Christ denounced the scribes of His time for elevating rituals and ceremonies to the level of exalted religious virtues, and He taught that only service offered in spirit and in truth, John 4:24) is appropriate to be offered to God. Denouncing the legalistic attitude toward the Sabbath day, Christ said that The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath (Mark 2:27). While the Savior’s harshest words were directed against the Pharisaical devotion to traditional ritual form, Christ Himself visited, taught, and prayed in the Temple in Jerusalem, as did His apostles and disciples.
Not only did Christianity not abandon ritual, but in time, in its historical development, it established its own complex system of worship. Does this constitute a self-contradiction? Is not private prayer sufficient for a Christian?
Faith expressed only in the soul becomes an abstraction rather than a living faith. For faith to become a living faith, it must be realized in life. Participation in church religious ceremonies is the realization of faith in our lives, and anyone who not only reflects upon their faith, but also lives it, of necessity participates in the liturgical life of the Church of Christ; they attend Church and they know and love the order of Church services.
In his book Heaven on Earth: Worship in the Eastern Church, Archpriest Alexander Men, explains as follows, the need for external forms of worship:
“Our life, in all of its most diverse manifestations, is clothed in rituals. (The Slavonic word обряд, which is here translated as ritual or ceremony, has that meaning in Russian, but it also has the meaning, since it comes from the verb обрядить or облечь “to dress in” or “to clothe.”) Joy and sorrow, daily greetings, approval, delight, and indignation, all assume external forms in human life. So what right do we have to strip these forms from our feelings toward God? What right do we have to reject Christian art and Christian rituals? The words of prayers, and the hymns of thanksgiving and repentance, which poured forth from the depths of the hearts of great theologians, great poets, and great melodists, are not without benefit for us. Immersion into them schools the soul, educating it in genuine service to the Eternal One. Worship services lead us to enlightenment, to the elevation of man; it ennobles his soul. Thus, Christianity, serving God ‘in spirit and truth’ preserves both rituals and ceremonies. . . .”
Christian worship, in the broad sense of the term, is collectively known as liturgy; that is, communal activity, common prayer; while the science of worship is known as liturgics.
Christ said, Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I (Matthew 18:20). One may call divine services the focus of a Christian’s entire spiritual life. When a multitude is inspired by common prayer, they find themselves surrounded by a spiritual atmosphere which enables true prayer. At that point, the faithful enter into a mystical, sacramental communion with God, a state essential to genuine spiritual life. The holy fathers of the Church teach that just as a branch broken from a tree dries up because it is deprived of the sap it needs to live, so a person severed from the Church no longer receives that strength, that grace, which lives in the divine services and mysteries of the Church, and which is essential for man’s spiritual life.
Fr. Paul Florensky, a famous Russian theologian of the early years of the 20th century, called divine services “the synthesis of the sciences”; because within the temple, all of the substance of man’s being is ennobled. Everything in an Orthodox church is essential: its architecture, the smell of incense, the beauty of the icons, the singing of the choir, the homily, and the actions performed.
The actions carried out in Orthodox divine services are distinguished by their religious realism; a realism that engenders a sense of immediacy in the faithful to the principal events commemorated in the Gospel by removing the barriers of time and space between those who pray and those events.
During the Nativity services, we not only remember the birth of Christ, but Christ is actually mystically born; just as He is resurrected on Holy Pascha. Similar statements can be made about His Transfiguration, His Entry into Jerusalem, the Mystical Supper, His Passion, His Burial, and His Ascension; and about all of the events in the life of the all holy Theotokos, from her Nativity to her Dormition. Through its divine services, the life of the Church is revealed to be the mystical accomplishment of God’s Incarnation. The Lord continues to live in the Church and in the same human image which, once manifested, continues to exist throughout all time; and to the Church is given the ability to bring to life the commemorations of divine events; to endow them with power, so that we might become their new witnesses and participants. Thus all of the divine services together acquire the meaning: the life of God, and the temple; His dwelling place.
This begins a series of commentaries on the meaning and structure of the All-night Vigil. We hope that our work will help our readers to appreciate and love this marvelous divine service of the Orthodox Church.
In the service of the All-night Vigil, the Church conveys to the faithful a sense of the beauty of the setting sun and turns their thoughts toward the spiritual light of Christ. The Church also points the faithful toward prayerful consideration of the coming day and of the eternal light of the Heavenly Kingdom. The All-night Vigil is a service that sets before us the turning point in time between the day now passing and the day now coming.
St. Basil the Great described the aspirations which guided the ancient composers of evening hymns and prayers as follows: “Our fathers did not wish to receive the grace of evening light in silence; rather, they offered thanks as soon as it appeared.”
In participating in the All-night Vigil, the faithful in a sense prayerfully bid farewell to the past and welcome the future. Moreover, in the All-night Vigil they are prepared for the Divine Liturgy and for the Mystery of the Eucharist.
As its name suggests, the All-night Vigil is a service which in principle lasts all night. True, in our times, such services, lasting all night, are infrequent, and take place for the most part in monasteries such as those on Mount Athos. In parish churches, an abbreviated form of the All-night Vigil is served.
The All-night Vigil transports the faithful into a time long ago, into the services of the earliest Christians. For the earliest Christians, their evening meal, their prayers and commemora-tions of the martyrs and of the reposed, as well as, the Liturgy itself comprised one whole; traces of these observances have been preserved even to this very day in the various evening services of the Orthodox Church. These traces include the blessing of bread, wine, wheat, and oil, as well as, those times in which the Liturgy is combined in one whole with Vespers; for example, the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts, celebrated during Great Lent; the liturgies on the eves of the feasts of the Nativity of Christ and of His Baptism; the Liturgies of Great Thursday and Great Saturday, and the midnight Liturgy of the Resurrection of Christ.
In fact, the All-night Vigil consists of three services: Great Vespers, Matins, and the First Hour. Sometimes the first part of the All-night Vigil consists not of Great Vespers, but of Great Compline. Matins is the central and most substantial part of the All-night Vigil.
Reflecting on what we hear and see in Vespers, we are transported into the historical Old Testament times of humanity, and we experience in our hearts what they experienced.
Knowing what is recounted in Vespers and Matins makes it easy for us to understand and learn the flow of Church services; the order in which they proceed, as well as, the hymns, readings, and the religious ceremonies they contain.
In the Bible we read that in the beginning, God created heaven and earth, and that the earth was unstructured (“unsightly” or “unfurnished,” as the Holy Bible says), and that the Life-giving Spirit of God moved silently above it, infusing the earth with living powers.
Great Vespers, the beginning of the All-night Vigil, takes us back to this dawning of creation. The service begins with a silent making of the sign of the cross with the censer before the Holy Table and the censing around the Holy Table in a cross fashion. This action is one of the most profound and significant moments in all of Orthodox worship. It is an image of the movement of the Holy Spirit within the essence of the Holy Trinity. The very silence of this censing gives us an indication of the Divine eternal rest, which was from before the world existed. It symbolizes the fact that the Son of God, Jesus Christ, Who sends the Holy Spirit from the Father, is the “the Lamb, sacrificed from the creation of the world.” Similarly, the cross, the weapon of His saving sacrifice, also has an eternal, cosmic, pre-creation significance. In one of his homilies for Great Friday, the 19th Century Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow emphasized that “The Cross of Christ . . . is the earthly image and shadow of the heavenly Cross of Love.”
After the censing, the priest stands before the Holy Table, while the deacon, having gone through the Beautiful Gates (Royal Doors) to the ambo, stands facing the West (that is, toward the faithful), and announces: “Upright!” (“Arise!”) Then, turning to the East, he continues “Bless, Master!”
The priest makes the sign of the cross with the censer before the Holy Table, and says “Glory to the holy, consubstantial, life-creating, and indivisible Trinity, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages.”
The meaning behind these words and actions rests in the fact that the deacon, concelebrating with the priest, invites those who have gathered here to stand at prayer, to be attentive, and to “take heart.” Then the priest confesses the Beginning and Creator of all, the consubstantial and life-creating Trinity. At the same time, in making the sign of the Cross with the censer, the priest demonstrates that it was through the Cross of Jesus Christ that Christians were made worthy to comprehend to some extent the mystery of the Holy Trinity in God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.
After the doxology “Glory to the holy . . .” the clergy within the altar glorify Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the All-holy Trinity, by singing “O Come let us worship God our King . . . the very Christ, our King and God.”
The Proemial Psalm
Then the choir sings verses from the Proemial Psalm, Psalm 103, beginning with the words “Bless the Lord O my soul,” and ending with “In wisdom hast Thou made them all.” This psalm hymns the universe created by God, the visible and invisible world, and has been an inspiration to poets from among many different peoples and historical periods. An example is the well known restating of the psalm in verse by the poet Lomonosov. Its themes also resound in Derzhavin’s ode entitled God, and in the Prologue to the Heavens by Goethe. The principal feeling imbuing this psalm is man’s admiration for and contemplation of the beauty and harmonious arrangement of the world made by God. God “brought order” to the unformed earth during the six days of creation. Everything became beautiful (God saw that it was good, Genesis 1:10; cf.12,18,21,25 [LXX]). The 103rd psalm also expresses the idea that even the least noticeable thing in nature holds within it the most wondrous of wonders.
Censing of the Church
The censing of the entire temple takes place during the singing of this psalm while the Beautiful Gates are still open. This practice was introduced into the Church so that the faithful might be reminded of the movement of the Holy Spirit above God’s creation. The open Beautiful Gates at this point are a symbol of paradise; that is, of the state in which the first people lived in direct communion with God. Immediately following the censing of the temple, the Beautiful Gates are closed, just as Adam’s ancestral sin closed the gates of paradise to man separating him from God.
All the rituals and hymns at the beginning of the All-night Vigil reveal to us the cosmic significance of the Orthodox temple; the temple, which represents a true image of the structure of the world. The altar and the Holy Table represent paradise and heaven, over which the Lord reigns. The clergy represent the angels who serve God. The central part of the temple represents the earth and man. The clergy descend from the altar and to the faithful in much the same way paradise was returned to man by the redeeming sacrifice of Jesus Christ. They wear shining vestments as a reminder of the Divine Light with which the garments of Christ shone on Mount Tabor.
The Lamplighting Prayers
The Beautiful Gates are shut immediately after the priest censes the church, as a reminder that with Adam’s ancestral sin, the gates of paradise were shut to him, and he was estranged from God. Now fallen man, standing before the closed gates of paradise, prays for a return to the path to God. The priest, representing the repentant Adam, steps before the closed Beautiful Gates. Standing there as an image of repentance, with head uncovered, and without the resplendent phelonion in which he had celebrated the festive beginning of the service, he silently reads the seven Lamplighting Prayers. These prayers, composed in the 4th century, make up the most ancient part of Vespers; in them we hear man’s recognition of his helplessness and his plea for direction on the path of truth. The prayers are characterized by lofty eloquence and spiritual depth. The seventh prayer states:
“O God, great and most high, Who alone hast immortality and dwellest in light unapproachable; Who hast fashioned all creation in wisdom; Who hast divided between the light and the darkness, and has appointed the sun for dominion of the day, the moon and stars for dominion of the night; Who hast counted us sinners worthy at this present hour also to come before Thy Countenance with thanksgiving, to offer unto Thee our evening glorification: do Thou Thyself, O man-befriending Lord, direct our prayer as incense before Thee, and accept it for a savour of sweet fragrance. Grant us peace in the present evening and the coming night; array us with the armour of light; deliver us from the terror by night, and from everything that walketh in darkness; and grant us sleep, which Thou hast given for the repose of our infirmities, free from all diabolic imagining — yea, O Master of all, Bestower of good things: so that we, being moved to compunction upon our beds, may call to remembrance Thy Name in the night, and being enlightened by the meditation on Thy commandments, we may rise up in joyfulness of soul to glorify Thy goodness, offering up prayers and supplications unto Thy loving kindness, for our own sins and for those of all Thy people, whom do Thou visit in Thy mercy, through the intercessions of holy Theotokos. . . .”
It is Church practice that during the reading of these lamplighting prayers, the candles and lamps within the temple are lit, an action that symbolizes the hopes, revelations, and prophecies in the Old Testament regarding the coming Messiah, our Savior, Jesus Christ.
The Great Ektenia
Next, the deacon chants the Great Ektenia. An ektenia or litany is a series of short prayerful requests or pleas addressed to the Lord, regarding the worldly and spiritual needs of the faithful. An ektenia is an especially fervent prayer read on behalf of all of the faithful. The choir, also acting on behalf of all of those present at the service, responds to these petitions with the words “Lord have mercy,” a phrase which, while short, is nonetheless one of the most perfect and complete prayers which can be uttered by man. It says all that there is to say.
The Great Ektenia is known for its opening words; “In peace let us pray to the Lord,” is, thus, also known as the Litany of Peace. Peace is an essential condition for any prayer, whether an individual or a communal church prayer. In the Holy Gospel according to Mark, Christ speaks of the spirit of peace as the basis for any prayer: And when ye stand praying, forgive, if ye have ought [anything] against any: that your Father also which is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses (Mark 11:25). St. Seraphim of Sarov said “Acquire the spirit of peace, and thousands around you will be saved.” This is why at the beginning of the Vigil, and in most services, the Church invites the faithful to pray to God with a calm, peaceful conscience, having reconciled ourselves to our neighbor and to God.
Further on in the Litany of Peace, the Church prays for peace throughout the world, for the unification of all Christians, for our native land, for the temple in which the service is taking place, and in general for all Orthodox churches, and for them that enter the temple, as the litany says, “with faith, reverence, and the fear of God,” but not for them that enter out of curiosity. We remember those who travel, the sick, the imprisoned, and we hear a request to be saved from “all tribulation, wrath, danger, and necessity.” In the closing petition of the Litany of Peace we state: “Calling to remembrance our all-holy, immaculate, most blessed, glorious Lady, Theotokos and Ever-virgin Mary with all the Saints, let us commit ourselves and one another and all our life unto Christ our God.” This formula encompasses two profound and basic Orthodox theological concepts: the dogma of the prayerful intercession of the Mother of God at the head of all of the Saints, and the lofty ideal of Christianity; the dedication of ones life to Christ our God.
The Great Ektenia or Litany of Peace ends with the priest’s doxology, which, just as at the beginning of the Vigil, glorifies The Holy Trinity; Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
As Adam stood repentant before the gates of paradise and prayed to God, so, the deacon stands before the closed Beautiful Gates and begins the Great Ektenia with the words: “In peace let us pray to the Lord. . . .”
Adam, however, had just heard God promise that the seed of the woman would bruise the head of the serpent and that the Savior would come into the world, so Adam’s heart burned with the hope of salvation.
This hope is expressed in the All-night Vigil in the hymn which follows. As if in answer to the Great Ektenia, a biblical psalm is heard: “Blessed is the man. . . .” This Psalm, the first psalm of the Psalter, embodies a direction and warning to the believer against taking erroneous, sinful paths in life. In monasteries, and in some churches, not only the first psalm, Blessed is the Man, but the entire first kathisma of the Psalter is chanted. The Greek word kathisma means “seat” or “stall,” because, according to Church rules, it is permitted to sit during the readings of the kathismata. The Psalter, which consists of 150 psalms and is divided into 20 groups of psalms known as kathismata. Each kathisma in turn is divided into three parts, or “Glories,” for each part ends with the words “Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit.” The entire Psalter, all 20 kathismata, are read over the course of the services in a week. During Great Lent, the 40-day period preceding Pascha, a period during which Church prayer intensifies, the Psalter is read twice each week.
The Psalter was incorporated into the liturgical life of the Church in the earliest days after the Church was established. It occupies a position of great honor within Church life. St. Basil the Great, writing in the 4th century, stated:
“The Book of Psalms includes useful material from all of the books. It has prophesies regarding the future, it calls to mind past events, it sets out the laws of life, and it offers rules for action. The Psalms bring peace to the soul and order to the world. The Psalter quenches restless and troubling thoughts . . . is comfort from daily toils. The Psalm is the voice of the Church and is perfect theology. . . .”
In his book In the World of Prayer, Protopresbyter Michael Pomazansky writes about the significance of the Psalter in Orthodox worship:
“Within the Church, the Psalter is, so to speak, Christianized. Here, many Old Testament concepts and expressions take on a new, more complete, meaning. For this reason, the Holy Fathers and spiritual strugglers love so to use the words of the Psalter, which speaks about defense against our enemies, and expresses their thoughts on the battle with the enemy of our salvation and with the passions.
“Thus it is no surprise that the Psalms take up such a large part of divine worship services. Each service begins with psalms; some with only one, but most with three. An enormous number of verses from the Psalter are to be found throughout all of the liturgical cycles.”
After the first psalm is sung, the Small Litany is chanted: “Again and again in peace let us pray to the Lord.” This ektenia, a shortened form of the Great Ektenia, contains two petitions:
“Help us, save us, have mercy upon us, and keep us O God, by Thy grace.
“Lord, have mercy.
“Calling to remembrance our all-holy, immaculate, most blessed, glorious Lady Theotokos and Ever-virgin Mary with all the Saints, let us commit ourselves and one another and all our life unto Christ our God.
“To Thee O Lord.”
The Small Litany concludes with the priest’s reading of one of the doxologies appointed in the order of service.
It is known from the history related in the Bible that the voices of sorrow and hope, which had first cried at the gates of paradise after the fall into sin of our first created parents, continued to sound until the very coming of the Christ.
In the Vigil, sinful man’s sorrow and repentance is expressed in the verses of the penitential psalms, which are sung to special melodies and with particular solemnity.
Lord, I Have Cried and the Censing.
After the singing of Blessed is the Man, and the Small Litany, we hear the verses from Psalms 140 and 141, psalms beginning with the words “Lord, I have cried unto Thee, hearken unto me.” These psalms, which relate fallen man’s longing for God and his striving to truly serve God, constitute the most characteristic, distinguishing feature of any Vesper service. In the second verse of Psalm 140, we encounter the words “Let my prayer be set forth as incense before Thee” (a prayerful sigh that is known for its especially moving musical setting in the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts sung during Great Lent). The censing of the entire church takes place while these verses are sung.
What does this censing signify?
The Church answers through the words of the psalm already mentioned: “Let my prayer be set forth as incense before Thee, the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice,” that is to say, may my prayer ascend unto Thee [God], like smoke from the censer, and may the raising of my hands be as an evening sacrifice to Thee. This verse reminds us of that time in the ancient past when, according to the Law of Moses, in the evening of each day a sacrifice was offered in the tabernacle (tent of meeting), that is, in the portable temple used by the people of Israel while they were moving from the bondage of Egypt to the Promised Land. The sacrifice was marked by the lifting up of the hands of one bringing the sacrifice, and by the censing of the altar that contained the Holy Tablets of the Law, which had been received by Moses from God on the summit of Mt. Sinai.
The ascent of the smoke from the burning incense symbolizes the prayers of the faithful, ascending to Heaven. When the deacon or priest censes in the direction of the faithful, they respond by bowing their heads, as a sign that they recognize it to be a reminder that the prayer of the believer, like the smoke of incense, easily rises up to Heaven. Censing the people also reminds us of the profound truth that the Church sees in each person the image and likeness of God; a living icon of God, as it were, and sees the betrothal to Christ received in the mystery of Baptism.
During the censing of the church, the singing of “Lord I have cried . . .” continues and our corporate parish prayers join in offering the sentiment of this psalm, for we are no less sinners than were our first parents. From the depths of our hearts, we, together with them, cry out the words “Hearken unto me, O Lord.”
The Stichera for Lord, I Have Cried
Among the following penitential verses of the 140th and 141st psalms is “Bring my soul out of prison . . .” and, from the 129th Psalm, we hear “Out of the depths I have cried unto Thee, O Lord, O Lord, hear my voice.” Later, voices of hope in the promised Savior resound from the chanter.
Hope amid sorrow is heard in the two hymns that follow Lord, I Have Cried, the so-called Stichera for Lord, I Have Cried. While the verses preceding the stichera speak of darkness and sorrow of the Old Testament, the stichera themselves (those refrains which supplement the verses), speak of the joy and light of the New Testament.
Stichera, liturgical songs composed in honor of a feast or a saint, are of three types: 1) Stichera for Lord, I Have Cried which as we have already noted are sung at the beginning of Vespers; 2) those sung at the close of Vespers between verses taken from the Psalms, known as Aposticha; and 3) those toward the close of the second part of the vigil, sung together with psalms wherein the invocation “Praise ye” is often encountered. These are known as the Stichera for the Praises.
The Resurrection stichera glorify the Resurrected Christ and festal stichera tell of the reflection of His glory in various sacred events or spiritual struggles of the saints; for ultimately, all of church history is tied to Pascha and to Christ’s victory over death and hell. By following the sticharion text, one can recognize who or what event is being commemorated and glorified in the services of the day.
Like the Psalm Lord I Have Cried, the stichera are also a distinguishing feature of the All-night Vigil. In Vespers, between six and ten stichera are sung in a specific tone. Since antiquity, there have been eight tones, composed by St. John of Damascus, who struggled spiritually at the Lavra (monastery) of St. Sabbas the Sanctified in Palestine during the 8th century. Each tone encompasses several melodies to which specific prayers in the divine services are sung. The tones change weekly. The cycle of the so-called Octoechos moves through the eight tones over the course of eight weeks, and then begins anew. All of these melodies are contained in the liturgical book known as the Octoechos or the Book of Eight Tones.
The tones are one of the most outstanding features of Orthodox liturgical music.
The Nativity of the Son of God was the answer to the repentance and hope of the people of the Old Testament. A special Theotokion sticheron, sung immediately after the stichera for Lord I have cried, tells us of this. This sticheron is known as a Dogmatikon or a Theotokion-Dogmatikon. There are eight dogmatika; one for each tone. The dogmatika are comprised of praises of the Theotokos and the teachings of the Church about the incarnation of Jesus Christ and about how His two completely distinct natures; divine and human, dwell in Him.
What sets the dogmatika apart is their profound catechetical meaning and their sublime poetry.
Here is an English rendering of the Dogmatikon in the First Tone:
“Let us hymn the Virgin Mary, the glory of the whole world, who sprang forth from men and gave birth unto the Master, the portal of heaven, and the subject of the hymnody of the incorporeal hosts and adornment of the faithful; for she hath been shown to be heaven and the temple of the Godhead. Having destroyed the middle wall of enmity, she hath brought forth peace and opened wide the kingdom. Therefore, having her as the confirmation of our faith, we have as champion the Lord born of her. Wherefore, be of good courage! Yea, be ye of good cheer, O people of God, for He vanquisheth the foe, in that He is almighty!”
This Dogmatikon sets forth, in concise form, the Orthodox teachings about the human nature of the Savior. The principal theme of the Dogmatikon in the first tone is that the Mother of God was born of common people, and herself a common person, and not a superhuman. The common people of whom she was born, though sinful, preserved their spiritual essence to the extent that, in the person of the Mother of God, they were worthy of taking the Divinity, Jesus Christ, into their heart. The Holy Fathers of the Church taught that the all-holy Theotokos is man’s justification before God. In the person of the Mother of God, humanity was raised to heaven; and God, in the person of Jesus Christ, Who was born of her, came down to earth. This, considered from the perspective of Orthodox Mariology (teachings with respect to the Mother of God), is the actual purpose of Christ’s Incarnation.
The English translation of the Dogmatikon in the Second Tone declares:
“The shadow of the law passed away when grace arrived; for, as the bush wrapped in flame did not burn, so did the Virgin give birth and yet remained a virgin. In place of the pillar of fire, the Sun of righteousness hath shone forth. Instead of Moses, Christ is come, the salvation of our souls.”
The meaning of this Dogmatikon lies in the fact that through the Virgin Mary, grace came into the world and liberated the faithful from the weight of the Old Testament law, which was a mere shadow and symbol of the future good things of the New Testament law. The Dogmatikon in the Second Tone also underscores the ever-virginity of the Theotokos, depicted in the Old Testament symbol of the burning bush that was not consumed. This burning yet unconsumed bush was the thorn bush which Moses saw at the base of Mt. Sinai. According to the Bible, the bush burned but was not consumed, that is, it was engulfed by flame, but did not burn.
The Little Entrance
The singing of the Dogmatikon at the Vigil represents the uniting of earth and heaven. During the singing of the Dogmatikon, the Beautiful Gates are opened to show that heaven, in the sense of man’s communion with God, which was closed by Adam’s sin, was opened once more with the coming to earth of Jesus Christ; the Adam of the New Testament. At this point, the Evening or Little Entrance takes place. The priest, preceded by a deacon, comes out of the altar through the North (deacon’s) door, just as the Son of God, preceded by St. John the Forerunner, appeared to man in the world. The choir concludes the evening/little entrance by singing the prayer O Gentle Light, portraying in words what the priest and deacon have portrayed in the action of the entrance; the gentle, humble Light of Christ, which appeared almost unnoticed in the world.
O Gentle Light
O Gentle Light (rendered as O Gladsome Light by some) is known, in the cycle of chants of the Orthodox Church, as the evening hymn, since it is sung at all the vesper services. In the words of this hymn the children of the Church “having come to the setting of the sun, having beheld the evening light, we praise the Father, Son and Holy Spirit; God.” It is apparent from these words that the chanting of O Gentle Light was intended to coincide with the appearance of the soft light of sunset, a time when the soul of the believer should be close to feeling the touch of another kind of light, a light from above. This is why, in ancient times, Christians, on observing the setting of the sun, poured out their feelings and turned in prayerful attitude of soul to their Gentle Light, Jesus Christ, Who is described by the Apostle Paul as the brightness of the glory of the Father (Hebrews 1:3) and by the Old Testament prophet as the true Sun of Righteousness (Malachi 3:2[LXX]), and the true light which according to the Holy Evangelist John appeared in the world to dispel spiritual darkness (John 1:4,9); a light which is eternal, an unsetting sun.
St. Cyprian of Carthage, who lived in the 4th century, wrote “Inasmuch as Christ is the true sun and the true day, when we pray at the setting of the sun and ask that light to come to us, we are praying for the coming of Christ, who possesses the grace to offer us eternal light.”
The prayer, O Gentle Light, which appeared in the epoch when the Church of Christ was in the catacombs, is the third distinguishing feature of the Vespers. O Gentle Light also contains one of the most important of Orthodox dogmas, the confession of Christ as the visible face of the All-holy Trinity, a dogma which is the foundation for the practice of venerating icons.
Let us attend
After the chanting of O Gentle Light, the clergy serving in the altar make several short exclamations: “Let us attend,” (The Church Slavonic word вонмем—vonmem [this article is translated from Russian] is an imperative form of the verb “to heed.” It is translated here as “Let us attend” but could be translated “Let us pay heed.”) “Peace be unto all,” and “Wisdom.” These exclamations are made not only during All-night Vigil, but during other services as well. These liturgical exclamations, though repeated several times in church, can easily pass us by unnoticed. They are little words, but they their content is great and significant.
In our daily life, to be attentive or heedful is important. Yet the capacity to be attentive or heedful does not always come easily. Our intellect is predisposed to being forgetful and unfocused. It is difficult to force oneself to be attentive. The Church is aware of our weakness, and so it takes it upon itself to remind us with the phrase, “Let us attend!” which tells us: let us be attentive, let us be heedful, let us take note, let us be careful, let us gather our wits, and let us strain to focus our mind and our memory on what we are hearing. Even more importantly; let us so set our hearts that nothing going on in church will slip by us. To be attentive or take heed means to unburden ourselves, to free ourselves of memories, empty thoughts, and concerns; or, to use an expression from our liturgical language, to “put aside all earthly cares. . . .”
Peace be unto all
The little exclamation, “Peace be unto all!” is first heard during the All-night Vigil immediately following the small entrance and the prayer, O Gentle Light.
Among ancient peoples, the word peace was a form of greeting. The Romans used the word pax as a greeting, while devout Jews to this day greet one another with shalom. This form of greeting was used during the earthly life of the Savior, as well. The ancient Hebrew word shalom has a variety of meanings and caused New Testament translators considerable difficulty until they ultimately settled on the word eirini, Greek for “peace.” The word shalom has several shades of meaning in addition to its direct meaning. For example, it can mean “to be complete, healthy, and unharmed.” Its fundamental meaning is a dynamic one. It means “to live well,” to have wellbeing, to be healthy, satisfied, and so on, and is to be understood both in the material and the spiritual sense, and both individually and communally. Figuratively, the word shalom meant good relations among various individuals, families, and peoples, between man and wife, and between man and God. For this reason, its antonym or opposite meaning was not necessarily war, but most likely was everything that could interrupt or destroy individual wellbeing or good communal relations. In this broader sense, the word peace, shalom, represented a special gift given by God to Israel for the sake of His Covenant; His agreement with them. For this reason, the word was employed in an entirely specific, even priestly way, as a blessing.
The Savior used this word in precisely this sense as a greeting. He greeted the apostles with it, as St. John states in his Gospel: “The first day of the week [after the Resurrection of Christ] . . . came Jesus and stood in the midst, and saith unto them [His disciples] and saith unto them: Peace be unto you (John 20:19). Then said Jesus to them again, Peace be unto you: as my Father hath sent Me, even so send I you (John 20:21). This was not simply a kind of formal greeting such as we so often hear in ordinary human discourse. Here Christ actually sends His disciples out into the world, knowing that they are to go through the abyss of hatred, persecution, and martyric death.
This is that peace of which the Apostle Paul spoke in his epistles, the peace not of this world, that peace which is one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit; that peace which is of Christ; 14For he is our peace (Ephesians 2:14).
This is why during services the bishops and priests so often bless the people of God with the sign of the Cross and with the words “Peace be unto you!”
The Προκειμενον — Prokeimenon follows the greeting of the faithful with the words of the Savior’s greeting, “Peace be unto you.” The Prokeimenon is a short passage taken from the Holy Writ and is read along with one or more other stichos — verses that supplement the meaning of the Prokeimenon. The Sunday Prokeimenon, in the sixth tone, is read during Vespers on Saturday evening; the eve of the Resurrection. The Resurrection is commemorated every Sunday. The Russian word for Sunday, Воскресенье — Voskresene, literally means Resurrection. The Prokeimenon is read first in the altar, then repeated by the choir.
The Readings or Paremia, which literally means “lessons,” consists of a passage or passages from the Old or the New Testament. The Church has decided that readings such as these, which contain prophecies or words of praise about the event or saint being commemorated, should be read on eves of great feasts. While three readings are usually read, from time to time there are more; such as, on Great Saturday, the Eve of Pascha, or one of the fifteen other special days of commemoration.
The Augmented Litany
Christ’s coming into the world, which is shown to us in the action of the evening small entrance, shows the closeness of God to man and strengthens their prayerful communion. This is why immediately after the prokeimenon and the readings, the Church invites the faithful to intensify their prayerful communion with God through the Augmented Litany. The several petitions in the Augmented Litany remind us of the content of the first vesperal litany or ektenia; the Great Ektenia. However, the Augmented Litany also includes prayers for the reposed. The Augmented Litany begins with the words “Let us all say with our whole soul and our whole mind. . . .” The choir responds to each petition for all of those praying, with a thrice repeated “Lord have mercy.”
Vouchsafe, O Lord
The prayer, Vouchsafe, O Lord, is read after the Augmented Litany. A portion of this prayer, which was composed in the Syrian Church during the 4th century, is read in the Great Doxology during Matins.
The Litany of Supplication
The concluding Litany of Supplication is chanted immediately after the prayer, Vouchsafe, O Lord. After the first two petitions, the choir responds to the remaining petitions with Grant this, O Lord, which makes the requests bolder than does Lord have mercy; the penitential response heard in the earlier litanies. In the initial litanies of Vespers, the faithful pray for the welfare of the whole world and the Church; that is, for external welfare. In the Litany of Supplication, we hear prayers for success in our spiritual life; that is, for a sinless conclusion to the day; for an angel of peace; for pardon and remission of our sins; for a Christian and peaceful ending to our life, and, and for a good defence before the dread judgment seat of Christ.
The Prayer at the Bowing of Heads
After the Litany of Supplication, the Church calls on the faithful to bow their heads unto the Lord. At this moment, the priest addresses God with a special secret or hidden prayer, which he reads silently. It contains the idea that those who have bowed their heads expect help not from men, but from God, and they ask Him to guard the faithful from every enemy, external, and internal; from vain thoughts and from evil imaginings. The Bowing of the Heads is an external sign that the faithful put themselves under God’s protection.
On great feasts and on days commemorating highly honored saints, the Bowing of the Heads is followed by the Litiya or Service of Entreaty. The term Лития — Litiya means intensified prayer. It begins with the singing of special stichera in honor of the feast or saint of the day. As the singing of stichera begins, the clergy go in procession through the north (deacon’s) door of the iconostasis, and out of the altar. The Beautiful Gates remain shut. A candle is carried at the head of the procession. When the litiya is celebrated outside of the church building; for example, during times of civil distress or on days marking liberation from such distress, the litiya is incorporated in a Moleben and Procession of the Cross. Also a Memorial litiya may be done in the narthex after Vespers or Matins.
Michael Skaballanovich, a pre-Revolutionary liturgist, writes that “in the litiya, the Church steps out of its blessed milieu and, with the goal of mission to the world, into the external world or narthex; that part of the church which abuts this world, the part which is open to all, including those not yet part of the Church or are excluded from Her. From this stems the universal character of the litiya prayers, embracing all people.”
During the litiya, the deacon reads the prayer, Save, O God, Thy people, as well as, four other short petitions. These are comprised of entreaties for the salvation of the people, the Church and civil authorities, for the souls of Christians, for the cities, for this land and all believers living herein, for the reposed, as well as, entreaties asking that we be preserved from foreign invasions and from civil war. Each of these five petitions, chanted by the deacon, ends with repeated chanting of Lord have mercy.
During the litiya, the faithful display a heightened sense of humility. In the litiya, a host of saints are invoked by name, underscoring one of the basic dogmas of Orthodoxy; our veneration of, and prayerful communication with, the saints.
The words Lord have mercy are repeatedly chanted during the litiya; which causes the heart, mind, and soul of those who pray to be saturated with this petition. These multiple repetitions are intended to focus our attention on the meaning of the prayer, something the Church considers especially important for man’s spiritual growth. Like a musical theme, this oft repeated prayer accompanies us out of the church and into our daily life.
Lord have mercy — only three words; yet how profound! First of all, in calling God Lord, we affirm the fact of His rule over the world, over mankind; and, the most important, over ourselves, and over those who call Him Lord, which means “ruler” or “master.” For this reason we refer to ourselves as servants or slaves of God. There is nothing shameful about this title. Slavery is intrinsically a negative thing, for it robs man of his earliest gift from God, the gift of freedom. Since it is a gift given by God to man, man’s serving God is in fact the acquisition of perfect freedom in God. It is good to treasure, keep, and cultivate the prayer, Lord have mercy.
After the deacon has read the petitions and the priest has read the prayer, O Master plenteous in mercy, and during the singing of the Aposticha, which consists of stichera or verses that glorify the feast or saint of the day; the clergy and faithful enter the nave or central part of the church. At this time, a table is placed in the center of the church. On the table are five loaves of bread, as well as, wheat, wine, and oil. All are then blessed in this token act of the ancient custom of distributing food to the faithful, some of whom had come from afar, so that they might gain the strength to participate in the lengthy worship services. Five loaves are blessed in memory of the Lord’s feeding of the 5000 who listened to his sermon. Later, during Matins, and after the faithful have venerated the Festal Icon, the priest anoints them with blessed oil.
The Prayer of St. Symeon, the God-receiver
The Prayer of St. Symeon, the God-receiver, Now lettest Thou Thy servant departs in peace, O Master is read after the Aposticha. St. Symeon uttered these words when he received the Divine Infant Christ in his arms in the Temple of Jerusalem on the fortieth day after Our Lord’s Nativity. In this prayer, the Old Testament elder thanks God for enabling him, before his death, to see Salvation; that is, to see Christ, Who was given by God for the glory of Israel, and for the enlightenment of the gentiles and of the entire world. In English, the prayer says: “Now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace, O Master, according to Thy word, for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation, which Thou hast prepared before the face of all peoples; a light of revelation for the nations, and the glory of Thy people Israel.”
Vespers, the first part of the All-night Vigil, is now drawing to a close. Having begun with a commemoration of the opening pages of Old Testament history, the creation of the world; it ends with the prayer. Now lettest Thou Thy servant depart, symbolizing the conclusion of the history of Old Testament.
Immediately following the prayer of St. Symeon the God-receiver, the Trisagion or Thrice-Holy prayers are read. They include the prayers Holy God, All Holy Trinity, and Our Father, and end with the doxology exclaimed by the priest For Thine is the kingdom. . . .
Following the Trisagion, the Troparia or Dismissal Hymns are sung. A troparion is a short, concise hymn honoring the saint being commemorated or about the holy event being celebrated that day. The distinguishing feature of the troparion is that it concisely describes either the person being glorified or an associated event. At the Resurrection Vespers on Saturday evening, the troparion to the Mother of God O Theotokos and Virgin, rejoice! is sung three times. This troparion is sung at the conclusion of Resurrection Vespers because of the joy of Christ’s Resurrection, the focus of Matins that follows, announces the joy of the Annunciation when the Archangel Gabriel advised the Virgin Mary that she was to give birth to the Son of God, effectively marking the end of Old Testament times. The words of this troparion are composed mostly of the words of greeting spoken by the archangel to the Mother of God.
In the event that a litiya is part of the All-night Vigil, the priest or deacon moves around the table, on which the loaves of bread, and the wheat, wine, and oil are placed; censing them three times as the troparion is being sung three times. Then the priest reads a prayer which asks God to “bless the bread, wheat, wine and oil, and multiply them throughout the world and to enlighten those who eat of them.” Before reading this prayer, the priest slightly elevates one of the loaves, and having punctured its surface with his thumb, makes the sign of the Cross with it over the remaining loaves. This action is done in remembrance of Christ’s miraculous feeding of the 5000 with five loaves of bread.
In the past, the bread and wine which were blessed were then distributed to the faithful in order to strengthen them for the service of the All-night service, which in fact continued for the entire night. In contemporary worship, the blessed bread is cut into small pieces to be given to the faithful later, as they are the anointed with oil during Matins; this will be expanded upon later. The solemn ceremony of the blessing of the loaves dates back to a practice of the earliest Christian times, and is a remnant of the Agape or Love Feast observed by those first Christians.
At the conclusion of the litiya, in recognition of God’s mercy, the choir sings “Blessed be the Name of the Lord from henceforth and forevermore.” This is also the concluding sticheron of the Divine Liturgy.
The priest closes Vespers, the first part of the All-night Vigil, blessing the faithful from the ambo with the ancient blessing in the name of the incarnate Jesus Christ, with the words, “The blessing of the Lord come upon you, by His divine grace and love for man, always, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages.”
The Services of Vespers and Matins define the day. In Genesis, the first book of the Bible, we read: 5And there was evening and there was morning, the first day (Genesis 1:5 [LXX]). For this reason, in ancient times the order of services called for Vespers, the first part of the All-night Vigil, to end late in the night; and Matins, the second part, to finish with at dawn. In contemporary practice, Matins (if served apart from Vespers) is usually moved to a later hour in the morning or back to the eve of the feast.
The Six Psalms
Matins, if served as a part of the All-night Vigil, begins with the reading of the Six Psalms or Hexapsalmia, which consists of Psalms 3, 37, 62, 87, 102, and 142 ([LXX]), read in order as one liturgical whole. The reading of the Six Psalms is preceded by two bible verses: the thrice repeated words of praise spoken by the angel at Bethlehem: 14Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men (Luke 2:14), and the twice repeated words from the 50th Psalm: O Lord, Thou shalt open my lips, and my mouth shall declare Thy praise (Psalm 50:15 [LXX]).
The first of these verses, the angelic words of praise, clearly and eloquently point out three fundamentally related paths of struggle in pursuit of a Christian life. Upward, toward God in the words of praise, “Glory to God in the highest,” outward toward your neighbor in the words, “and on earth peace,” and downward into the depth of your heart in the words, “good will among men.” Seen together, the thrust of these struggles, upward, outward, and downward, form the symbol of the Cross; thereby manifesting the ideal of the Christian life: granting peace with God, peace among men, and peace in the soul.
While it is not normal parish practice, the order of services calls for the candles in the church to be extinguished during the reading of the Six Psalms. The falling darkness symbolizes that dark night when Christ came to earth, as the angel sang the hymn of praise, “Glory to God in the highest.” The semidarkness of the church helps us to pray more earnestly. The Six Psalms encompass the entire range of human experiences that enlighten the New Testament Christian life; not only its overall joyousness, but also the sorrowful path that leads to that joy.
At the midpoint of the Six Psalms comes the fourth psalm, Psalm 87; the most sorrowful of the six, filled as it is with a dreadful bitterness. While this psalm is being read, the priest leaves the altar and stands before the Beautiful Gates and continues to read the twelve special morning prayers; prayers which he has already begun to read in the altar before the Holy Table. At that moment the priest symbolizes Christ, Who, having heard the sorrow of fallen mankind, not only came down to man, but shared in his suffering to the end. The psalm, which is being read at that moment, speaks of this theme.
The priest’s silent morning prayers contain prayers for the Christians standing in church; petitions that they be forgiven their sins, that they be given true faith and sincere love, that all their works be blessed, and that they might be made worthy of the Heavenly Kingdom.
Psalm 117, God is the Lord
Immediately following the Litany of Peace we hear the singing of the 117th Psalm, God is the Lord, and the oft repeated refrain, “God is the Lord and hath appeared unto us; blessed is he who cometh in the Name of the Lord.” The Order of divine services appoints that these words be sung at this specific point in Matins in order to direct our memory and attention to Christ’s embarking on His public ministry. This verse expands upon the praise of the Savior which was heard at the beginning of Matins during the reading of the Six Psalms. These words also served as a greeting to Jesus Christ when He final entered Jerusalem for the final time before His passion on the Cross. The doxology “God is the Lord and hath appeared unto us . . .” and three special verses which follow are chanted by either the deacon or by the priest before the main, or local, Icon of Christ in the iconostasis; this is the icon of Christ immediately to the right of the Beautiful Gates. The choir then repeats the first verse, “God is the Lord and hath appeared unto us. . . .”
The singing or chanting of these verses should reflect a joyous, festive mood. For this reason, the candles which had been extinguished during the reading of the Six Psalms penitential are lighted once again.
Immediately after the verses for God is the Lord, the Resurrection Troparion is sung. The Feast is glorified in it and the reality of the words “God is the Lord and hath appeared unto us” are explained. The Resurrection Troparion heralds the sufferings of Christ and His Resurrection from the dead; events which will be illuminated in detail later in the service of Matins.
At the All-night Vigil, the second and third kathismata (the Greek plural of kathisma) are read after the completion of the Great Litany, the verses of God is the Lord, and the troparia. As we have already stated, the Greek word καθισμα — kathisma means “seat” or “stall,” and according to the Church order of services, during the reading of the kathismata the faithful are allowed to sit.
The entire Psalter, composed of 150 psalms, is divided into 20 kathismata; that is, into 20 groups or chapters of psalms. Each kathisma is in turn divided into three “glories,” that is, each section of the kathisma concludes with the words, “Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit,” being chanted three times, and after each “glory” the choir sings “Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia. Glory to Thee, O God.”
The kathismata contain expressions of a penitential, contemplative character. They call us to consider our sins; and they are included by the Orthodox Church in her Divine Services to call the faithful to look into their own lives and actions, and deepen their repentance before God.
The second and third kathismata, read during Sunday Resurrection Matins, are of a prophetic character. They describe the passion of Christ: the abuse He endured, the piercing of His hands and feet, the casting of lots and dividing of His garments, and His death and Resurrection from the dead.
The kathismata of the Resurrection during the All-night Vigil bring the faithful to the central and most festive portion of the services, to the polyeleos.
“Praise ye the Name of the Lord. Alleluia.” These and the following words are taken from the 134th and 135th Psalms and introduce the most festive portion of the Resurrection Vigil Service, the polyeleos, which celebrates the Resurrection of Christ.
The word Πολυελεοσ — Polyeleos comes from two Greek words which mean “plenteous in mercy.” The crux and fulcrum of the polyeleos rests in the chanting of “Praise ye the name of the Lord,” with each verse of the Psalms followed by the refrain “for His mercy endureth forever.” In this refrain, the Lord is glorified for the abundant mercies He had shown toward man; the first and foremost of which is His salvation and redemption of man.
At the polyeleos, the Beautiful Gates open, the entire church is illuminated, and the clergy come out of the altar and cense the entire church. Through these liturgical actions, the faithful witness the events of the Resurrection. In the opening of the Beautiful Gates, they see how Christ rose from the tomb; and in the clergy procession from the altar to the center of the church, they see how He again appeared among His disciples. While this is taking place, the psalm, 3Praise ye the Lord (Psalm 134:3 [LXX]), continues to be chanted, together with the angelic refrain, “Alleluia” (Praise the Lord); it is as if the choir is acting on behalf of the angels, calling the faithful to praise the Risen Lord.
The chanting of, “plenteous in mercy,” during the polyeleos, a service typically done during the Vigil on the eves of Sundays and great feast days, especially demonstrates God’s mercy. It is especially appropriate to praise His Name and to thank Him for His mercy during this service.
In preparation for Great Lent, the short 136th Psalm is added to the verses of Psalms 134 and 135 which constitute the polyeleos. This Psalm, which begins with the words “By the waters of Babylon,” tells of the suffering of the Hebrew people in the Babylonian captivity and of their grief over the loss of their homeland. This psalm is sung during the several weeks prior to Great Lent, so that, like the Hebrews who strove to free themselves from Babylonian captivity and return to their Homeland, the Promised Land; Christians, who are the New Israel, might strive in repentance and abstinence toward their spiritual home, the Kingdom of God.
During feasts of the Lord and of the Theotokos, as well as on days commemorating especially venerated saints, the polyeleos is followed by a magnification, a short verse of praise for the feast or saint of the day. First the clergy, standing before the festal icon in the center of the church, sing the magnification. Then, while the entire church is censed, the choir repeats the same text several times.
The angels were the first to learn of the Resurrection of Christ and to tell people the Good News. Thus, the polyeleos begins with the angels bidding us to: “Praise ye the Name of the Lord.” The next to learn of the resurrection were the Myrrh-bearing Women, who, in accordance with ancient Hebrew custom, came to the Tomb of Christ to anoint His body with myrrh, an aromatic oil. So, the singing of the angelic Alleluia is followed by the resurrection troparia which tell of the Myrrh-bearers’ visit to the tomb, and of the appearance of the angel who told them of the Savior’s resurrection and directed that they tell this news to His apostles. Each troparion is preceded by the words “Blessed art Thou, O Lord, teach me Thy statutes.” The last of Jesus Christ’s followers to learn of His resurrection from the dead were the apostles. This moment in Gospel history is commemorated with the reading of the Resurrection Gospel, the central part of the Vigil Service.
Several preliminary doxologies and prayers precede the Gospel reading. Thus, after the Resurrection troparion and the Small Ektenia, which is an abridged form of the Great Ektenia, special verses known as the Hymns of Degrees are sung. These ancient verses come from 15 psalms known as Hymns of Degrees because in Old Testament times they were sung by two choirs facing one another along the steps, here called degrees, of the Temple in Jerusalem. Usually, we hear the first part of the Hymns of Degrees in Tone IV, beginning with, “From my youth many passions have warred against me. . . .”
As just related, the highlight of the All-night Vigil is the reading of a Gospel passage about Christ’s resurrection from the dead. The order of divine services calls for a number of prayers to be read in preparation for this holy Gospel. The reason for the rather lengthy preparation of the faithful for the reading of the Gospel is that the Gospel has been called the book “behind seven seals” and “a stumbling block” for those whom the Church does not teach to understand and heed it. Furthermore, the Holy Fathers teach that a Christian must first pray in order to draw the maximum spiritual benefit from the reading of the Holy Writ. This prayerful introductory preparation for the reading of the Gospel at the All-night Vigil serves this purpose.
Our prayers in preparation for the reading of the Gospel include the following liturgical elements. First, the deacon chants “Let us attend,” then “Wisdom”; then comes the prokeimenon relevant to the Gospel reading. The prokeimenon, as we said earlier, is a short excerpt from Divine Scripture, ordinarily from one of the psalms, which is read together with other verses complementing the theme of the prokeimenon. The deacon chants the prokeimenon and its accompanying verse, and then the prokeimenon is repeated by the choir thrice; once, after the chanting of each accompanying verse.
The doxology, “For holy art Thou . . .” and the chanting of, “Let every breath praise the Lord . . .” conclude the polyeleos with its festive words of praise introducing the Gospel. The gist of their meaning is: Let everything that has life praise the Lord, the giver of life. Afterward: the wisdom, holiness, and benevolence of the Lord, Creator and Redeemer of all creation, is explained and preached through the holy Word of the Gospel.
The Holy Gospel
“Wisdom. Upright. Let us hear the holy Gospel.” This is an invitation to stand up straight, with respect, piety, and spiritual uprightness, to hear the Word of God.
As we have said before, central part of the All-night Vigil is the reading of the Gospel. In it we hear the voice of the apostles, heralding the Good News of the Resurrection of Christ.
Eleven differing Resurrection Gospel lessons, all of which tell of the Resurrection of the Savior and of His appearance to the Myrrh-bearing Women and to the disciples, are read in turn during the Saturday All-night Vigils.
The Resurrection Gospel lessons are read from within the altar, the most important part of the Orthodox temple, which here represents the Tomb of our Lord. On other feast days, the Gospel is read in the midst of the people. This is done because in the center of the Temple is the icon of the saint or event being celebrated, the meaning of which the Gospel proclaims.
After the Resurrection Gospel reading, the priest brings the Holy Gospel Book out for veneration. He emerges from the altar as from the Tomb, and holding the Gospel, he emulates the angel as he shows us Christ, whom he had preached. Like the disciples, the parishioners bow down before the Holy Gospel, and like the Myrrh-bearing Women, they kiss it, and everyone sings, “Having beheld Thy Resurrection O Christ. . . .”
Beginning with the polyeleos, our exultation and joy in encountering Christ increases. This part of the Vigil instills in the faithful a recognition that in the person of Jesus Christ, Heaven has come down to earth. The Church also reminds its children that whenever we hear the chanting of the polyeleos, we must bear in mind the coming day and with it the Feast of Eternity, the Divine Liturgy, which is not simply a representation on earth of the Heavenly Kingdom, but is in fact, its coming to pass, unchanged and in all its fullness, on earth.
We must greet the Heavenly Kingdom with a broken spirit and with repentance. For this reason, immediately after the joyous singing of “Having beheld Thy Resurrection O Christ,” the penitential 50th Psalm, beginning with the words “Have mercy on me, O Lord . . .” is chanted. It is only during the night of Pascha and the entire following week, when we are permitted to experience such ultimately joyous rapture, free of sorrow or penitence, that the reading of the 50th Psalm is omitted from divine services.
This penitential Psalm “Have mercy on me O Lord” is concluded with a prayer for the intercession of the apostles and the Mother of God. Then, the opening verse of the 50th Psalm is repeated: “Have mercy on me O God, according to Thy great mercy, and according to the multitude of Thy compassions, blot out my transgression!”
Further on, it is with the mixture of both joy in the Resurrection and repentance that we hear the sticharion, “Jesus, having risen from the dead, as he foretold, hath given us life eternal and great mercy.” The “great mercy,” which Christ shows to those who repent, is the granting of “life eternal.”
According to the Church, the Resurrection of Christ illumines the nature of anyone who unites himself with Christ. This enlightenment is demonstrated in the extremely important variable part of the All-night vigil known as the canons.
The miracle of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ enlightened human nature. In the canon, the portion of the Vigil which follows the reading of the Gospel, the Church shows the faithful this enlightenment. In contemporary practice, the canon consists of nine odes or songs. Each ode of the canon consists of a specific number of individual troparia.
Each individual canon has a specific subject of celebration: the Most Holy Trinity, an event from the Gospel or from the history of the Church, prayers to the Theotokos, or the magnification of a saint or saints of the day. The Sunday canons (on Saturday evening in usual Russian practice) celebrate the Resurrection of Christ and the ensuing enlightenment of the world, the victory over sin and death. Festal canons illuminate in detail the meaning of the feast and the life of the saint; as a model of the transfiguration of the world already taking place. The Church in some measure celebrates Christ’s victory over sin and death by contemplating the light of this transfiguration reflected in the canons.
The canons are read, but the initial verse of each individual ode is sung by the choir. These introductory verses are known as irmoi, from the Greek verb “to tie.” The Irmos presents a pattern for all of the troparia which follow within a given ode.
An event from the Old Testament which embodies a transfiguring, that is, a prophetic and symbolic meaning relevant to the New Testament, serves as the pattern for each introductory irmos. For example, the irmos of the first ode commemorates, in Christian terms, the Hebrews’ miraculous crossing of the Red Sea. In this irmos, the Lord is glorified as the all-powerful deliverer from evil and slavery. The irmos of the second ode is taken from the song of denunciation spoken by Moses in the Sinai desert to awaken a spirit of repentance in the Hebrews fleeing from Egypt. The second ode is sung only during Great Lent. The irmos of the third ode is based on the song of thanksgiving sung by Anna, mother of the prophet Samuel, for having been given a son. In the irmos of the fourth ode, we hear a Christian interpretation of the appearance to the prophet of the Lord God, Habakkuk; as seen in the brilliant sunlight streaming from behind the wooded mountain. In this vision, the Church perceives the glory of the coming Savior. In the fifth ode, whose theme comes from the book of the prophet Isaiah, Christ is glorified as the bringer of peace. It also contains the prophecy of the Resurrection from the dead. The sixth irmos is taken from the story of the prophet Jonah, cast into the sea and swallowed up by a whale. In the eyes of the Church, this event serves to remind the Christian that he has sunk into the abyss of sin. The irmos also expresses the idea that there is no sorrow or misfortune in which the heartfelt prayer of the faithful cannot be heard. The irmoi of the seventh and eighth odes of the canon are based on the song of the three Hebrew children who were cast into the fiery Babylonian furnace. This event is a prefiguring of Christian martyrdom. Between the eighth and ninth odes, a song in honor of the Theotokos is chanted. It begins with the words, “My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior.” It is accompanied by the refrain, “More honorable than the Cherubim, and beyond compare more glorious than the Seraphim.” The deacon chants the beginning of this glorification of the Mother of God. After censing the altar and the right side of the iconostasis, he stops before the icon of the Theotokos on the iconostasis, and, raising the censer chants: “The Theotokos and the Mother of the Light let us magnify in song.” The choir responds with the magnification of the Mother of God.
During the chanting of the magnification, the deacon censes the entire church. Then the troparia of the final ode of the canon are read, and for the last time in the Vigil, we hear the Small Litany, “Again and again, in peace let us pray to the Lord.” During the Resurrectional All-night Vigil, and following the Small Litany and the priest’s doxology, the deacon exclaims “Holy is Our God,” and this phrase is then echoed thrice by the choir.
In monasteries which follow the order of service to the letter and in churches in which the All-night Vigil actually does last all night, sunrise coincides with this point in the service. Special hymns celebrate its approach. The first is known as the Hymn of Light, or Светилeн — Svetilen (in Russian), a term referring to the heralding of the approaching light. This type of hymn is also known by the Greek term exapostilarion, which means “I send out,” because a chanter is in fact “sent out” from the kliros to the center of the church to chant the exapostilarion. The renowned hymns “I see Thy Bridal Chamber adorned, O My Savior,” and “The Wise Thief,” heard during Passion Week, are examples of Exapostilaria/Svetilny. Among the best known of the Hymns of Light for the Mother of God is “The apostles, from the ends . . .” sung during the Dormition of the Mother of God.
After the Hymn of Light, the verse “Let every breath praise the Lord” is sung, and Psalms 148, 149, and 150 (LXX) are read. These three psalms are known as the Psalms of Praise, for in them the term “praise ye” is often repeated. Special stichera, known as the Aposticha for the praises, are combined with these psalms. They are usually sung at the close of Psalm 149 and after each verse of the short 150th Psalm. As in the case of the other stichera during the Vigil, the Aposticha for the praises glorify a Gospel event, an event in the life of the Church, or a saint or saints being commemorated on that day.
The Great Doxology
As we have already noted, in ancient times and even today in monasteries where the All-night Vigil indeed lasts all night, the sun rises during the second half of the Vigil. At this point, the Lord, the Giver of Light, is praised in a special, ancient Christian hymn, the Great Doxology, which begins with the words, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace.” But before this, we see the priest through the open doors of the altar as he stands before the Holy Table and exclaims, “Glory to Thee, Who Hast shown us the light.”
In the All-night Vigil, Matins concludes with the Augmented Litany and with the Litany of Supplication, the very same Litanies which were read earlier in the Vigil, during Vespers. They are followed by the priest’s closing doxology and by the Dismissal. The priest addresses the Mother of God with the prayer: “O Most Holy Theotokos save us!” The choir responds with a glorification of the Theotokos: “More honorable than the Cherubim, and beyond compare more glorious than the Seraphim. . . .” Thereafter, the priest again glorifies the Lord Jesus Christ with the doxology “Glory to Thee O Christ God, our hope, glory to Thee.” The Choir responds with “Glory; both now and ever...” showing thereby that the glory of Christ is as well the glory of the All-holy Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And thus ends the Vigil as it began, with a glorification of the Holy Trinity.
After the priest’s final blessing, the First Hour and final portion of the All-night Vigil, is read.
As we have already noted, the primary idea expressed in Matins is the joyous realization by the faithful that everyone who unites themselves to Christ will be saved and will be resurrected together to be with Him. According to the Church, we can attain union with Christ only with an attitude of humility and recognition of our unworthiness. For this reason, the Vigil does not end with the festive and joyous service of Matins, but with the First Hour, a service expressing a humble, repentant striving toward God.
The daily cycle of services of the Orthodox Church includes three Hours in addition to the First Hour. The Third and Sixth Hours are read before the beginning of the Divine Liturgy, and the Ninth Hour is read before the beginning of Vespers. Technically speaking, the Hours contain selections of texts pertinent to that particular time of day. However, each Hour also has a distinct mystical and spiritual significance, for each commemorates a stage of Christ’s Passion. The services proceed with an air of serious concentration and bear the stamp of Great Lent and of the Passion. A characteristic of the Hours and one that shows their kinship to the services of Great Lent is that reading takes precedence over singing.
The subject of the Third Hour is the handing over of the Savior to be insulted and flogged. A second New Testament theme is joined to the Third Hour: the Descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles. In addition, in the Third Hour we find prayers for assistance and protection in our external and internal battle with evil, and we find prayers of repentance, such as that expressed in the 50th Psalm; which begins with “Have mercy on me O God. . . .”
The Sixth Hour coincides with the hour when Christ was crucified and nailed to the Cross. During the Sixth Hour, we hear the reader express the bitterness brought on by militant evil rampant in the world; while, at the same time we hear an expression of hope in God’s help. This hope is especially strongly expressed in the third of the psalms read during the Sixth Hour, the 90th Psalm, which commences with: “He that dwelleth in the help of the Most High shall abide in the shelter of the God of heaven. . . .”
The Ninth Hour is the hour at which Christ, while on the Cross, granted paradise to the thief, and it is the time at which He gave up His soul to God the Father until His Resurrection. In the psalms of the Ninth Hour we already hear thanks being expressed to Christ for His saving of the world.
Such, in brief, is the substance of the Third, Sixth, and Ninth Hours. Now let us return to the First Hour; the hour which concludes the All-night Vigil.
Overall, in addition to commemorating the events that transpired during the first stage of Jesus Christ’s Passion, the First Hour expresses feelings of thanksgiving to God for the approaching light of day and for His setting us on a path during the coming day which is pleasing to Him. This is all expressed in the three psalms read during the First Hour, as well as, in its other prayers, and especially in the prayer, “Thou Who at all times and at every hour . . .” a prayer which is read during each of the Hours. In this prayer, the faithful ask for unity of Faith and for true knowledge of God. According to the Church, it is that knowledge that is the fountain from which will spring a Christian’s future spiritual benefits, that is, salvation and life eternal. The Lord speaks of this in the Holy Gospel according to John, chapter 17: “And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent.” The Orthodox Church teaches that it is possible to know God only through love and oneness of mind. This is why during the Liturgy, before the confession of faith in the Symbol of Faith, we proclaim, “Let us love one another, that with one mind we may confess Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the Trinity one in essence and undivided.”
Following the prayer, “Thou Who at all times . . .” the priest comes out of the altar. He is dressed humbly, wearing an epitrachelion but without his shining outer vestments. The temple is in semi-darkness. In such a setting, the priest concludes the First Hour, and with it the All-night Vigil, with a prayer wherein he glorifies Christ as the True Light, Who enlighteneth and sanctifieth every man that cometh into the world. Turning to the Icon of the Mother of God, he commemorates her at the conclusion of the prayer. The choir responds with a festive hymn taken from the Akathist for the Annunciation of the Theotokos, “To thee the Champion Leader. . . .”
The All-night Vigil expresses with absolute clarity the spirit of Orthodoxy, something described in the teaching of the Holy Fathers of the Church as “the spirit of Resurrection, Transfiguration, and Deification of man.” As in Orthodox Christianity in general, the All-night Vigil contains the expression of two Passovers, the Passover of the Crucifixion and the Passover of the Resurrection. The All-night Vigil, especially in the form it takes on the eve of Sunday, the Day of Resurrection, takes its structure and subject matter from the services of Passion Week and the Week of Pascha. Vladimir Ilin writes the following in his book on the All-night Vigil, published in Paris in the 1920’s:
“The All-night Vigil and its soul, the Jerusalem Typicon, the Eye of the Church, grew and were completed at the Tomb of the Lord. Overall, it is the night services at the Tomb of the Lord which are the cradle from which grew a marvelous garden, the daily cycle of Orthodox services. Its finest flower is the All-night Vigil. If the source of the Orthodox Liturgy is the Mystical Supper of Christ, held in the home of Joseph of Arimathea, then the source of the All-night Vigil is at the Life-giving Tomb of the Lord, which opened the way for the world into the heavenly mansions and poured out onto men the blessedness of life eternal.”
We live in a world of vanity, in which it is extremely difficult to find the time, even if only a few minutes, to enter into the interior cell of our soul and to enjoy silence and prayer; to gather one’s thoughts, to consider one’s spiritual fate, to heed the voice of one’s conscience and to cleanse one’s heart through the Mystery of Confession. The Church gives us such an opportunity during the hours in which the All-night Vigil is served.
How good it would be to train ourselves and the members of our households to come to love this Service. One could, at first, attend the All-night Vigil only once every two weeks, or once per month. One need only begin, and the Lord will reward him with a precious spiritual honor: The Lord will visit his heart, will take up residence in it, and will open up to us the broad, spacious, and extremely rich world of Church prayer. Let us not deprive ourselves of this opportunity.