The Divine Services of the Orthodox Church - The Cycle of Services
I mentioned last week that we will begin a series of sermons on the Divine Services of the Orthodox Church. It is our hope and prayer that through familiarizing ourselves with the order and meaning of the Divine Services, we will grow in our appreciation of the richness, beauty and profound spiritual benefit contained in understanding and participating in the services of the Church.
Before getting into the rubrics of the vigil service itself, let’s begin by talking for a moment about the Orthodox conception of time. Our modern, worldly lives are often run by the clock… we mark each day from midnight to midnight, and, for many modern people, the primary markers of the day are the meal times (breakfast, lunch, and dinner); the morning and evening commute to and from work; and the half hour or hour segmentations of the evening that dictate what time our favorite television shows might come on. Our week is divided by the work week of Monday through Friday and the cherished weekend of Saturday and Sunday. Our sense of time tends to be very linear… a progression from past toward the future – always looking ahead and often living in anxious anticipation of what’s next and an epidemic sense of ‘hurriedness’.
Orthodoxy draws its sense of time from several sources: from its intimate connection with the eternal; from the rich inheritance of the yearly cycle of feasts and fasts; from the weekly commemorations and dedications; and from the daily cycle of services and prayers that mark the hours of the day.
The Orthodox concept of time, while it does proceed in a linear fashion from past toward the future, encompasses a cyclical rhythm to the year, the week, and the day. The Orthodox yearly calendar is marked by our commemorations of the saints celebrated each day and by the yearly cycle of feasts and fasts that draw us into the life of Christ and of the Church. The Nativity of Christ, Theophany, Transfiguration, Great Lent, Pascha, Ascension, Pentecost, and many more… all of these great feasts and observances help us to re-live these holy events and to enter into that world of eternity with Christ, the Mother of God, and the Saints.
In addition to the annual feasts and commemorations, each day of the week is dedicated to certain special and holy things: Sunday is the day of resurrection, celebrating Christ’s rising from the dead; Monday honors the holy angels; Tuesday remembers the prophets and, chief among them, John the Baptist; Wednesday is consecrated to the Cross of Christ, as being the day of Judas’ betrayal – this is why each Wednesday is a fast day; Thursday honors all the sainted bishops and especially St Nicholas the Wonderworker; Friday is also dedicated to the Cross, being the day of the crucifixion – and is also a fast day for this reason; Saturday is dedicated to the saints - especially the Mother of God – and also is a day of remembrance of our dear ones who have died.
The daily cycle follows a more ancient marking of time which sets the clock for the new day according to the setting of the sun. The night is divided into the following four sections or watches: evening (from 6pm – 9pm according to our modern timekeeping); midnight (from 9pm – 12am); the ‘cock-crow’ (from 12am – 3am); and morning (from 3am – 6am). The day was also divided into four watches or hours: First Hour (from 6am – 9am); Third Hour (from 9am – 12pm); Sixth Hour (from 12pm – 3pm); and the Ninth Hour (from 3pm – 6pm). Each of these 8 divisions of the night and day are marked by special prayer services. Vespers, Compline, Nocturnes, and Matins are the nighttime services. The First, Third, Sixth, and Ninth Hours are the services for the daytime.
Trying to remember all those details is not important… what is important is to recognize the cyclical rhythm of prayer which creates structure to the day, to the week, and to the year and elevates and focuses our experience of time as an offering to God and an opportunity for us to get a glimpse and enter into the otherworldly Kingdom of Heaven which exists in eternity.
And so, as we look ahead to examining the Saturday evening Vigil service and the Sunday morning Divine Liturgy, we see that, according to the Orthodox reckoning of time, our observance and celebration of the Lord’s Day takes place in two parts… we begin at the start of the day, in the evening, with the Vigil service and we culminate our celebrations in the morning with the Divine Liturgy. If our Sunday church attendance is only restricted to the Sunday morning liturgy, we are actually missing out on the entire first part of our Sunday observances and prayers – which happen the evening before in the Vigil service.
The Vigil service, or ‘All Night Vigil’ as it is properly called, is a combination of the evening Vespers service, and the morning Matins and First Hour services. In the monasteries, you get to experience the full meaning of why this is called the All Night Vigil… as the service begins in the evening and lasts throughout the night, taking you into the morning and rising of the sun, after which you roll straight into the celebration of the Divine Liturgy. In the parish churches, the All Night Vigil has been greatly abbreviated in its present form and will commonly take about 2 to 3 hours.
Just as a familiarization with the Old Testament helps us to gain a more complete view of the significance and impact of the appearance and work of Jesus Christ, so too does our participation in and familiarization with the Vigil service give us a more complete view of the significance and impact of the Divine Liturgy. As we will begin to see starting next week, the Vigil service unfolds before us the entire history of God’s work and interaction with mankind – we are spiritually transported to the very dawn of creation, we hear the voices of the prophets announcing the coming of the Messiah, and we begin to celebrate the glorious coming of the long awaited Messiah, our Lord Jesus Christ.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, one of the greatest and most neglected gifts which God gives to us is time. Time is so precious, and one of the greatest and most neglected gifts which the Church gives to us is the sanctification of that precious time with the yearly, weekly, and daily cycle of feasts, fasts, and services. May God give us the wisdom and the strength to cherish and redeem whatever time we are given here in this life. As St Herman of Alaska instructed, ‘from this day, from this hour, from this moment, let us strive to love God above all else, and seek to do His holy will.’