The All-Night Vigil comprises the daily services of Great Vespers, Matins, and First Hour. It is appointed for the evening before each Great Feast and every Sunday (which is, in effect, a Little Pascha). The feasts of certain saints also call for a Vigil. It is called “all-night” because in ancient times in Palestine where it first developed, it began at sunset and continued through the night until dawn. Later, as the service spread through the Church, out of condescension to the weakness of the faithful, it was abbreviated to begin late in the evening (but before midnight) and to last until morning. Now in normal parish use, it is abbreviated still further, beginning earlier in the evening and lasting but two or three hours. In our parish, it typically lasts two to two and a quarter hours.
Sunday for Christians is the day of the Lord’s Resurrection, the day of the Eucharist, and the day of the Lord’s Kingdom (the 8th day). The Sunday services communicate these themes. Note we said the Sunday services. The Divine Liturgy is not the only Sunday service. Since the Liturgical day begins at sunset, each Sunday has its Vespers and Matins before the Divine Liturgy. These services are essential, for they prepare us for the Liturgy. Indeed, the Liturgy may not be served with Vespers or Matins having been served, or at least read privately by the clergy. Holding fast to the Orthodox idea of preparation and fulfillment, we see that the preparation of the Vigil is fulfilled in the Eucharist of the Liturgy.
Though we may be tempted to think of the “All-Night” Vigil in terms of the quantity of time spent in the service, the primary concept of time contained in the term “vigil” is qualitative. In ancient times, “vigil” referred to time spent on guard duty, or ‘keeping watch’. In the Church, it means time spent in attentive preparation and ‘waiting on God’. Spiritual life needs time for development. No one can achieve results in one’s spiritual life without time. Modern man’s spiritual life is in a state of collapse because of his impatience to achieve results. Vigil is taking time seriously. It relates all time to history, specifically to the history of salvation. When God became man, the Kingdom of God appeared in the time of this world. Vigil becomes the time of the proclamation of that kingdom. Vigil takes us back to the beginning of time and prepares us for the end of time, when all things will be fulfilled in the fullness of Christ’s kingdom.
Moreover, Christ instructed His disciples to “watch and pray” so that, though they did not know the hour of His return, they might be ready for it. To keep vigil in the historical and ascetic sense is to deprive oneself of a measure of usual sleep to keep watch, waiting in readiness for the coming of the Son of Man at midnight, training oneself to live life in expectation of Christ’s coming: first, in the Holy Mysteries at Every Liturgy, and second, in glory to judge the world and inaugurate His Kingdom. To this day in places like Mount Athos, the Vigil is served through the night (for up to eight hours), preserving the ascetical effort and eschatological anticipation of the service.
In parish practice, the two to three-hour service still represents a significant ascetical effort for us, as we stand in readiness, waiting on the Lord and contemplating in the hymns and psalms all that He has done for us, especially His Incarnation, Death on the Cross, and Resurrection. Having stood through the Vigil, our bodies tell us clearly that we have been in church keeping watch, focused on the ‘one thing needful’ for our lives. Inconvenient and demanding it may be, but it also offers indispensable training in waiting on the Lord and making Him our priority above all else in life.
The Vigil also gives us a much needed time for spiritual cleansing and renewal after all the cares, struggles, and sins of the week. It gives us time to get our mind back on God, to honor Him and render thanks, to prepare ourselves for worthy participation in the Holy Mysteries. It gives us time to soften and warm our hearts before God if they have cooled or hardened during the week. Living in the world, we feel the pressure the world puts on us to conform to its mold. Each week, the Vigil helps us decompress from that pressure to conform to the world and to again offer ourselves to Christ. It allows us to free our minds from the cares and temptations of the week, to wash the “dust of sin” that has dirtied our soul in our sojourn in the world, so that we may present ourselves at the morning Liturgy with cleansed hearts, eager and ready to receive the Lord.
Since the Vigil service comprises Matins and Vespers, the beginning and end of the daily services, Vigil becomes the service encompassing the whole of time. Vigil transforms all of time into a time of preparation. Not only is Saturday night the solemn preparation for the Sunday morning Eucharist, it also is the solemn preparation of our lives for the coming of the Kingdom of God at the end of time. Vigil gives us time to increase our attention span for prayerful meditation on these matters of greatest importance to us, and to put aside all the cares and worries of life that would crowd out the growth of the kingdom in us.
Orthodox services always involve movement. The faithful move their bodies in response to what is happening in the service, usually in making the sign of the cross and bowing or prostrating. Beyond this, however, the Vigil involves other sorts of movement. First, there are more processions than occur in the daily forms of Vespers or Matins. Daily Vespers has no entrance at Gladsome Light, for example, while the Vigil does. The Vigil opens with a great censing of the whole church, which is lacking at Daily Vespers. Matins also has the two great censings of the church: during the Evlogitaria (‘Blessed art Thou, O Lord, teach me Thy statutes...’) and at the Magnificat during the canon. During Matins, the Gospel is brought out, and the faithful go to venerate it and receive the priest’s blessing. If a Litia is served during Vespers, there is an additional procession of all the people and clergy to the narthex (or to the back of the church if there is no adequate narthex). Thus, Vigil is a dynamic service. The movement of people and clergy during it expresses the movement of the Body of Christ towards the Kingdom of God. It vividly recalls the history of salvation.
Whether a part of a service is sung or merely chanted is not a matter of convenience but an expression of a certain theological idea. Singing is always a festal act. This is most evident at the Feast of Feasts, Pascha, when the Matins and the Hours, along with the Paschal Vespers later in the day, are sung in their entirety–nothing is read by a reader. It is evident at the Divine Liturgy also, which is always festive in nature and is sung. The reader only reads the Hours before the Liturgy, the Prokiemenon and Epistle during it, and the Prayers of Thanksgiving afterwards. Other parts of the service that are normally read by a reader at Vespers, Compline, and Matins—“Holy God,” the Lord’s Prayer, the antiphons, the Creed—are sung by all instead of being read by a reader.
In accordance with this principle, singing also makes up an important part of the All-night Vigil. The opening psalm of Vespers, the Psalm of Creation (103), the kathisma Psalms (1-8) Blessed is the Man, and St. Symeon’s Prayer, all of which are read by the reader at daily Vespers are sung at the Vigil. Ten hymns for Sunday rather than the typical six of a weekday are inserted and sung at Lord, I Have Cried. At Matins, the Polyeleos and Evlogitaria, not a part of Daily Matins, are inserted and sung, as is the hymn Having Beheld the Resurrection of Christ at resurrectional Vigils, and the Magnification is sung on Great Feasts and for important saints. The Great Doxology is sung, replacing the read Lesser Doxology of Daily Matins, and the Praises are sung with eight hymns inserted.
The restored man, the new Adam doesn’t speak to God. He sings to God, joining with the choirs of angels in heaven. As St. Paul writes, “Be not drunk with wine...but be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord; giving thanks always for all things unto God and the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ...” (Ephesians 5:18-20). Singing is a liturgical expression of the feast and its joy: as St. James puts it, “Is any among you merry? Let him sing psalms” (James 5:13). Singing musically transforms the language of the service. The Lord’s Day is the new song, and the singing at the Vigil is the beginning of that day and preparation for the fulfillment of it at the Liturgy. Since Vigils are celebrated only for Sundays, the twelve Great Feasts, and the feasts of certain important saints, it is reserved for particularly festive occasions, and the amount of singing at the Vigil in contrast with the daily services conveys that festivity.
Light & Darkness
The symbolism of light and darkness is one of the earliest and most central Christian ideas. Light represents the new time ushered in by Christ, the Kingdom, fulfillment, the New Testament, and, of course, Christ Himself—the Light of the world. Darkness, on the other hand, represents the old time, this world, penitence, expectation, and the Old Testament. At the Vigil service, the light is normally increased and decreased at certain times during the service to indicate whether the coming action represents the Kingdom of God or this world, the New Testament or the Old. Thus, the light in the church is always increased for a reading of the Gospel, which represents the Kingdom of God, the New Testament, and Christ Himself who is the Light and the Truth. On the other hand, nearly all the light is extinguished during the Six Psalms of Matins, which are penitential in nature.
The Bells of the Church
Theologically, the bell is the sound of time. The bells summon the faithful to services (the fifteen-minute ‘early bell’). They express the triumphal joy of the Church and Her Divine services. They also announce to those not present in the Church the times of especially important moments in the services, so that those at home “for a cause worthy of a blessing” may be united in prayer with those at the Divine services.
At the Vigil, the bells are rung several different times. Besides the “early bell” common to most services, the “Good News Peal” or blagovest, the measured striking of one bell, is rung just as the service begins. It is followed immediately by the “Treble Peal” or trezvon which is the ringing of all the bells of the church simultaneously three times. The “second bell” of the Vigil occurs at the start of the Six Psalms of Matins, indicating the beginning of Matins. As the reader chants the angels’ doxology before the shepherds at Bethlehem “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, good will to men,” all the bells are simultaneously rung twice, in two refrains, called the druzvon, announcing here the joy of the Incarnation. The “third bell” of Vigil, a trezvon, is rung at the during the Polyeleon (“Praise ye the name of the Lord...”) and is also known as the bell before the Gospel. It expresses the joy and festivity of Christ’s resurrection. The “fourth bell” of Vigil is rung at the beginning of the Magnificat (“My soul doth magnify the Lord”). This is a short “good news peal” of nine strokes of the large bell. Alternatively, another tradition has a single small bell rung thrice at the end of each refrain (“verily, Theotokos, we magnify thee”). Lastly, the trezvon is sounded again at the end of a festal (but not resurrectional) Vigil.
Parts of the Whole
The Vigil is a combination of certain daily services, but in a more elaborate form than they take by themselves. In order to include within the Vigil the idea that the Vigil represents all of time, the services consist of the beginning service of the liturgical day (Vespers) and the concluding service of the day (Matins). In this way, the Church sanctifies all of time.
The Vigil properly includes Vespers, Matins, and the First Hour. The reading of the Third and Sixth Hours before the Divine Liturgy may be thought of as a continuation of the Vigil. This means that all of Saturday night, the first part of the new week, is considered holy and sanctified. Indeed, in the fullest Saturday evening celebration, the Vigil would last through the night until first light, sanctifying the whole night, the time of darkness, death, sleep, and evil, and keeping watch for the return of the bridegroom and the light He brings.
The Vigil after the Vigil
After the Saturday “All-Night Vigil” ends, we depart in peace to our homes. Having broken with the cares of our week in the world, we have entered into the blessed and holy Lord’s Day. Time has been sanctified through our offering of the first part of the new week to the Lord in keeping Vigil, and we have begun preparing ourselves for the sanctification to come through the Holy Eucharist. Vigil is Preparation. Liturgy is Fulfillment.
Returning home, we continue to keep a vigilant atmosphere. Entertainment, television, parties, movies, etc., while not necessarily wrong in themselves, are incompatible with the activity of preparing for the Divine Liturgy and especially Holy Communion. This is why our church discipline forbids weddings on Saturdays and socials on the eve of the Lord’s Day. Likewise, we abstain from marital relations to prepare ourselves for Holy Communion.
At home, we keep a quiet evening of preparation. This is the time for reading the Scriptures and the Lives of the Saints, especially if we have not done so during the week. This is the time to call or write someone who is hurting, in need, or with whom we need to be reconciled. This is the time to examine our consciences and make the resolve to begin the “New Day,” the “New Week,” with the Lord in all things.
The Priest and Deacon both carry candles as the Priest censes the altar table, the sanctuary, the iconostasis, the whole church, and the faithful gathered in the church. The Priest wears his phelonion (the largest and outermost garment worn by the Priest). When the phelonion is worn, it is a sign that that particular part of the service is of the new creation.
The deacon breaks the silence with the exclamation, “Arise, master, bless!” This exclamation is the invitation from God to the only creature who stands upright–man. We pray to God in the distinctive way in which He created us—erect on two feet. We stand in the presence of God our Creator who brought us from nothingness and non-existence into the world He made for us. Man’s response to his Creator is to acknowledge Him as God and to give thanks to Him for his very being and for all the good things the Creator has given him. Yet as St. Paul indicates in the first chapter of Romans, man failed to acknowledge God as God and to give Him thanks. Rather, he sought to be god without God, to displace his Creator; and all the evils of the world flow from this basic failure to worship and thank God. Christ has come to call man back to his original vocation, to succeed where Adam failed.
Tracing the sign of the cross with the raised censer before the altar table, the Priest the exclaims, “Glory to the Holy, Consubstantial, Life-Creating, and Undivided Trinity...” Thus we praise the One true God in Three Persons who created the world. Immediately, clergy sing the call to worship, “Come let us worship God our King...” Man, having been newly created, arisen from nothingness, is immediately invited to live by worshipping His Creator in humble dependence upon Him. Man was created to glorify and worship God!
The choir and people begin singing Psalm 103, the psalm of creation, which always begins Vespers. The psalm is sung rather than read at Vigil due to the festive nature of the service (though commonly in abbreviated form). The Priest and Deacon continue censing the church during the singing. All the while, the church is brightly illuminated and the Royal Doors are open, representing the light and glory of creation and man’s destiny to live in Paradise with the way to God open. The censing of both the icons and the gathered faithful shows there is no separation between the faithful in Heaven and those on earth: all are gathered in God’s presence and afforded equal honor according to the indelible image of God in each and the degree to which each acquires the likeness of God.
At the end of the censing, the Royal Doors are closed and the lights dimmed dramatically. When the Royal Doors are closed during a service, they signify the Church as fast or preparation for the kingdom, for the closed doors indicate the separation of the people living in the fallen world from the Kingdom, which is represented in the architecture of the church by the altar or sanctuary. When the Royal Doors are opened, they signify the Church as feast or fulfillment of the Kingdom. The Vigil is conducted on both these levels: the Church on the level of fallen creation in exile, aliens passing through the world on pilgrimage towards the Kingdom, and the Church restored to the level of the Kingdom.
Once the doors are closed, the priest removes his phelonion and exits the North Deacon’s Door (on left facing the iconostasis) to stand bareheaded in humility before the now closed Royal Doors to pray silently on behalf of himself and the people the seven ‘Prayers of Light’ much as Adam may have cried out to God before the closed gates of Paradise. Once the singing of the Psalm has ended, the deacon will exit and intone the Great Litany.
The Deacon (or Priest) comes before the closed Royal Doors to intone the Great Litany. He faces east, representing fallen Adam who cries out to God in his distress after being expelled from Paradise. All litanies are said facing east with the Deacon (or Priest) leading the people (but still as one of the people) in offering prayer to God. The Church gathered in worship is not a closed circle contem-plating itself, but looks beyond herself to God. From earliest times, the Church has prayed to the east for at least three reasons: 1. that is the direction of the rising sun, and Christ is the Sun of righteousness who brings light to a dark world; 2. Paradise, or Eden, was situated in the east, and man looks to regain what he lost; 3. Christ’s return in glory will be “as lightening flashes from the east to the west” and so to look east in prayer is to look for Christ’s return.
The Great Litany is the beginning of the official prayer of the Church and begins all Her services. In this litany, the Church offers prayer on behalf of the whole world in a descending hierarchy of values, beginning with what is most important. When the Great Litany is taken in a service, the Augmented Litany must also be taken (with the thricefold “Lord, have mercy”). In the former, the Church prays universally for the world, but in the latter, She prays for the particular place in which She gathers and for the particular people of that place.
The following analysis of the petitions is primarily (but not exclusively) that of Fr. Alexander Schmemann.
“In peace let us pray to the Lord.” The prayer of the Church is a new prayer, made possible by the peace of Christ which passes all understanding. He is our peace (Ephesians 2:14) with God, with others, and with ourselves, and we pray therefore in Him, in the wonderful certitude that our prayer is being accepted by God because of Him.
“For the peace from above and for the salvation of our souls...” The world cannot give that peace; it is a gift from above (John 14:27). To receive it is our first and most important goal together with the salvation of our souls. Before we pray for anything else, we must pray for the ‘number one object’ of every Christian: eternal salvation.
“For the peace of the whole world, for the good estate of the holy Churches of God, and for the union of all men...” We pray that the peace of Christ might be granted everywhere, that the Church might fulfill Her mission of preaching Christ and making Him present throughout the world, and that all men might be united in Christ to His Body, the Church. Christ provides the only basis for human unity; He is the only power capable of overcoming the barriers that separate man from his fellow man.
“For this holy house, and for those who with faith, reverence and fear of God enter herein...” We pray for our particular parish, which must manifest Christ and His Kingdom to the surrounding community, that we may worship in the proper spirit of faith, reverence, and fear of God.
“For our [bishop], the honorable presbytery [priests], the diaconate in Christ, and for all the clergy and the people...” We pray for those to whom God has entrusted the care of His Church, to guide and edify Her, especially the diocesan bishop. They bear a heavy responsibility and need our frequent prayers. We also pray for all the people who are part of the Body and also bear responsibility for its welfare.
“For this God-protected land, its president, all civil authorities, and for those who serve in the armed forces...” Christians are both citizens of Heaven and responsible members of civil society on earth. We are loyal to the State and established authorities, but only so far as this loyalty is compatible with our ultimate loyalty to Christ. We must bear witness to Christ within our society and pray that it may receive guidance from the Lord. Whether we like or agree with those in power, they need our prayers simply because they do have power and must use it wisely.
“For this city, for every city and country, and for those who in faith dwell therein...” Christ teaches us that we “are the salt of the earth.” We have a spiritual responsibility for the place we live, and we also join with all Christians everywhere in praying for their civil communities and for the faithful living in them.
“For favorable weather, for an abundance of the fruits of the earth, and for peaceful times...” The prayer of the Church embraces the whole natural world. We ask God to provide for us what we require for life, and that we may live in peace rather than anarchy or unrest. We recognize our dependence on God for these good things, though modern man tends to take them for granted.
“For travellers by land, by sea, and by air, for the sick and the suffering; for captives, and for their salvation...” The Church remembers all who are in danger and difficulties, praying for their salvation and protection. We reach out in love to those suffering everywhere to fulfill Christ’s commandment of love. “Captives” in former times referred especially to Christians who had been seized by Muslim raiders and sold into slavery.
“For our deliverance from all tribulation, wrath, danger, and necessity...” These things have the potential to overwhelm our faith and life, so we intercede that we be delivered from the harm they threaten. ‘Necessity’ is an extreme situation where the lack of basic necessities of life may lead us into sin in order to get them.
“Help us, save us, have mercy on us, and keep us, O God, by Thy grace.” The final supplication hearkens to Christ’s words, “Without Me, ye can do nothing.” Faith reveals to us our total dependence on God’s grace, mercy, and help in all things.
“Remembering our all-holy, immaculate, most blessed and glorious Lady Theotokos and ever-virgin Mary with all the Saints, let us commend ourselves, and each other, and all our life unto Christ our God.” By remembering the Theotokos and all the Saints, we affirm our unity with the Church in Heaven as we entrust ourselves, each other, and all our life to God’s loving care and providence rather than depending on our own wisdom and efforts.
In the Great Litany, we unite in offering the prayer of Christ’s Church for the world. The priest or deacon bids us to pray for these things, and as each matter is set before us, we ask God to “have mercy”. Our attentive participation is needed; we must unite our heart to these petitions and bring them to God that we may be truly praying and not merely mouthing words.
Usually one kathisma is read at each daily Vespers except on Sunday evening, and two kathismata are read at each Matins service. In this way, the whole Psalter is read in the Church each week.
Normally, the kathisma is chanted by the reader, but on festive occasions, such as the Resurrectional Vigil each Saturday evening, the Vesperal kathisma is sung. Though the full first kathisma is appointed, typically only selected verses are sung, commonly known as “Blessed is the man”.
From the beginning, the Psalter has been the Church’s principal hymnal. It was so important, that a canon was established specifying that no one who did not know the whole Psalter by heart could be appointed bishop. Though it is not enforced today, the canon underlines the centrality of the Psalter to the worship of the early Church. Many hymns have been composed since then to supplement the Psalms, but the Psalter remains the foundation for both the prayer and worship of the Church.
The characteristic opening words of the first kathisma, “Blessed is the man, that walketh not in the counsel of the impious...” refer preeminently to Christ, but also set a standard for us to attain.
When the kathisma, whether chanted or sung, is concluded, it is followed by a Little Litany. The Little Litany occurs frequently in the services of the Church. It comprises the first and last petitions of the Great Litany. Some may find its frequency repetitious or redundant, but, in fact, it is not so. Man is called to pray “without ceasing.” Moreover, in Church we often struggle to give our full attention to God, to worship, and to prayer. We come in to the service from the world with cold hearts, and it takes us time to thaw out and warm up. The recurrence of the Little Litany serves to calls us back to prayer and to give as another opportunity to enter into the prayer of the Church if we missed it the first time. Even, and especially, in Church, we need God to “help us, save us, have mercy on us, and keep us” by His grace. Offering fitting prayer and worship to God is beyond us in our own strength, and we need His help to pray as we should and to be saved from the multitude of distracting thoughts that crowd into our minds in church.
Following the Little Litany and its exclamation, the vesperal Pslams (140, 141, 130, 117) are sung, which are best known by the opening line, “Lord, I have cried unto Thee, hear me!” Here, the second great theme of Vespers is announced. The Vigil began with the theme of creation and its glory, which was emphasized by the open Royal Doors, the lights, and the Priest wearing his phelonion. Now the service turns to the theme of repentance. The lighting has been decreased since the opening Psalm, the Royal Doors have been closed, and the Priest has removed his phelonion further to depict for us the darkness of our fallen state in the fallen world. And in our fallen state, our only hope is cry out to the Lord.
The first two verses of the set of Psalms are sung in the appointed tone, then the reader takes over, chanting the rest. Towards the end, stichera, or composed verses from the Octoechos, Menaion, Triodion or Pentecostarion are inserted between verses of Psalms and sung. These stichera express the meaning of that particular day in the Church calendar. The greater the feast, the more stichera are sung. The tone of the first stichera sung determines the tone in which the first verses of “Lord I have cried” are sung. At the Resurrectional Vigil, ten stichera are sung. Usually seven are from the Octoechos (the book of the 8 tones) on the theme of the resurrection, and the remaining three are from the Menaion (the book containing all the daily services for the saints) for the saint of the day.
As the opening Psalm verses are sung, the Deacon (or Priest if he serves alone) takes the censer and performs a great censing of the temple. The meaning of this censing is expressed by the words “Let my prayer arise as incense before Thee.” The true prayers of believers are likened to incense in God’s nostrils (Revelation 8:3-4). In our darkened state, we cry out to God, and He hears us, and our prayers are pleasing to Him. Father Alexander Schmemann expresses the contrast between the opening theme of Creation and the second theme of Repentance at the Vigil:
The last hymn sung at “Lord, I have cried” is a special Theotokion (a hymn in honor of the Theotokos) called the Dogmaticon. The Dogmaticon expresses the Dogma of the Word of God’s incarnation through the Theotokos, which is the heart of the Christian faith. The “theandric principle,” that Christ is both God (Theos) and man (anthropos)— defined at the Fourth Ecumenical Council at Chalcedon in 451—is now expressed and proclaimed in a hymn. Each of the eight tones has its own Dogmaticon to hymn majestically the Mystery of the Incarnation of Christ and the role of the Ever-Virgin Mary as the Mother of God, or Theotokos. Many of the faithful know these Dogmatica by heart.
For example, the Dogmaticon for tone 8 reads:
Consider the teaching of this hymn. Christ is the King of Heaven, his proper place. Because of His love for man, he humbled himself to come earth and be Emmanuel, “God with us.” He took on His humanity in the Virgin Mary’s womb and was then born into the world as every other human child. He is one person, not two, but possesses two complete natures, one human, one divine (the teaching of the Fourth Ecumenical Council at Chalcedon). As Christians, we confess Jesus Christ to be the God-man, perfect God and perfect man in one person. He is not a mere prophet or good teacher, but the eternal God made man for us. We ask His mother to pray to Him for us. Here is the essence of the Christian faith contained in one short hymn.
The Dogmaticon illustrates the general didactic character of Orthodox worship. Worship is not divorced from dogma or basic belief. True worship must be ‘in spirit’, but it also must be ‘in truth.’ The Church’s hymns teach the faith, expressing it in vivid, poetical language set to music. Presented in this way, the Church’s teaching is more easily accessible to the majority of the faithful than it would be in the form of a dry, academic lecture. The striking figures of speech give material for meditation on God and what He has done for our salvation and union with Him, and, as the hymns are sung, they are more easily remembered. Of course, to gain the benefit from the hymns, one has to attend the service to hear them.
At the conclusion of the Dogmaticon. the Deacon raises the censer yet higher and traces the sign of the cross with it directly before the Royal Doors as he intones, “Wisdom! Let us attend!” Then he and the Priest enter the sanctuary through the Royal Doors and the choir sings the evening hymn “Gladsome Light.”
“Gladsome Light”, or the lamplighting hymn, is mentioned as early as the third century in Christian documents, but it may be still older. The hymn proclaims Christ’s coming as the Light of the world and introduces a third theme to Vespers. Fr. Alexander Schmemann writes:
It is difficult for us who live in a world artificially lighted around the clock to appreciate how precious light was to man in earlier times. Night was an effective cover for evil deeds, and no light available then to man could do much to dispel it. It was at this point in the service, after sunset, that the candles were lit and the connection is drawn between the light of the candles and the light of Christ coming into the world to dispel the night of sin and evil. This light is indeed cause for rejoicing!
Before the prokeimenon is chanted, however, the priest intones, “Peace be to all.” Here, standing facing the people, the priest (or bishop) is a living icon of Christ as through him and his words Christ offers His peace to His people. After the Resur-rection, Jesus often addressed his disciples with these words. It is not just a greeting, but the impartation of something essential to us. As we live in a world hostile to Christian faith in many ways, especially in temptations and persecutions, we may be tempted to worry and fret. Rather, we are to remember the words Christ spoke to His disciples on the night He was betrayed: “Peace I leave with you, My peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid” (John 14:27). Each time the priest gives the peace, we should through him hear Christ Himself speaking peace to us.
The word “prokeimenon” comes from the Greek and means “what is set forth,” that is, what is appointed to be read. A prokeimenon (plural “prokeimena”) consists of selected verses from the Psalms which are sung before readings from the Holy Scriptures. Prokeimena occur first, at Vespers after “Gladsome Light,” second, at Matins on Sundays and feasts before the Gospel, and third, at the Divine Liturgy before the Epistle.
At one time, the whole Psalm from which the prokeimenon is taken was sung, but gradually the Psalm was reduced to the key verse (the refrain) and the first verse, which identified the Psalm. Since many Christians knew the Psalter nearly by heart, they readily recognized the Psalm from which the prokeimenon was taken. Since every Sunday is a major feast of the Resurrection and the prokeimenon for Saturday refers to Sunday, the prokeimenon at Vespers is a “great prokeimon,” which simply means that more verses accompany it. The prokeimenon is Psalm 92 which begins: “The Lord hath become King, with beauty hath He clothed Himself.”
At Vespers, the prokeimenon functions as the turning point of the service: liturgically, the old day (Saturday) ends, and the new day (Sunday) begins. This turning point is clearly seen at Forgiveness Vespers, where the clergy begin the service in bright vestments for Sunday, but after the prokeimenon, they vest in darker lenten vestments and the choir begins singing the lenten melodies.
The “Paroemia” are the Scripture readings or lessons appointed for Vespers. They have largely disappeared except for Great Feasts and Saints for whom a Vigil or Polyeleon Matins are served. The readings are related to the feast or saint in some way, and at Vespers, the readings are primarily from the Old Testament. Usually there are three readings to symbolize the three parts of the Old Testament (Law, Prophets, Writings), and if they are from the Old Testament, the Royal Doors are closed and the church is darkened. If the readings should be from the New Testament, the lights remain on and the doors open. This difference, of course, shows that what was darkly seen in signs, types, and shadows in the Old Testament is now clearly revealed in Christ. This is one reason the Old Testament is not read at the Divine Liturgy: the Liturgy represents the Kingdom, the New Covenant, the Church, and the fulfillment of the Old Testament, and reading from the Old Testament (apart from the Psalms) is not in keeping with the nature of the Divine Liturgy. But on the eve of a feast in the time and service of preparation, the reading of the Old Testament is appointed in accordance with its preparatory nature.
After the readings at Vespers, the Deacon (or Priest) comes out of the altar to stand before the closed royal doors in the darkened church to intone the Augmented Litany, also known as the Litany of Fervent Supplication. The response of the choir and people is a three-fold “Lord, have mercy” rather than the usual one.
Christ’s coming into the world has been portrayed in the entrance, and He has spoken through His Word. In response, the faithful are called to intensify their prayerful communion with God through the petitions of the Augmented Litany.
If the Great Litany is the Church’s prayer for the whole Church and the entire world, the Augmented Litany offers intercession for the local church and local needs. This is demonstrated by the mention of specific names of those in need and who have departed this life. The Church prays specifically by name in Her services only for those who have been united to her through Baptism. She prays for those not joined to the Church generally (not by name) in the services and specifically by name in the private prayers of the faithful.
The first two petitions of the litany, which have but a single “Lord, have mercy” as the response, are said only at Vigil or Great Vespers. At Daily Vespers, this litany is moved to the end, just after the troparia and before the dismissal, and the first two petitions are dropped. During Lenten Daily Vespers, it is dropped entirely and replaced with forty “Lord, have mercy’s”.
In the litany, we pray for ourselves, for “pious Orthodox Christians,” for our hierarch, for the civil authorities, and all clergy. Though these are not exclusively local concerns, they do concern and affect the local community. Then we pray for the departed, those who have passed the faith to us and those who have recently left us. We pray for all the departed because the Church is one. We are joined by Baptism to the one Body of Christ, and so the death of any believer anywhere in the world affects us even though we are not personally acquainted with him. We then pray for what each believer needs: “mercy, life, peace, health, salvation, visitation, pardon and forgiveness of the sins of the servants of God. . .” who can then be mentioned by name, “the brethren of this holy temple.” Here we are called to intercede for those we know, with whom we live our lives and work out our salvation. Finally, “we pray for those who bear fruit and do good works in this holy and revered temple, for those who labor and those who sing, and for the people present who await of thee great and rich mercy.” Sometimes, it may seem our service in the Church is thankless, but not only does God see all and reward what is done in secret, so, too, the Church offers prayer for all who serve locally and even for those who are simply present.
An exclamation (vozglas) from the priest concludes each litany. It differs from litany to litany, and each teaches us something about God and His character. The exclamation for the Augmented Litany is “For Thou art a merciful God who lovest man, and unto Thee do we send up glory...” We are able to pray effectively for others and ourselves because it is God’s nature to be merciful. We need only to read the accounts of Abraham interceding for Sodom and Gomorrah, or Moses repeatedly inter-ceding for wayward Israel to find the Scriptural basis for this appeal.
When Israel stumbled the first time with the Golden Calf (Exodus 32), God said to Moses, “I have seen this people, and, behold, it is a stiffnecked people: now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may wax hot against them, and that I may consume them: and I will make of thee a great nation” (Ex 32:8-9). Moses interceded for the people, and God spared them. On another occasion, Moses appeals directly to God’s mercy for the people: “The Lord is long-suffering and of great mercy, forgiving iniquity and transgression... pardon, I beseech Thee, the iniquity of this people according unto the greatness of Thy mercy...” (Numbers 14:18-19). And God answered his prayer. (Those who say that the God of the Old Testament is a “God of wrath” have not read it with spiritual understanding.) Because God is merciful, we may offer prayers for others and ourselves.
After the prayer “Vouchsafe”, the Deacon, back in his place before the royal doors, intones the Evening Litany, also known as the Litany of Supplication. Normally each service of the Church ends with a prayer or litany of supplication. At Vespers, this is the Evening Litany, and at Matins, it is called the Morning Litany. This litany is known at once from its first petition, “Let us complete our evening/morning prayer unto the Lord.” It is also distinguished by the response of the people, “Grant this, O Lord,” making a more daring request of the Lord than the more penitential and usual response, “Lord, have mercy.” The Evening Litany, with its response “Grant this, O Lord,” makes request for some things we have not yet asked during the Vigil.
It begins with the last petition of the Great and Little Litanies: “Help us, save us, have mercy on us, and keep us, O God, by Thy grace,” and the usual response, “Lord, have mercy.” Thus it starts where the other litanies leave off.
The petitions are all personal, pertaining to each believer. Here are no prayers for hierarchs or government officials, but for the spiritual welfare of us, the faithful. We pray in the first person plural “we,” as Christ taught us to pray, for we are connected by Baptism in one Body to one another and we cannot find salvation for ourselves if we care not for the salvation of others. We pray for our own essential spiritual needs which are the needs of all Orthodox Christians.
We pray that the specific time of day we are entering will be sinless: “That the whole evening may be perfect, holy, peaceful, and sinless...” Our struggle with sin is ongoing, and how rare are the hours when we do not fall short of God’s glory in some way! But we never cease to seek that victory over sin. Notice that we ask for sinlessness only for the immediate future, for the next few hours. If one can go one hour without sin, one can go two; if two, one can go four, and so on. If we look to far into the future, the thought of how hard it is to guard constantly against sin will overwhelm us. We rather ask strength only for this day in which we are living. When tomorrow has become today, only then we’ll concern ourselves with tomorrow’s struggle.
We ask of the Lord “an angel of peace, a faithful guide and guardian of our souls and bodies.” This petition reminds us that we are not alone in our spiritual struggles, but the angels of God also render us assistance, particularly our guardian angel, who always works for our salvation and deliverance and sees all we do. We need to cooperate with the angels rather than resist them by evil deeds and words.
We ask “pardon and forgiveness of our sins and offenses.” Until now in the litanies, we have not asked this so specifically, so concretely for ourselves. The Augmented Litany requests “pardon and forgiveness of the sins of the servants of God, [insert names], the brethren of this holy temple,” but we have not asked it for ourselves until now. As we are not saved alone, we ask it for “us”, the Church gathered locally.
The next petition reads, “All things good and useful for our souls, and peace for the world, let us ask of the Lord.” God alone knows what is best for us. Here, we ask that He will give us only what will benefit our souls, and not simply every request we might make. When we pray for specific things, we sometimes request something that will be harmful to us unbeknownst to us. The petition thus teaches us to seek only that which will be of spiritual benefit, in accordance with God’s will for us. We also request peace for the world in the petition. This could be taken to mean the cessation of war and the prevailing of peaceful times in which to work out our salvation, but to take it only so seems out of place with the other petitions. Rather, the prophet Isaiah says, “’The wicked are like the troubled sea, when it cannot rest, whose water casts up mire and dirt. There is no peace,’ saith my God, ‘to the wicked’” (Isaiah 57:20-21). As we pray for our spiritual good, we do not forget the world, those yet outside the Church, and we pray for their peace, which comes only from Christ.
The Evening Litany concludes with a petition for “a Christian ending to our life, painless, unashamed, peaceful, and a good defence before the fearful judgment seat of Christ...” As Christians, we cannot only begin well in our spiritual lives, but must finish well, and this petition seeks that we may endure faithfully to the end with nothing to be ashamed of in the hour of death and nothing to fear before Christ’s judgment. Baptism does us little good if we fall away before the end. Moreover, we are reminded that death will come to each of us and will usher us in to judgment. Each of us will give an account of his life before Christ—a sobering thought. Thus we pray that in the end we shall not stand condemned before Christ as unprofitable servants.
At the end of each litany, we remember the Theotokos and all the saints and “commend ourselves, and each other, and all our life unto Christ our God.” Some Christian groups will have periodic calls to “rededication,” in which the people are called to renew their faith and commitment to Christ. In Orthodox worship, that opportunity is given at the end of each litany. We offer ourselves body and soul to Christ as living sacrifices, entrusting ourselves to His care and protection.
The exclamation for the Evening Litany differs slightly from that of the Augmented Litany before it: “For Thou art a good God who lovest man...” God is not only merciful but is also good. As He is good, He works only good on our behalf, though because our definition of “good” is usually skewed, we sometimes struggle to see the good in the difficult situations that come to us. Our good God only gives good gifts (James 1:17 ; Matt 7:7-11), and because He is good, we may dare to commend ourselves to His care and ask of Him “what is good and useful for our souls.”
After the exclamation of the Evening Litany, the Priest faces the people and blesses them, “Peace be to all,” and then turns back to the east and says “Let us bow our heads unto the Lord.” As the choir sings “to Thee, O Lord,” the priest mystically prays for those who have bowed their heads: “...Unto Thee, the fearful Judge who lovest man, have Thy servants bowed their heads and subjected their necks, awaiting not help from man, but expecting Thy mercy and looking for Thy salvation. Keep them at all times, both during this present evening and during the approaching night, from every enemy, from every adverse operation of the Devil, and from vain thoughts and from evil imaginations.” Rather than being stiffnecked resistors of God as ancient Israel, the faithful are called to bow their heads and subject their necks unto Christ, submitting to Him as King rather than being ruled thy their own self-will, and on the basis of that submission to the rightful ruler, they can expect His mercy and protection.
Herein is part of the blessing of being in attendance at any service: the priest prays mystically for those present, interceding for the faithful present (and those absent for a worthy reason). Though these prayers are usually not read aloud, the faithful should know that at every service, the priest offers prayer on their behalf.
The Litia begins with the choir singing special stichera (verses) in honor of the feast or saint. As they sing, the clergy and servers process out the North Door to the narthex of the temple (the Royal Doors remain shut). There is a special reason for the location of this part of the service. The nave of the temple represents the Church in the world, but the narthex represents those not yet united to the Church. A pre-revolutionary Russian liturgist writes, “In the Litia, the Church steps out of its blessed milieu and, with the goal of mission to the world, into the external world or into the narthex, the part of the church which abuts this world, the part which is open to all, including those not yet part of the Church or excluded from Her. From this stems the universal character of Litia prayers, embracing all people.” In some times and places, the Litia is even celebrated outside the temple. Properly, all the faithful would process with the clergy to the narthex or outside, but due to the lack of space in most modern narthexes, this is rarely done—only the clergy leave the nave.
When the choir finishes the stichera for the Litia, the Deacon intones a special litany of five longer-than-usual petitions, beginning with the long prayer, “O God, Save Thy People.” In this first petition, we ask that God would look upon His world with mercy and compassion, exalt the horn (a Scriptural symbol of power and strength) of Orthodox Christians, and send down upon them His rich mercies through the petitions of the Theotokos and a long list of saints. This reminds us that the Church consists of those of all times and places, not just those who happen to be alive now. Moreover, we call upon those who have successfully completed their earthly course to pray for us, the great cloud of witnesses of which Paul writes in the epistle to the Hebrews.
In the remaining four petitions, we pray for hierarchs, the whole Church and the local Church, the departed, and civil authorities. We pray to be preserved from “wrath, famine pestilence, earthquake, flood, fire, the sword, foreign invasion, and from civil war, and from sudden death...” and we pray that God will hear us sinners and have mercy on us.
“Lord, have mercy” is sung many times after each of these petitions (originally 40, 50, and 30 times for the first three petitions, now customarily reduced to 12 times). After the priest’s exclamation, he then offers a prayer to Christ through the intercessions of the Theotokos and a long list of saints (sometimes omitted): “...make our prayer acceptable, grant us forgiveness of our trespasses, shelter us under the shelter of thy wings, drive away from us every enemy and adversary, give peace to our life, O Lord. Have mercy on us and on Thy world and save our souls, for Thou art good and lovest man.”
After this prayer, the people and clergy process back into the nave while the choir sings the stichera of the Aposticha commemorating the feast or saint, alternating with psalm verses chanted by the reader. The clergy stand before a table on which five loaves (evoking the five loaves Christ used to feed the 5000), wheat, wine, and oil are placed. They remain there until after the “Our Father” has been read and the dismissal troparia have been sung, and then the priest blesses the loaves, wheat, wine, and oil. The ancient custom was then to distribute the wine and bread to strengthen the faithful to keep the long all-night Vigil yet ahead. Now, the bread dipped in the wine is distributed during Matins when the faithful come to venerate the Gospel or Festal icon and be anointed with the blessed oil.
Following the Litia and Aposticha is St. Symeon’s Prayer, “Now dost Thou dismiss Thy servant, O Master, according to Thy word, in peace...” which expresses the last theme of Vespers: that of the end. At daily Vespers, the prayer is read by the reader, but at Great Vespers it is sung. The words of this prayer come from the lips of St. Symeon the God-Bearer (Luke 2:22-35). St. Symeon had spent his entire life in constant expectation of the coming of the Messiah, for he had been told in a vision that he would not die before he had seen the Promised One of Israel. When Mary and Joseph brought the Child Jesus to be presented to God in the Temple, he was there and received the Christ-child into his arms, and spoke the words we now sing at Vespers:
St. Symeon had been waiting all his life, and then, at last, the Christ-child was given to him: he held the Life of the world in his arms. He stood for the whole world in its expectation and longing, and the words he used to express his thanksgiving have become our own. He could recognize the Lord because he had expected Him; he took Him into his arms because it is natural to take someone you love into your arms; and then his life of waiting was fulfilled. He had beheld the One for whom he had longed. He had completed his purpose in life and was ready to die.
But death to St. Symeon was no catastrophe. It was only a natural expression of the fulfillment of his waiting. He was not closing his eyes to the Light he had at last seen; his death was only the beginning of the more inward vision of the Light. In the same way, Vespers is the recognition that the evening of this world has come, which announces that day that has no evening. In this world, every day faces night; the world itself is facing night. It cannot last forever. Yet the Church is affirming that an evening is not only an end, but also a beginning, just as any evening is also the beginning of another day. In Christ and through Christ, it may become the beginning of a new life, of the day that has no evening. For our eyes have seen salvation and light which will never fail. And because of this, the time of this world is now pregnant with new life. We come into the presence of Christ to offer Him our time, we extend our arms to receive Him, and He fills this time with Himself. He heals it and makes it—again and again—the time of salvation.
Following St. Symeon’s Prayer, the reader chants the Trisagion Prayers through the “Our Father.” At the exclamation, the lights are turned up and the Royal Doors are opened. The hymn “O Theotokos, Virgin, Rejoice...” is sung three times. (At Great Vespers served alone, this hymn is not taken, but rather the appropriate dismissal troparia and theotokion.) If a Litia was served, the Deacon now censes the loaves, wheat, wine, and oil and the Priest reads the prayer of blessing. He then gives the dismissal and returns to the altar. The Royal Doors are closed, the Church is darkened, and the bell rings to announce the beginning of Matins. (to be continued)
Only the Word of God takes us out of the night. Light comes only from God. Light always is from God, for there is no darkness in God. The light of the day is a resurrection every morning. Matins celebrates this victory over night—the resurrection of light—and God’s goodness in not leaving us in perpetual darkness.
At the All-night Vigil, Matins begins with the Six Psalms, or “Hexapsalms,” as they are sometimes called: the lights are extinguished, the bells rung, and the reader stands in the midst of the temple with a lighted candle to read them. As the candles (except for the lampadi before the icons; in most places, however, only the electric lights are dimmed or turned out) are gradually extinguished, we experience in the descending darkness the dark night Christ entered at His coming.
The rubrics direct that the Six Psalms be read slowly, without haste. Both reader and faithful are to read and hear the words as though they were praying them directly to God as a prayer. This is a time for stillness and concentration, and everyone, if at all possible, should stand attentively throughout the reading of the psalms. The rubrics even note that bows are not to be made after the first three psalms during the Glory... Alleluia...Glory. All is quiet, dark, and as motionless as possible to facilitate concentration as we strive to enter into the psalms and make the prayer of the Psalmist our own.
The Six Psalms begin with thrice-fold repetition of the hymn of the angelic choir at Christ’s Nativity: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace, good will toward men,” followed by a repeated verse from Psalm 50: “O Lord, open Thou my lips, and my mouth shall declare Thy praise.” Christ was born into our dark, fallen world to show us the way by which we might return to God on high and find peace with ourselves and with others
The Six Psalms (3, 37(38), 62 (63), 87 (88), 102 (103), 142 (143)) represent the history of the opposition of night to day. They express the whole range of experience and prayer in the Christian life. They alternate between confidence in and gratitude towards God for His salvation and deliverance, and desperate outcry to God from those in distress, darkness, bondage, and affliction. The themes thus alternate between actualized salvation and potential salvation, and the overarching mood is penitential.
The first psalm of the Six (3) expresses confidence in God as man cries out to the Lord for help against a multiplying number of enemies who say that God cannot save him. These enemies are first of all the sinful passions of our souls and the demons that work to stir them up (only secondarily are they humans that may oppose us). “God can’t save you from us,” they mock. But this is a lie, for man has cried out to the Lord, who heard him, and protected him so that he could sleep and wake again. With God on his side, he need not fear ten thousand foes. The man speaking in the Psalm is Christ first of all, the God-man, but it is also us in our own spiritual warfare. Praying this Psalm enables us to call on the Lord against seeming great odds without despair, knowing He will save us.
At the end of each psalm a verse or two from the psalm is repeated to conclude the psalm and to summarize its contents. For Psalm 3, the repeated verse is “I fell asleep and slept; I rose again, for the Lord succoreth me.” The verb “to succor” literally means “to run to” or “to run to support” and hence has the fuller meaning “to help or relieve when in difficulty, want or distress.” Sleep itself is an image of death; when we sink into the sleep of spiritual death through sin, when our spiritual enemies have prevailed against us and are multiplying so that they are too many to defeat, it is the Lord who raises us up again to life and consciousness that we may continue the fight.
The second Psalm of the Six (37) is a cry of repentance to God in the face of the distress, weariness, and suffering which our sins have brought upon us, even to the point of loosing our usual sources of human aid from neighbors and friends. The repeated verse sums up our posture towards God: “Forsake me not, O Lord my God; turn not away from me. Attend to my help, O Lord of my salvation.”
The third Psalm (62) returns to the theme of realized salvation and man’s gratitude for it. Man rises early in the morning (for Matins) to seek the Lord in his great thirst for Him. What God has to offer him is far better than even life itself. The repeated verse declares: “In the mornings I have meditated upon Thee, for Thou hast become my Helper, and under the shelter of Thy wings will I rejoice. My soul hath cleaved unto Thee; Thy right hand hath upholden me.”
Now, midway through the Six Psalms, the reader says, “Glory to the Father...now and ever... Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia, glory to Thee, O God , Lord have mercy , Glory...now and ever...” and the last three psalms. In the Russian tradition, one does not do full bows during this interlude; one only crosses oneself and inclines the head slightly. In the Greek tradition, one does not bow or cross at all.
During this interlude, the Priest exits from the south door and stands bareheaded before the Royal Doors, wearing only his riassa and epitrachelion, to recite the 12 Matins prayers silently for those present, representing again fallen man standing outside of Paradise in the darkness of the fallen world, crying out to the only One who can deliver him.
The fourth psalm of the Six (87) is perhaps the darkest, showing man in his greatest desperation and need. Man cries out “for my soul is filled with evil and my life hath come nigh to hell.” Man feels the weight of God’s displeasure rejection for his sins, what Christ experienced when He cried out on the Cross, “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?” Yet in our greatest despair and weakness, even when it seems God has closed His ears to us and forsaken us, we still cry out to the Lord, as the repeated verse expresses: “O Lord God of my salvation, I have cried in the day and in the night before Thee. Let my prayer come in before Thee; bow down Thine ear to my supplication.”
Once man has been in the depths of the pit, when salvation finally comes, his response is joyous, and this joy is expressed in the fifth Psalm (102). If the fourth Psalm is the darkest of the Six, then fifth is the most joyful; indeed, it is the first Psalm sung during most Divine Liturgies (the first antiphon). “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me bless His holy name.” How can man not be joyful when the Lord has healed him, given him good thins, and removed his transgressions from him “as far as the east is from the west.” The repeated verse at the end of the Psalm declares what our response to God’s goodness always should be: “In every place of His dominion, bless the Lord, O my soul!”
The last Psalm (142) returns to man’s cry for help to God, but it is tinged with faith and hope. The enemy has persecuted me, brought me low, and made me sit in darkness. I am dejected. Don’t judge me, for no one can stand worthily before the righteous Judge. “Hearken to me in Thy righteousness, O Lord, and enter not into judgment with Thy servant. Thy good Spirit shall guide me to the land of uprightness.” As Jesus told His disciples, “In the world, ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). The Christian life alternates between times of trouble, tribulation, and distress, and times of joy, peace, and wellbeing. Each time we pass through the valley, it should be with a deeper faith in Christ than we had the previous time, and though we suffer, our suffering is eased by our previous experience of God’s goodness and deliverance, for we know that suffering and tribulation is inevitable in this life, but God redeems it to work His good in our lives through it, that Christ may be formed in us. Thus the Six Psalms contain the full range of experience and prayer for the Christian, which is why we are called to attend carefully to them and enter into them at Matins.
The first part of this proclamation is taken from Psalm 117, and the second part from the Gospel (Mt 21:9; Lk 13:35). All the verses are from the psalm. By the deliberate joining of the psalm with the Gospel, the prophecy and its fulfillment is made clear. “Lord” refers here to Christ; He is God and has come to us in the name of the Father for our salvation. The Lord, the God of Israel, has revealed Himself and dwelt among us in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ.
These words are solemn, but most joyous. In the words of the anaphora of the Divine Liturgy, God is “inexpressible, inconceivable, invisible, incomprehensible, ever in being, eternally the same.” But in the person of our Lord Jesus Christ, who is Himself God, the fullness of divinity dwelt and is revealed to us. Thus Christ can say to Philip, “He that hath seen Me hath seen the Father.”
This proclamation is made at Matins, at the dawning of the new day, for the manifestation of God in the flesh brings the light of a new day to a dark world.
The proper troparia follow “God is the Lord.” At a Resurrectional Vigil, normally the troparion of the Resurrection in the tone of the week will be sung twice, followed by Glory..., a troparion from the Menaion for a saint or saints, Now and ever..., and a theotokion in the tone of the week.
The kathisma readings from the Psalter follow. Two kathismata are appointed for the Resurrectional Matins, the second (Psalms 9-16) and the third (Psalms 17-23). Local parish practice usually abbreviates them or leaves them out altogether. (Our local practice is to read one stasis, usually Psalms 11-13). Each kathisma is followed by a Little Litany and two kathisma hymns, which treat the theme of the Resurrection, separated by a Psalm verse, and followed by Glory...now and ever...and a Theotokion. These kathisma (or sessional) hymns contemplate the empty tomb from the perspectives of the soldiers, the myrrhbearing women, Mary Magdalene, and the Angels, and well as the scene in Hades below when the God-man descends to that place of death. The empty tomb on the earth's surface contemplated by the Myrrhbearers and the Apostles not only proclaims Christ's personal resurrection, but is an image of Hell (Hades) once it has been visited by Christ: it has been emptied of every righteous soul and has no inherent right or power to hold any soul henceforward. Every grave on earth will one day resemble Christ's tomb: it will be empty, as every human who ever lived is reconstituted as a human being through the reunion of his soul and body that he might stand before the dread judgment seat of Christ to give an account of how he lived in the body on earth.
“Praise the name of the Lord: praise Him O ye servants of the Lord. Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia! Praise be to God in Zion, He that dwelleth at Jerusalem. Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia! O confess unto the Lord, for He is good, for His mercy endureth forever. Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia! O confess unto the God of heaven, for His mercy endureth forever. Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!”
Typically, only a selection of verses from the two Psalms is sung: probably most commonly (and minimally) four (first and last of each psalm), but each verse is followed by the joyful refrain of the thrice-fold “alleluia.” Locally, we sing a longer version for feasts and a complete version when we do a literal All-night Vigil.
As these verses are sung, all the lamps and candles in the church are lit, the Royal Doors are opened, and if it be a Great Feast, the festal icon is brought out to the center of the church which the Priest deposits on an analogion and then censes. If it is not a Great Feast, the priest remains censing at the front of the altar. This censing is done with both Priest and Deacon bearing candles as at the beginning of the Vigil.
If the Vigil is a Resurrectional Vigil taking place in the three weeks preparatory to Great Lent (Prodigal Son through Cheesefare), Psalm 136 (“By the Waters of Babylon”) is added.
The Polyeleos is not prescribed at every Vigil, though commonly it is always done. If it is not prescribed, Psalm 118—the longest psalm—is taken in its place. This Psalm, which extols the law of God, represents Christ Himself in total surrender to the will of His Father, even unto death. Chanting Psalm 118 constitutes the real life of man in God, that of obedience to His statutes which are life-giving. Christ’s death in history is the greatest act of life. Life is, in fact, to say, “I love Thy statutes.”
It is unfortunate that this Psalm extolling the glories and blessing of God’s law is so often abbreviated or even omitted from our services, for it imparts to us an accurate assessment of God’s law which can serve as an antidote to negative attitudes towards God’s law that afflict some of us.
This Psalm forms an important part of the funeral service, too, though it is usually abbreviated. It is used at the funeral because it is a hymn of Resurrection, which is the chief theme of a Christian funeral.
One verse from Psalm 118, “Blessed art Thou, O Lord, teach me Thy statues,” comprises the familiar refrain in the next part of Matins: the Evlogitaria or ‘Troparia of the Undefiled.’ They take their name from the first verse of Psalm 118: “Blessed are the undefiled in the way, who walk in the law of the Lord.” A number of troparia on the theme of the Resurrection are sung, each proceeded by the refrain, “Blessed art Thou...” For example, the third:
“Very early in the morning the myrrhbearers ran with sorrow to Thy tomb. But an angel came to them and said: “The time for sorrow hath come to an end; do not weep but announce the resurrection to the apostles. Blessed art Thou, O Lord, teach me Thy statutes.”
As the Troparia of the Undefiled are sung, the Priest, accompanied by the Deacon, censes the whole temple and the people.
There is life and blessing in keeping God’s law, and the way of God’s statutes leads us to our participation in the Resurrection. To ignore God’s will expressed in His law is to court death.
If the Vigil is being served for a Great Feast, the Troparia of the Undefiled, which glorify the Resur-rection, are not taken. Instead, a hymn glorifying the saint or feast known as the Magnification is taken, which begins with the words, “We magnify, we magnify Thee...” This practice is not found in the Greek usage, but only in the Slavic. The Priest chants this in front of the appropriate icon. He then carries out the great censing of the temple as above while the choir repeats the Magnification with its psalm verses several times. If the whole prescribed psalm were used, the Magnification could take nearly half an hour in itself! This part of the Matins is followed by a Little Litany with its exclamation.
The Prokeimenon follows, announced by the Deacon. It is the select Psalm appropriate for understanding the feast or that part of the service. The main theme of the prokeimenon of Sunday Matins is the Resurrection, as Sunday is always the day of the Resurrection, a “Little Pascha.” Today, only the key verse of the Psalm is sung, (and another read by the reader) a practice based on the assumption that every good Christian knows the Psalter more or less by heart and can, upon hearing the prokeimenon, recall the whole Psalm to mind. The Matins prokeimenon is also a preparation for the reading of the Gospel and is sung in the tone of the week.
Tone 2: Rise up, O Lord my God, in the precept which Thou hast commanded, and the congregation of the people shall compass Thee. (Psm 117)
Tone 3: Say it among the nations: that the Lord hath become King; for He hath established the world, which shall not be moved. (Psm 46)
Tone 4: Arise, O Lord, help us, and redeem us for Thy name’s sake. (Psm 103)
Tone 5: Arise, O Lord my God, let Thy hand be lifted up, for Thou art King unto the ages. (Psm 11)
Tone 6: O Lord, arouse Thy power and come to save us.(Psm 27)
Tone 7: Arise, O Lord my God, let Thy hand be lifted up; forget not Thy needy ones til the end. (Psm 28)
Tone 8: The Lord shall be King forever; Thy God, O Zion, from generation to generation. (Psm 75)
The word “prokeimenon” is from the Greek, meaning, “what is set forth,” that is, what is appointed to be read. It is always from the Psalms.
A priestly exclamation and “Let Every Breath Praise the Lord” follow the prokeimenon. Then the Deacon exclaims, “And that He may vouchsafe unto us to hear the holy Gospel, let us pray to the Lord God.” To be able to hear the Gospel, which implies acceptance and obedience, is a gift not to be taken lightly. It is not automatic. Hence, before we hear the Gospel, we pray that God will enable us to hear it, understand it, and do it, rather than just listening to the words and not responding.
The cycle of Eleven Matins Gospels of the Resurrection, read every Saturday evening at the Vigil, extend the celebration of Pascha to the entire year. The Matins Gospels are read from the Royal Doors of the iconostasis, a ceremonial rubric which may have its origin in the Church of Jerusalem. Already in the 4th century, the Gospel of the Resurrection was not read from the Ambo, but from the Sepulchre, as if the celebrant, standing at the entrance of the Sepulchre, would turn to the faithful like the Angel to the women: “Ye came to seek Jesus, but He is not here, He is risen!” In the Greek tradition, the Resurrectional Gospel is read at the altar (which represents the tomb), from the right hand side, as the Gospel account tells us that the Angel stood to the right and announced the Resurrection.
The successive appearances of the risen Lord are the subject of the Eleven Matins Gospels. The regular cycle of the Resurrectional Gospels starts with the first Sunday after Pentecost; the order for the seven Sundays of Pascha differs slightly.
The reading of the Gospel is not just the reading of a lesson, but is part of the total proclamation of the Gospel. After the Gospel is read, it is brought out for veneration by the faithful to the center of the church in solemn procession during the singing of they hymn “Having Beheld the Resurrection of Christ.” We ourselves have become eyewitnesses to the Lord’s Resurrection. Preaching makes Christ present, but Matins has no sermon because the whole service is preaching. All leads to the Gospel. All that follows is from the Gospel. The Gospel is the Presence of the Risen Lord.
The role of the Gospel Book in the Resurrectional Vigil is the role of the Icon of the Feast. (Indeed, a small icon of the Resurrection is on the front of the Gospel Book.) The liturgical use of the icon comes from the liturgical use of the Gospel, for the first icon of Christ the Word is the Book of the Gospels.
After the singing of this glorious hymn, one of the most festive moments of Matins, the reader chants Psalm 50. Thus, in the midst of celebrating the “joy come into the world,” we realize how far short we fall the gift that brings joy. We remember that the proper response to the proclamation of the Gospel is to repent, as John the Baptist and Christ preached, “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.” Thus we cry out in David’s words, “Have mercy, on me, O Lord,” so that we might more fully receive the Kingdom.
Psalm 50 is followed by the singing of a few brief hymns that reiterate the prayer of the Psalm and then the great Prayer of Intercession, which begins with the words, “O God, save Thy people.” The prayer asks God to look upon His world “in mercy and compassion,” to send down upon us His “rich mercies,” and to “exalt the horn of Orthodox Christians.” The “horn” is a Biblical symbol of power and victory, so the prayer essentially asks God to grant us victory in the struggle against sin and the devil. These requests are made “through the intercessions of the Theotokos” and a long list of saints, which can vary according to local custom. This prayer clearly shows the oneness of the Church. We who are yet on earth join in prayer with those already in Heaven. Those in Heaven pray with and for those of us still struggling on earth. Together the saints in Heaven and on earth, along with the Holy Angels, glorify the One God in Three Persons.
This prayer is followed by the canons, during which the people normally come to venerate the Gospel and receive the priest’s blessing.
A canon is essentially a musical composition. It was created to be a symphony of sorts. Typically today, only the first troparion of each Ode, known as the Irmos, is sung, and the rest is chanted by readers, but originally, it was all sung.
Music in worship is essential. Singing is the real communication between God and Man. Speech, on the other hand, is a fallen function of man in a world that has fallen. The Logos, the Word, combined with music, has great power. Instrumental music is not used in the Church because instruments make music without the Word, and even when the Word is added to instrumental music, the instruments tend to overwhelm the Word. In any case, the Church considers the human voice to be the highest, most glorious instrument for making music. All this points to why the Gospel is not read in a conversational voice, and, in fact, why all the services in the Church are sung or chanted and not spoken. Only the sermon is spoken. The whole Liturgy of the Church is musical in nature, echoing the Angelic choirs of Heaven.
At every Matins service, multiple canons are sung. At a Resurrectional Matins, typically four canons are appointed: one for the Resurrection, one for the Cross and Resurrection, one for the Theotokos, and one for the Saint(s) of the day.
Each canon consists of nine “odes”. Each ode is based on a Biblical passage and contains additional hymns called troparia between which are interspersed exclamations appropriate to the canon, such as “Glory to Thy holy Resurrection, O Lord!” “Most Holy Theotokos, save us!” or “Venerable Father Maximus, pray to God for us!” The second ode was eventually dropped because of its length and because it had importance only when the canon was sung. After the third and sixth odes, Little Litanies occur and special hymns. Between the eighth and ninth odes, the Magnificat is sung, which is actually the Biblical passage upon which the ninth ode is based (Luke 1:46-55, 68-79): Mary’s song of joy to God when she met her cousin Elizabeth after the Annunciation. It is accompanied by a great censing of the church. The Magnificat is sung at nearly every Matins service except at the Twelve Great Feasts.
The ninth ode of every canon is always dedicated to the Theotokos. The other odes are dedicated to various Old Testament Saints, to whom reference is often made in the irmos of the ode. The first ode (Exodus 15:1-9) is dedicated to Moses and the crossing of the Red Sea; the second, (when it is used: Deuteronomy 32:1-43)) also to Moses; the third (I Kings 2:1-10) to Hannah, mother of the Prophet Samuel, the fourth (Habbakuk 3:2-19) to the Prophet Habakkuk, the fifth (Isaiah 26:9-20) to the Prophet Isaiah, the sixth (Jonah 2:3-10) to the Prophet Jonah, the seventh (Daniel 3:26-56 LXX) and eighth (Daniel 3:57-88 LXX) to the Three Holy Children, popularly known by their Babylonian names: Shadrach, Meschach, and Abednego Though some theme from the Biblical Ode is contained in each irmos, the Biblical odes themselves are not now used except on weekdays during Great Lent.
The canons contain rich theological material that expresses the inner meaning of the feasts of the Church and the lives of the Saints. The troparia sung at Liturgy interspersed between the Beatitudes are normally taken from the third and sixth odes of one or more of the canons for Matins.
The canon is often a difficult time for those at the Vigil. There is no movement, the Royal Doors are closed, the church is in darkness, and only the choir and reader are doing anything. This, however, is a time for the faithful to be vigilant and keep watch by attentively listening to the troparia and singing the exclamations between them. There is much Biblical interpretation conveyed during the canon to those who listen. It is normal to stand during the canons, but sickness or fatigue may have us do otherwise.
The most noted composers of canons were Saints John of Damascus, Cosmas of Maiouma, and Andrew of Crete, who wrote the Great Canon of Repentance used in Great Lent.
“The Praises,” which follow the Exapostilarion, mark the beginning of the third and last part of Matins. The Praises consist of Psalms 148, 149, and 150, though they are often abbreviated. The first verses are sung by the choir, then the reader chants the rest. Towards the end, hymns called “stichera” are interspersed between the verses of the psalms, just as is done at Vespers at ‘Lord, I have cried...”. These stichera honor the event or saint of the day. Hence, for the Resurrectional Vigil, the stichera (in the tone of the week) speak of the Resurrection.
At every Vigil of the Resurrection, the same Theotokion (hymn to the Theotokos) concludes the Praises. This wonderful hymn in tone 2 is known by all, since it is repeated every week:
At the singing of the Theotokion, the Royal Doors are opened and all the lights in the temple are put on. If Matins has been served as originally appointed, the night will have advanced and the first glimmer of dawn will have appeared. As the natural light begins to appear in the eastern sky, we prepare to greet this light as an icon of the True Light, Christ our God. It is time for the Great Doxology. The Priest, with outstretched arms raised to the heavens cries out: “Glory to Thee, who hast shown us the light!” And with that, the choir and people sing the Great Doxology.
The Doxology begins, as did Matins, with the Angelic song “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will towards men,” and concludes with the singing of the Trisagion, “Holy God...” The Great Doxology is always sung due to its celebratory and festive nature. It is to be distinguished from the Lesser Doxology, which is similar (but not identical), and is chanted by the reader at Compline and Daily Matins.
The Great Doxology is very ancient, dating at latest to the third century. It is par excellence the morning hymn of the Church.
After the Doxology, the Troparion (Resurrectional or Festal) is sung, followed by the Augmented Litany, and the Morning Litany. The content of these litanies is the same as their counterparts at Vespers and has already been discussed. Only here they come at the end of the service. The lights are then extinguished, and the All-Night Vigil concludes with the reading of the First Hour.
The All-night Vigil is a “long” service. In its abbreviated parish form, it typically lasts about two hours. Some may balk at spending this time in church. But since we spend most of our time in the world caught up in the cares of earthly life, it takes us some time “lay aside all earthly cares” and come into God’s presence with undistracted attention. Typically it takes at least half an hour to remove the “din” of life from our consciousness so we are able to open ourselves to God and give ourselves fully to corporate worship. For some, it may take the full service! The Vigil offers us this possibility.
Like the athlete in his sport, the Christian must train for spiritual life. Athletic success and glory does not happen automatically, and it often involves great struggle and sacrifice. But the rewards for the athlete are far greater than any inconveniences or suffering. So it is in the spiritual life: ‘no pain, no gain.’ To put off the old man and to put on Christ takes some effort on our part as we die to ourselves and learn to submit ourselves to God’s will. As St. Paul put it, “I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that shall be revealed in us” (Romans 5:18). The small suffering and inconvenience of the Vigil helps to train us for participation in God’s glory.
The Vigil typifies the long, watchful waiting of the normal Christian life for the Coming of Christ. The neglect of the Vigil helps explain the spiritual collapse of modern man, who makes no time to be still before his Creator and wants everything now. Renewal of Christian life in today’s world requires resisting earthly temptations, entertainments, etc., and rediscovering the life of prayer in the Church. The pagan world reserves Saturday night for its pleasures. The Christian world reserves Saturday night for its Vigil of prayer. There is a sharp distinction between this world as elusive pleasure and the Kingdom of God as the joyful Presence of the Lord.
If you truly desire to advance in the Christian life, learn to “watch and pray” as part of the Church militant and make the Vigil part of your preparation for meeting Christ the Lord in Holy Communion.