A Historical Look at the Vespers Service

Vespers is the evening prayer service in the daily cycle of liturgical services.  It can be done every day of the year and is designed to be done at sunset each day. Archbishop Job Getcha offers us some idea as to when the various elements in our current Vespers service became part of the rubrics for Vespers.

“In the sung office, Psalm 103 followed Psalm 85 at vespers on Sunday evening. We do not know precisely when this psalm entered […] the first allusion to it appears in the seventy third of the Great Catecheses of Theodore the Studite (8th c.) […] During Psalm 103, the priest silently recites the presbyteral prayers taken from the Constantinople Euchologion, a reform introduced in the fourteenth century through the Diataxis of Patriarch Philotheos. […]

One thing we can note is that throughout history, Orthodox liturgical services have undergone changes.  Some changes were introduced for practical reasons, some for pastoral reasons.  After the 14th Century, many changes occurred in Orthodox liturgical rubrics as monastic practices replaced long standing liturgical practices in non-monastic parish churches.  The hymns and rubrics which make up our current services entered into the services in different centuries and reflect the changing nature of liturgical services.

Psalmist & Prophet David

Then follows the singing of the lucernarium – the evening psalms (140,141,129, and 116), the first of which formed part of the evening office already in the ancient Jewish Temple. It contains an allusion to the incense offered during the evening prayer and asks that this prayer may rise to God like incense. It is attested as well in the Account of John and Sophronios (7th c.) […] We note the presence of a refrain for the first two verses of Psalm 41:

Lord I call upon you, hear me. (Ps. 140.1)

Ref: Hear me, O Lord.

Lord. I call upon you, hear me. Receive the voice of my prayer when I call upon you. (Ps. 140.1)

Ref: Hear me, O Lord.

Let my prayer rise like incense before you, and let the lifting up of my hands be an evening sacrifice.

Ref: Hear me, O Lord.


 […] Vespers then continues with the evening hymn, ‘O Gladsome Light’, a hymn already referred to by St. Basil as very ancient. […] The Jewish tradition, in which is rooted the prayer of the very first Church of Jerusalem, also had the practice of offering thanks for the artificial light that was lit at sunset. The Book of Exodus in the Old Testament already witnesses to the fact that the Jews observed a ritual connected to the evening light: at the evening sacrifice, when the lights were lit, incense was offered to the Lord. The incense did not have the banal sense it has today (of ‘incensing’ objects), but was used only to symbolize the offering that rises towards God. The lamps were lit from a candle that burned permanently inside the Tent of the Covenant (see Lev. 24.1).

 It is interesting to note that this evening ritual was preserved by the Jews even after the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem: the Talmud reminded them that it is God himself that they praised and glorified in performing this ritual. The Church of Jerusalem inherited this tradition, and after the construction of the Anastasis complex around 335, it became customary to keep a lamp burning permanently in the Holy Sepulcher, from which all other lamps were lit at the proper moment in the Lucernare. […] This custom, originating from both Jewish and pagan antiquity, was thus taken up by the ancient Christ tradition. Tertullian (c. 160 – c. 225), in speaking of a Christian meal, indicates that, after the light is brought in, each Christian is to stand and sing a hymn to God, either taken from the Holy Scriptures or inspired from his heart. The Apostolic Tradition, attributed to St. Hippolytus of Rome (c. 215) indicates that at the evening office the deacon brings a lamp, and the bishop says a prayer of thanksgiving to God for the illumination from the immaterial light through his only-begotten Son, our Lord, Jesus Christ. St Gregory of Nyssa (c. 330- c. 395) in the Vita that he composed of his sister, St. Macrina, also mentions a hymn connected to the bringing of the light during the evening prayer. It is therefore in this ancient custom of giving thanks during the lighting of the lamps at sunset that the hymn was composed and became the hymn of Byzantine vespers. […]

The prayer, ‘Vouchsafe, O Lord’, follows, already attested to at this point in the service by the Account of John and Sophronios (7th c.).[…] Then the Canticle of Symeon (Lk. 2.19-32) is recited. … it is possible that this canticle was chosen in connection with the dismissal of vespers.” (The Typikon Decoded, pp 87-91)

“Lord, now You are letting Your servant depart in peace,
According to Your word;
For my eyes have seen Your salvation
Which You have prepared before the face of all peoples,
A light to bring revelation to the Gentiles,
And the glory of Your people Israel.”

(Luke 2:29-32)

3 thoughts on “A Historical Look at the Vespers Service

  1. Pingback: A Historical Look at the Vespers Service | Fr. Ted’s Blog | Khanya

  2. Pingback: A Historical Look at the Vespers Service | OrthodoxPost.com

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