The Royal Hours is the late night service held at the Orthodox churches during Good Friday. It is held on the night on Maundy Thursday and narrates the Passion story (the story of the last days of Jesus' life). The story tells about the last days of Jesus when he was betrayed, arrested, tortured, beaten, and crucified. This phase of Good Friday is considered significant as the Christian followers ought to know about this narration essentially. Orthodox Church authorities, following the ancient Jewish tradition do the “Royal Hours” on the evening of Maundy Thursday and then celebrate the Good Friday on next day.
The practice of Royal Hours service dates back to the small Christian hamlet of fourth-century Jerusalem. During the year 380 A.D. Egeria, who was a western European pilgrim visiting the Holy Land, had written a narrative of Holy Week services in Jerusalem. Egeria said that the members of the Christian community should be gathering at the church together late at night on the particular Thursday of Holy Week. All the Christians of the hamlet met at the Church of Eleona that stood at the site where Lord Christ bestowed his last teachings. This Church was on Mount of Olives, which is a hill outside Jerusalem. The gathering listened to Bible readings, which is now the first part of the Passion story.The Journey during Royal Hours at Jerusalem –
The parishioners then started their journey in Jerusalem and stopped at the particular sites where the events took place as per the Bible readings. Then they visited the Ibomon church, which is also located on Mount of Olives. This church is built on the site where the Ascension actually to have taken place. The next destination was the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus was arrested; they reach there at around three in the morning. The rites done here are mainly prayers and listening to selected scriptures from Bible. Finally, they set off for their homes in Jerusalem, singing hymns during the hours of pre-dawn darkness. The Christian scholars say that the readings recited during the Royal Hours include fifteen psalms and seven passages from the Biblical Gospels. The readings describe the life and teachings of Jesus; they start with the story of the Last Supper and ends with the trial of Jesus before Pilate.The Next Developmental Stage of Royal Hours -
During the 10th century, the Royal Hours services in Jerusalem developed profoundly into a better and complete representation of the Passion story. During this time, the procession of Royal Hours began on Mount Sion, where the Last Supper took place, then the gathering crossed the Kidron Valley and the Mount of Olives, finally they entered the Garden of Gethsemane. The followers came to the city of Jerusalem, halted near the house of Caiphas (the Jewish high priest) who was associated with Peter's penitence). Then they moved on to Pilate's residence and then approached to the site of the Crucifixion. At this place, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was built. The followers took participation in twelve readings, eleven from the Gospels and one from the Hebrew Scriptures.Holy Thursday Service –
On this night itself, another service called Holy Thursday was observed by the Orthodox Christians outside Jerusalem. In this service, the worshippers heard to the narrations from same Bible readings, but they also offered prayers and sang hymns. During this service, the gathering did not visit the holy sites, but got immersed completely in the Passion story. This service was attended by the Byzantine emperor himself and it also took place in his capital city of Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey). It was since then, that the entire Passion story hours were termed as “Royal Hours”. The word "hours" is used in this context because it refers to the canonical hours when the prayer services took place during the specific time. The first phase of Royal Hours is known as the matins, which is held either at midnight or at daybreak.
Royal Hours service also became popular amongst Russian Orthodox Christians. When Russia was under the rule of Czars, folk customs encourage this service and the followers carried home a lighted candle or lamp and placed them beside their religious icons.
In the modern age, many Orthodox churches practice the service of Royal Hours on the morning of Good Friday. The service involves reading of the twelve Gospel scriptures, retelling the Passion story and also significant passages from the Old Testament, Christian Epistles and Psalms. The Royal Hours are now observed on first, third, sixth, and ninth canonical hours, that is at six a.m., nine a.m., noon, and three p.m.
The followers of Royal Hours today hold candles in their hands; and they are lighted each time the twelve Gospel readings are read and then they are extinguished twelve times. After the service is completed, the kouvouklion, which is a representation of Jesus' burial bier is placed in front of the worshipers. On the afternoon of Good Friday, there are some more services that are observed by the Orthodox churches. In these services, epitaphios, or winding sheet (a cloth with embroidered image of Christ's burial) is metaphorically removed from the cross and shrouded on the funeral bier. The Roman Catholic ceremony is similarly held around the Holy Sepulchre and this service is typically known as the Veneration of the Cross.