Vespers

Vespers (Gk. hésperinos; Slav. večérnya) is the principal evening worship service of the Christian Church. In the Byzantine Rite, it serves as the beginning of the liturgical day. Vespers is normally celebrated between 4 PM and 8 PM, so that the lamps of the church are lit as darkness falls and the Hymn of the Evening ("O joyful Light") is sung.

Themes of the service

In the Byzantine Rite, the most basic theme of Vespers is the appearance of Christ as the light of the world. God created the world in light, and established darkness as well, to be ruled by the moon and the stars. But through sin, men and women create a deeper and spiritual darkness, which resists light, and rejects knowledge and love. Christ came into the world as light into darkness, enlightening human beings, teaching and leading them to God, and it is Christ whom we welcome into our assembly at Vespers.

Vespers also emphasizes God's wisdom and love. Every celebration of Vespers begins with the singing of Psalm 103, a hymn of praise and gratitude for creation. Psalms and readings help us understand God's wisdom and make it part of our lives. On feast days, bread, wheat, wine, and oil are blessed and distributed, as tokens of God's care for us.

God's providence is also shown in the history of salvation. In the variable hymns of Vespers we recall the events of the life of Christ and of the saints, as well as in the themes assigned to each day of the week. Through these hymns (which in our church are sung by all those present), we learn how to see all these things in the light of God's desire to redeem the world in love.

Our response to this knowledge is intercessory prayer. In the litanies of Vespers, we pray for the the needs of others, asking for God's especial and continuing care. These prayers are especially solemn on feast days, when we go in procession to the vestibule of the church, or even outside the church, to pray fervently for the world and its needs.

Finally, we pray for safety during the night, and for deliverance from sin and from "all that might ensnare our souls." This (principally found in the priest's prayers) is continued at Compline.

Outline of the service

In the Byzantine Rite, there are three kinds of Vespers celebrations:

The following table shows the parts of the service for Great Vespers and daily Vespers.

Great Vespers Daily Vespers
Blessing by priest: "Blessed is our God..."
Psalm 103: "Bless the Lord, O my soul"
Litany of Peace
Readings from the Psalter
Small Litany
 Psalms 140, 141, 129 and 116, with stichera
The Hymn of the Evening: "O joyful light"
Prokeimenon
Lessons from the Old Testament
Prokeimenon
Litany of Fervent Supplication  
Hymn of Glorification: "Make us worthy, O Lord"
Litany of Supplication
Litija procession, with stichera
Litany of the Litija
 
Aposticha
Song of Simeon: "Now you may dismiss your servant, O Lord"
Trisagion, etc., and the Lord's Prayer
Troparion Troparion and Theotokion
Blessing of bread (if litija was held) Litany of Fervent Supplication
Blessing by priest
Dismissal

On the eves of certain feast days, Vespers is combined with the Divine Liturgy, according to the Typikon. The readings of Vespers are followed by the Trisagion ("Holy God") of the Divine Liturgy.

During the Great Fast, Vespers is combined with a solemn service of Holy Communion to form the Divine Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts.

A Guide to Vespers

Follow the links to find out more about each part of the service.

Customary prayers at the start of a service
We meditate on God's wisdom and providence
We sing of God's coming into the world
The Entrance and Readings
The clergy enter the sanctuary, and we listen to Sacred Scripture
The Prayers
We pray for our brothers and sisters in Christ
The Procession
We go forth to pray for the whole world, then return to the church
The Dismissal
Final hymns and blessing

Texts and sources

The official Church Slavonic texts for Vespers can be found in the Ruthenian Služébnik (for the priest and deacon) and the Ruthenian Časoslóv (for the cantor, choir and people).  Depending on the day, these texts must be supplemented from the Octoechos, the Triodion, the Pentecostarion, and the Menaion.

(Throughout much of the twentieth century, the most commonly used books for Vespers and Matins were the Velikij Sbornik, which contains Saturday evening Vespers, Sunday Matins, and Sunday evening Vespers for the Sundays and major feasts of the year; and the Basilian Vecernya i Utrenya, a two-volume set with more detailed materials for the same celebrations, to be used by clergy and cantors.)

Until recently, there was no official English text for Vespers; the Uniontown Office of Vespers was commonly used, along with Vespers booklets made up for various feasts and special occasions.

In 2005, the Intereparchial Liturgy Commission of the Byzantine Catholic Metropolia of Pittsburgh prepared a translation of the common parts of the Office of Vespers.  This translation has been used in the following publications of the Metropolitan Cantor Institute (see the Publications page for more information):

The Metropolitan Cantor Institute also provides the proper parts of Vespers (with music) for all Sundays and feasts, through this website, and Father David Petras has prepared a booklet with the priest's and deacon's parts for Great Vespers with Litija.

Rubrics for the celebration of Vespers can be found in sections 29-73 of the Ordo Celebrationis.  Separate rubrics are given for "Vespers with a Vigil" (i.e,, when Litija is celebrated) and "Vespers without a Vigil";  directions for the All-Night Vigil are also provided.   The Typikon contains detailed instructions for the variable parts of Matins on any given day.

Vespers in the life of the Church

In Europe in the last century, Vespers was celebrated in church on Saturday evenings, as well as on the vigils of feasts; in some places, it was celebrated on Sunday evenings as well. Even daily Vespers was sometimes held in village or city churches.

Unfortunately, in this country Saturday evening Vespers is seldom celebrated, being displaced by an evening Divine Liturgy, or omitted endirely. Parishes which desire to restore a richer liturgical cycle might  fittingly begin with celebrating Great Vespers each Saturday evening. In those parishes where eliminating a Divine Liturgy is not presently feasible, it might be desirable to celebrate Vespers together with an evening Divine Liturgy.

Great Vespers takes about an hour to celebrate if the Psalter and Old Testament readings are used; perhaps 45 minutes if they are omitted, and a bit longer if Litija is held.

Vespers can be celebrated in the home, or in parish or mission settings, even when a priest is not available to lead the service.  For more information, see Reader Services.

Recommended reading