Vespers (εσπερινός) is first service of the Daily Cycle of divine services celebrated in the Orthodox Church. Because the liturgical day begins at sunset, Vespers is traditionally served in the early evening. For many parishes, Vespers is the principal evening service.
|Services of the Orthodox Church|
|Vespers | Compline | Midnight Office | Matins|
|First, Third, Sixth, and Ninth Hour Services|
|Akathist Hymn | Paraklesis|
|Great Blessing of Water | Artoklasia|
|Ordination Service | Marriage Service|
|Funeral Service | Memorial Service|
General Structure of Great Vespers
- Immediately before Great Vespers, the Ninth Hour is read, as it is found in the Horologion, with the Apolytikia and Kontakia of the day read in their proper place. Ninth Hour's duration is 10 to 15 minutes.
- Great Vespers opens with the Priest's exclamation Blessed is our God ...
- The Reader reads "Come let us worship..." and the Proemial Psalm 103 Bless the Lord, O my soul ... is read, during which the priest quietly prays the seven prayers at the "Lighting of the Lamps."
- The Deacon intones the Great Litany, at the end of which the Priest exclaims "For unto Thee..."
- The Psalter Kathisma appointed for the day is read. On Saturday afternoon, the 1st Kathisma of the Psalter is read. Following the Kathisma, the Deacon intones the Small Litany, at the end of which the Priest exclaims "For Thine is the Dominion..."
- The Choir chants "Lord I have Cried...", in the Tone of the week if it be Saturday afternoon's Great Vespers, or in the Tone of the first Stikheron of the celebrated Saint if it be another day of the week. "Let my prayer by set forth as incense..." is chanted after, and then the verses "Set O Lord..." are chanted alternately by the right and left Choirs. On Saturday afternoon they insert the Resurrectional Stikhera beginning from the tenth to last verse "Bring my soul out of prison...". On a Saint's memory that falls on a weekday, they begin usually from the sixth to last verse, "If Thou, O Lord shouldst mark...", and sometimes from the eight to last verse, "Out of the depth have I cried unto Thee...". On Saturdays, as mentioned, 10 Stikhera are chanted, six to the Lord's Resurrection in the Tone of the week from the Octoechos, and then four to the Saint of the day from the Menaion. During the chanting of "Let my prayer be set forth...", at the point when the Choir chants "As incense..." the Deacon performs the great censing of the whole church.
- "Glory..." is chanted, followed by the Saint's Idiomelon. This is called "Doxasticon." On Saturday afternoon, there *may* be one appointed, for Saints that have a festal service there is always one appointed.
- "Both now..." is chanted, followed by the "Dogmaticon Theotokion" of the Tone of the Week, (on Saturday afternoon). For Saints that are celebrated during the weekdays, the "Dogmaticon Theotokion" in the Tone of the Saint's Doxasticon is chanted. However, on Friday afternoons *always* the "Dogmaticon Theotokion" of the previous Saturday is chanted, whether it is Daily or Great Vespers.
- During the "Dogmaticon Theotokion" the Priest blesses the censer and hands it to the Deacon. The Deacon censes the Altar, and is followed by the Priest out the north door to the middle of the Temple. The Priest as he goes silently reads the prayer, "In the evening, in the morning, and at noontime...", and when the reach the point of the great chandelier, the Deacon asks the Priest to bless the entrance saying, "Bless Master the Holy Entrance...". The Priest responds by "Blessed is the Entrance of Thy Holies...". The Deacon censes from under the great chandelier the iconostasis, choirs, laity, and again the iconostasis. When the Choir has finished the Dogmaticon Theotokion he faces the Royal Doors and lifts up the censer exclaiming "Wisdom! Upright!"
- The hymn "O Gladsome Light..." is read (or chanted). During the part "we praise Father, and Son, and Holy Spirit, God..." the Deacon and Priest make the Entrance.
- Once "O Gladsome Light..." has been read or chanted, the Deacon immediately exclaims "The Evening Prokeimenon!" The Evening Prokeimenonis chanted. On Saturday afternoon the Prokeimenon is "The Lord is King...", chanted thrice with two verses. On weekdays it is the daily prokeimenon which can be found in the Horologion. It is chanted twice without verses, and then once with its appointed verse. For festal Saints, three Old Testament readings follow. These are read under the great chandelier by the Reader. He exclaims the title, for example "Reading from the Wisdom of Solomon..." The Deacon exclaims "Wisdom! Let us attend!"
- The Deacon intones the Litany of Fervent Supplication, at the end of which the Priest exclaims "For a merciful..."
- The evening prayer Vouchsafe, O Lord is read by the Reader.
- The Deacon intones the Litany of Completion, at the end of which the Priest exclaims, "For Thou art a good God..."
- The Priest exclaims, "Peace be unto all...", and the Deacon intones, "Let us bow our heads...".
- The Priest reads silently the "Prayer at the Bowing of the Heads..." and then exclaims "For blessed is Thy Name, and glorified is Thy Kingdom...".
- If the Saint's service is festal, the Litya follows here. If no Idiomela are prescribed, (in which case, the service is not festal, and there are no readings, and at Matins, no Polyeleos, and no Gospel for the Saint), then we proceed to the Aposticha immediatly. The Idiomela of the Litya are chanted with the "Glory. Both now." The Priest and Deacon exit the Sanctuary, and make a reverence to the Saint's icon. The Priest takes it in his hands, and the Deacon censes the Icon, as they make their way to the Narthex. There, when the chanting of the Idiomela has been completed, the Deacon exclaims the prayer "Save O God Thy people..." The Choir responds with "Lord have mercy..." three, forty, and three times. The usual petitions "Have mercy upon us O God..." are exclaimed, to which the Choir responds with "Lord have mercy..." three times to each. Then, the petions, "Let us again pray for every suffering Christian soul..." and "Let us again pray that the Lord God may deliver..." are intoned. The Choir responds to each of these with "Lord have mercy..." three, forty, and three times. The Deacon exclaims "Let us again pray that He may...", to which the Choir responds with "Lord have mercy...", once. The Priest exclaims the prayer "Hearken to us O God our Saviour the hope of all..." and then exclaims "For Thou art..." The Choir responds with "Amen." The Priest "Peace be unto all...". The Choir "And with Thy spirit..." The Priest "Let us bow our heads unto the Lord..." The Choir "To Thee, O Lord..." The Priest exclaims the prayer "Master rich in mercy..." after which the Choir responds with "Amen." The Litya with its festal Idiomela, and prayers for the salvation of the world now is finished. The Deacon and Priest now process with the festal Icon back into the main church. The Choir begins to chant the "Aposticha..."
- The Aposticha are now chanted. If it be Saturday afternoon's Great Vespers, the Aposticha of the Resurrection are always chanted. If the Saint also has Aposticha (Festal Service), these are abandoned.
- "Glory" is chanted, followed by the Saint's Doxasticon, if there be one.
- "Both now" is chanted, followed by the Theotokion in the Tone of the Saint's Doxasticon. The Saint does not have a Doxasticon, then "Glory. Both now." is chanted followed by the Theotokion in the Tone of the week.
- The prayer "Now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace, O Master..." is read by the Reader.
- The Reader reads the Trisagion prayers.
- The Priest exclaims "For Thine is..."
The Apolytikion of the Resurrection (Tone of the week) is chanted. "Glory. Both now." and the Resurrectional Theotokion, if it be a Saturday afternoon. If it be a weekday, then the feasted Saint's Apolytikion is chanted, "Glory. Both now." and the Resurrectional Theotokion in the Tone of the Saint's Apolytikion. If a feasted Saint's memory should fall on a Sunday, then the Resurrection Apolytikion is chanted, "Glory" that of the Saint, "Both now" the Resurrectional Theotokion in the Tone of the Saint's Apolytikion.
- The Deacon intones "Wisdom", the Choir "Bless", the Priest "Blessed is the One Who Is..."
- The Reader reads the prayer "Establish Lord God..."
- The Priest exclaims "Most Holy Theotokos save us!"
- The Reader reads "More honourable..." and "Glory. Both now" "Lord have mercy" (thrice) "Holy Father bless!"
- The Priest reads the Dismissal "Glory to Thee our God... May He who has Risen from the dead, Christ our true God..."
- The Priest exclaims "Through the prayers..." and Great Vespers comes to and end.
- Small Compline is read immediately, if not, then it is read by ourselves before sleep.
Vespers is celebrated in three basic forms: Great Vespers, Daily Vespers, and Small Vespers.
- Great Vespers follows the order described above and is appointed to be served on Saturday nights and on the eves of all feasts ranked higher than Fourth Class.
- Daily Vespers is an abbreviated form of Great Vespers and is served on any day that Great Vespers is not appointed. Generally, Daily Vespers is served by a priest alone without the assistance of a deacon, although there is some variation in this practice. In such a case, the deacon's parts are completed by the priest. At Daily Vespers, the Small Entrance is usually omitted; there are fewer stikhera inserted in Lord, I have cried unto Thee; and the Litany following the prokeimenon is abbreviated and moved to follow the apolytikion. The service ends with the Little Dismissal.
- Small Vespers is appointed to be served only on days when there is to be an All-Night Vigil. Small Vespers is identical in form to Daily Vespers, but omits the Litany of Peace, the kathisma and the Small Litany that follows it, the Litany of Fervent Supplication, and the Prayer at the Bowing of the Heads. The litany that follows the apolytikion is also further abbreviated. It also has no more than 4 stichera at "Lord, I have cried", and unlike Great Vespers or Daily Vespers, the variable portions of Small Vespers are never combined from multiple sources (such as a double commemoration of the menaion, or a combination of the menaion with the octoechos).
- Lenten Daily Vespers is served on the weekdays of Great Lent, unless the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts is celebrated. For Monday through Thursday evenings, the general Daily Vespers form is altered by the inclusion of special lenten apolytikia, prostrations, special lenten prayers, (including the prayer of St Ephraim the Syrian), and an additional Psalter reading. The final litany is omitted. On Friday nights, the lenten apolytikia are not included and the final Ektenia is retained.
- Lenten Sunday Vespers is served on the Sunday evenings of Great Lent. The service begins as Great Vespers. After the Small Entrance, one of two lenten Great Prokeimena is chanted and the prayer Vouchsafe, O Lord is said. The remainder of the service follows the order of Lenten Daily Vespers, with slight changes.
- Forgiveness Vespers is served on the evening of Forgiveness Sunday and is the first service of Great Lent. Forgiveness Vespers follows the order of Lenten Sunday Vespers but after the Great Prokeimenon the clergy exchange their bright vestments for dark and the choir begins to use distinctive lenten tones. Following the dismissal, the community celebrates the moving and beautiful rite of mutual forgiveness. See also Great Lent.
- Vespers of the Sunday of Orthodoxy is served on the evening of the first Sunday of Great Lent (Sunday of Orthodoxy). Traditionally, this should follow the order of Sunday Lenten Vespers; however, it has become a popular custom in North America for all Orthodox parishes and missions in a particular locale to observe the Sunday of Orthodoxy at a special, joint pan-Orthodox Vespers service, concelebrated by the clergy of the various jurisdictions represented. Although the form of this joint service varies from place to place, it often includes a procession with holy icons and repeat an abbreviated form of the Synodicon of Orthodoxy adopted by the Seventh Ecumenical Council. Often a lenten fellowship meal is shared after the service.
- Vespers of Holy Friday (sometimes called the Unnailing Vespers) follows the usual order of Great Vespers, but omits the kathisma and includes both an Epistle and Gospel reading after the Old Testament readings. During this service the clergy remove the corpus (soma) icon of Christ from the cross in the middle of the nave, wrapping it with a white cloth. The epitaphios is then placed in the tomb and venerated by the faithful.
- Agape Vespers is served on the evening of Pascha. It follows the order of Great Vespers. After the prokeimenon the Gospel account of the empty tomb (John 20:19-25) is read. It is customary to read this pericope in many different languages, demonstrating the universal nature of the Good News of Christ's victory over sin and death. It is also customary for the clergy and the people to make a procession around the Church during the chanting of the aposticha.
- Kneeling Vespers is served on the evening of Pentecost. In this service the posture of kneeling—a posture of penitence that is avoided during the glorious, joyful celebration of Pascha—is reintroduced to the liturgical life of the Church. Several "kneeling prayers" are prayed by the priest while the faithful kneel.
Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts
On Wednesdays and Fridays of Great Lent and on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday of Holy Week, Vespers is combined with a eucharistic distribution and certain elements of the Divine Liturgy to form the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts.
Vesperal Divine Liturgy
Great Vespers is combined with the Divine Liturgy of St Basil the Great on Holy Thursday and Holy Saturday. This combination is also appointed to be served on the eves of the Nativity of Christ and Theophany when those feasts fall on any day other than Sunday or Monday.
According to some traditions, when the feast of the Annunciation falls on a weekday of Great Lent or during the first three days of Holy Week, the festal Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom is combined with Great Vespers on the day of the feast itself.
Evening Divine Liturgy
Since 1975 the Antiochian Archdiocese has permitted parishes in its jurisdiction to commemorate certain important feasts that fall on days other than Sunday and Monday at an Evening Divine Liturgy served on the eve of (i.e., the night before) the feast. The Evening Divine Liturgy combines Great Vespers and the festal Divine Liturgy in a slightly different way than the traditional Vesperal Divine Liturgy. The form of the service was developed by the Archdiocese's Department of Liturgics and Translations.
The introduction of Evening Divine Liturgies has been viewed by some as a reasonable pastoral accommodation to the reality of American life—due to work and school commitments most families cannot order their schedules in such a way that readily permits attendance at weekday morning services. Others argue that the practice is an innovation that disrupts the liturgical cycle and continues a negative trend of shortening the divine services.
Some dioceses of the OCA also permit the celebration of Evening Divine Liturgies.
Theological Meaning of Vespers
The Vespers service (the first service of the liturgical day) is meant to remind us of the Old Testament period, the creation of the world, the first human beings fall into sin, of their expulsion from Paradise, their repentance and prayer for salvation, the hope of mankind in accordance with the promise of God for a Saviour and ending with the fulfillment of that promise.
The service begins with the opening of the Royal Doors and the silent censing of the Altar Table and the entire sanctuary so that clouds of incense fill the depths of the sanctuary. The silent censing represents the beginning of the creation of the world. Without form and void, and the Spirit of God hovered over the original material earth, breathing upon it a life-creating power, but the creating word of God had not yet begun to resound.
The 103rd Psalm describes the creation of the world and glorifies the wisdom of God. As it is chanted, the priest goes forth from the sanctuary and completes the censing of the entire church and the faithful therein. This sacred action not only remembers the creation of the world, but of the blessed life in Paradise of the first human beings, when the Lord God Himself walked among them. The open Royal Gates signify that at that time the gates of Paradise were open for all people.
To symbolize how man was deceived by the devil and transgressed against the will of God and fell into sin, the Royal Doors are closed. Because of their fall, mankind was deprived of blessed life in Paradise. They were driven out of Paradise and the gates were closed to them. The deacon comes out from the sanctuary and stands before the closed Royal Gates, as Adam did before the sealed entrance into Paradise, and intones the Great Litany asking for peace from above, and to send down upon us "from on high" the peace of Heaven and that He save our souls.
During the chanting of these verses the deacon censes the church once more. This entire period of the divine service, beginning with the opening of the Royal Gates, through the petitions of the Great Ectenia and the chanting of the psalms, represents the miserable state of mankind to which it was subjected by the fall of our forefathers into sin. With the fall all the deprivations, pains and sufferings we experience came into our lives. We cry out to God, "Lord, have mercy" and request peace and salvation for our souls. We feel contrition that we heeded the ungodly counsel of the Devil. God is asked for the forgiveness of our sins and deliverance from troubles, and all hope in his mercy is placed in God. The censing at this time signifies the sacrifices of the Old Testament and the people's own prayers as well, which are offer to God.
The Old Testament verses of these psalms of "Lord, I have cried" are alternated with New testament hymns composed in honor of the saint or feast of the day. The last verse is called the Theotokion, or Dogmatikon, since it is sung in honor of the Mother of God, and in it is set forth the dogma on the incarnation of the Son of God from the Virgin Mary.
During the chanting of the Theotokion the Royal Gates are opened, and the Vespers Entry is made. At this time the choir chants a hymn to the Son of God, our Lord Jesus Christ: "O Gladsome Light". In the hymn, the Son of God is called the Gentle Light that comes from the Heavenly Father, because He came to this earth not in the fullness of divine glory but in the gentle radiance of this glory. This hymn also says that only with reverent voices, and not with sinful mouths, can He be worthily exalted and the necessary glorification be accomplished. The entry reminds the faithful how the Old Testament righteous, in harmony with the promise of God that was manifest in prototypes and prophecies, expected the coming of the Saviour, and how He appeared in the world for the salvation of the human race. The censer at the entry signifies that our prayers, by the intercession of our Lord the Saviour, are offered to God like incense. It also signifies the presence of the Holy Spirit in the church. The blessing with the sign of the Cross shows that by means of the Cross of the Lord the doors into Paradise are opened again.
Christ is praised as the Light which illumines man's darkness, the Light of the world and of the Kingdom of God which shall have no evening.
At this time, the prokeimenon is chanted, and on the more important feasts there are readings selections from the Scriptures in which there is a prophecy or a prototype which relates to the event being celebrated, or in which edifying teachings are set forth, which relate to the saint commemorated that day.
Vespers ends with the reading of the prayer of St. Simeon the God-Receiver, "Now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace" This prayer is followed by the reading of the Trisagion and the Lord's Prayer, and the singing of the salutation of the Theotokos, "O Theotokos and Virgin, Rejoice!...," or the troparion of the feast, and finally the thrice-chanted prayer of the Psalmist: "Blessed be the name of the Lord from henceforth and for evermore." The 33rd Psalm is then chanted until the verse, "But they that seek the Lord shall not be deprived of any good thing." Then follows the priestly blessing, "The blessing of the Lord be upon you, through His grace and love for mankind, always, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages."
The service leads to the meditation of God's word and the glorification of his love for men. It instructs and allows us to praise God for the particular events or persons whose memory is celebrated and made present to us in the Church. It prepares us for the sleep of the night and the dawn of the new day to come. On the eves of the Divine Liturgy, it begins the movement into the most perfect communion with God in the sacramental mysteries.
Selected Online Texts
- The Divine Music Project 1000 pages of Byzantine Music for Vespers in English
- Great Vespers—from the Priest's Service Book translated and compiled by Archbishop Dmitri (OCA).
- Daily Vespers—from the St. Raphael Clergy Brotherhood website (Antiochian Archdiocese)
- Western Rite order of Vespers—from St. Nicholas Orthodox Church, Spokane, WA (Antiochian Archdiocese)
- Vespers as a Reader Service
- The Liturgikon: The Book of Divine Services for the Priest and Deacon, Bishop Basil (Essey) of Wichita (ISBN 0962419001)
- Website of the St. Raphael Clergy Brotherhood of the Diocese of Wichita and Mid-America