The Divine Services of the Orthodox Church Matins - 1
We are in the midst of our exploration of the All Night Vigil service. Last week we concluded our examination of the evening Vespers service. As you recall, the All Night Vigil is a combination of the evening Vespers service and the morning Matins service. So, following the conclusion of Vespers, after the priest gives his final blessing, we roll straight into the beginning of Matins.
Matins begins with the reading of the Six Psalms. The lights are turned off, the candles are extinguished, and the reader comes to the middle of the darkened church to read with great reverence the Six Psalms. The Psalms begin with the doxology or glorification of the angels who appeared to the shepherds in Bethlehem: ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men’ (Luke 2:14), and ‘O Lord, Thou shalt open my lips, and my mouth shall declare Thy praise’(Psalm 50:15). Archpriest Victor Potapov, in his wonderful explanation of the Vigil Services writes,
“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.”
There is a pious tradition within Orthodoxy that the Six Psalms will be read by an angel at the time of Last Judgment, when all people will be called before the throne of the Lord and will be held accountable for what they have done with this blessing of life and the precious soul that God has given to us. The Six Psalms express both the sorrow of a repenting soul for its sins and the hope in the mercy of God. Thinking about this awesome and sobering image of standing before the dread judgment seat of Christ, the reading of the Six Psalms is an important and solemn moment in which we should be perfectly still and attentive. In the monasteries, we were taught to stand with our arms folded and our heads bowed – we were instructed to not even cross ourselves at this time. This is not a time for sitting or moving about the church, all should stand at attention and enter deeply into meditation, prayer, repentance, and full attention to God.
During the reading of the Six Psalms, the priest silently reads 12 prayers. I refer again to Fr Victor’s explanation of the Vigil service for a most beautiful description of these silent prayers:
“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, 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.”
Following the solemnity of the Six Psalms is the Great Ektenia in which we again pray for mercy, peace, health, salvation and all good things for our earthly and spiritual needs. The choir then sings a hymn of praise to God, ‘God is the Lord and hath appeared unto us, blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord’ - proclaiming the appearance of Christ our God and confirming that he who comes in the name of the Lord is blessed.
This is followed by the troparia of the day, which for Sunday celebrates the bright resurrection of Christ.
Now comes the reading of the kathismata – a kathisma is a grouping of the Psalms. The 150 Psalms of the Psalter are divided into 20 kathismata. Each kathisma is divided into three ‘stases’, each section concluding with the words, ‘Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit’. The choir responds singing ‘Both now and ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen. Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia. Glory to Thee, O God.’ The Greek word ‘kathisma’ means ‘seat’ or ‘stall’… signifying that at this point those attending may sit for the Psalm readings – which in the monasteries, can be quite lengthy.
For the Sunday Matins resurrectional service, the 2nd and 3rd Kathismata are read. These Psalms are remarkable in their prophetic clarity describing the passion of Christ – we hear about the piercing of His hands and feet, the casting of lots to divide His garments, and other incredibly vivid descriptions of the sufferings of Christ – all prophesized 1,000 years before Christ’s appearance on earth.
We now come to the most festive point of the Matins service, the polyeleos and preparation for the Gospel. We will save our exploration of this highlight and the remainder of the Matins service for next time.
In the evening Vespers service we re-live the dawn of creation and the anticipation of the Old Testament longing for our Savior. In the Matins service we begin by hearing the angelic announcement of the birth of Christ the Savior, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men’. Just as the morning hours lead us from darkness toward light, the Matins service draws us further and further into the light of the New Testament revelation of Christ.
May God grant this progression from darkness toward light in all aspects of our life!
Quotations from Fr Viktor Potopov - http://fatheralexander.org/booklets/english/vigil_v_potapov.htm