As part of our foundational course in Orthodox Christianity, ‘For Behold, I Am With You’, Fr Andrew presented a talk on the Vigil service on 11 July 2012. It has been slightly edited, and presented below for your edification.
The Vigil service is an essential component of our worship. It is made up of three services: Vespers, which is the service appointed for sunset; Matins, which is the service appointed for sunrise; and the First Hour, a brief service appointed for about 7am. It is sometimes called the All-Night Vigil because in Palestine, where it originated, it began at sunset and went until dawn; in our parish today, the service takes between 2 and 2½ hours.
In the Orthodox Church, while the Liturgy is the central service, the other services are also essential, in order to prepare us for what is the Divine Liturgy – where bread and wine are made the Body and Blood of our Lord. The Vigil is one of the ways that we prepare to receive Communion.
Having a Vigil last for two-and-a-half hours may seem long. Yet, the spiritual life of us modern folk – and I’m speaking just as much to myself – is collapsing because of our impatience to achieve results. It doesn’t work like that, we need time and effort, consistent effort, to achieve the results we need. Our Vigil service takes time seriously, and relates to the history of salvation. Christ taught that we should ‘watch and pray’, not knowing the hour of his return, training ourselves to live in expectation of His coming again – firstly, as part of His Church, communing at the Liturgy; and secondly, awaiting His return in glory to judge the world and inaugurate His Kingdom. In our day, there is no question after a Vigil that we have been in church, keeping watch, focusing on the ‘one thing needful’ for our lives, making the Lord a priority above all else, and decompressing from the stresses of the rest of the week.
We often think of church services in terms of its text – a beautiful text, an educational text, a text that teaches the faith through vivid, poetic language and then sets it to music. Yet, in an Orthodox service, this isn’t the only factor that we can look at. Orthodox services involve movement, including the sign of the cross, bows and prostrations, venerating icons, the faithful going for confession. There is also the movement from the altar to the nave and back, and sometimes through the body of the nave, that the clergy make. We also stand a lot in our services – as you can see from our lack of seats. There is the fact that we are singing, which is always festive, and intoning, which is usually less festive. This represents that the restored man, the new Adam, doesn’t just speak to God, but rather sings to Him with the choirs of angels. Singing is a liturgical expression of festive joy. There are also different times when the lights are on or off – when the light is on, it represents the new time ushered in by Christ, the Light of the world; whereas the darkness represents the time before His birth, the Old Testament time – and different parts of the service represent different times. In many other parishes, there are bells which sound at different parts of the services. The fact that the service is composed of Vespers and Matins indicates that the Church sanctifies all of time, with both of the major services of a day completed. When we return home after Vigil, we continue our vigilance – where the Vigil is preparation, the Liturgy is fulfilment of this preparation through receiving the Eucharist.
The Vigil itself begins in silence with the sound of censing, representing the initial movement of the Spirit of God over the void at the beginning of the world. The silence is broken with ‘Arise, Lord bless’, an invitation to the only creature that stands upright (which, by the way, is why we stand so much in services). We then begin the service, call to worship with ‘O Come let us worship’, then sing Psalm 103, the psalm of creation – the first theme of Vigil – while the priest continues the censing around the inside of the church of all people, both those alive in the church building, and those alive in Christ. The Great Litany is intoned, with a number of petitions for peace, health and faith, in prayer to God. After this is the Kathisma, which in current practise means that selected verses from psalms 1-8 are sung. After this is ‘Lord I have called’, emphasising the second theme of repentance, while censing occurs – which is appropriate with the second verse being ‘Let my prayer arise to Thee as incense’. Various verses are inserted into the concluding verses, centred today mostly around Sts Peter and Paul, before the Entrance of Vespers and the signing of ‘O Gladsome Light’, a hymn that dates to at least the third century, introducing the third theme of Vespers – Redemption, Christ the Light coming into the world to dispel the darkness of night, of sin and evil. We then sing the prokeimenon, a psalm verse of the day of the week, a turning point of the service where the new day begins. Tonight, we will have 3 readings from the New Testament to honour Sts Peter and Paul. Immediately after this are two other litanies with different focuses – while the Great Litany focused on the needs of the world, these two focus respectively on the needs of the local parish, and the needs and concerns of each person.
In our litanies, we often say ‘Lord, have mercy’. This isn’t talking about the ‘pity’ aspect that we often think of, but rather referring to the word it is translating – eléison, related to the word éleos, meaning ‘oil’. In this, we see the true meaning of ‘have mercy’ – to cleanse us, to heal us, and to make us fully and properly human again and in His image again.
On special feasts, at the end of the Vespers service will be the ‘Litia’, or Entreaty. It begins with the choir singing verses in honour of the feast, and the clergy and servers come from the altar to the Narthex, at the entrance of the building – representing here that the Church steps out of its milieu into the outer world, into the area where, traditionally, those unbaptised would stand. This complements the universal nature of the petitions, which encompass all humanity alive here and all those alive in Christ. After the petitions, as the choir sings the Aposticha verses (which also commemorate the feast), the clergy and servers move back into the Nave, or main body of the church, where the bread, wheat, wine and oil are censed and then blessed.
In contrast to the Vespers service, which has its themes of creation, the fall and evening, we are now beginning the Matins service, which talks about the end of night and the beginning of day. Night is also the image of death, and was when early Christians would especially pray. Night, being the reality of a Christ-less world, gives the feeling of fear, insecurity, even chaos, which only the Word of God – Christ – can take us from. In contrast, light comes from God; we can see, if we so choose, each day as a death and resurrection, a victory over night.
The first component of this is the Six Psalms, which is read in the centre of the church. The lights are totally out, signifying the darkness that the world was in at the coming of Christ. This especially is a time for prayer, for stillness and concentration, and is one of the few times in services when standing is mandated. There is even a rule that goes so far as to say that even one’s cough should be suppressed during this time.
The Six Psalms cover the range of experience and prayer in the Christian life, moving between confidence in God and gratitude for His salvation, and outcry from those in distress – between actualised salvation and potential salvation – but ultimately centred on penitence.
After these psalms are read, the Great Litany is intoned, and after this ‘God is the Lord’ is intoned. The first part, ‘God is the Lord and has revealed Himself to us’, is from Psalm 117, while the second part, ‘Blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord’ is from the Gospel, thus bringing together both prophecy and fulfilment in Christ. This is followed by troparia, or short hymns, of the feast, and then by kathisma readings from the Psalter (when it is encouraged that people sit).
After this is the Polyeleos, unmistakable from its multiple repetitions of ‘Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia’, the lights going on, the doors being opened and censing of the church. It recalls God delivering Israel out of Egypt from the Old Testament, and applies this in God delivering humanity out of sin in the New Testament. After this, in our liturgical practise, is the magnification – starting with ‘We magnify’, which is where the censing happens. If it were a Sunday, we would also sing the Evlogetaria of the Resurrection.
Following the Magnification are the Hymns of Ascent, generally centred around the Holy Spirit and thematically inspired by Psalms 119-133, and then the Prokeimenon, or psalm verse that precedes – in this case, the Gospel reading. A reading of the Gospel tonight will be regarding Sts Peter and Paul. We do ask God to allow us to hear the Gospel – because without His help, we’re unlikely to understand it, much less put it into practise.
After the Gospel reading is Psalm 50, the psalm of repentance in the light of all that God has done for us, and then the veneration of the icon of the feast while two Canons are sung and read. Please come forward to venerate the icon, to be anointed with oil that was blessed earlier in the service, and to received bread-mixed-with-wine. This isn’t Communion, so anyone is able to have this. The steps around it may look like a secret handshake, but after a while you notice small differences between what each person does. The steps are relatively simple – crossing ourselves and bowing a couple of times, then kissing the icon, crossing ourselves again and turning to the priest, who will anoint your forehead with oil; after this, kiss his hand, then take a piece of bread. If you’re in doubt, just follow the people in front of you!
While this is happening, and aftewards, we will be reading what is known as the canons. These canons are designed to speak a lot about the feast – most of the teaching you’ll find in this service will be from the canons. They consist of 9 odes, and are punctuated by small litanies. Odes 1-8 are based on Old Testament figures – Moses, Habbakuk, Isaiah, Jonah and so on. Ode 9 is based on the Magnificat – that is, the song of the Mother of God. The canon has rich theological material with lives of the Saints and the inner meaning of a feast, but it’s often a difficult time – being without movement, in darkness, mostly with one or two people reading. However, it is a time for the faithful to be vigilant and keep watch, through listening to the words and through prayer. It is normative to stand through it, but if you need to sit then feel free to do so. The Ninth Ode (also the final one) is punctuated by a censing of the church.
After this is the hymn of light, known as the ‘Exapostilarion’, followed by the Praises – verses from Psalms 148-150, interspersed with verses about the saint of the day. The doors are then opened, the lights put on and the Doxology sung. This is an old hymn, dating at latest to the third century, the morning hymn of the church. To conclude, the short hymn of the feast is sung, followed by two litanies – the Augmented Litany and the Litany of Completion – and then the First Hour is read.
The Vigil service is an integral part of a Christian’s preparation for meeting the Lord in Communion. It is a long service, one that allows us to de-stress from the week, and allows us to train for the spiritual life. Success in any avenue isn’t quick or easy – and that includes the spiritual life. And just like in any other avenue in life worth pursuing, the rewards are far greater than any inconvenience or temporary suffering. As St Paul says, ‘I reckon that the suffering of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that shall be revealed in us’ (Romans 5:18) – this from a man who was imprisoned, beaten and homeless for the sake of the Gospel. In a similar way, the small inconvenience of a Vigil trains us to participate in the glory of God.
The renewal of Christian life requires resisting earthly temptations and entertainment and rediscovering anew the life of prayer in the Church, in the face of our culture where Saturday night is a time for worldliness. It requires ‘committing ourselves and one another and our whole life to Christ our God’, as we say frequently in our services. For this reason, if you haven’t already done so, I encourage all of you to join us each Saturday night, and make the Vigil part of your week, and part of your preparation for then meeting Christ in Holy Communion.
Special thanks for our references, principally The All-Night Vigil – St Maximus the Confessor Orthodox Mission (Denton, Texas), and liturgics articles on Bp Alexander (Mileant)’s website.
For times when Holy Annunciation will be serving this service, please see our Schedule of Services. We hope to see you there soon!