The Christmas Holy Service of the Royal Hours

My beloved spiritual children in Christ Our Only True God and Our Only True Savior,



All Divine Liturgies in the Orthodox Church are preceded by the chanting of the Hours services, consisting of Psalms, Hymns and Prayers. But in the great Cathedral of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, the Byzantine Emperor was presented each year at the service beginning the celebration of the Holy Nativity of Christ. Therefore, the Hours preceding the Vespers (Esperinos) and Liturgy of Saint Basil the Great on Christmas Eve are given the name "Royal Hours."

The Emperor's attendance at the divine service was in part a demonstration of his humble acknowledgment that Jesus Christ reigns over all mortal beings. The third psalm is Psalm 45: "My heart overflows with good tidings as I sing my doe to the King; my tongue is like the pen of a skillful scribe. Thou aft the fairest of the sons of men; grace is poured upon Thy lips; therefore God has blessed Thee forever. Gird Thy sword upon Thy thigh, O mighty one, in Thy splendor and beauty. Draw Thy bow, ride forth in triumph and reign, for the sake of truth, and meekness, and righteousness." Such words could apply to only one Sovereign.

The verses of the Royal Hours make no attempt to conceal the human confusion and anguish of Joseph. He tells Mary, "I am troubled; what can I say to you? Doubt clouds my mind; depart from me! What has happened to you, O Mary? Instead of honor, you bring me shame. Instead of joy, you fill me with grief. Men who praised me will blame me."

The verses also chillingly describe the effect of one powerful man's jealousy and fear. Herod was willing to kill innocent children to keep his unique position as ruler: "Herod was filled with alarm when he saw the righteous wise men. Overcome by fury, he determined precisely when the Child was born. Mothers were robbed of their infants: Their tender lives were reaped as a bitter harvest."

Mary could not stop the terror and sorrow created by Herod. But she could lovingly reassure Joseph. In the verses she says: "Why are you so troubled? Why are you in misery seeing me with child? Do you not understand at all? I bear a fearful mystery! Cast your fears away, and learn a strange Wonder: God in His mercy descends from heaven to earth. Within my womb He has taken flesh! When He is pleased to be born, you will see Him. You will rejoice, and worship Him, your Creator.

The Royal Hours give us a whole atmosphere surrounding the Birth of Our Lord: the venality of Herod who fears being supplanted; Joseph's fear of disgrace; Mary's faith, which leads her to inspire Joseph--and us--with words like "mystery" and "wonder" to describe the event she does not fully understand but has fully accepted.

Father Alexander Schmemann (Orthodox theologian) has rightly called the Royal Hours "one last meditation on the cosmical meaning of the Nativity on the decisive and radical change if performed in the entire creation." (Orthodox Church in America)


The First Hour corresponds to daybreak (6:00 a.m.)

The Third Hour corresponds to mid-morning (9:00 a.m.)

The Sixth Hour corresponds to mid-day (12:00 noon)

The Ninth Hour corresponds to mid-afternoon (3:00 p.m.)

These services, together with the other services of the Daily Cycle, are usually contained in a bound collection called the Book of Hours, also known as the Horologion.

The First Hour (hour one after the rise of the sun or 6:00 a.m.) has as its central theme the coming of light in the dawn of a new day. The coming of the physical light reminds the Orthodox Christian of the coming of Him Who is the Light of the World. The physical light is but an icon or image of Christ. Thus, the Orthodox Christian begins the day by praising God for the dawn of the physical light as well as the Light of the World which shines brightly in the face of Jesus. We pray that His Light may guide us and show us the way for the day, blessing also the works of our hands, which begin daily at this hour.

"O Christ the True Light, enlightening and Sanctifying every man who comes into the world; Let the Light of Your countenance shine on us, that in it we may behold the Ineffable Light. Guide our footsteps aright in keeping Your Commandments. Through the intercessions of You're All-Pure Mother and of all the Saints. Amen

(Prayers of the First Hour)


Personal observation: The majority of Orthodox Christians do not attend the service of the Christmas Royal Hours. I, however, encourage all of you to attend this most solemn and meaningful divine service of our Holy Church. It is a most beautiful way to celebrate the Birth of Our Savior and the Savior of the world. After all, the Orthodox Christian has been spiritually preparing for this great day for forty days through prayer, fasting, repentance, purification, and worship.


In Christ Our Lord and Savior,

+Father George