In my last post, I promised to tell you why Theophany was weird this year, didn’t I? Well, I decided that first it would be a good idea to give a basic overview of Theophany services. So in the next post, I’ll explain what happened on the Theophany this year.
The feasts of Nativity and Theophany are very similar liturgically. Most people are aware of this if they go to services for these feasts. Perhaps you have also noticed that there are a lot of similarities to services in the Holy Week cycle (Holy Friday and Saturday). Both structurally, and in the hymnography, there are a staggering number of similarities between these feasts (see below for some examples).
Why is it specifically these three feasts that such a unique liturgical structure? I believe it is related to the fact that each of these feasts commemorates something essential about Christ, and His work in the world. The Nativity commemorates His becoming Man for our sake, the beginning of His work as Man for our salvation. Theophany marks both the beginning of his active ministry, when he was baptized by John, and also the revelation of the Holy Trinity, and Christ as God and Man. In fact, both Nativity and Theophany used to be celebrated as one feast in the Eastern Church, both dealing with the revelation of God on earth as Man. Holy Friday/Saturday/Pascha of course commemorates Christ’s death for us, descent into hades, and resurrection, the fulfillment of his salvific work. Each of these feasts are so key to our faith, that they are celebrated in a special way, and the services differ significantly from other important feasts.
Basic Structure of Nativity and Theophany Services
In a normal year, (that is when the Eve of Theophany does not fall on a Saturday or Sunday) both Nativity and Theophany services have the same basic structure. Starting on the Eve of the Feast, there are special services only served for these feasts (similar services are also served on Holy Friday/Saturday).
In the morning of the Eve of the feast, the Royal Hours are read and sung. You can see the text of the Royal Hours here. (note: I’m not endorsing any particular translation, and I’m not sure why this version gives an option for a dismissal after each hours, since in my experience and knowledge of the Typikon, these are to be served together, one following the other). The Royal Hours are quite different from the usual hours read in Church. Each of the four (1st, 3rd, 6th, and 9th) hours contains special psalms, different from the psalms appointed for those hours, as well as hymns, Old Testament, Epistle, and Gospel readings, all related to the feast being celebrated.
After the Royal Hours, a Vesperal Liturgy is served. Vesperal Liturgies are appointed only four times in the year (not counting the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts, which is a bit different), on the Eve of Nativity, the Eve of Theophany, Holy Thursday, and Holy Saturday. They are served, without exception, on strict fast days. Other than Holy Thursday, where the reason is a little different, they are served on the Eve of the three feasts described above. They begin with the beginning of the Vespers service, and contain Old Testament readings related to the feast (more than the standard 3 readings on great feast–8 for Nativity, 13 for Theophany, and 15 on Holy Saturday). These Old Testament readings come after the Entrance of Vespers, as is usual, but after they are completed, the service continues with the Trisagion hymn of Liturgy, the Epistle, Gospel, and the rest of Liturgy.
Since Vespers is served as part of the Liturgy on the Eve of the feast, Vigil on Nativity and Theophany is comprised of Great Compline and Matins, instead of Vespers and Matins as in a normal Vigil. Great Compline has the triumphant singing of “God is with us”, particularly appropriate for Nativity and Theophany, when we proclaim God’s revelation of Himself on earth. Great Compline on these feasts also contains the Litiya and blessing of breads, served on all major feasts, and then Matins begins, with a similar structure to other Great Feasts of the Lord.
The hymnography for both Nativity and Theophany echoes the Hymnography of Holy Friday and Saturday. The Holy Saturday Canon, sung on Holy Friday evening during the service of the Lamentations, and also at Nocturnes before the midnight Paschal service (found here: it’s easier to locate in this service–the canon is right after Psalm 50) has a well-known melody and is familiar to many people. Fewer know that similar canons exists for both Nativity and Theophany (with similar irmosi, modified to be relevant to the feast celebrated). I haven’t found these canons online in English, unfortunately (let me know if you find them!), they are similar to the Holy Saturday Canon in beauty. They are not commonly read in parishes, as they are appointed for the evening before the Eve of the feasts–that is, at Small Compline the night before the Royal Hours, Vesperal Liturgy, etc. Usually, if anything, Vespers and Matins are served the night before. Some parishes, in my experience, take this canon from Compline and read it at Matins. (I believe the text for both canons is available in the Festal Menaion translated by Met. Kallistos Ware and Mother Mary.)
There are so many other examples of similar imagery in the hymnography of these feasts to Holy Week that I can’t even begin to list them. Theophany, for example, uses the imagery of “Thou Who clothest Thyself with light as with a garment hast clothed Thyself in the waters of the Jordan.” (Glory of the Praises at Matins of Theophany). This image (clothing Himself with light as with a garment) is used in Holy Friday hymns in conjunction with Christ being taken down from the cross. On Theophany, similar images are appropriate, as Christ’s baptism and descent into the waters are seen as a type of his descent into hell after his death. The kind of imagery, used on Holy Friday/Saturday, and echoed on Christmas and Theophany, always represents a contrast–Christ, who as Eternal God, created the world, is “clothed with light as with a garment,” “hung the earth upon the waters,” and yet as a man, was born of a Virgin, baptized by John, and hung upon the Cross.
Now we’ve reviewed the services for Theophany, why was it so weird this year? All of the above is true for a year when the Eve of Theophany falls on a weekday. But there are some differences if the Eve falls on a Saturday or Sunday (this year, Saturday on the Old Calendar, Sunday on the New). Look for my next post for the explanation!