Source: St. Elias Parish
Vespers is held on Saturday evening every week (7:00 p.m.). On the eve of major Feast Days, Great Vespers (or Vigil) is also served.
Sunset marks the beginning of the next day in the Church calendar (following Jewish Tradition). Hence Saturday evening is the start of Sunday (just as the Jewish Sabbath begins on Friday evening). It has its origins in the Service of Evening Prayer from the which welcomes the advent of the Holy Sabbath. Just as it’s precursor was the first Prayer Service of the Sabbath, so also is Great Vespers the 1st service of the Lord’s Day. The 2d Service of Sunday is Matins (Utrenya). Divine Liturgy is actually the 3d service of Sunday.
The Norm of the Church is that all the Faithful should be present, not just at Sunday morning Liturgy, but at all the Divine Services of the Resurrection. At the very least, in addition to Divine Liturgy, one should attend either Vespers or Matins.
In the Slavic tradition, it is common to combine Great Vespers and Matins into the “Vigil” Service of Saturday evening (the “Vsenochnya”). In the Greek and Melkite tradition, it common to combine Matins and Divine Liturgy.
According to Fr. Alexander Schmemann, there are 4 themes to Great Vespers:
1. Creation (Psalm 103: “in Wisdom you have Created all”)
2. The Fall (Psalm 141: “There is nowhere to run, no one to care for my soul”)
3. Salvation (Phos ‘Ilarion: O Son of God, You are the Giver of Life…”)
4. Parousia (Nunc Dimittis: Master, you kept your Promise, I have seen the salvation”)
The Priest intones: Blessed be our God, now and ever, and for ages of ages.
The Faithful respond: Come, Let us worship and bow down before the Lord Jesus Christ, our King and God.
Great Vespers begins with Psalm 103, a song celebrating Creation:
Bless the Lord, O my soul. O Lord, my God, You are great indeed. …
Clothed in majesty and splendour, robed in light as with a cloak.
You spread out the heavens like a tent-cloth, …making the clouds Your chariot,
You travel on the wings of the wind. You fixed the earth on its foundations…
From the ravines you make springs rush forth,…
they give drink to all the beasts of the field. The birds of heaven dwell on their banks,
from among their branches, they send forth their song.
The trees of the Lord drink their fill…there the sparrows make their nest,
in the tree-tops the stork has its home. For the wild goats there are the mountains,
for rock badgers the boulders and cliffs. Young lions roar for their prey,
seeking their food from God.
And the sea! Look how great and wide,
with its moving swarms past counting of living things both great and small.
You send forth your breath and they are created, and you renew the face of the earth.
May the glory of the Lord last forever, may the Lord take pleasure in all His works.
How manifold are Your works, O Lord, in wisdom You wrought them all.
(Follow this Link for a Sound-clip: Psalm 103, a Psalm of Creation)
After the Psalm, the lights are extinguished. The Deacon leads the Faithful in the Great Litany...”Lord Have Mercy.” Then the Psalms are sung: The Lord’s is salvation, for Your people Your Blessing! Rise up, O Lord. Save me, O my God….
Psalms are the central part of Vespers and are the direct descendant of the Jewish Evening Service which is the foundation Great Vespers.
Sin and the Fall
After the Little Litany, the Lamp Lighting Psalms are sung (Ps. 140, 141, 129, 116):
O Lord, I cry to You hear me! Let my prayer rise like incense before You. The lifting of my hands, like the evening sacrifice. Let not my heart turn to wrong,
to doing evening with wicked men…
My spirit faints within me, but You know my path…
You are my refuge, all I have left in the land of the living.
Listen then to my cry, for I am in the very depths of despair.
Rescue me from those who pursue me for they are stronger than I.
Set me free from this prison, so that I may praise your Name…
If You, Lord, mark our guilt, Lord, who would survive?
But with You is found forgiveness, for this we revere You.
From the morning watch till nightfall, let Israel count on the Lord.
For with the Lord there is mercy and fullness of redemption.
Strong is His love for us, without end His faithfulness…
The Great Incensation
During the Psalms, beginning at “Let my prayer rise like incense…”, the Deacon incenses the Holy Table, then the Altar, then the Iconostas, all the Faithful, and the entire Temple. In between the Psalm verses, the “Stikhera” are sung. These are short hymns which interpret the Psalms in light of the Feast of the day. For Saturday evening Great Vespers, the theme of the hymns are the Resurrection, as it is the first Sunday Service:
All you peoples, encircle Zion and dance merrily round about her,
giving glory to Him who is Risen from the dead..
Let us, unworthy as we are, stand by Your life-giving Tomb,
O Christ our God, and bring glory to our ineffable loving kindness, for sinless as You are, You have accepted Crucifixion and death in for to bestow Resurrection upon the world…
As a Lamb, He was led to the slaughter, He who bestowed Resurrection
upon the human race. As King of glory, Christ entered Hades, saying to those in fetters:
” Come out,” and to those in darkness, “Let light surround you.”
Wherefore the powers of Hades trembled and its gates flew open.
Let us bow down to Him in worship, for His love saves us from the ways of error…
You filled the world with light, your flesh being a mirror to your splendour….
Salvation- The Entrance and the Hymn of Light
The clergy come to the Centre of the Church into the midst of the Faithful – bearing Incense and Light. The Priest blesses the Entering of the Holy, praying:
“In the evening, in the morning, and at midday, we praise, bless,
thank and entreat You, O Master of all things.
“Rescue us from all those who hunt after our souls, for our eyes are fixed on You,
O Lord and on You do we count…”
All the candles of the Temple are lit. The Faithful sing that most ancient Hymn of Light, the “Phos ‘Ilarion“:
“Tranquil Light of the holy glory of the immortal, heavenly, holy, blessed Father,
O Jesus Christ,
as we come upon the sunset, as we see the evening light”
Follow this Link for a Sound-clip: “Svite Tykhiy” (O Gladsome Radiance)
Liturgy of the Word
The Great Prokimen (Psalm 92: “The Lord is King, robed in majesty…” introduces the appointed Old Testament Readings – usually 3 for Feast days. Then the Deacon leads the congregation in Insistent Litany. It’s hauntingly beautiful triple “Lord have mercy” -the needs of the Church and the entire world and any special petitions are requested as required. The Priest concludes: “For You are a merciful and loving God, and we give glory to You, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, now and ever….”
The Reader takes the “Kataxioson”:
“Favour us O Lord, throughout this evening… Let your love, O Lord, rest upon us
for we put our trust in You. Blessed are You, O Lord, teach us your statues…
Your love, O Lord, endures forever, do not forsake the work of Your hands…
Then the Deacon leads the Faithful in the Litany of Supplication: praying for an evening, perfect, holy, peaceful, and sinless; an angel of peace, a faithful guide and guardian of our souls and bodies and peace in the world. We bow our heads whilst the Priest concludes with the Prayer of Inclination:
You suspended the heavens over the earth, O Lord our God,
and then You came down from them to save us. Look upon our servants,
who bow their heads and bend their necks to You, their awesome but merciful Judge. They do not expect human help, but it is from You that they hope for mercy and salvation. Protect them…from all their enemies, from every assault of the powers of Hell, from vain and useless thoughts and from evil memories….
The Faithful now conclude hymnological commentaries on the Feast of the Day, inserted between the Psalm verses.
“The Ointment-bearing Women sought Him, lamenting with tears and saying:
‘ Woe to us, O Saviour of All! How did You accept of your own free will to dwell in the tomb? How were You stolen? And what place is hiding your body full of life?
But appear to us, O Lord, as You promised, and wipe away the tears of lamentation. ‘
an Angel cried out to them and said: ‘…God and tell the disciples
that the Lord is Risen and has bestowed forgiveness and great mercy upon the world.’ “
The Parousia (The Future Kingdom)
The Song of Simeon begins the final part of Vespers:
” Now, O Master, You have kept your promise, let your servant go in peace.
With my own eyes I have seen the salvation which You have prepared
in the sight of every people; a light to reveal You to the Gentiles,
and the glory of your people, Israel!”
A Reader then takes the Trisagion Prayers:
Holy God, Holy Mighty One, Holy Immortal One, have mercy on us.
Most holy Trinity, have mercy on us;
Lord, wash away our sins,
Master, forgive us our transgressions,
Holy One, visit and heal our infirmities for your Name’s sake.
The Lord’s Prayer: “Our Father…”
Now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in Peace according to Thy Word….
Finally, the tropars of the Sunday (the appointed thematic hymn of that Sunday) are sung. At this point, not only do the theme of the hymnology become Resurrectional, but also the music switches from the “Samohlasny” Tones into the “Resurrection Tones”, used during Matins and Divine Liturgy.
The Faithful are dismissed with the final Blessing:
May Christ our true God, who Rose from the dead, by the prayers of …the holy and illustrious apostles, St. Elias the Prophet, and all the Saints,
have mercy on us and save us…