The Church invites all her faithful children to make a journey with her, passing through the millenniums by Divine Providence in order to re-enter into communion with God’s love and, by retracing the long way already trodden, to live again the sacred events of our salvation. Thus, the next service in the Evening Cycle, Vespers, begins with the exclamation, “Blessed is our God…” without the Trinitarian invocation of the All-Night Vigil, “Glory to the holy, consubstantial and life-creating Trinity…, symbolizing that as yet, the name of the Holy Trinity has not been manifested. Vespers will lead through the Old Testament to the New and thus, appropriately, after the exclamation, the beautiful hymn of Creation, Psalm 104, is read.
At the All-Night Vigil, this Psalm is sung while the Priest censes the entire church, signifying that at the Creation, the Spirit of God, the True Light and Incense to the elect, moved over the face of the waters: “And the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters” (Gen. 2). The opened Holy Doors (closed at Daily Vespers) signifies that from the creation of the world, man was appointed to dwell in Paradise. This blessed condition, however, was of short duration, and the closing of the doors at the conclusion of the singing of Psalm 104, symbolizes the expulsion of man from Paradise and the barring of its gates by cherubim and a flaming sword: [God] drove out man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to guard the way to the tree of life (Gen. 3:24).
During the reading of Psalm 104 at Daily Vespers and at the conclusion of the censing at the All-Night Vigil, the Priest stands before the Holy Doors, reading silently the Prayers of Light, with head uncovered. He symbolizes Adam sorrowing before the closed gates of Paradise in penitence and humility. These prayers originally were called the Lamp-lighting Prayers, since the lamps in the church were lit at the setting of the sun. In these prayers the Lord Who dwells in the Ineffable Light is glorified as the Priest prays for the material light and the illumination of the soul.
This is followed by the Great Litany, which is sometimes called the Litany of Peace, since from the very first petition, “In peace let us pray to the Lord”, this theme is evident. Except for Sunday evenings and the evening after a Great Feast, the Great Litany is followed by a specially-appointed Kathisma (from kathizo I sit), one of the twenty divisions of the Psalter. On Feast Days and Saturday nights, the 1st Kathisma, “Blessed is the man…”, is sung either in part or in its entirety. This Psalm refers to the Savior and in it we sing, “Arise, O Lord, save me, O my God…”, which is addressed to the coming Resurrection.
This is followed by a censing of the whole church and the singing of Psalms 140, 141, 129 and 116, “Lord, I have called upon Thee, hear me…”. This expresses Adam’s repentance for his sins, as well as his request for the Paradise which he had lost; it also is his exhortation to his posterity that they should utterly obey the will of God. The prophetic verses from the Psalm, “Bring my soul out of prison…” symbolizes Old Testament humanity awaiting liberation from the darkness of the Old Covenant. To these verses are joined special Stikhera (hymns) which expand the particular theme of the day (Monday angels, Tuesday St. John the Baptist, etc.). In addition, there are compositions of praise for a particular Saint or Saints venerated on that day. The Stikhera may expand on a particular Feast which may be celebrated on that day, or expound upon the Resurrection Gospel which will be read at Matins (if it be Saturday evening). These Stikhera are taken from the Octoechos and/or the Menaion. (During the time of Triodion and the Pentecostarion, special Stikhera from these books are also sung here.)
The censing, at this point, has particular significance apart from that done at the singing of Psalm 104 of the All-night Vigil. It is the expression of our desire that our prayers, which after the Fall were unable to ascend to heaven without the mediation of Christ the Son of God, now by His intercession, like the smoke soaring upwards from the censer, ascends to the Lord God. It symbolizes that the Holy Spirit, by Whom the censer is blessed, is always present in the church and particularly enlightens us at the time of prayer. It signifies that the angels bear our prayers to God by means of the censer: “And another angel came and stood at the altar with a golden cense; and he was given much incense to mingle with the prayers of all the saints upon the golden altar before the throne…” (Rev. 8:3). It is also an imitation of the Old Testament ritual wherein God, through Moses, commanded Aaron to make such a censing in the tabernacle day and night (Ex. 30:7-8). The censing can also be seen as an image of the divine glory which came on the Tabernacle in the time of Moses (Ex. 40:27-35).
The last Stikheron, now sung at Now and ever… on Sundays or Great Feasts is called the Dogmatic, since, in addition to praise of the Most-Holy Theotokos, it contains certain dogmatic teachings concerning the person of Jesus Christ. On ordinary days, a Theotokion, a hymn of praise to the Theotokos, is sung at this point, which reminds us that the Theotokos was the Mediatrix of our salvation.
At the All-Night Vigil and Feast Days, the Holy Doors are opened and an entrance is made by the Priest, preceeded by a Deacon with the censer and a Candle-Bearer. The opened Holy Doors symbolize that with the coming of the Lord the gates of Paradise have been opened. The Deacon preceeds the Priest (who is an Icon of Christ) as if he were St. John the Forerunner, and the candle going before denotes the spiritual life brought to earth by the Savior.
The hymn, “O Jesus Christ, the Joyful Light…” (O Gladsome Light… in some translations), as the first ray of the New Testament light, is now sung. It tells us that the light of the sun, the created, creature light, is not the same as the light uncreated and divine. The golden light of evening is a symbol pointing to another Divine Light, in the same way as the world below is an image and likeness of the primary world above.
From this moment of the prayer, “O Jesus Christ…”, Vespers becomes more and more oriented towards the Savior and salvation. If, up till now, the prayers of Vespers have been basically penitential in character and have expressed the mood of the old nature which belongs to [the] former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful lusts (Eph. 4:22) and has consisted of Psalm-singing and readings, largely from passages written before the birth of Christ, so now the captivity of the soul is coming to an end: the darkness is dispersed by the rising light of the New Testament.
Solemnly and joyously the Church glorifies the humble event of the Incarnate Word. The Old Testament supplications to and hope in the ever-springing fountain of life and truth are answered in the fulfillment of the New Testament, in the entry into the world, into the prayerful foregathering of believers, of the true Light of Life Jesus Christ, the Son of God. The entrance bearing a lantern which symbolizes the invisible rising and presence amongst the worshippers of Christ Himself and the singing of the prayer, “O Jesus Christ, the Joyful Light…”, which teaches the true meaning of this light-symbolism are together the central moment of the Vesper Service.
At last peace reigns in the soul; the world sinks into darkness but the wondrous light in the soul grows and widens; and the Christian can no longer tear away his marveling eyes. Our eyes are lifted up to the Lord our God Who this day has shown great bounty towards us.
At the conclusion of this hymn, the Prokeimenon (Alleluia at certain other times e.g., the Service for the Dead on Memorial Saturdays) is appointed to be sung. These verses from the Psalms normally preceeded Scripture Readings and here is a remnant of the ancient practice of reading Old Testament lessons (preserved only on Great Feasts and the weekdays of Great Lent) at Vespers. There are appointed special Prokeimenon verses for each day of the week, which are connected with the particular theme of that day. For example, on Saturday evening the Prokeimenon, “The Lord is king…” stresses the coming of the Lord Who reigns in supreme beauty and majesty.
The Old Testament Readings (Paramaea Parable) which are read at this point on Great Feasts contain prophecies of the event commemorated on that day, or certain relevant materials pertaining to the Saint whose festival it is. (For certain Apostles, e.g., Sts. John, Peter, James and Jude, selections from their New Testament Epistles are read.)
At Great Vespers (All-Night Vigil) the Litany of Fervent Supplication is now chanted (characterized by the three-fold Lord, have mercy), although at ordinary Vespers it is transferred to the end of the Service. In this Litany we entreat mercy for all Christians.
After the Prokeimenon (Daily Vespers) or the Litany of Fervent Supplication (Great Vespers), the prayer, “Grant, Lord, that we may be kept this evening without sin…” is read. In abbreviated form, it corresponds to the Doxology which is read (Daily) or sung (Festal) at the end of Matins. After Grant, Lord… the Evening Litany (or Litany of Supplication) is chanted, wherein we specify which mercies we desire, and is characterized by the refrain, “Grant it, O Lord!”
After the Litany of Supplication, special hymns are sung in honor and memory of the person or event to which the services of that day are dedicated. These hymns are separated by verses taken from various parts of Holy Scripture which are related to the Saint or Feast and thus are called the Apostikha (or Stikhera (Verses) on Verses).
At Great Vespers (All-Night Vigil) the Apostikha is preceeded by the Litya (Lity a fervent prayer). The Litya, characterized by many repetitions of “Lord, have mercy!” is celebrated in the porch of the church or on the steps, or sometimes in the back of the church itself. In ancient times this was done in order that the Catechumens and Penitents who stood in the porch might participate in the gladness of the festival. The faithful and clergy came out with candles (symbolizing the Light of Christ come to sinners) to signify their humility and brotherly love towards those who had sinned. In our times the Litya serves to remind us that we must take care for our souls so that we may be worthy to enter into the House of God. After the Litya, the clergy return to the center of the church.
When the singing of the Apostikha has ended, the dismissal prayer of St. Simeon, “Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace…” (Luke 2:29-32) follows. Only now that we have traveled the long, hard road and seen at last the dawn of a new life, has our Christian soul acquired the right to ask leave to depart. The prayer is followed by the Trisagion and Lord’s Prayer, after which are sung the Troparia (hymns) relating to that day of the week or celebration, as well as a hymn of praise (Theotokion) to the Mother of God.
On Feast days, at this point, before a table on which have been placed five loaves of bread and three vessels one with wheat, one with wine, and one with oil the Priest makes the Sign of the Cross over the loaves and prays that the Lord may bless and multiply them. In the early Church, when the All-Night Vigil lasted until the morning, it was customary to distribute the common offerings of bread, wine and oil after the Vespers. Thus the faithful who intended to remain throughout the Service would be strengthened and refreshed. After the Priest had pronounced the final Blessing upon the people, he and the Deacon descended from the Altar, and sitting down with the people, they consumed with them the food which had just been blessed, during this time selections from the Acts of the Apostles, or from the Epistles, were read aloud. The distribution of the blessed bread during Feast-Day Matins to the faithful who have received the blessing by the anointing with the blessed oil, commemorates this in ordinary churches.
Vespers then concludes with the Litany of Fervent Supplication and the usual Dismissal (if Daily Vespers) or the response to the petition, “Blessed be the Name of the Lord”, henceforth and for evermore “The blessing of the Lord be upon you…” (if Great Vespers). The Vesper Service is thus filled with memories of the Creation, the Fall, the Expulsion from Paradise and the anticipation of the Coming of the Savior Who brings light to the world.
In this way the whole of Vespers, beyond which lies a new kind of creation, of spiritual life in God, passes beneath the Sign of the Cross, of repentance, of separation from the old, and ends in expectancy and acceptance of the new, true Light that is Christ. This Light shone steadily and peacefully, drawing to itself those who had formerly wandered in darkness and who had been sunk deep in the night, experiencing what it is to be apart from God, that they might come to a true awareness of their own weakness and learn humility.