Vespers (in Greek εσπερινός, Esperinos) is the Orthodox evening service. In the Orthodox Church the liturgical day begins in the evening with the setting of the sun. This practice follows the Biblical account of creation:
“And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.” (Gen 1:5)
The Vesper service in the Church always begins with the chanting of the evening psalm:
“…the sun knows it’s time for setting, Thou makest darkness and it is night…” (Psalm 104: 19)
This psalm, which glorifies God’s creation of the world, is man’s very first act of worship, for man first of all meets God as Creator.
“Bless the Lord, oh my soul, 0 Lord my God, Thou art very great … O Lord, how manifold are Thy works! In wisdom hast Thou made them all. The earth is full of Thy creatures.” (Ps 104:24)
Following the psalm, the Great Litany, the opening petition of all liturgical services of the Church is intoned. In it we pray to the Lord for everyone and everything.
Following this litany a number of psalms are chanted, a different group each evening. These psalms normally are omitted in parish churches though they are done in monasteries. On the eve of Sunday, however, sections of the first psalm and the other psalms which are chanted to begin the week are usually sung even in parish churches. Psalm 141 is always sung at Vespers. During this psalm the evening incense is offered:
“Lord, I call upon Thee, hear me. Hear me, O Lord. Let my prayer arise in Thy sight as incense. And let the lifting up of my hands be an evening sacrifice. Hear me, O Lord.” (Psalm 141)
At this point special hymns are sung for the particular day. If it be a Church feast: songs in honor of the celebration are sung. On Saturday evenings, the eve of the Lord’s Day, these hymns always praise Christ’s resurrection from the dead. The special hymns normally end with a song called a Theotokion, which honors Mary, the Mother of Christ.
Following this, the vesperal hymn is sung. If it be a special feast or the eve of Sunday, the celebrant will come to the center of the church building with lighted candles and incense. This hymn belongs to every Vesper service.
“O Gladsome Light of the holy glory of the Immortal Father, heavenly, holy, blessed Jesus Christ. Now we have come to the setting of the sun and behold the light of evening. We praise God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. For it is right at all times to worship Thee with voices of praise, O Son of God and Giver of Life, therefore all the world glorifies Thee.”
Christ is praised as the Light, which illumines man’s darkness, the Light of the world and of the Kingdom of God which shall have no evening (Isa 60:20, Rev 21:25).
A verse from the Psalms, the prokeimenon, follows — a different one for each day, announcing the day’s spiritual theme. If it be a special day, three readings from the Old Testament are included. Then more evening prayers and petitions follow with additional hymns for the particular day, all of which end with the chanting of the Song of St Simeon:
“Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace according to Thy word, for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation: which Thou hast prepared before the face of all people. A light for revelation to the Gentiles, and to be the glory of Thy people Israel.” (Lk 1:29-32)
After proclaiming our own vision of Christ, the Light and Salvation of the world, we say the prayers of the Thrice-Holy (trisagion) through to the Our Father. We sing the main theme song of the day, called the Troparion, and we are dismissed with the usual benediction.
The service of Vespers takes us through creation, sin, and salvation in Christ. It leads us to the meditation of God’s word and the glorification of His love for men. It instructs us and allows us to praise God for the particular events or persons whose memory is celebrated and made present to us in the Church. It prepares us for the sleep of the night and the dawn of the new day to come. On the eves of the Divine Liturgy, it begins our movement into the most perfect communion with God in the sacramental mysteries.