Many years ago, a dear friend of mine confessed that the one thing he missed about the Western Church was Advent and Christmas. He embraced Orthodoxy and lives it as much as anyone can, and has a special appreciation for Byzantine Holy Week and Pascha, but Christmas was an adjustment for him.
How do Churches of the Byzantine Rite observe Christmas? What challenges confront pastors and liturgical leaders?
A few features define Christmas in the Byzantine Rite. A 40-day fast precedes the feast, an opportunity to prepare to feast when the Bridegroom is in our midst. Christmas Eve is particularly solemn: the Royal Hours is a liturgical feast of psalmody, hymnography, and Scripture, and Christmas essentially begins with a Vesperal Liturgy. Scripture and responsorial psalmody characterize Vespers, with eight Old Testament lessons, an epistle and Gospel, and hymnography threaded throughout the service. Usually, Vespers leads into the Eucharistic Liturgy of St. Basil, an instance of Baumstark’s liturgical law that solemn seasons tend to retain older liturgical practices. Faithful are expected to observe a strict fast on Christmas Eve. Many Southwestern Slavs have a festive fast, observing Christmas Eve with as many as twelve special dishes representing the agrarian origins of the people.
Christmas Day begins with a Vigil, observed on the evening or night of Christmas Eve, a service with Great Compline and Matins. On Christmas morning, the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom is celebrated. (The order of services is revised slightly if Christmas falls on a Sunday or Monday, an adjustment to the usual order of services on Saturday and Sunday). A parish that attempts to celebrate all of these services is following the ideal pattern established by the Typikon, or liturgical ordo of the Church. A few parishes observe the complete ordo, but some face challenges familiar to all pastors: persuading people to worship on this high feast.
In the Byzantine Rite, Christmas does not really end with the octave (or apodosis, leavetaking of the feast). The Church appoints the Liturgy of St. Basil again on January 1, commemorating both Jesus’ circumcision and the feast day of the Cappadocian father. The solemn feast of Theophany takes place on January 6, featuring the Great Blessing of Waters. The order of services for Theophany is essentially identical to Christmas, a pattern that has led some scholars to hypothesize that Theophany simply copies the liturgical pattern of Christmas. I think the opposite may be true: that Christmas adopts the pattern of Theophany, an older, solemn Eastern feast, and a hypothesis that warrants study. The cycle of Christmas feasts concludes with the Hypapante, or Meeting of the Lord on February 2. So, these three feasts of the Incarnation are connected and they all emphasize the same Christological foundation: the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, “God with us.”
As a small Christian Church in the religious ocean of North America, Byzantine Rite Christians live in the same way as everyone else. We, too, have been shopping, planning time off, and negotiating the remaining days on the calendar to determine with whom we will share the holiday. The Royal Hours may be the only time for cleaning a house, baking cookies, or buying Christmas groceries. Christmas morning might be the only time to spend the one day of the season with Uncle Jim. Rest assured, pastors admonish parishioners to worship the newborn king on Christmas, but for many families, family obligations demand a compromise.
For some Byzantine Rite pastors, the Vigil poses a dilemma, because this is the service that many people are able to attend. Great Compline is a series of psalms and prayers, including the festive singing of “God is with us” before Matins begins. Parishes draw from the wealthy musical repository of Christmas, but people come to church and want to participate in a local tradition. They ask for carols and a candlelight service because these traditions are threaded into the local culture. The requests for revised liturgies are not limited to North America: I vividly recall a conversation with a priest in Kyiv who suggested that the people could not comprehend the hymnography chanted in Church Slavonic at high speed, and it would be better to develop a liturgy consisting of Scripture and carols, a Byzantine Festival of Lessons and Carols.
Pastors respond to such requests in many ways. In some parishes, the pastor adds the Divine Liturgy to conclude the Vigil, so participating faithful partake of the entire feast in one setting. The liturgical marathon is akin to the rigors of Pascha. Many clergy abbreviate portions of the services, or shorten Compline to feature Matins, which has much more ritual and music. One large parish detached Vespers from the Liturgy of St. Basil, and celebrated Vespers earlier on Christmas Eve. Vespers was about 90 minutes, including congregational caroling before and after the service, and a homily. The service included everything (except for the Eucharist): abundant Scripture and preaching, the patristic theology in the appointed hymns, and the popular carols beloved by all.
In one way or another, all of these pastoral adjustments drew more people to the services, even though they violated the letter of the liturgical ordo. Technically, one is not supposed to detach or abbreviate a service, or move the morning Liturgy to the evening. The pastors who presided at these services believed that they fulfilled the spirit of the ordo, because they met the criterion of “meeting the people where they are.” These examples are somewhat isolated, but they illuminate the core issue of appointing a liturgical ordo people can meet, one that includes popular traditions of the local culture.
Some clergy might read this and reject the necessity of such revisions, asserting that the pastor’s task is to transform the community into a body of believers whose love for God brings them to Church for the appointed ordo. Don’t worry about the choir butchering appointed hymns; what’s important is that they are sung by someone. And they will remind you that the people can sing carols and sustain their traditions of feasting and fasting to their heart’s content at home. I admire parishes whose observance of the complete Byzantine Christmas cycle is alive and well. That said, the challenge of people whose schedules are strained, especially during the holidays, is real. I bear witness that some of the local adjustments I have witnessed – especially fusing Liturgy with Vigil, for a veritable winter Pascha – are lifegiving, and make observing the feast both possible and a source of joy for many people.