Royal Hours

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Royal Hours

The Royal Hours is an Orthodox service traditionally held late at night on Maundy Thursday. The service retells the Passion story, that is, the story of the last days of Jesus' life, in which he was betrayed, arrested, beaten, and crucified (for more on crucifixion, see also Cross). Orthodox Church authorities follow the ancient Jewish tradition of beginning each new day at sundown. Therefore, a church service held on the evening of Maundy Thursday would actually be associated with the following day, Good Friday. Today many Orthodox churches offer the Royal Hours service on the morning of Good Friday.

Orthodoxy is one of the three main branches of the Christian faith. Orthodox Christianity developed in eastern Europe, the Middle East, and north Africa. It split away from Western Christianity, which later divided into Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, about 1,000 years ago. Orthodox and other Eastern Christians follow a slightly different schedule of religious observances than do Western Christians. In addition, they maintain their own distinctive calendar system which causes their Lent and Easter season observances to fall on different dates than those celebrated by Western Christians (see also Easter, Date of).


The Royal Hours service can be traced back to the small Christian community of fourth-century Jerusalem. Around the year 380 A.D. Egeria, a western European pilgrim to the Holy Land, wrote a description of Holy Week services in Jerusalem. According to Egeria, members of the Christian community gathered together late at night on Thursday of Holy Week. They met at the Church of Eleona, built over the site where Jesus was said to have given his last teachings, located on the Mount of Olives, a hill outside Jerusalem. They listened to Bible readings telling the first part of the Passion story. The congregation then made its way to Jerusalem in stages, stopping for Bible readings at sites en route where key events in the story took place. Next they visited the Ibomon church, also on the Mount of Olives, built over the site where the Ascension was supposed to have taken place. Then they proceeded to the Garden of Gethsemane, the site where, according to the Bible, Jesus was arrested. They arrived there around three in the morning. After offering prayers and listening to selections from the scriptures, they set off for their homes in the city of Jerusalem, singing hymns as they marched through the pre-dawn darkness. Scholars believe that the readings used in this service included fifteen psalms and seven passages from the Gospels, the books in the Christian Bible describing the life and teachings of Jesus. These readings began with the story of the Last Supper and ended with Jesus' trial before Pilate (for more on Last Supper, see Maundy Thursday). The worshipers continued their devotions on Friday with religious services held at the site of Jesus'crucifixion (see also Stations of the Cross).

By the tenth century the Jerusalem service had developed into a more complete representation of the Passion story. The procession began on Mount Sion, where the Last Supper was believed to have taken place, and then crossed the Kidron Valley and the Mount of Olives before entering the Garden of Gethsemane. Then the group came to the city of Jerusalem, stopping at a site near the house of Caiphas, the Jewish high priest, that was associated with Peter's repentance (Matthew 26:75, Mark 14:72, Luke 22:61-62, John 18:27). They proceeded to Pilate's residence and from there walked to the site of the Crucifixion, over which the Church of the Holy Sepulchre had been built. Twelve readings - eleven from the Gospels and one from the Hebrew scriptures, or Old Testament - accompanied this procession.

This late-night Holy Thursday service was also well known among Orthodox Christians outside Jerusalem by the tenth century. Worshipers listened to the same Bible readings, but enhanced the experience by offering prayers and singing hymns instead of processing to the holy sites connected with the Passion story. The Byzantine emperor himself used to attend this service in his capital city of Constantinople, now called Istanbul (Turkey). The emperor's attendance inspired what is now a common name for the service, the "Royal Hours." The word "hours" in this context refers to the canonical hours, prayer services held at specific times of the day or night. The Royal Hours began with matins, a service held either at midnight or at daybreak.

Russian Orthodox Christians also adopted the Royal Hours service. In the days when Russia was ruled by tsars, folk customs encouraged those who had attended the service to try to carry home a lighted candle with which to kindle the taper or lamp that stood beside their icons, religious images used in prayer and worship (see also Russia, Easter and Holy Week in; Ukraine, Easter and Holy Week in).

Contemporary Services

Today many Orthodox churches offer Royal Hours services on the morning of Good Friday. The service features the twelve Gospel readings that retell the Passion story as well as passages from the Old Testament, Psalms, and Christian Epistles. It combines the first, third, sixth, and ninth canonical hours, services usually offered at six a.m., nine a.m., noon, and three p.m. and often called by their Latin names prime, terce, sext, and none. The congregation holds candles in their hands which they light during each of the twelve Gospel readings and then extinguish. After the service the kouvouklion, a representation of Jesus' burial bier, is brought before the worshipers. Orthodox churches also hold religious services on the afternoon of Good Friday, in which the epitaphios, or winding sheet - a cloth onto which has been embroidered an image of Christ's burial - is symbolically removed from the cross and placed in the funeral bier. The ceremony surrounding the epitaphios may be thought of as the Orthodox parallel to the Roman Catholic ceremony around the holy sepulchre, or the Roman Catholic devotion known as the Veneration of the Cross.

Further Reading

Monti, James. The Week of Salvation. Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor Publications, 1993. Rouvelas, Marilyn. A Guide to Greek Traditions and Customs in America. Bethesda, MD: Nea Attiki Press, 1993. Weiser, Francis X. The Easter Book. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1954. Wybrew, Hugh. Orthodox Lent, Holy Week and Easter. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1997.

Web Site

"Holy Friday," a document describing the beliefs and practices of Orthodox Christians concerning Good Friday, posted on the Orthodox Church in America web site:
Encyclopedia of Easter, Carnival, and Lent, 1st ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2002
References in periodicals archive ?
Also called Theophany in the Eastern churches, Epiphany is honored with its own vigil called Paramony, which is observed by a strict fast and a celebration of the Royal Hours, thus tying together the feasts of Nativity and Good Friday.
Great and Holy Friday Matins will be at 9 a.m., Royal Hours at noon and 3 p.m.

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