The Divine Services of the Orthodox Church Vespers - 1
We have begun a series of sermons exploring and explaining the Divine Services. Last week we talked about the Orthodox conception of time and mentioned that the Saturday evening Vigil service is a combination of the evening Vespers and the morning Matins services. Let’s begin today to discuss the beauty and mysteries of the Vespers service.
The Great Vespers begins with the opening of the Royal Doors, giving us, as it were, an open door and glimpse into Paradise. The priest takes up the censor and begins a silent censing of the holy altar. This silent censing within the altar is evocative of the dawn of creation, when the Spirit of the Lord moved over the face of waters. We mentioned last week that the evening is the beginning of the new day according to Byzantine timekeeping… this quiet and beautiful silent censing of the holy altar, unites the beginning of the new day with the beginning of creation. This is a deeply symbolic and deeply spiritual moment – establishing the connection that exists between the earthly and the heavenly that is offered to us in the Divine Services of the Church.
Having censed the holy table and around the whole altar, 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.’ Before the beginning of time, the Holy Trinity existed: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. As we recreate the first moments of creation and begin our evening prayers, we glorify the eternal, life-creating and indivisible Trinity.
After the clergy chant a call to come and worship Christ our King and our God, the choir begins the singing of the Proemial Psalm – Psalm 103, which is one of the most vivid and poetic expressions of the beauty and glory of God’s creation. In that Psalm we sing ‘How wondrous are Thy works, O Lord, in wisdom hast Thou made them all.’ While the choir is praising the beauty of God’s creation, the priest does a full censing of the church – censing all the icons and all the people who have gathered to pray.
This is a beautiful moment… we are gathered together and we sing praises to God for the wisdom and beauty of His creation. The day is ending, the sun is going down, and we often hear the sunset song of birds in the neighboring trees around the church. As we are here in church singing our praises to God and the wonders of His creation, the birds are keeping vigil up in the treetops, singing their praises to God as well! There is something very harmonious about this that brings great joy to the heart… it is like a little glimpse into paradise.
After the priest has completed his full censing of the church, he goes back into the altar and, as the Psalm concludes, the Royal Doors are closed. We have marked the dawn of creation, we have praised the beauty of God’s paradise… now the doors are closed. The priest or deacon comes out from the altar and stands before the closed doors, just as Adam stood before the closed gates of Paradise, and we begin the Great Ektenia or Litany in which we make our petitions to the Lord, asking Him for peace, health, salvation, and all good things for ourselves and for the world. The choir responds to each petition with the words ‘Lord have mercy’. We hear this short but profound prayer throughout the Orthodox services… ‘Lord have mercy!’ In praying this we are asking not only for God to be merciful to us, but to bless us, and to anoint us with His grace.
While the deacon is proclaiming the Great Litany, the priest is before the altar silently reading the seven ‘Lamp-lighting prayers’. These ancient prayers express that sense of longing for our heavenly homeland we experience due to our self-inflicted exile from paradise. They also provide a perfect complement and intensification of prayer to the Litany being said. The third prayer provides an eloquent example: ‘O Lord our God, remember us, Thy sinful and unprofitable servants, when we call upon Thy holy, venerable name, and turn us not away in shame from the expectation of Thy mercy; but grant us, O Lord, all our requests which are unto salvation, and vouchsafe us to love and fear Thee with our whole heart, and to do Thy will in all things.’
After the Great Litany, the choir sings Psalm 1, ‘Blessed is the man who walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly…’. Psalm 1 gives us instruction and hope… we have exiled ourselves outside the gates of Paradise, but if we strive to live righteously and according to God’s commandments, we have hope of returning close to God.
We then have the Small Litany and then the choir sings from Psalms 140 and 141, ‘Lord I have cried unto Thee, hearken unto me…’
The Psalms have been rightly called ‘the prayerbook of the Church’. These Psalms sung during the Vespers service express our deepest longings that God will hearken to our unworthy prayers, help us to steer clear of evil, and guide us safely toward the Kingdom of Heaven.
During the singing of ‘Lord I have cried…’ we make another full censing of the church. In the Psalms being sung we hear, ‘Let my prayer be set forth as incense before Thee, the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice.’ The continuity and fulfillment of the Old Testament worship is evident in this, our evening sacrifice of incense and prayer. Just as the smoke rises from the censer, so should our hearts and minds be lifted up to God as our prayers go up toward heaven.
As we conclude these verses, a hymn is sung in honor of the Mother of God. At this time, the Royal Doors are opened and the priest, deacon, and servers come out for the Vespers Entry. The priest stands before the Royal Doors, blesses the entry, and, the deacon, making the sign of the cross with the censer says, ‘Wisdom, let us attend!’. The priest and deacon then reenter the altar while the choir sings the exquisitely beautiful hymn, ‘O Gladsome Light’. The text of that hymn is: ‘O Gladsome Light of the holy glory of the immortal, heavenly, holy, blessed Father, O Jesus Christ: now that we have come to the setting of the sun, and beheld the evening light, we praise Thee Father, Son and Holy Spirit, God. Meet it is for Thee at all times to be praised with reverent voices, O Son of God and Giver of life. Therefore, the world doth glorify Thee.’
We’ll conclude today’s study here… with this perfect expression of the ‘harmonious integrity’ of the Orthodox evening worship. The Vespers service occurs at the setting of the sun, when we behold the evening light. Spiritually, Christ is that Gladsome Light of the radiance of God that gives us hope amid the darkness of life. In the quiet transitional light of evening, we praise God with reverent voices, glorifying Him as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and recognizing Him as the Giver of Life and the Author of the beauty of His creation.
In these sermons on the Divine Services, I want to convey to you and share with you how profound and how complete is the worship of the Orthodox Church. ‘Orthodoxy’ literally means ‘right worship’ or ‘correct praise’. As we take time together to dive deeper into the meaning and significance of our Orthodox Divine Services, I pray that we can all be richly edified in understanding how truly great and right are the Divine Services of our holy Orthodox faith.