The unique theological, spiritual, poetic, and artistic riches of Vespers help us to integrate more deeply into our lives the history of salvation. Fundamentally, Vespers is a prayer in which we alternately glorify the Lord, ask for his gifts, and repent for our sins.
In Psalm 103 we praise the Lord for his creation.
Then, in a series of penitential psalms (“Lord, I have cried out to you” – Ps140; 141; 129; 116) we express repentance and ask for forgiveness.
Important elements of Vespers are incense and light. The rising smoke of incense expresses our penitential prayer ascending to the Lord.
Then, in the ancient hymn “Tranquil Light,” we sing of Christ who, through the weakness that he endured on the cross, overcame the devil’s power and “gave life to all the world.”
In the hymn “Deign, O Lord,” we ask for protection from sin “this evening.” We pray that the light of God’s commandments will provide that protection.
Vespers culminates in the singing of the Song of Simeon, “Now you dismiss your servant, O Lord” (see Lk 2:29-32). Simeon is known as “the one who received God.” In this canticle, the whole community, along with Simeon, expresses the joy of having encountered the Lord “this evening.” But the hymn also voices our readiness to encounter him in glory, when we see him “face to face” (see 1 Cor 13:12). Then, we shall fully see the salvation of God, “prepared before the face of all peoples.”
The Eastern Rite Church’s daily cycle of prayer is built on the ideal of unceasing prayer, expressed in the biblical number seven. This number is a symbol of fullness and perfection. The Scriptures proclaim: “Seven times a day I praise you, for your righteous ordinances” (Ps 118 :164). The foundation of this rule of prayer is the Psalms.
In Divine Services, these biblical Psalms are interspersed with other prayers: hymns, stichera, troparia, kondakia, prokeimena, litanies, etc. The services of the daily cycle are Vespers, Compline, the Midnight Office, Matins, and the First, Third, Sixth, and Ninth Hours, as well as the Service of Typica.
The Lord God created the world in time, with an alternation of light and darkness – that is, day and night – as well as the seasons of the year: “Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years” (Gn 1:14). The sequence of night and day in the story of creation of the world is a sign of the creative act of God, who brought all from non-existence into existence. This is why, as a memorial of this act, the services of the daily cycle begin in the evening: “And there was evening and there was morning…” (Gn 1:5ff).
A day, according to the Holy Scripture, is a period of life. The Lord God created the light, separating it from darkness. This is the meaning of the daily liturgical cycle: the raising of creation from the darkness of nonbeing to the light of being, and then, from visible light to light unseen.
This is why the biblical day, as a symbol of the nearing of the world to God and the entering of God into the world, is at the same time the liturgical day.
The core parts of Matins are the Six Psalms, the Gospel reading (when appointed), the Canon, the Psalms of Praise, and the Doxology. The Six Psalms (also known as the Hexapsalm), which open Matins, reveal the faithful keeping watch in expectation of the victorious approach of Christ’s light. In the history of salvation the “morning,” or “sunrise,” is a theophany, the coming of “light into darkness.” Its beginning was in Bethlehem. Thus, at the beginning of Matins we sing the angelic hymn of Christmas: “Glory to God in the highest; and on earth peace, among people good will.” God’s light shone on the river Jordan, and we confess this too when we sing: “The Lord is God and has appeared to us. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” The Resurrection of Christ is another victory of light over darkness. The joy of this victory is wonderfully expressed in the hymn “The angelic host was amazed,” (the Evlogataria) sung every week at Sunday (Resurrection) Matins. Indeed, as the myrrh-bearing women hurried at sunrise to the Lord’s tomb, an angel appeared to them proclaiming “the great Light,” Christ’s Resurrection.
In the Resurrection Gospel we hear the angel announce: “He has risen, he is not here” (Mk 16:6). And Christ himself declares: “Put your finger here … do not doubt but believe” ( Jn 20:27). Similar to the myrrh-bearing women, the faithful confess the Risen Lord in the hymn “Now that we have seen the Resurrection of Christ,” and approach the tetrapod to kiss the Gospel.
After Psalm 50 (“Have mercy on me, O God”), the Canon is sung. This is a poetic composition that narrates the liturgical event being celebrated. It does so in the light of biblical salvation history. The nine odes of the Canon (though the second ode is only sung in Great Lent) begin by hymning Israel’s liberation from Egyptian slavery. Subsequently, the prayer-hymns of several Old Testament prophets comprise the other odes. The Canon culminates with the ninth ode and its praise of the most pure Virgin Mary. She is extolled as “the Mother of God [Theotokos] and the Mother of Light.” After the Canon, as the sun becomes brighter, the Church exalts Christ, the life-giving Light: “O Christ God, send me your light, and enlighten my heart.”
The joy of the soul illumined by Christ’s Light is expressed in the Psalms of Praise (Ps 148-150). Here we call on all creation to glorify God and bless him for the gift of light—the revelation of his Son. Hence, at the culmination of Matins the priest introduces the Great Doxology with the words: “Glory to you, who have shown us the Light!” Beholding this light, we are led to divine contemplation. We thus sing: “In your light we shall see light.” Indeed, in the light of Christ we are able to see the unapproachable light of God’s glory. Matins concludes with thanksgiving and petitions for the entire Church community and for the life of the world.