Ask of Me, and I will make the nations Your heritage,
and the ends of the earth Your possession.


When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East, and have come to worship Him.’ When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it is written by the prophet: “And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will govern my people Israel.”’ Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star appeared; and he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.’ When they had heard the king they went their way; and lo, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy; and going into the house they saw the Child with Mary His mother, and they fell down and worshiped Him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered Him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.


O my soul, magnify the One who is more honorable and glorious than the heavenly powers! Behold a mystery, a strange and wonderful mystery: the cave has become heaven, the Virgin a throne of the Cherubim, and the manger a noble place where Christ our God reposes. Wherefore, let us praise and Exalt Him!


The Lord has sent redemption to His people:
He has established His covenant forever. Alleluia.


You Nativity, O Christ our God, has shed the light of knowledge upon the world. Through it, those who had been star-worshipers, learned through a star to worship You, O Sun of Justice, and to recognize in You the One who rises and who comes from on high. O Lord, glory to You!

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Kontakion of Preparation for
the Feast of the Nativity of our Lord

Today the Virgin is on her way to the cave where she will give birth to the Eternal Word of God in an ineffable manner. Rejoice, therefore, O universe when you hear this news, and glorify with the angels and the shepherds, Him who shall appear as a Child being God from all eternity.

[We've been singing this since 26 November, excluding the celebration of the Maternity of St Anna the Mother of Mary AKA the Immaculate Conception. For more information about Kontakia (plural), check out, click on Kontakion and follow the instructions.]

Friday, December 15, 2006

Rubrics, the Priest and the Byzantine Tradition

The term “rubric” has its origin in the use of red ink to print directions in Christian service books. Over the centuries, rubric has become synonymous with the word rule, and it often carries the connotation of exacting directions for carrying out some particular task. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of “liturgical” churches is the importance of the rubrics within the worship service and the insistence, real or imagined, on following specific and detailed rules to enact the liturgical worship.

To some extent, every worship service is directed, but what distinguishes the Catholic Tradition (including the Orthodox Churches, Churches of the East and several Protestant communions) is the importance of the specific order and purpose of each component in the service. This essential emphasis manifests itself most clearly in the teleturgics (liturgical practice, “following the rubrics”) performed by the clergy.

To celebrate the Divine Liturgy, the priest and deacon are required not only to have prepared the vessels and gifts, etc., but their minds and hearts as well. The preparatory services not only ensure that everything needed for the celebration is in place, but also help establish a spiritual focus on the Great Mystery that will unfold in the Liturgy. For the Byzantine Tradition, the importance of rubrics can not be overstated.

The Catholic Tradition emphasizes that worship is essentially adoration of God. The duty owed to God by man is faithfulness to the revelation of God manifest foremost and primarily in acts of adoration. If God is love, as St John plainly tells us, then our reply to that love is found in gathered celebrations that allow our love to be expressed correctly with the same selflessness our Lord manifest in His Incarnation. To worship God is to love God, to adore Him. Offering God worship in the right manner is essential to Catholic, and particularly Byzantine, worship.

It is not, therefore, without reason that orthodox is the term often used to define Byzantine worship. Orthodox, typically explained as meaning “correct doctrine”, actually means “right praise” or “correct glory” in the sense of the desire to correctly offer adoration and glory to God. For the Byzantine Christian, every liturgical rite and service requires order and demands attention and proper decorum. This is because every act of worship is an act of adoration, an act of love offered to the God who first loved us.

Rubrics are a spiritual discipline for the clergy. Following the rubrics requires concentration and a sense of posture appropriate to standing before God Himself. The priest finds that he must spiritually empty himself in order to celebrate the Mysteries and services. Through this self-emptying he can truly serve in persona Christi and offer up Christ to God the Father in the Holy Anaphora. The focus is always on Christ, and obedience to the rubrics becomes a path that leads the priest to grow in His Image through the very adoration and worship he offers Him.

When the rubrics present a choice, the priest carefully considers which option to choose. He is mindful that to truly preside he must, in a sense, become invisible; his selections must always be made with the purpose of helping other worshippers and must never distract. He never allows himself to become the focus of attention beyond carrying out the role assigned him by the rubrics.

It is sometimes claimed that rubrics can be obtuse and restrictive, but such a view misunderstands the splendor of Grace that flows through following their directions. Far from imprisoning us, the rubrics offer us the assurance of true freedom in our worship. Rubrics ensure that the God we worship is indeed being worshipped in a manner appropriate to Who He is and whom He has called us to be.

This allows us to encounter the text of the prayers with a dynamic intensity and attention appropriate to an act of self-offering. The prayer of the Saints, the prayer of the Church, becomes our prayer. We are united with the Church around the world and throughout the ages, and the prayers and hymns are revealed to be manifestations of our unity in Christ. Thus, following the rubrics becomes a humbling and uplifting reception of a Divine Gift that always prevents the text of the prayer from becoming dry repetitious words.

While the rubrics for the laity are not as many or as specific as are those for the clergy, I heartily encourage everyone to keep them close at heart. When we are attentive to the rubrics our minds and hearts find little that can distract us from offering true love to the Holy Trinity.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Insightful Article about Contraception

Thanks to Catholic World Report, I came across a very good article on the contraceptive mentality by Jennifer Roback Morse entitled A Rubber Ideology: Taking on Condomism. I recommend it as a valuable contribution to the dialogue to raise awareness of dangers inherent in the pro-contraception/pro-abortion positions. The article is from the National Review Web Site.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Advent and The Two Sundays Before Christmas in the Melkite Byzantine Tradition

For Latin Rite Catholics and most western Christians, Advent is a season of preparation with a focus on repentance and anticipation for the coming of the Lord Jesus. It is marked by the four Sundays that precede the Great Feast of the Nativity (Christmas). As a season of repentance, it shares certain features with the season before Easter. Like Lent, the Gloria is not sung, and the liturgical color is somber, generally purple although rose is prescribed for the third Sunday, and the lectionary texts feature readings that contrast the second and glorious coming of Christ with His humble birth in the manger. Thus, there is a unity of theme and liturgical movement in Advent that is at once coherent, simple and obvious.

In contrast, Advent in the Byzantine Rite is complex. It differs in length, focus and practice from the season as celebrated in the West. In fact, considered as specific season, the Byzantine Advent can be viewed as somewhat confusing, if not incoherent. The reason for this requires some examination.

For Byzantine Churches, Advent is a time of fasting and abstinence. The Eastern Churches always precede a feast with a fast. This reveals why we call those great celebrations, like Christmas, Easter, etc. "feasts" in the first place. It is a “feast” precisely because a) it is an important celebration, and b) the celebration itself includes the expectation that people will actually feast.

To make the festive element clearer, fasting in advance of the feast is a spiritual discipline that reminds the faithful of their dependence on God. It allows time for reflection on our need to repent (which may be the subject of a future entry … what repentance means in the Byzantine Tradition). It also serves to promote solidarity with all people since fasting foods are essentially the food of the poor – simple grains, vegetables, etc. During a fast, the rich eat the food of the poor and the king shares table with the downtrodden. And the celebration of a feast is the occasion for everyone to feast like a king, so to speak.

However, the length and liturgical continuity of Advent in the Byzantine Tradition reveals little coherence. Unlike the Roman Church, Byzantine Advent begins on 15 November, forty days before the Feast of the Nativity of our Lord (Christmas). In truth, the season itself doesn't have an official name; it is variously called "the Nativity Fast", "Christmas Lent", or "St Philip's Fast" (whose feast is celebrated on 14 November). It lasts forty days as an obvious parallel to the forty day fast before Pascha (Easter), but whereas Great Lent has manifest liturgical features that indicate its theme and purpose, Advent seems strangely lacking in focus.

A common mark of seasonal unity in the Liturgy is the Kontakion. These hymns, often called “sessional” actually function as ‘seasonal’ markers within the liturgical year. A Kontakion may be appointed in advance of an important celebration to alert us that it is coming. Certain Kontakia also continue to be used for a period after a feast. Yet, the Kontakion of Preparation for the Nativity of our Lord seems to be the only unifying liturgical element to the Byzantine Advent season. Other seasons have special antiphons, etc., but not Advent. The hymns of the Menaion reveal no special seasonal focus but relate specifically to the particular saint or saints commemorated.

What's more, there is not quite the uniformity of color as found in other liturgical seasons. The liturgical colors are red, then blue, then red again. The red reflects the number of martyred saints on the calendar during this time period. The blue is for the feast of the Presentation of the Virgin, which is one of the Twelve Great Feasts of the Byzantine Tradition.

These changes in liturgical color would prima facie seem to contrast the Advent fast from the season preceding it, the “Sundays after Pentecost”, which features the color green. But some Byzantine Churches account time after the Feast of the Cross (14 September) as “Sundays after the Feast of the Cross.” This is significant because red is the liturgical color for the Feast of the Cross (which is actually a fast, but that’s another story). And in fact, red remains the principle liturgical color from the Feast of the Cross until Christmas, with the exception of particular days when other colors are seen as more appropriate (like the blue for the Feast of the Virgin). So there doesn't appear to be a direct relation between the liturgical colors of red and blue and Advent as a season.

Further, as a time of fasting and abstinence, there is great diversity among Byzantine Christians as to the specifics of any required abstinence and the severity of the fast itself. Some Eastern Christians begin a strict fast on 15 November, others get serious around the first of December, and others wait until mid-December.

In the Melkite Church, fasting and abstinence is prescribed to officially begin on 10 December (although technically this year – 2006 – it began at sunset on the evening of the tenth since fasting is inappropriate for the Lord’s Day). And while some see this as a modern ‘liberalization’, I suspect it is the key to understanding what Advent really is in the Byzantine Tradition. I also suspect that the Melkite practice reflects an older more authentic tradition than the forty day practice.

This Melkite Tradition is connected liturgically to the only particularly seasonal elements of the Byzantine Advent cycle. The two Sundays after 11 December are specifically devoted to preparing us for the great Miracle of God born in the flesh. They are called the Sunday of the Forefathers (the second Sunday before the Nativity) and the Sunday of the Genealogy (the Sunday before the Nativity). These, along with the services particularly connected to Christmas Eve, are the only celebrations during the Advent Fast that in any specific way relate to or even refer to the Nativity of Christ. Thus, they are the only truly seasonal celebrations within the season.

The first of these special days, the Sunday of the Forefathers, speaks of the people of the Old Testament and the preparation for the coming of the Savior. Likewise, the Sunday before Christmas, the Sunday of the Genealogy, features the Gospel reading that lists all the generations of the ancestors of Jesus. Combined, the two Sundays direct us to anticipate the Feast of the Nativity and remind us that far from being a myth, the God of our Faith reveals Himself to us in the reality of human history.

The earliest date the Sunday of the Forefathers can possibly occur is 12 December. It seems more than coincidental that the Melkite Fast begins on 10 December. I posit that the current Melkite practice reflects an older expression of the Tradition. It reflects an Advent season that truly seeks to prepare us for the Great Feast of the Nativity. It does not parallel the forty days of the fast of Great Lent, and I believe this is historically significant.

Feasts related to the birth of our Lord (Christmas, the Circumcision, etc.) and the beginning of His ministry (Theophany) arose later in the history of the Church than those feasts related to the Crucifixion and Resurrection. From the beginning the Church saw the Passion, Death and Resurrection as central events in its liturgical life. Feasts related to Pascha show the greatest elaboration of hymnody and clear traditions related to preparing for it. This undoubtedly reflects not only their significance but their antiquity.

The two Sundays before Christmas reflect the extent to which the Byzantine Church developed a liturgical season in anticipation of Christmas before the Schism. Whereas in the West, there was no fear against allowing liturgical seasons to evolve after the Schism, the East clearly sought to resist changes in liturgical practice. Thus, although in the East custom (later to be viewed as Tradition) somewhat followed the West in establishing a longer season of preparation before Christmas, the evolution of hymnody and other elements that would give it coherence never evolved. Furthermore, once a period of fasting had been established there was a strong tendency to avoid change, particularly if it amounted to a 'shortening' of the fast, as this might be viewed as a concession to human weakness.

In current Melkite practice, those who have been influenced by theologians in the Orthodox Churches tend to lean towards the 15 November start of the Christmas Fast, while those who tend to gravitate towards the 10 December date do not. I believe that both options (if you will) are equally valid.

Clearly the forty day fast is a late adaptation. Yet this does not prevent those who choose to do so from beginning their Advent on the earlier 15 November date. However, this also reveals that those who wait for the 10 December date are not merely following recent trends or showing lack of commitment. They are following an older expression of the tradition and, perhaps, beginning their preparation for Christmas in a somewhat more intimate manner due to the close proximity of the feast to the start of the fasting period.

While affirming the benefits for those who begin their preparation for Christmas on the earlier date, the dynamic spiritual life of the Melkite Church allows the earlier authentic custom to remain the norm, and thus neither the celebration of the Nativity nor the Triumph of Pascha are confused nor become stultified. Each retains an appropriate focus and temperence. The Advent Fast can be kept as a short season that indicates the surpise of God's Nativity in the world, and the preparations for Pascha contribute to our reflection on the great Mystery of God loving us so much that He was willing to die for us.

So Whether you begin your Nativity Fast on 15 November or 10 December, let the days of the Advent Fast be marked by fasting, abstinence, special prayers and devotions to our Lord and the Theotokos (“Birth-giver of God”). Incarnate your prayers with acts of charity to others, and give thanks to the Lord whose love for us is so great that He came to live amongst us!

Maranatha! Come, Lord!