The Midnight Office (Greek, Mesonyktikon; Slavonic, Polúnoschnitsa) is part of the Daily Cycle of services in the Orthodox Church. The office originated as a purely monastic devotion inspired by Psalm 118:62 (119:62 KJV), "At midnight I arose to give thanks unto Thee for the judgments of Thy righteousness," and also by the Gospel parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins (Matthew 25:1-13).
The name of the Midnight Office is sometimes translated as "Nocturns," a term borrowed from the Western liturgical tradition; but it should be noted that in the West "Nocturn" refers to a division within the completely different office of Matins.
Originally, monks would rise in the middle of the night to sing praises to God. St. Symeon the New Theologian mentions Psalm 118, a significant component of the Midnight Office on weekdays, being said privately in the cells before Matins. In most places where the Daily Cycle is observed at the present time, the Midnight Office is combined with Matins and the First Hour into one of the three daily aggregates called for in the Typikon.
Concerning the Midnight Office, Saint Mark of Ephesus says: "The beginning of all the hymns and prayers to God is the time (kairos) of the midnight prayer. For, rising from sleep for it, we signify the transportation from the life of the deceit of darkness to the life which is, according to Christ, free and bright, with which we begin to worship God. For it is written, The people who sat in darkness saw a great light (Isaiah 9:2 KJV}." The general tone of the office is one of penitence, tempered by an attitude of hopeful expectation.
In the Russian tradition the Midnight Office is often preceded by Morning Prayers, or the Morning Prayers are incorporated in them, which otherwise would be said privately by the brethren in their cells. At the conclusion of the Midnight Office, just as at the end of Compline, it is traditional in many places for everyone present to venerate the icons and relics of the saints that are present in the temple (church building).
At the present time, the Midnight Office will take one of four forms, depending upon the particular day: (a) Weekdays, (b) Saturday, (c) Sunday, and (d) a unique form which is observed only on Holy Saturday as part of the Paschal Vigil. Holy Saturday is often the only time that the Midnight Office will be read in parishes.
Structure of the service
The Midnight Office can be divided into four parts:
- Opening—The usual beginning prayers that open most Orthodox offices: a blessing by the priest and prayers by the reader, including the Trisagion and the Lord's Prayer, ending with the call to worship, "O come, let us worship God our King...."
- First Part—Psalm 50 and a Kathisma from the Psalter (see below), Nicene Creed, Trisagion and Lord's Prayer followed by the Troparia and prayers, concluding with a blessing by the Priest. During Lenten services there follows the Prayer of Saint Ephrem.).
- Second Part—"O come, let us worship..." and Psalms 120 and 133, followed by the Trisagion, Troparia of Repentance, an intercession and a blessing by the priest.
- Conclusion—Next follows a mutual asking of forgiveness between the priest and all of the brethren. Then the priest says a litany during which everyone slowly and quietly chants "Lord, have mercy," concluding with a final blessing by the Priest.
The distinguishing feature of the Midnight Office on weekdays is the reading of the Seventeenth Kathisma comprising Psalm 118, the longest Psalm in the Bible, in the First Part of the office. The troparia chanted in the First Part are the Troparia of the Bridegroom: "Behold, the Bridegroom cometh at midnight...", recalling the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins (Matthew 25:1-13). The first of these troparia is also solemnly chanted at Matins during Holy Week, from which the Matins service on these days derives its name of "Bridegroom Prayer."
On Saturday, Psalm 118 is always read at Matins, so here it is replaced by the Ninth Kathisma, comprising Psalms 64-69. The troparia in the First Part are different than those used on weekdays. Before the Second Part, a special Prayer of St. Eustratius is read.
On Sunday, Psalm 118 is often (though not always) read at Matins, so it is not read at the Midnight Office. The psalm is normally replaced by a Canon to the Holy Trinity, composed by St. Theophanes, according to the tone of the week in the Octoechos. Since the Sunday services, which celebrate the Resurrection of Christ, are normally longer than the weekday services, the Midnight Office is shortened. The Nicene Creed, Troparia and prayers from the First Part, as well as the entire Second Part of the service are omitted. Instead, after the canon, special hymns to the Trinity by Saint Gregory of Sinai are chanted, followed by the Trisagion, the Lord’s Prayer and the Ypakoë in the tone of the week. The Prayer to the Most Holy Trinity by Mark the Monk is read and then the mutual asking of forgiveness, Litany and dismissal.
In the Russian tradition, an All-Night Vigil is celebrated every Sunday (commencing in the evening on Saturday), and so the Midnight Office and Compline are usually omitted. In some places the Midnight Office is read on Sunday morning before the Hours and Liturgy. The Greeks do not normally celebrate an All-Night Vigil on Sunday, so they read the Midnight Office in its usual place before Matins on Sunday morning.
On Great and Holy Saturday, the Midnight Office takes a very particular form in which it is celebrated on only this one night of the year. It is the last office found in the liturgical book that contains the services of Great Lent, the Lenten Triodion. In the Russian tradition, the office is read around the epitaphios, a shroud embroidered with the image of Christ prepared for burial in the tomb, which has been placed on a catafalque in the center of the church. After the Opening and Psalm 50, the Canon of Great Saturday is chanted (repeated from the Matins service the night before) as a reflection upon the meaning of Christ's death and His Harrowing of Hell. During the last Ode of the Canon, the priest and deacon carry the epitaphios into the sanctuary and lay it upon the Altar, where it will remain throughout the Paschal season as a reminder of the burial cloth left in the empty Tomb (John 20:5). Then a brief litany is read and the priest says the dismissal. All lights in the church are extinguished, and everyone waits in silence and darkness for the stroke of midnight, when the Resurrection of Christ is to be proclaimed.
The practice in the Byzantine tradition is similar. The epitaphios has already been taken into the sanctuary at the Matins of Holy Saturday, so the office is sung without the movement of the body of Christ from the tomb. In contemporary practice, the litany and dismissal are replaced by the Resurrectional apolytikion in the second tone, When Thou didst descend unto Death.
- Throughout this article, the Septuagint numbering of the Psalms is used.
- Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev, St. Symeon the New Theologian and Orthodox Tradition (Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 79.
- Kovalchuk, Feodor S., Abridged Typicon, 2nd ed., pp 17-19, St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press, South Canaan, 1985."
- Patrologia Graeca 160, 1165D [Tr. Protopresbyter George Dion. Dragas, On the Priesthood and the Holy Eucharist (Orthodox Research Institute, Rollinsford, NH, 2004) p. 48].
- The Festal Menaion (Tr. Mother Mary and Archimandrite Kallistos Ware, Faber and Faber, London, 1984), p. 74.
- Normally, the Prayer of Saint Ephrem is said once, with three prostrations; but on the first day of Great Lent (Clean Monday) it is said twice, with four prostrations and twelve bows.
- Except during Bright Week, when no psalms at all are read. During Bright Week the Midnight Office is replaced entirely by singing the special Paschal Hours.