Attending Vespers at St Mark's allows us to mark the beginning of a new Church day and prepares us for fuller participation in the Divine Liturgy the following morning. For first time visitors the actual Vespers service can be difficult to follow as we switch between the standard prayers and designated hymns in the Vespers book and the printed Vespers supplement sheet; additionally some of the terms used can be quite unfamiliar. We hope the following explanation can ease your understanding and enhance your participation in Vespers at St Mark's.
Overall the Vespers service is patterned on the concept of our personal salvation history beginning with creation and reaching fulfillment in the Resurrection. With the beginning of the call of the faithful, the censing of the church, the litanies of supplication and the Nunc Dimitis or Song of Saint Simeon (Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant to depart in peace ...) we are walked through the path of salvation offered with the Orthodox Church in a very personal way.
Visitors will notice most every part of the service is sung whether using the eight Tones or plainsong verse. Both of these modes of singing are deeply rooted in the city and desert traditions of Orthodox worship. Visitors may not initally recognize the Orthodox hymns which are an integral part of the service. They are not hymns of the type commonly found in Roman Catholic and Prostestant churhes; those are the rhyming types most folks are familiar with. Orthodox hymns are somewhat older and they are based in the Psalms. They were originally written in Aramaic, Syriac, Latin and Greek and have been translated into English and generally follow a rhythmic pattern that can be discerned upon close listening.
All of the following terms refer to types of hymns of the Orthodox Church and you will see them mentioned in the Propers supplement sheet:
- aposticha refers to a set of hymns (individually referred to as stichera) that will be sung at the end of Vespers.
- Kontakion is a hymn with a particular theme. It was originally a homily done in verse.
- Prokeimenon is a hymn sung before a specific scriptural reading.
- Stichera are the typical hymns used at Vespers.
- Troparia are short hymns of one stanza.
In addition to the types of hymns you will encounter references to different Tones (melodies) used to sing the hymns. The Tones are properly referred to as Octoechos as there are eight of them. The tones are varied according to the liturgical calendar. The tone indicated on each section of the Vespers propers supplement sheet indicate what melody will be used for the following hymn.
There will be exceptions but the basic format of Vespers at St Mark's is that of Great Vespers as a Vigil and it begins with the opening call to prayer by the Deacon as Arise! Master bless! followed by the priest intoning Blessed is our God...
This is followed by the call to participate in worship as Come let us worship ...
Next comes the prayer that begins Bless the Lord O my soul... found in the Vespers book.
What follows next is the Great Litany led by the deacon which encourages us to participate in the litany with our response found in the Vespers book.
The litany is followed by the kathisma that begins Blessed is the man ... found in the Vespers book.
After the kathisma we participate in the Small (second) Litany found in the Vespers book.
Then comes the Lord I call upon thee ... followed by the stichera for that day. Typically ten are sung. These are indicated on the propers sheet. The first stichera verses will be found in the back of the Vespers book in the section indicated by the Tone. So if you see stichera verses (6) in Tone 8 we'd sing the first six stichera in the section of Tone 8 in the back of the book. The remaining stichera to be sung will be found on the supplement sheet.
The same pattern follows throughout Vespers. When the sheet indicates singing verses in a specific Tone and no hymn follows those verses will be found in the back of the Vespers book in the designated section. If a verse follows then the hymn will be sung from the propers sheet.
After the ten stichera comes the Dogmatic set by the tone on the supplement sheet and found in the back of the Vespers book.
The Evening Hymn follows and it begins O Gladsome Light... found in the Vespers book.
This is followed by the Prokeimenon assigned for that day found in the front of the Vespers book.
We respond to the Evening Litany again led by the Deacon and this is followed by the Evening Prayer that begins Vouchsafe O Lord ...
Then follows the Litany of Supplication and the Prayer at the Bowing of Heads found in the front of the Vespers book.
The Aposticha (found in the back of the Vespers book) come next, designated on the supplement sheet, and we follow this with the Song of Simeon that beings Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant to depart in peace... found in the front of the Vespers book.
Following this are the Trisagion Prayers that begin Holy God Holy Mighty ... and then the Our Father, found in the front of the Vespers book.
The Dismissal Troparion (on the supplement sheet) in sung and then we sing the responses to prayers offered by the priest found in the front of the Vespers book.
Vespers is traditionally followed by the Veneration of the Cross by all present.