If you come to attend a Vesper service or the Divine Liturgy, chances are that prayers are already read as you enter the Church. These are called the prayers of the Hours. The Hours are four relatively short prayer services of the daily cycle, which are connected with specific hours of the day.
In ancient times the day was separated into eight watches. The early church used to start each of these watches with a specific service, which made up the daily cycle of services.
• Vespers (sunset, 6:00 pm) – also known as Esperinos
• Compline (after dinner, 9:00 pm) – also known as Apodeipnon
• Midnight Office (midnight, 12:00am) – also known as Mesonyktikon, or Nocturns
• Matins (early morning, 3:00 am) – also known as Orthros
• First Hour (daybreak, 6:00am)
• Third Hour (mid-morning, 9:00am)
• Sixth Hour (mid-day, 12:00pm)
• Ninth Hour (mid-afternoon, 3:00pm)
This full cycle of daily services are rarely done in parishes, but often observed in monasteries. Notice that the Divine Liturgy is not part of the daily cycle, as the Liturgy transcends time and space. By participating in the Divine Liturgy we leave the mere confines of time, and enter into a foretaste of eternity, participating in “the age to come.”
Although each service of the daily cycle has a particular time traditionally associated with it, in current practice the services are more commonly served together in one of three “aggregations.”
• The Evening Aggregate usually consists of Ninth Hour, Vespers, and Compline. It commences shortly before sunset.
• The Dawn Aggregate usually consists of Midnight Office, Matins, and First Hour. It usually begins shortly before sunrise.
• The Midday Aggregate consists of Third Hour and Sixth Hour. The Divine Liturgy or Typika are often included in the Midday Aggregate.
Thus you will notice that the First Hour is read immediately following Matins. The Third and Sixth Hour immediately precedes the Divine Liturgy, and the Ninth Hour immediately precedes Vespers.
The Structure of the Hours
Each service of the Hours follow the same basic structure and format:
• The service opens with the priest’s exclamation “Blessed is our God…” and the Trisagion Prayers. (Note: this opening sequence is omitted if the service immediately follows another service.)
• Three chapters from the Psalter appointed for the particular Hour are read (First Hour: Psalms 5, 89, 100; Third Hour: Psalms 16, 24, 50; Sixth Hour: Psalms 53, 54, 90; Ninth Hour: Psalms 83, 84, 85)
• The troparion of the day is chanted.
• The theotokion and Psalm verses of the Hour are chanted.
• The Trisagion Prayers are prayed.
• The kontakion appointed for the Hour is chanted.
• The Prayer of the Hours: “Thou Who at all times and at every hour…” is prayed.
• The final prayer appointed for the Hour is prayed.
• The priest gives the final blessing and offers the Little Dismissal. (Note: this is omitted if another service will immediately follow.)