Friday, December 4, 2009

Vesperal Liturgies

I have to admit that one of the things I did not like about modern Lutheranism is how feast days were always transferred to Sundays or almost ignored because they occurred on days of the week. After all, church should only be on Sunday mornings, right? That attitude, among many other reasons, forced me to look outside of Lutheranism to find my spiritual home and thus became Orthodox.

However, one of the things that really just rubbed me the wrong way was the practice of many parishes, particularly of Antiochian ones, where rather than celebrate the full cycle of services for the feast or major saint, it is truncated into a Vesperal Liturgy celebrated the night before. Vesperal Liturgies, traditional ones, that is, are found only on the Eves of Christmas and Theophany as well as during Wednesdays and Fridays in Great Lent, though these Lenten Liturgies are often called Presanctified Liturgies. A Vesperal Liturgy will begin like Vespers through Psalm 140 and then the chanting of O Gladsome Light but the Priest will enter with the Gospel Book (similar to the Little Entrance in Liturgy) and then the troparia of the feast are then chanted and the Liturgy proceeds as normal.

These new Vesperal Liturgies essentially cheat the Orthodox Christian of the great hymnography of the feast and the saints. The Aposticha of Vespers is not chanted at all, Matins is not celebrated at all. It essentially combines two services into one. The reasons priests celebrate these evening divine Liturgies are mainly pastoral rather than theological and I understand that a priest must be sensitive to both pastoral and theological demands. The pastoral demands center around the fact that most Americans work an 8-5 day and thus cannot attend Orthros and Liturgy in the morning of the Day of the feast so everything is done the night before. And then there's also the fact that chanters may also not be readily available either, let alone a choir for Russian-typicon churches.

Again, priests justify these Vesperal Liturgies because of the time constraints of the average American. But what is forgotten, and this is pivotal, is that time is sacred. When we usurp the Divine Liturgy like this we have corrupted the sacred time of the calendar. We, as Orthodox Christians, are called to live a liturgical life which is governed by the calendar because that is a microcosm of the Life in Christ and the saints. It is liturgical hubris to simply do that in the name of pastoral concerns without taking into account the theological questions. Granted, most Orthodox Christians would not even look into this from such a theological standpoint, but it cannot be ignored: time is sacred.

And I think that the sacred time angle is most pertinent when examining the need for these Vesperal Liturgies. His Grace, Bishop TIKHON of the OCA had this in particular to say:

One may say, "Well, that's all right for Theophany and Nativity and Great and Holy Sabbath, but what about authorizing the Evening Vesperal Liturgy for the other Feasts?" But to serve the Divine Liturgy of one of the Twelve Great Feasts at an even later hour of the day than the Divine Liturgy of a strict fast day (actually, at the time of the Pre-Sanctified Liturgies of the Great Fast) would be to completely discard any kind of sense or rationality, such as breathes from every page of the Typikon, from our Church's sanctification of TIME.

I think Bishop TIKHON's analysis is spot on and you can read the whole thing on Vesperal Liturgies here.

Last night I went to church expecting to chant Vespers for St. Barbara and St. John the Damascene. To my surprise, Fr. Elias told me we were doing the Vesperal Liturgy. I replied that I was not prepared to do an entire Liturgy (as the music I chant for the Liturgies on weekdays is different than what I am used to doing) and that I couldn't partake of the Liturgy anyway as I was not prepared because I just had dinner and hadn't prayed the service of preparation. To be honest, I was infuriated. The Vespers service, the complete Vespers service, to these two great saints of the Holy Orthodox Church should not be merely excised for the sake of serving the Liturgy.

I wonder why is it that many Orthodox will only come to church to receive the Eucharist? Granted, the Eucharist is important, necessary for our lives in Christ. It is the great medicine to heal us from our infirmities. But I think that a lot of people view the sacrament as a type of "reward" for coming to Liturgy. "Well, I sat through an hour and a half of prayers and hymns and now I get my reward" as if going to church was to somehow merit this. Such a view is not only embarassing, but it is also a cheapening of the mercy and grace Christ has bestowed simply because he is merciful and abundant in grace. Is it a wonder that no one comes to Vespers or Orthros? There's no reward or there's too much work involved. As much as I know that I have come to the fullness of the faith, I know that many of the same attitudes I left behind in Lutheranism are just as prevalent among the Orthodox faithful. Perhaps it's not a problem of Lutheranism at all; perhaps it's just a problem of many Christians being spiritually lazy regardless of their particular confession.

So, what is the remedy? Laypersons are not monastics nor should they be unless they are called to that. It is difficult if not impossible to live the life of a monk while working in the world and thus it is more difficult to celebrate the offices and Liturgies when you are concerned with providing for your family. But providing for your family does not preclude praying and celebrating the feasts. It may not be as often, not even a 50-50 split. But, above all, priests, especially Antiochian priests, need to shelve the pastoral reason and catechize the faithful. Just because one works in the world does not mean that the Tradition of the Church has to change to accommodate him. Such is a very egocentric view, that the church should adapt to the individual. If you can't make it to church, you can't make it. But people should not come with the expectation that they should receive communion at a non-prescribed Liturgy because they can't do it otherwise.

Bishop TIKHON says that serving the Vesperal Liturgy actually does way more harm than good and I think it is eloquently put:

There are a few other liturgical factors that may mean something only to me and a few others, but I feel I should express them as your father and friend. Bear with me. The Twelve Great Feasts of our Lord have Festal Antiphons (unlike the Eves of Theophany, Nativity, and Pascha) that proclaim in Psalm and Troparia the triumphant and festal nature of the day. In a "Vesperal" Liturgy, these are suppressed, and the Divine Liturgy begins with Vespers, as on a Strict Fast day. Further, the Twelve Great Feasts are distinguished from other Feasts by having an All-Night Vigil, that includes Matins with all its rich, beautiful hymnody, full of doctrine and sacred history. Even in parishes that serve the Matins in the morning, the Faithful are not deprived of this beauty and "on-going education" provided by the provisions of our Holy Typikon. To serve a "Vesperal" Liturgy is to suppress that all, or to kill the possibility of the parish ever growing up into its full stature. I believe that nothing worthwhile was ever attained or will be attained by lowering our sights, our expectations. After all, we have not ever adjusted our life in Church to conform to our own sinfulness. Our fallen sister Church has never ceased to condescend to the weakest of her members, especially regarding Fasting, while the Orthodox Church has never done so. The Romans lost their Wednesday fasting in the Middle Ages, retaining only their Ash Wednesday. In our times, they did away with their Friday fasting as well, retaining, in fact, only Good Friday. The Orthodox Church has never stopped hearing these words "Be ye perfect therefore as your heavenly Father is perfect." We have always considered that perfection IS possible with God's help, we have never considered that we have lost both image and likeness. We have never accepted the idea that "perfectionism" is a pathology in our life in Christ, as others may have.


  1. I enjoyed this post, as I have often had the same frustrations. One thing that bothers me, at least in my neck of the woods, is the absence of Vespers except on the eve of a great feast or very popular Saint. It's such a great service and we shortchange our spiritual lives by avoiding it.

  2. My thoughts exactly, Andreas.

    Why should we be shortchanged? I understand that it is difficult for most parishes to have daily services, but when they do, it should be according to the prescribed order of the typicon. That is why we have it.

  3. I disagree with Bishop Tikhon's 1979 letter for several reasons, among them are:

    1. He admits that ALL Liturgies used to be celebrated in the evening.

    2. He is forced to argue that the Holy Spirit brought about a change to morning Liturgies, but that the Holy Spirit could not possibly lead to a return to the original practice, even if that works out better for the Church in the USA. That is an interesting claim, but I rather doubt that it could be justified either theologically or historically.

    3. He is forced to disagree with his fellow hierarchs, as he admits that this has been discussed in his own Holy Synod and that they were not against it. Thus, he is presenting a lone opinion, hierarch though he was and an opinion that is not supported by his own fellow hierarchs.

    4. I understand the argument from the beauty of the troparia that most never hear anymore. But, you (and Bishop Tikhon) are forced to argue that it is better for our believers to hear they hymnography rather than to receive the Body and Blood of Christ. I would rather have them receive the Body and Blood of Christ. The hymnography will inform their mind. The Eucharist will give them life!

    5. Finally, the reality is that people are not going to use up all their vacation in order to attend the Twelve Great Feast Days. This IS NOT SIN on their part. And, it is sad when it is implied that people are sinful if they do not lose all opportunity to spend family time together on a vacation trip, etc., in order to attend the Twelve Great Feasts of the Church. There is a reason why Our Lord Jesus insisted that the Sabbath is created for man and not man for the Sabbath. The hierarchs who have permitted the Vesperal Liturgies have both returned to the early practice of the Church and have taken seriously that the Sabbath is for man and not man for the Sabbath.