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.
General Structure of Great Vespers
- Great Vespers opens with the priest's exclamation Blessed is our God ... and the Trisagion Prayers. (Note: the Trisagion Prayers are omitted if Great Vespers immediately follows the service of the Ninth Hour.)
- The Proemial Psalm (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 Litany of Peace.
- The kathisma appointed for the day is chanted or read. Following the kathisma, the deacon intones the Small Litany.
- Psalms 140, 141, 129, and 116 (Lord, I have cried unto Thee ...) are chanted in the appointed tone. Stichera appointed for the day or season are alternated with the final verses. During this chanting, the deacon performs the great censing.
- The priest and deacon make the Small Entrance.
- The hymn O Gladsome Light is sung.
- The vesperal prokeimenon is chanted. If an Old Testament reading is appointed, it follows the prokeimenon.
- The deacon intones the Ektenia.
- The evening prayer Vouchsafe, O Lord is prayed.
- The deacon intones the Litany of Fervent Supplication.
- The priest prays the Prayer at the Bowing of the Heads.
- The aposticha and its verses are chanted.
- The Hymn of St. Simeon the God-receiver (also called the Nunc Dimittis) is chanted or read, depending on local custom.
- The Trisagion Prayers are prayed.
- The apolytikion and theotokion are chanted.
- The priest gives the final blessing and offers the Great Dismissal.
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 stichera inserted in Lord, I have cried unto Thee; and the Ektenia 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 Ektenia 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 Ektenia 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 accomodation 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
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