The Divine Services of the Orthodox Church Vespers - 2
Last week we began our exploration of the Saturday evening Vigil service, reviewing the first parts of the evening Vespers service. Today we will go over the remaining parts of the Vespers service.
We concluded last time with the Vespers entrance, when the priest, deacon and servers come out from the altar, proclaim ‘Wisdom, aright!’, and as the clergy re-enter the altar, the choir sings the beautiful hymn of praise to Christ ‘O Gladsome Light’: ‘…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.’
The priest or deacon then calls out ‘Let us attend’ and the priest bestows the blessing of peace to all the faithful saying, ‘Peace be unto all’. At this time, we are about to hear the Prokeimenon appointed for the day. The word Prokeimenon means ‘principle’ or ‘foremost’ and this name is given to the short verse from Holy Scripture that encapsulates the essence of the feast being celebrated. For our Saturday evening Vespers, we are anticipating the bright Resurrection of Christ, so the Saturday evening Prokeimenon is ‘The Lord is King, He is clothed with majesty.’ This verse emphasizes for us and celebrates Christ’s victory over death and His place upon the throne of heaven.
On important feast days or days where a special saint is to be celebrated, the Prokeimenon is followed by the ‘Paremia’ which means ‘parables’ – a series of readings, principally from the Old Testament, that foreshadow or are related in some way to the feast or saint being commemorated. After the readings, or if the readings are not done, following the Prokeimenon, the Royal Doors are closed again and the priest or deacon intones the Triple Ektenia or Augmented Litany.
The Triple Ektenia is so called because after each petition the choir sings ‘Lord have mercy’ three times. This Litany begins with the words, ‘Let us say with our whole soul and with our whole mind, let us say.’ Again the Church is calling us to attention, to calm ourselves and collect ourselves, to leave behind the anxieties and thoughts that assault us; instead, to completely focus and concentrate on our prayer.
We pray for God’s mercy; for the Church hierarchy; for this world and our country and homeland; for our departed loved ones; for mercy, life, peace, health, salvation, visitation, pardon and remission of our sins. The priest concludes these prayers with the exclamation, ‘For a merciful God art Thou, and the Lover of mankind, and unto Thee do we send up glory’ – we place our hope in God because He is merciful.
The reader then says the prayer, ‘Vouchsafe, O Lord, to keep us this evening without sin…’ We put our trust in God to protect us, to deliver us from the evil one, to keep us throughout the evening without sin.
The final Litany is called the Litany of Supplication… ‘Let us complete our evening prayer unto the Lord’. In this Litany we pray that the whole evening may be perfect, holy, peaceful, and sinless; we pray for an angel of peace, a faithful guide and guardian of our souls and bodies; forgiveness and remission or our sins; for all things good and profitable for our souls; peace for the world; that the remaining time of our life may be spent in peace and repentance; and that God will grant us a Christian ending to our life – painless, blameless, peaceful, and a good defense before the dread judgment seat of Christ.
At this point, on great feasts, the Litia is celebrated. ‘Litia’ is a Greek word meaning ‘common prayer’ or it can also mean ‘intensified prayer’ – these translations make sense and actually complement each other, for our Lord promised us that when two or more are gathered together in His Name, He will be there with us. Our common prayer together is indeed then ‘intensified’ prayer. If the Litia is to be celebrated, the clergy come out from the altar and assemble at the back of Church. A small table is placed in the center of the Church and on it are the breads, wheat, wine, and oil which will be blessed. After our prayers and commemorations in which we invoke the prayers of all the saints, the priest steps forward to bless the five loaves of bread, wheat, wine, and oil. In ancient times, many who attended the Divine Services would have traveled from great distances, it was the custom of the Church to give them strength for the long services with blessed food. The five loaves remind us of Christ’s miracle of feeding the five thousand with five loaves of bread. The oil which is blessed, is used later in the Matins service to anoint the faithful.
After the Litia, or if the Litia is not served, then right after the Litany of Supplication, the choir chants the Aposticha hymns. These are a few verses sung in specific commemoration for the feast or the saint being celebrated.
Vespers then ends with the reading of the prayer of Saint Simeon the God-Receiver. The story of St Simeon and the origin of his prayer are worth noting. St. Simeon was one of the seventy scholars who came to Alexandria to translate the Holy Scriptures into Greek. The completed work was called ‘The Septuagint’, and is the version of the Old Testament used by the Orthodox Church.
As he was translating the Prophet Isaiah, he read: ‘Behold, a virgin shall conceive in the womb, and shall bring forth a Son’ (Is 7:14). He had doubts that the word ‘virgin’ was correct, and he wanted to translate the text to read ‘young woman’. God sent an angel to him to hold back his hand, saying, ‘You shall see these words fulfilled. You shall not die until you behold Christ the Lord born of a pure and spotless Virgin.’ And so St Simeon faithfully translated the Prophet correctly, indicating that a virgin would give birth. St Simeon lived to an extremely old age. Finally, one day while at the Temple in Jerusalem, he at last beheld the Child Jesus. Inspired and guided by the Spirit of God, he took Christ into his arms, and with tears in his eyes after having waited for so long, the promise of the angel was fulfilled and he said, ‘Now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace, according to Thy word. For my eyes have seen Thy salvation which Thou hast prepared before the face of all peoples. A light to enlighten the Gentiles, and the glory of Thy people, Israel.’
Following this culminating moment which bridges the Old Testament with the New, final blessings are bestowed upon the faithful and the Vespers service concludes.
Vespers began with the silent censing around the holy altar, taking us back to the creation of the world. We now come to the conclusion of Vespers with the fulfillment of the longing and promise of the Old Testament, God’s salvation which He prepared before the face of all peoples – Christ our Lord.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, through the wisdom and beauty of the Divine Services, the Holy Church places before our eyes and brings to our ears the true and spiritual history and meaning of this life. Let us understand and appreciate all the richness to be had from our Divine Services. Let us make every effort to participate in them – even if the services are conducted in a language we do not understand – if we take the time, as we are doing here, to learn and get a sense of what is spiritually happening in the rubrics of the services, we will recognize what is happening and be able to follow along. Our soul will understand what is being said and we will derive tremendous spiritual benefit and blessing from our presence at the Divine Services. May God bless us and give us strength that through our hunger and thirst after righteousness we may be filled.