Nativity, Epiphany, and Pascha - Patterns of Worship
Fr. Thomas Hopko · December 22, 2009
Fr. Thomas Hopko presents a meditation on how the liturgical services of Christmas and Epiphany pattern those of the Christ's Holy Pascha of Easter.
The liturgical services in the Orthodox Church for the Nativity of Christ, for his birth in the flesh, and for his baptism [in] the Jordan which is called in the ancient Church the Epiphany, which means “manifestation,” or the Theophany, which means the manifestation of God. I want to show how these liturgical offices are very consciously patterned after those of the Passion of Christ, of his crucifixion, his burial, and his resurrection from the dead. Simply put, I will try to show you now how the services of Christmas and Epiphany pattern those of Easter, of the Lord’s Pascha.
Five days before the Nativity and five days before the Theophany, which would mean on December 20 and then on the first of January, the second of January, begins the very specific pre-festal period before Christmas and before Epiphany. Now concentrating on Christmas, what we see is that on December 20, you have the first vespers and compline and matins where virtually all the hymns have to do with preparing for the birth of Christ. All of the hymns sing about everything that is happening, which is coming together that will be proclaimed in the gospels, particularly the Gospel of Matthew, the Gospel of Luke, in the infancy narratives, how all this comes together to form the celebration of the birth of Christ.
You have the hymns being sung on these days, and generally speaking on each of these days the hymns call the people to celebrate. For example, on the very first pre-feast, on December 20, you have at vespers—that’s the first liturgical office—the hymn with the evening psalm, “Lord I call upon thee; hear me,” these kind of songs:
Let us celebrate, O people, the pre-feast of Christ’s nativity. Let us raise our minds on high, in spirit going up to Bethlehem with eyes of our soul let us behold the Virgin as she hastens to the cave to give birth to the Lord and God of all, when Joseph first saw the mighty wonder he thought that he saw only a human child wrapped in swaddling clothes, but from all that came to pass, he discovered the Child to be the true God himself who grants the world great mercy.
Let us celebrate, O people, the pre-feast of Christ’s nativity. Let us raise our minds on high, in spirit going up to Bethlehem. Let us behold the great mystery in the cavern, for Eden is open once again, when God comes forth from a pure Virgin, remaining the same perfect God and becoming perfect man, therefore let us cry aloud to him: Holy God, Father without beginning, Holy Mighty, incarnate Son, Holy Immortal, Spirit and Comforter, O Holy Trinity, glory to You!
Hearken, O heaven, and give ear, O earth! Behold the Son and Word of the Father coming forth to be born of a Virgin who has not knonw man. By the good pleasure of the Father who begot him before all ages he is conceived by the cooperation of the Holy Spirit in the Virgin’s womb. Make ready, O Bethlehem, open your gates, O Eden, for he who comes to be that which he was not, and he who formed all creation takes now the form of a man, granting the world great mercy.
Then on each of these vespers and matins, these are the kind of hymns that are sung, and very particularly at vespers, there’s a very special type of melody that’s sung on each of these days of hymns that are very short. They’re brief hymns in a very particular meter, and then they are sung interspersed with lines from the prophecy of Habbakuk, about how God shall come from Teman, the holy one from the mountain overshadowed by the forest, “Lord, I have heard the report of thee and was afraid. Lord, I considered thy works and trembled.” An example of these hymns would be the following:
O Bethlehem, land of Judah, prepare the divine cavern as a dwelling for God to be born in the flesh from a Virgin who knew not a man, to save the human race.
Come, all you faithful, begin the celebration. Sing with the Magi and the shepherds: Salvation comes from the Virgin’s womb, recalling the faithful to life.
O house of Ephratha, holy city, glory of the holy martyrs, beautify the house in which God is coming to be born.
And then again, on the glory:
Behold the time of our salvation is at hand. Prepare yourself, O cavern, for the Virgin approaches to give birth to her son. Be glad and rejoice, O Bethlehem, land of Judah, for from you our Lord shines forth as the dawn. Give ear, you mountains and hills and all the lands around Judea, for Christ is coming to save humanity whom he created and whom he loves.
These are the kind of hymns that are sung during these five days at these services. At the compline service of these days, and again at the matins service, there is a liturgical structure that is called a canon. It’s based on the canticles of the Old Testament. Sometimes there are just three canticles with their hymns, and then sometimes there is the full complex of eight canticles based on the eight biblical songs that you find in the Bible: the song of Moses; and then the song of Hannah, the mother of Samuel; the song of Habbakuk; the song of Isaiah; the song of Jonah; a couple of songs of the three youths in the fiery furnace of Babylon; and then the last songs would be the Magnificat of the Virgin Mary, “My soul magnifies the Lord,” that would be the last ode; and sometimes also the Benedictus of Zacharias, the father of John the Baptist’s song, “Blessed be the God of Israel who has visited and redeemed his people.”
These canon hymns based on the biblical canticles are also very similar to the hymns that we just heard, that I just read. They have to do with all of those elements that come together in these events. In the case of the Nativity, it would be in the event of the birth of Christ, so it speaks about Mary, of course, and Joseph and Bethlehem and the cavern and the manger and the animals and then the stars and then the angels and the shepherds and the Magi, and we are invited to enter into that reality, to contemplate that reality, to celebrate that reality, and to know by the Holy Spirit and to experience by the Holy Spirit the actual birth of Christ today.
The same thing happens on January 6, when the Epiphany of God, the showing-forth of God, the revelation of God in Jesus Christ is celebrated when Jesus comes to be baptized by John in the Jordan. We mentioned already that the Epiphany in the Orthodox tradition, and this was actually the ancient Christian tradition, the earliest Christian tradition, is connected with the baptism of Jesus. In the Western calendar, Epiphany came to be connected with the twelfth day of Christmas and the coming of the Magi, the Gentile kings, to adore and to worship the newborn king of the Jews, but in the Eastern Church, it’s always with baptism: when Jesus comes to be baptized and the voice of the Father is heard, “This is my Son, my Beloved,” the Spirit descends and remains on him, showing that he is the Christ, and then he enters into the waters to show that he is taking on the sin of the world and he’s going to die and to rise again, to redeem and to save the world.
So that in the pre-feast of the Epiphany, which we’ll more specifically speak about when we get to that time of year, you have the same kind of hymns being sung, hymns that bring together all of the elements that compose the biblical narratives, and these are found in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, all four gospels of Jesus’ appearance on the Jordan as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world being baptized as a servant at the hands of John the Baptist.
But what we want to see now is that you have these five days of preparation, specific preparation before the Nativity and before the Theophany, and they’re patterned after Holy Pascha. They’re patterned after the week of Christ’s Passion. This means that very specifically, on the eve of Christmas and then again on the eve of Theophany, the day before—Christmas Eve, Theophany Eve—the services are exactly patterned after the Great and Holy Saturday service. If Nativity is patterned after Pascha Sunday, Easter Sunday, and [Theophany] is patterned after Easter Sunday, well then the day before are patterned after the [eve].
On the eve of the Nativity and on the eve of Theophany, just like on the eve of Pascha, of Easter, which would be Great and Holy Saturday, you have a very special liturgical order. The day begins with the reading of what is called Royal Hours. Those are the hours of prayer of the Church: first hour, third hour, sixth hour, and ninth hour. Of course, sometimes people know the names of these in Latin: Prime, Terce, Sext, and None. Basically, they correspond to early in the morning, around six; then around nine o’clock in the morning; then noon; then three in the afternoon. These services of hours on this day, the eves of these great feasts, are called “royal” because in the Byzantine Empire the emperor used to come and he used to listen to these particular hours as they were celebrated.
The way these hours are structured are just like the normal hours at any day of the Church year. You have basically psalms and hymns, and it’s a rather brief service. What is added on these great festal days is you have one psalm at each of the hours that belongs to that hour all the time, but then on the eve of Christmas and the eve of Epiphany and the eve of Pascha, you have two different psalms that are very particularly connected to the events. On Christmas you’d have two psalms that are connected to Christmas; on Epiphany two psalms connected to the baptism of Christ in the Jordan; and then on Pascha you’d have two psalms connected to his crucifixion, his suffering, his death, and then his glorification. So the services begin with three psalms; each time there are three psalms.
Then at these special services of the hours, you have special hymns being sung about the particular feast. On Christmas, about Christmas; on Epiphany, about the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan; on the holy Pascha, about the death and the crucifixion and the glorification of the Christ. These hymns are sung, and then you have a reading from one of the prophets, then you have a reading from one of the epistles of the Apostle Paul, then you have a reading from one of the gospels. So you have a prophecy reading, an epistle reading, and a Gospel reading at each of these hours that have to do with the particular event.
Then, after those readings, you have the main hymn of that particular day—it’s called a kontakion—which is then sung. Then you have the prayer that is always said at each of the hours all the time, the prayer that begins, “Thou who at all times and at every hour, in heaven and on earth, art worshiped and glorified, O Christ God, long-suffering, plenteous in mercy and compassion, who loves the just and shows mercy to the sinner…” So this prayer is read, and then there’s a dismissal.
Then, on the eve of Christmas and the eve of Epiphany, just like on the eve of the holy Pascha, you have a great vespers service that is connected to a Eucharistic Divine Liturgy of St. Basil the Great. The Liturgy of St. Basil is served ten times a year, and three of those times are on the eve of Christmas, the eve of Epiphany, and the eve of Holy Pascha. At this great vespers service, the feature, the main feature besides hymns that have to do with the events again, beautiful hymns connected to what is being celebrated—on Christmas the nativity of Christ, on Epiphany the baptism in the Jordan, on Holy Pascha the death and resurrection of Christ—in addition to those hymns, you have a number of readings from the Old Testament. On Holy Pascha, on Easter, there are fifteen of them, on Theophany, there are twelve, and on Christmas, Nativity, there are eight.
So on Christmas Eve this year, you would have the Royal Hours with the special psalms, with the prohecy, with the epistle, with the Gospel, followed by vespers with special hymns, and then you would have eight readings from the Old Testament. Interspersed between these readings are special hymns for the feast that are connected with verses of the psalms. On Christmas, the psalms used are Psalm 86 and Psalm 92. Then the same thing happens on Theophany, where you have hymns connected to the Theophany interspersed between the twelve Old Testament readings, and there you also have psalms. On Epiphany it would be Psalm 66 and then again Psalm 92. 92 is very important because it is, “The Lord reigns; he is clothed in majesty.” That’s the psalm that’s used every single Saturday night through the entire Church year. It’s the entrance at the end of Sabbath into the Lord’s Day is that particular psalm:
The Lord reigns; he is robed in majesty. The Lord reigns; he is girded with strength. He has established the world so sure that it cannot be moved. That the roaring of the sea is mighty, but the Lord who reigns on high is mightier, and holiness belongs to the Lord and to the house of the Lord forevermore.
So you have those psalms and hymns being sung at the eve of Christmas, the eve of Theophany, the eve of Pascha, and then you have this great celebration of St. Basil, the very long eucharistic prayer of St. Basil the Great. That’s how the eve takes place.
What’s very interesting is that the day before Christmas Eve and the day before the Epiphany Eve is patterned after Great and Holy Friday. So if the day before Nativity and the day before Theophany is patterned after Great and Holy Saturday, then the day before that is patterned after Great and Holy Friday. And the day before that is patterned after Great and Holy Thursday.
Looking now at Christmas, December 22, Thursday, would be patterned after Holy Thursday. So you would actually have the same canon hymn that’s sung on Great and Holy Thursday being sung on this day, with many of the hymns tailored, so to speak, rearranged, changed from what is said on Pascha to what would be said on Christmas, on the Nativity. And then the same thing happens on Theophany. You have the same canons being sung as on Great and Holy Thursday of Holy Week, Great and Holy Friday of Holy Week, the same canons, the same hymns, but altered, kind of tailored to fit the event: to fit the Nativity or to fit the baptism and the epiphany on the Jordan on the feast of the Epiphany or the Theophany.
What I’d like to do now is just to show you how some of this tailoring takes place, how it is done. I will not refer to any of how this is done on the first couple pre-feast days, but by the time we get to the day that patterns Great and Holy Thursday, I will just show you some examples. On the holy Pascha, when it’s celebrating the Passion of Christ, Great and Holy Thursday is dedicated to the Last Supper. It is dedicated to the washing of Jesus’ feet at the Supper. So Great and Holy Thursday before the Holy Pascha, before the resurrection of Christ, is focused on the Mystical Supper of Christ with his disciples. For example, at the canon on Great and Holy Thursday, before Pascha, you have such a hymn being sung in Church, with the same canon being done on the Nativity and the Theophany and Pascha, the same ode, the same connection to the canticle. Here’s how the hymns change. For example, on Holy Pascha we sing in church:
Initiating his friends into the mystery, the true Wisdom of God—[that means Christ, of course]—has set a table that nourishes the soul and has mixed a cup of immortality for the faithful. Let us now draw near with reverence and cry out: Gloriously has Christ our God been glorified!
At that very same point in the service for Christmas, for the Nativity of Christ, this is what we sing:
Initiating his friends as the firstfruits of the nations, the Wisdom of God summons the Magi. He who lies in the manger of dumb beasts feeds them the mystical food of the knowledge of God. They hasten to the crib as to a banquet, journeying with gifts, led by the light of the star.
So you see the Paschal hymn is tailored to relate to the Nativity of Christ. On the Epiphany, this is how it’s done; the song goes like this—the same song at the same place in the service:
Initiating them into the mysteries of light, the Wisdom of God summons all the nations. They lay in the shadows of ignorance, now by the mystery of baptism they recognize the Truth with hearts cleansed by the action of the Holy Spirit.
So here’s another example, at that very same service. On the Holy Pascha, Great and Holy Thursday, you have this ode being sung:
The Lord and Creator of all, the changeless God, descended to unite the creatures to himself. Now at the holy Pascha, the Passover, he offers himself for those for whom he is about to die, crying: Eat my Body and be confirmed in faith.
That same hymn on Nativity goes like this:
The Lord and Creator of all, the changeless God, descended to unite the creatures to himself.
You see, that first sentence is identical, but then it changes:
Now as a Child worshiped in a poor manger, he offers himself to us, crying: Eat my Body and be confirmed in faith.
On Epiphany, the same hymn, restructured:
The Lord and Creator of all, the changeless God, descended to unite the creatures to himself.
Again, the first sentence is identical to Christmas and to Easter, but then on Epiphany it continues:
Revealing himself or shining forth in the streams of Jordan he cries out to all the peoples, to all the nations: Draw living waters and be confirmed in faith.
This is how the liturgical life of the Orthodox Church works. The center is the Pascha, the Passover of Christ, his death and resurrection, and then the Nativity and the Theophany are sung and are contemplated through the prism of the Cross, through the resurrected Christ, through his glorification in heaven. Already, so to speak, the Church is contemplating that ultimate victory of Christ, that ultimate Gospel of his destruction of death, as the victor over all the enemies of God. It’s celebrated in song and hymned in church at the Nativity and at the Theophany in relation to those particular events in the life of Christ.
I just have one more example for the day that patterns Great and Holy Thursday. At Pascha this is what we sing:
Nodding his head in agreement, Judas deliberately stirs up evil, seeking an opportunity to hand over to condemnation the Judge who is the Lord of all and the God of our Fathers.
That’s what’s sung on Great and Holy Thursday. At the Nativity feast at that same point, what’s sung is this:
Nodding his head in agreement with the evil one, Herod the king searches for Christ. He seeks to kill the Master of life and death, our God and the God of our Fathers.
Here, you see, in place of Judas you have Herod. Instead of Jesus being delivered to be crucified, you have Herod seeking to kill the baby Jesus, the newborn Christ. That very same hymn on Epiphany goes like this:
Refusing to nod his head in agreement with the enemy, let us not live deceitfully.
In other words, let us not be like Judas or Herod. Then it continues:
Do not use your neighbor wickedly. Do not repay evil for evil, for Christ is made manifest. Let us honor him in love.
Then, very beautifully on Great and Holy Thursday, the canon ends with this hymn, which is also sung at the Divine Liturgy in place of the Theotokos hymn. It’s very popular among Orthodox Christians who know their liturgy.
Come, O faithful, let us enjoy the Master’s hospitality, the banquet of immortality in the upper chamber with uplifted minds. Let us receive the exalted words of the Word whom we magnify.
That is sung both on Holy Pascha (Great and Holy Thursday) and on two days before Christmas at that parallel service in preparation for the birth of Christ. Then on Epiphany it’s changed a bit. On Epiphany, the same song goes like this:
Come, O faithful, having enjoyed the Master’s hospitality, the banquet of immortality in a lowly manger. Let us now run to the Jordan, there to see a strange mystery, revealing the light from on high.
So you see how, on December 22, the service patterns Great and Holy Thursday.
The next day would pattern Great and Holy Friday. I could give you examples from the canon on that day and from the hymns on that day, again, how the hymns of Easter, the hymns of the Passion Week of Christ, his holy Pascha, are rewritten to apply to Christmas. I’ll just give you a couple that have to do with Christmas, because they’re so beautiful. On Pascha, we sing:
Early will I seek you, O Word of God, who without change emptied yourself in your compassion for fallen man, who without suffering bowed down to suffering. Grant peace to us, you who love mankind.
Early will I seek you, O Word of God, who, being without change, emptied yourself in your compassion for fallen man, and who received from a Virgin the form of a slave. Grant peace to us, you who love mankind.
On Pascha we sing:
Shake the sleep of heedlessness from your eyes, O my disciples. Be vigilant in prayer, says the Lord, that you may not fall into temptation, and I speak especially to Simon Peter, since the test is greatest for the strongest. O Peter, confess me whom all creation blesses and glorifies throughout all ages.
You see this is connected to the Garden of Gethsemane on Passion Week, but then at the Nativity of Christ, this is what we sing:
Shake the sleep of heedlessness from your eyes, O my disciples. Be vigilant in prayer, says Christ the Lord, that you may not fall into temptation of the evil one, and with the shepherds behold Christ the Lord who comes to be born. Bless him whom all creation glorifies in song.
Now we get to Christmas Eve and then to Epiphany Eve, which patterns Great and Holy Saturday, which patterns Pascha Eve, Easter Eve. Here I’ll just give some examples again of how these hymns are rearranged; they’re kind of tailored to suit Christmas and Epiphany in connection to the resurrection of Christ. On Pascha we sing:
I will sing a hymn to you for the departed and a song of burial, O Lord my God, who by your burial opened for me the entrance to life and by death has put death and Sheol to death.
That’s what’s sung on Easter. Now on the Nativity:
I will sing a Nativity hymn to you, O Lord my God, on this pre-feast, for by your Nativity has given me a divine rebirth and has led me up to my original perfection.
I will sing a hymn of light to you on this pre-feast, O Lord my God, who does mystically regenerate me by your divine Theophany, leading me up again to divine brightness.
I’ll just give another example from the Habbakuk canticle. On Holy Pascha:
Habbakuk foresaw your divine humiliation on the cross. He cried out, trembling: You shattered the dominion of the mighty one by joining those in Hades as the almighty Lord.
Habbakuk foresaw your coming from the Virgin. He cried out in ecstasy: You are come incarnate from Teman, O Redeemer, to call back Adam from his exile.
Habbakuk foresaw your coming to baptism, and he cried out in ecstasy: You trample the sea with your horses, O Savior, the surging of the mighty waters.
This takes place on every single canticle, this rewriting of the Paschal hymn to apply to the Nativity or to apply to the Theophany. I could read and read for you. I will just read one last one that is very familiar to many Orthodox people because it’s also used at the holy Eucharist on Christmas Eve and Epiphany Eve and Pascha Eve, the Great and Holy Saturday. On Pascha, the song goes like this:
Do not lament me, O Mother, seeing me in the tomb, the Son conceived in the womb without seed, for I shall arise and be glorified with eternal glory as God. I shall exalt all who magnify you in faith and in love.
And on Christmas, the feast of the Lord’s birth, we sing:
Do not be amazed, O Mother, seeing me now as a Babe, whom the Father begot from the womb before the morning star, for I have come to restore and glorify with myself all who magnify you in faith and in love.
And on Theophany, at the baptism of Jesus, we sing:
Do not lament, O mortal men, choked by rains of despair and weighed down by guilt, for in compunction of soul, let us approach him who cleanses all humanity, for he alone is pure, granting pardon through baptism.
On the feast of the Lord’s Passion, the celebration of the Lord’s Passion, there is a long hymn that is really very well-known among the Orthodox people. It is sung when the cross is brought out on the matins of Great and Holy Saturday at the service of matins where the twelve passion gospels are read. Virtually every Orthodox Christian is familiar with that service. It’s usually done on Thursday night, anticipating the Great Friday. When the cross is carried out after the fifth gospel, you have this long hymn that is sung, and it’s sung also at the ninth hour when the body of Christ is removed from the cross on Great and Holy Saturday before Pascha Sunday, before Easter Sunday. On the feast of the Lord’s Nativity, there is a rewriting of this very same hymn that then is applied to the Nativity and then prefigures also the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan. Let us just listen to this now. At the feast of the Lord’s Passion, we sing in church:
Today he who hung the earth upon the waters is hung upon the Tree. The King of angels is decked with a crown of thorns. He who wraps the heavens in a cloud is wrapped in the purple of mockery. He who freed Adam in the Jordan is slapped in the face. The Bridegroom of the Church is affixed to the Cross with nails. The Son of the Virgin is pierced with a spear. We worship your Passion, O Christ. We worship your Passion, O Christ. We worship your Passion, O Christ. Show us also your glorious Resurrection.
Then on the feast of the Lord’s Nativity, on Christmas, at the same time in the same services, we sing this hymn:
Today he who holds the whole creation in his hand is born of a Virgin. He whose essence none can touch is bound in swaddling clothes as a mortal man. God, who in the beginning fashioned the heavens, now lies in a manger. He who rained manna on his people in the desert is now fed on milk from his mother’s breast. The Bridegroom of the Church summons the Magi. The Son of the Virgin accepts their gifts. We worship your Nativity, O Christ. We worship your Nativity, O Christ. We worship your Nativity, O Christ. Show us also your glorious Theophany.
May we all have a joyful, peaceful, beautiful celebration of the birth of Christ, anticipating his revelation on the Jordan as the Messianic suffering Servant who comes to save the world, the same one who was put to death on the cross and raised from the dead for our salvation. A blessed and glorious festal season to everyone.