CHRISTMAS EVE AND NEW YEAR’S EVE are holiday milestones in American society. In our tradition January 5, Theophany Eve, is also a special day of preparation and anticipation leading into one of the most important festivals of the Church year.
Like Christmas Eve, Theophany Eve is a paramony, a day of continual prayer and fasting, leading up to the celebration of the feast. Part of what makes this a day of continual prayer is the celebration of the Royal Hours which replaces the ordinary First, Third, Sixth and Ninth Hours served every day in Byzantine practice. The Divine Liturgy is not served until the end of the fasting day, when it is joined to vespers to begin the feast.
The Royal Hours are served on the Paramony of Christmas, the Paramony of the Theophany and on Great and Holy Friday which we might call the “Paramony of Pascha.” In addition, some Greek Churches serve the Royal Hours on the Eve of Pentecost, but without fasting.
Our cycle of daily services has its origin in the experience of the Jews during the Babylonian exile. Since the prescribed round of morning and evening sacrifices could only be conducted in the Jerusalem temple, the exiled Jews developed a cycle of prayers, hymns and Scripture readings to be said throughout the day instead. When the Jews returned to Jerusalem after the exile, these prayers were incorporated into the usage of the temple. Jews today observe three daily services (morning, afternoon and evening) corresponding to the times of the three daily temple sacrifices.
The first Christians continued the custom of praying at these specific times. The Acts of the Apostles records St Peter going apart to pray at the sixth hour (Acts 10:9) and at the ninth hour (Acts 3:1). With the development of monasticism these daily prayers took on the character of formal services. Other services were added in imitation of the Psalmist’s witness, “Seven times a day I praise You, because of Your righteous judgments” (Psalm 119:164).
The hours came to commemorate important events which the Scriptures say took place at those times. Thus our Third Hour recalls the descent of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost (see Acts 2). The Byzantine Sixth and Ninth Hours evoke the memory of Christ’s crucifixion and death: “Now from the sixth hour until the ninth hour there was darkness over all the land. And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice … and yielded up His spirit” (Matthew 27:45, 50).
While for most of the year the Hours are “cell services” – without choral responses or accompanying ritual, meant to be served by monastics in their cells (or by anyone at work or at home), the Royal Hours are served solemnly in church with hymns, Scripture readings and ceremony. They are generally served without interruption and conclude with the Typika. The name “Royal Hours” comes from the practice of the Great Church in Constantinople. The emperor and his court would attend the Hours on these days, emphasizing their importance in the life of the Church.
Scripture in the Royal Hours
As a rule, the Scriptures read at the Hours are all taken from the Psalms. In the Royal Hours, however, selections from both the Old and New Testaments are read, in addition to the Psalter. The New Testament selections recount the ministry of John and the baptism of Christ as well as the meaning of baptism in the Church. The Old Testament readings, all taken from the Book of Isaiah the Prophet, provide us with an illustration of how Old Testament prophecies are ultimately fulfilled in Christ.
The Prophet Isaiah lived in the eight century BC and, like other prophets, called on his hearers to repent and to conform their lives to God’s way. The following passage, read at the Third Royal Hour, illustrates Isaiah’s message: “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow” (Isaiah 1:16-17).
Isaiah warned that, if people did not repent, the nation would suffer at the hands of its enemies (at that time, the Assyrians). If they did repent, however, they would be restored and given new life. We see this in the selection read at the Sixth Royal Hour, “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. And you will say in that day: Give thanks to the Lord, call upon His Name; make known His deeds among the nations, proclaim that His Name is exalted. Sing praises to the Lord, for He has done gloriously; let this be known in all the earth. Shout, and sing for joy, O inhabitant of Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel” (Isaiah 12:3-6).
The second half of the book, added some 200 years later, reflects the same themes. At this point in Israel’s history their great enemy was Babylon rather than Assyria. The Babylonians would conquer Jerusalem and destroy the temple, dragging the most prominent Jews into exile.
Streams in the Desert
The promise for their restoration dominates the second half of Isaiah. Jerusalem, no longer desolate, will be rebuilt and will water its thirsty people. At the First Royal Hour we read, “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom like the lily. It shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon… Behold, your God will come…. He will come and save you. … For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water” (Isaiah 35:1-7).
The power of Babylon ended just as that of Assyria had centuries before, but the ultimate fulfillment of these prophecies would only come with Christ. We see in Him the Source of eternal life, the One who truly turns the arid wilderness of thirsty hearts into springs of water. This theme would be taken up in the Gospel of John, where we read the words of the Lord Jesus “If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water. But this He spoke concerning the Spirit, whom those who believe in Him would receive” (John 7:37-38).
The frequent mention of water in these passages, then, does not just allude to the Lord’s baptism in the Jordan but to the Lord Himself. He is the One who can refresh with the living water of the Holy Spirit all who come to Him. He is the One who is revealed at the Jordan by the Father’s voice and the Spirit’s hidden presence and who begins to announce the good news of our salvation to the world.