The three Magi on horseback approaching the cave of Christ's nativity
Detail from a watercolor by Archimandrite Cyprian (Pyzhov)

Keeping Watch by Night: Services of the Nativity Fast

Dcn Peter Markevich

By com­par­i­son to Great Lent, the Nativ­i­ty fast may leave us feel­ing litur­gi­cal­ly unmoored. But if we delve into the ser­vices of this sea­son, we will find a great wealth of litur­gi­cal texts and com­mem­o­ra­tions that are beau­ti­ful­ly and intrin­si­cal­ly tied to the com­ing birth of our Saviour. 

All dates giv­en accord­ing to the Church cal­en­dar (e.g. Nativ­i­ty is on Decem­ber 25th). Litur­gi­cal texts quot­ed from the Menaion (St John of Kro­n­stadt Press, 2nd edition).

Great Lent, the fast that pre­pares us for the Lord’s Res­ur­rec­tion, Pascha, togeth­er with Holy Week lasts a full 48 days. These days are them­selves pre­ced­ed by four prepara­to­ry weeks where we slow­ly intro­duce Lenten texts into our ser­vices and mod­i­fy our phys­i­cal diet in prepa­ra­tion for the more strin­gent absti­nence ahead. Every week dur­ing this peri­od has a theme, a focus — The Sun­day of the Pub­li­can and the Phar­isee, for exam­ple, is fol­lowed by a fast-free week to teach us humil­i­ty in our spir­i­tu­al strug­gles and to not view the means towards enlight­en­ment as an end in them­selves. Lazarus Sat­ur­day (the begin­ning of Holy Week) is pre­ced­ed by a full week of texts in the dai­ly ser­vices, which describe Christ’s delay­ing before going to his dying (and then dead) friend Lazarus and the dis­ci­ples’ reac­tions to this behav­ior. All this is to say noth­ing of the rest of Holy Week , in which we tru­ly envel­op our­selves in the final days of the earth­ly jour­ney of our Lord.

By com­par­i­son, the Nativ­i­ty fast may leave us feel­ing litur­gi­cal­ly unmoored. For one, there is lit­tle in the Sat­ur­day night vig­ils of the advent sea­son that explic­it­ly points to the com­ing feast. And yet, if we delve but a lit­tle deep­er into the dai­ly ser­vices through­out the Nativ­i­ty fast, we will find a great wealth of litur­gi­cal texts and com­mem­o­ra­tions that are beau­ti­ful­ly and intrin­si­cal­ly tied to the com­ing birth of our Saviour.

A full month before Christ­mas, we already hear for the first time the words, “Christ is born, give ye glo­ry!”, as the irmoi of the Nativ­i­ty canon are sung as katava­sia on the feast of the Entry of the Moth­er of God (Nov. 21). In this first ode espe­cial­ly, the Church calls us to rise up to meet Christ, who descends from Heav­en to become man:

Christ is born, give ye glory
Christ cometh from heav­en, meet ye Him!
Christ is on earth, be ye exalted. 
O all the earth, sing unto the Lord, 
and chant with glad­ness, ye peoples,
For He hath been glorified.

These same hymns con­tin­ue to be sung at all fes­tal matins until Christ­mas, refo­cus­ing our vision on the com­ing feast as we “sing out with glad­ness” to the Lord. At the same time, the odes teach us key dog­mat­ic lessons of the impend­ing feast: the Pre-eter­nal exis­tence of the God-man [the Son Who was begot­ten of the Father with­out cor­rup­tion before time began (Ode 3), Thou…didst send Thine Angel of Great Coun­sel, Who granteth us peace. (Ode 5)]; the Vir­gin birth [in lat­ter times with­out seed became incar­nate of the Vir­gin (Ode 3), incar­nate of her who knew not man, O praised and imma­te­r­i­al God. (Ode 4), the Word, Who took flesh and dwelt with­in the Vir­gin, issued forth, pre­serv­ing her incor­rupt (Ode 6)]; the ful­fill­ment of the Old Tes­ta­ment pre­fig­u­ra­tions in Christ [A rod from the root of Jesse and blos­som there­from, O Christ… (Ode 4), The dew-bear­ing furnace…burned not the youths whom it had received, just as the fire of the God­head burned not the Vir­gin’s womb… (Ode 8)]. Hear­ing these odes repeat­ed at the Sun­days and fes­tal ser­vices of this sea­son pre­pares us to greet the Nativ­i­ty of our Lord with full and true joy, not just as an impor­tant man’s birth­day, but as the begin­ning of our salvation.

A few weeks after these hymns’ intro­duc­tion to the ser­vices, anoth­er Nativ­i­ty-themed text appears quite unex­pect­ed­ly. At Ves­pers for St Nicholas the Won­der­work­er (Dec. 6), the Theotokion at “Lord, I have Cried” (the hymn which is sung while the cler­gy process out to the ambo for the entrance with a cen­sor) is replaced with the fol­low­ing text:

Adorn thy­self well, O cave, for the ewe-lamb cometh, bear­ing Christ in her womb! O manger, receive Him Who by His word hath loosed us mor­tals from irra­tional activ­i­ty! Ye shep­herds, pip­ing, bear wit­ness to the awe­some won­der! O magi from Per­sia, bring ye gold, frank­in­cense and myrrh to the King, for the Lord hath revealed Him­self through the Vir­gin Moth­er! And, bow­ing to Him like a hand­maid, the Moth­er did obei­sance and exclaimed to Him Whom she held in her embrace, say­ing: “How wast Thou sown with­in me, and how didst Thou spring forth with­in me, O my Deliv­er­er and God?

The Church already calls us, a full nine­teen days before the feast, to enter in to its mysteries!

This same sticheron will be repeat­ed again on the Sun­day imme­di­ate­ly before Nativ­i­ty, known as the Sun­day of the Fathers. Togeth­er with the pre­vi­ous Sun­day (Sun­day of the Fore­fa­thers), this day com­mem­o­rates the Old Tes­ta­ment right­eous ones who pre­pared Israel for the com­ing of the Mes­si­ah. But the Sun­day of the Fathers specif­i­cal­ly calls us to remem­ber those saints who appear in Christ’s geneal­o­gy (Matt. 1:1–17, Luke 3:23–38). Matthew’s geneal­o­gy is in fact read at the Divine Litur­gy on this day. A great con­cen­tra­tion of Old Tes­ta­ment Prophets are also com­mem­o­rat­ed indi­vid­u­al­ly through­out Decem­ber: Nahum (Dec.1), Hab­bakuk (Dec. 2), Zepha­ni­ah (Dec. 3), Hag­gai (Dec. 16), Daniel and the three youths (Dec. 17). With all these ser­vices, the Church reminds us of the Old Tes­ta­ment prophe­cies and pre­fig­u­ra­tions, of which Christ is the only fulfillment. 

Final­ly, there is a great wealth of spir­i­tu­al nour­ish­ment to be found in the five days of pre-feast for Nativ­i­ty (Dec. 20–24). In fact, the litur­gi­cal ser­vices of these days explic­it­ly fol­low Holy Week as their litur­gi­cal mod­el — even down to the melodies to which canons are sung. Tri­ode canons also make an unusu­al appear­ance here at the ser­vice of Small Com­pline, again explic­it­ly mod­eled after the Lenten Tri­o­di­on texts. This pat­tern is most clear on Christ­mas Eve, which emu­lates both Holy Fri­day with the Roy­al Hours and Holy Sat­ur­day with a Ves­per­al Litur­gy, at which we hear a greater than usu­al num­ber of Old Tes­ta­ment read­ings and sing “As many as have been bap­tized into Christ” instead of the Tris­a­gion. The end of this Christ­mas Eve litur­gy, much like its coun­ter­part in Great Lent, ends in a spir­it of antic­i­pa­tion as we sing for the first time the Tropar­i­on of the Feast, Thy Nativ­i­ty, O Christ Our God, caused the light of knowl­edge to dawn upon the world… and the kon­takion, Today the Vir­gin giveth birth to the Tran­scen­dent One.… In some church­es, a can­dle (the prim­ikiri) is brought out into the mid­dle of the church, rep­re­sent­ing the star which guid­ed the magi. In oth­ers, the Icon of Nativ­i­ty is placed there.

It should be clear from this brief and incom­plete sur­vey that the Advent sea­son is full of hymns and texts lead­ing us to a more full appre­ci­a­tion of Christ’s Nativ­i­ty. All these hymns and ser­vices, com­bined with the absti­nence from food to which the Church calls us in this prepara­to­ry sea­son, will aid us in draw­ing ever clos­er to the await­ed com­ing in the flesh of our Lord, God and Sav­iour Jesus Christ.


Dea­con Peter Marke­vich is lec­tur­er in Litur­gics at Holy Trin­i­ty Sem­i­nary.