Lord I Call

Near the start of Vespers, after the Great Litany, the priest or deacon will complete a great censing of the entire church while the choir sings and chants "Lord I Call upon You, Hear Me" (Psalms 141, 142, 130, 117). The choir then sings the first hymns of the Vigil, on the Eve of the Feast.  Many of these hymns glorify God as the One who grants birth to Mary through her barren Mother, Anna, raising up salvation against all odds.

Today is the prelude of universal joy;
today breezes blow that herald salvation,
and the barrenness of our nature is dispelled.

The Litya

At the Vigil of a Feast, special prayers are offered for the people of God and for the whole world. At the end of the special "Litya" (Prayers), the priest will bless loaves, wheat, wine, and oil in remembrance of the feeding of the 5,000 by Christ in the wilderness.

At the beginning of the Litya at Vespers, the clergy will exit the altar while the choir sings the special Litya Hymns. A theme in these hymns is the joy of Adam and Eve. They represent all human beings, who have waited for God to act and save the human race.

Let Adam, our forefather, be glad,
and Eve rejoice and delight,
for behold, she who was formed from Adam’s rib
plainly calls her daughter and descendant blessed:
“My deliverance has been born,” says Eve;
“through her, I shall be freed from the bonds of Hades.”


Near the end of Vespers, just before the blessing of the loaves, the choir sings the "Aposticha" hymns.  Anticipation is building to higher and higher levels as we approach the censing of the Icon of the Feast and the singing of the Troparion "Your nativity, O Virgin, has proclaimed joy to the whole universe". 

A theme of the Aposticha Hymns is the great reversal of sadness into joy  --  the change of lamentation into thanksgiving  --  as God, through Mary, for "the life of mankind now dwells in the world."

Let those on earth be decked in splendor;
let rulers leap for joy;
let priests be glad in blessing;
let the whole world keep the feast!

The Canon of Matins

Matins is a service with many parts, but the heart of any Matins is the Canon. Sung shortly after the reading of the Matins gospel, the canon consists of 8 hymns or canticles, and associated with each canticle is a set of additional hymns that are chanted by the reader. 

The Canon is a prolonged, poetic meditation on the deep meaning of the Feast. During the Canon, the faithful come forward to venerate the Gospel book. Each person is anointed by the priest with the blessed oil, and each receives a portion of the blessed loaves and wine. It's the feast inside the Vigil of the Feast!

The 8 Canticles and their additional hymns are long, but so is the Feast -- it lasts up to 8 days! So each day, honor the Feast and reflect on a different Canticle!

Adam is set free and Eve dances for joy,
and in spirit they cry aloud to you, O Theotokos:
“By you, through Christ’s appearance,
we have been delivered from Adam’s ancient curse.”
— 7th Canticle of the 2nd Canon, 3rd Troparion

The Praises

Near the end the Vigil, the choir sings a set of hymns associated with the Praises (Psalms 148, 149, and 150). These hymns begin to bring the Eve of the Feast to a close, preparing us for the celebration of the Divine Liturgy on the morning of the Feast day itself.

Oh, the marvelous wonder!
The source of Life is born of a barren woman,
and grace gloriously begins to bear its fruit.

Old Testament Prophecies

At Vespers, three lessons from the Old Testament are read. These same Old Testament passages are read at every Feast of the Theotokos.

Genesis 28:10-17

The story of Jacob's ladder, which is a symbol (or "type") of Mary. In Jacob's dream, a ladder joins heaven and earth. The Church holds that Mary is the fulfillment of this dream, for in her womb she will bear Christ. Truly Mary is the one who joins heaven and earth by giving birth to the Incarnate Son of God!

Ezekiel 43:27 - 44:4

In Ezekiel's vision, the Lord shows him the east gate of the Temple, through which God enters. After God's entry, the east gate is shut. The Church holds that Mary is the fulfillment of this prophecy. She is the East Gate through whom Christ enters the world, and yet she remains ever Virgin.

Proverbs 9:1-11

Christ is the "wisdom, word, and power of God" as we sing after communion each Sunday, and in this reading we hear that Wisdom has built a house. The Church holds that Mary is the house built by Wisdom, and through whom Wisdom (Christ) is made known to all the world!

New Testament Lessons

At the Divine Liturgy, we hear the Epistle and Gospel readings for the Feast! 
Let us attend!

Philippians 2:5-11

This is the Apostle Paul's glorious "hymn of kenosis" or "hymn of empyting."  Christ is divine, but in love chooses not to cling to his equality with the Father, but He "empties himself, taking the form of a servant" through Mary. Why?  because He loves us!

Luke 10:38-42;  11:27-28

The story of Mary and Martha of Bethany, sisters of Lazarus. Mary sits at the feet of Christ, while Martha serves. (For certain the Theotokos did both as one who raised Christ as His mother!) Then a woman near Christ glorifies the Theotokos, and Jesus responds by saying that all who hear and keep the word of God are likewise blessed -- for Mary is the one who truly hears and keeps these words.

Icon of the Feast

reprinted from iconreader.wordpress.com

Together, the Great Feasts serve to tell us the story of the Incarnation, which has its climax in the center of the year with the celebration of the “Feast of Feasts” – Pascha. It is therefore fitting that the first Great Feast of the Church year, which begins in September, is that of the Nativity of the Theotokos.

The early life of Mary, the Mother of God, up to the occasion of the Annunciation is described in the ancient Protoevangelium of James. Hymnography and iconography for the feasts celebrating Mary’s conception, birth, and dedication to the Temple as a child, all borrow from this early (c. 2nd century) account.

The Mother of God’s birth was miraculous, not because she was born without original sin, nor because she was born of a virgin, but instead because she was born of a man and her barren wife: Joachim and Anna.

Nativity of Theotokos.jpg

The icon of the feast is a more-or-less faithful imaging of the protoevangelium, with the composition echoing the the icon of the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, which Mary’s birth prepares the way for. Anna is reclining in a bed, in a similar way to how Mary herself reclines in icons of Christ’s Nativity. Below Anna, the infant Mary is being bathed by midwives, just as the infant Christ is washed by Salome in the icon of His own birth. Likewise, just as Joseph is shown removed from the main scene of the birth in Nativity icons, Mary’s father Joachim is also shown apart from the scene in icons of the Theotokos’ birth.

As for the differences, the main one is that the surroundings. Whereas Christ’s birth is shown to be in a cave, in the wilderness, the Mother of God’s birth is shown within the city walls, amid what appears to be a beautifully decorated house, because Joachim was “a man rich exceedingly” (Protoevangelium). Instead of a cave, Mary is inside Anna’s bed-chamber, which according to the protoevangelium was made into a sanctuary until the time Mary entered the Temple. Whereas Mary and the Christ-child are attended by angels in their relative solitude, around Anna is a hive of activity: the “undefiled daughters of the Hebrews” whom Anna brought into the bed-chamber to attend to her. A table by Anna shows the feast which Joachim prepared on Mary’s first birthday, to which were invited the scribes, priests and elders of Israel.

Other details which may be present are separate details of Anna, Joachim and the infant Mary together in a loving embrace. Scenes from before the Theotokos’ nativity may also be shown, such as the angel visiting Joachim in the desert to tell him of the upcoming conception, and Joachim and Anna embracing at the gateway to their house, an image also depicted separately as the “Conception of the Mother of God”. At the bottom of the Icon there is sometimes a fountain of water or water fowl in a small garden. This describes Anna’s “double lament” beneath the laurel tree of her garden, when she thought that she would neither conceive or see her husband again.

The icon of the Nativity of the Theotokos show us the relatively exalted beginnings of Mary’s birth. Yet in her humility she does not expect the tidings that the Archangel Gabriel brings just a few years later, and bears with quietude the spartan surroundings of her own Son’s birth in Bethlehem.

Today the Virgin Theotokos Mary
The bridal chamber of the Heavenly Bridegroom
By the will of God is born of a barren woman,
Being prepared as the chariot of God the Word.
She was fore-ordained for this,
since she is the divine gate and the true Mother of Life.