The All-night Vigil.
The All-night Vigil is the divine service which is
served on the evening prior to the days of specially celebrated feasts. It
consists of the combination of Vespers, Matins and First Hour, during which
both services are conducted with greater solemnity and with more illumination
of the church than on other days.
This service is given the name
"All-night," because in ancient times, it began in the later evening
and it continued through the entire night until dawn.
Later, in condescension to the weakness of the
faithful, this service was begun earlier, and certain contractions were made in
the readings and chanting, and therefore it now does not last so long as it
did. However, the former term "All-night" is preserved.
Vespers recalls and represents events of the Old
Testament: the creation of the world, the fall into sin of the first human
beings, their expulsion from Paradise, their repentance and prayer for salvation, the hope of
mankind in accordance with the promise of God for a Saviour and finally, the
fulfillment of that promise.
The Vespers of an All-night Vigil begins with the
opening of the Royal Gates. The priest and deacon silently cense the Altar
Table and the entire sanctuary so that clouds of incense fill the depths of the
sanctuary. This silent censing represents the beginning of the creation of the
world. In the beginning God created heaven and earth. And the earth was without
form and void, and the Spirit of God hovered over the original material earth,
breathing upon it a life-creating power, but the creating word of God had not
yet begun to resound.
Then the priest stands before the Altar and
intones the first exclamation to the glory of the Creator and Founder of the
world, the Most-holy Trinity, "Glory to the Holy, Consubstantial,
Life-creating, and Indivisible Trinity, always, now and ever, and unto the ages
Then he four times summons the faithful, "O
come, let us worship God our King. O come let us worship and fall down before
Christ, our King and our God. O come let us worship and fall down before Christ
Himself, our King and our God. O come let us worship and fall down before
Him." For All things were made by Him; and without him was not anything
made that was made (John 1:3).
In response to this summons, the choir solemnly
chants the 103rd Psalm, which describes the creation of the world and glorifies
the wisdom of God: Bless the Lord, O my soul. Blessed art Thou, O Lord, O Lord
my God, Thou hast been magnified exceedingly... In wisdom hast Thou made them
all... Wondrous are Thy works, O Lord... Glory to Thee, O Lord, Who hast made
During the chanting of this psalm the priest goes
forth from the sanctuary and completes the censing of the entire church and the
faithful therein, while a deacon precedes him bearing a lit candle in his hand.
This sacred action not only reminds those praying
of the creation of the world, but primarily of the blessed life in Paradise of
the first human beings, when the Lord God Himself walked among them. The open
Royal Gates signify that at that time the gates of Paradise were
open for all people.
Then man was deceived by the Devil and
transgressed against the will of God and fell into sin. Because of their fall,
mankind was deprived of blessed life in Paradise.
They were driven out of Paradise and the gates were closed to them. To symbolize this
expulsion, following the censing of the church and the conclusion of the
chanting of the psalm, the Royal Gates are closed.
Then the deacon comes out from the sanctuary and
stands before the closed Royal Gates, as Adam did before the sealed entrance
into Paradise, and intones the Great Litany:
In peace let us pray to the Lord. Let us pray to
the Lord when we have been reconciled with all our neighbors, so that we feel
no anger or hostility towards them. For the peace from above, and for the
salvation of our souls, let us pray to the Lord. Let us pray that the Lord send
down upon us "from on high" the peace of Heaven and that He save our
After the Great Litany and the exclamation of the
priest, certain selected verses are usually sung from the first three psalms of
Blessed is the man that hath not walked in the
counsel of the ungodly, that is, he who has not lived or acted on the advice of
those who are irreverent and impious. For the Lord knoweth the way of the
righteous, and the way of the ungodly shall perish. For the Lord knows the life
of the righteous and the life of the impious leads to ruin. The deacon then
intones the Little Litany, "Again and again, in peace let us pray to the
Lord..." After this litany the choir chants the verses of certain psalms
that express the longing of man for salvation and Paradise:
Lord, I have cried unto Thee, hearken unto me. Hearken unto me, O Lord...
Attend to the voice of my supplication, when I cry unto Thee... Let my prayer
be set forth as incense before Thee, the lifting up of my hands as an evening
sacrifice. Hearken unto me, O Lord. During the chanting of these verses the
deacon censes the church once more.
This entire period of the divine service,
beginning with the opening of the Royal Gates, through the petitions of the
Great Ectenia and the chanting of the psalms, represents the miserable state of
mankind to which it was subjected by the fall of our forefathers into sin. With
the fall all the deprivations, pains and sufferings we experience came into our
lives. We cry out to God, "Lord, have mercy" and request peace and salvation
for our souls. We feel contrition that we heeded the ungodly counsel of the
Devil. We ask God for the forgiveness of our sins and deliverance from
troubles, and we place all our hope in the mercy of God. The censing by the
deacon at this time signifies the sacrifices of the Old Testament and our own
prayers as well, which we offer to God.
Alternating with the chanting of the Old Testament
verses of these psalms of "Lord, I have cried" are New testament
hymns composed in honor of the saint or feast of the day.
The last verse is called the Theotokion, or
Dogmatikon, since it is sung in honor of the Mother of God, and in it is set
forth the dogma on the incarnation of the Son of God from the Virgin Mary. On
the twelve great feasts, instead of the Theotokion a special verse is chanted
in honor of the feast.
During the chanting of the Theotokion the Royal
Gates are opened, and the Vespers Entry is made; a candle bearer comes through
the north door of the Sanctuary, followed by the deacon with the censer and
finally the priest. The priest stops on the ambo facing the Royal Gates and
after blessing the entry with the sign of the Cross, and the deaconís intoning
of the words "Wisdom, let us attend!" the priest reenters the Altar
together with the deacon through the Royal Gates and goes to stand next to the
High Place behind the Holy Table.
At this time the choir chants a hymn to the Son of
God, our Lord Jesus Christ: "O Gentle Light of the holy glory of the
immortal, heavenly, holy blessed Father, O Jesus Christ: having come to the
setting of the sun, having beheld the evening light, we praise the Father, the
Son, and the Holy Spirit: God. Meet it is for Thee at all times to be hymned
with reverent voices, O Son of God, Giver of Life. Wherefore, the world doth
In this hymn the Son of God is called the Gentle
Light that comes from the Heavenly Father, because He came to this earth not in
the fullness of divine glory but in the gentle radiance of this glory. This
hymn also says that only with reverent voices, and not our sinful mouths, can
He be exalted worthily and the necessary glorification be accomplished.
The entry during Vespers reminds the faithful how
the Old Testament righteous, in harmony with the promise of God that was
manifest in prototypes and prophecies, expected the coming of the Saviour, and
how He appeared in the world for the salvation of the human race.
The censer with incense used at the entry
signifies that our prayers, by the intercession of our Lord the Saviour, are
offered to God like incense. It also signifies the presence of the Holy Spirit
in the church.
The blessing with the sign of the Cross shows that
by means of the Cross of the Lord the doors into Paradise are
opened again for us.
Following the chanting of the hymn "O Gentle
Light..." we sing the prokeimenon, short verses taken from the Holy
Scriptures. On Saturday evening, for the Vespers for Sunday, we chant,
"The Lord is King; He is clothed with majesty."
After the chanting of the prokeimenon, on the more
important feasts there are readings. These are selections from the Scriptures
in which there is a prophecy or a prototype which relates to the event being
celebrated, or in which edifying teachings are set forth, which relate to the
saint commemorated that day.
Following the prokeimenon and readings the deacon
intones the Augmented Litany, "Let us all say with our whole soul and with
our whole mind, let us say." The prayer, "Vouchsafe, O Lord, to keep
us this evening without sin..." follows, and at the conclusion of this
prayer the deacon reads the Supplicatory Litany, "Let us complete our
evening prayer unto the Lord..."
On great feasts after the Augmented and
Supplicatory Litanies the Litia, or Blessing of Bread and Wine, is celebrated.
"Litia" is a Greek word meaning
"common prayer." The Litia, a series of verses chanted by the choir
followed by an enumeration of many saints whose prayers are besought, is
celebrated in the western end of the church, near the main entrance doors, or
in the Narthex, if the church is so arranged. This part of the service was
intended for those who were standing in the Narthex, the catechumens and
penitents, so they might be able to take part in the common service on the
occasions of the major festivals.
At the end of the Litia is the blessing and sanctification
of five loaves of bread, wheat, wine and oil to recall the ancient custom of
providing food for those assembled who had come some distance, in order to give
them strength during the long divine services. The five loaves are blessed to
recall the feeding of the five thousand with five loaves of bread. Later,
during the main part of Matins, the priest anoints the faithful with the
sanctified oil, after they have venerated the festal icon.
After the Litia, or if it is not served, after the
Supplicatory Litany, the Aposticha (Verses with hymns) are chanted. These are a
few verses which are specially written in memory of the occasion.
Vespers ends with the reading of the prayer of St.
Simeon the God-Receiver, "Now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace, O
Master, according to Thy word, for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation, which
Thou hast prepared before the face of all peoples; a light of revelation for
the gentiles and the glory of Thy people Israel." This prayer is followed
by the reading of the Trisagion and the Lordís Prayer, and the singing of the
salutation of the Theotokos, "O Theotokos and Virgin, Rejoice!...,"
or the troparion of the feast, and finally the thrice-chanted prayer of the
Psalmist: "Blessed be the name of the Lord from henceforth and for
evermore." The 33rd Psalm is then read or chanted until the verse,
"But they that seek the Lord shall not be deprived oíf any good
thing." Then follows the priestly blessing, "The blessing of the Lord
be upon you, through His grace and love for mankind, always, now and ever, and
unto the ages of ages."
The conclusion of Vespers with the prayer of St.
Simeon and the angelic salutation of the Theotokos indicates the fulfillment of
the divine promise of a Saviour.
Immediately after the conclusion of Vespers during
an All-Night Vigil, Matins begins with the reading of the Six Psalms.
The second half of the All-night Vigil, Matins, is
meant to remind us of the New Testament period: the appearance of our Lord
Jesus Christ in the world for our salvation and His glorious Resurrection.
The beginning of Matins immediately reminds us of
the Nativity of Christ. It begins with the doxology or glorification of the
angels who appeared to the shepherds in Bethlehem: Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace,
goodwill among men.
This is followed by the reading of the Six Psalms,
selected from those by the Prophet David (3, 37, 62, 87,102 and 142) in which
the sinful condition of mankind is depicted with all its weakness and
temptations. The ardent expectation of mankind for their only hope, the mercy
of God, is expressed here. Those praying in church should be listening with
special attentiveness and reverence to these psalms.
After the Six Psalms the deacon proclaims the
Great Litany. The choir follows the Litany with the loud and joyful chant of
this hymn with its verses: "God is the Lord and hath appeared unto us;
Blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord." It is affirmed that
God is Lord and has manifested Himself unto us, and He Who comes in the glory
of the Lord is worthy of glorification.
The troparion or hymn that particularly honors and
describes the feast or saint being celebrated follows, and then two kathismas
are read, two of the twenty sections into which the Psalter is consecutively
divided. The reading of the kathismas, as well as that of the Six Psalms, calls
us to ponder our wretched, sinful condition and to place all our hope on the
mercy and help of God. At the conclusion of each kathisma the deacon recites
the Small Litany.
The Polyeleos, a Greek word meaning "much
mercy," is then celebrated. The Polyeleos is the most festive and solemn
part of Matins and the All-night Vigil, expressing the glorification of the
mercy of God, which has been manifested to us by the coming to earth of the Son
of God and His accomplishing our salvation from the power of the Devil and
death. The Polyeleos begins with the triumphant singing of the verses of
praise: Praise ye the name of the Lord; O ye servants, praise the Lord.
Alleluia. Blessed is the Lord out of Sion, Who dwelleth in Jerusalem. Alleluia.
O give thanks unto the Lord, for He is good, for His mercy endureth forever.
Alleluia. O give thanks unto the God of heaven; for His mercy endureth forever.
With the chanting of these verses all the lamps
and candles in the church are lit, the Royal Gates are opened, and the priest,
preceded by the deacon holding a lit candle, comes out of the altar and goes
around the church censing as a sign of reverence for God and His Saints.
On Sundays, after the chanting of these verses,
special Resurrection troparia, joyful hymns in honor of the Resurrection of
Christ, are sung. They describe how the angels appeared to the Myrrhbearing
women when they came to the tomb of Christ and told them of the Resurrection of
Jesus Christ. On other great feasts instead of these Resurrection troparia, the
Magnification, a short verse of praise in honor of the saint or feast of that
day, is sung before its icon.
After the Resurrection troparia or the
Magnification, the deacon repeats the Small Litany, which is followed by the
singing of the Hymns of Ascent, alternately by two choirs. There are three
antiphons for each of the eight tones (the eighth tone has four); one group
being used on each Sunday, depending on the tone of the week. Other feast days
the first antiphon of the fourth tone is used. The deacon then says the
prokeimenon and the priest reads the Gospel.
At a Sunday service the reading from the Gospel
concerns the Resurrection of Christ and the appearances of Christ to His
disciples, while on other feasts the Gospel reading relates to the events being
celebrated or to the saint being glorified.
On Sundays, after the Gospel, the solemn hymn in
honor of the risen Christ taken from the Paschal Matins service is sung,
"Having beheld the Resurrection of Christ, let us worship the holy Lord
The Gospel is then carried into the center of the
church and the faithful proceed forward to venerate it. On other feasts the
faithful venerate the festal icon, and the priest anoints them on the forehead
with oil and distributes the bread blessed during the Litia.
After the hymn, "Having beheld the
Resurrection...," the 50th Psalm is read as well as other hymns asking for
the mercy of the Lord, the Theotokos and the Apostles. The deacon then reads
the prayer for the intercession of the Saints, "Save, O God, Thy
people...," and the priest exclaims, "Through the mercy and
compassion...." The chanting of the Canon begins.
The canon is the name for a series of hymns which
are composed according to a definite order. "Canon" is a Greek word
which means "rule." A canon is divided into nine parts or odes. The
first verse of each ode is called the irmos, which means "connection"
or "link" and is chanted. With these irmosi all the rest of the canon
is joined into one whole. The rest of the verses for each ode, called troparia,
are now usually read, although they were originally chanted to the same melody
as the irmos. The second ode of the canons is included only during Great Lent due
to its penitential character.
The most noted composers of these canons were Sts.
John of Damascus, Cosmas of Maiouma and Andrew of Crete, who wrote the
penitential Great Canon used during Great Lent. The hymnography of these
composers was inspired by the prayers and actions of some of the great Old
Testament saints. Though in common practice they are now chanted only during
Great Lent, each ode should be preceded by the Biblical ode upon which each
Canon ode is based. The figures commemorated for each Biblical ode, which are
found at the end of the Psalter, are the Prophet Moses (first and second odes);
the Prophetess Anna, the mother of Samuel (third ode); the Prophet Habbakuk
(fourth ode); the Prophet Isaiah (fifth ode); the Prophet Jonah (the sixth ode);
the three Hebrew children (seventh and eighth odes); and the Priest Zacharias,
the father of St. John the Forerunner (ninth ode).
Prior to the beginning of the ninth ode, the
deacon proclaims: "The Theotokos and Mother of the Light, let us magnify
in song," and proceeds to cense around the entire church. The choir then
begins the Song of the Theotokos, "My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my
spirit hath rejoiced in God My Saviour." Each verse of this hymn
alternates with the singing of the refrain, "More honorable than the
Cherubim, and beyond compare more glorious than the Seraphim, Who without
corruption gavest birth to God the Word, the very Theotokos, Thee do we
magnify." Following this hymn to the Theotokos, the choir continues with
the irmos and troparia of the ninth ode of the canon.
Concerning the general content of the canons, the
irmosi remind the faithful of the Old Testament period and events from the
history of our salvation and gradually lead our thoughts to the Nativity of
Christ. The troparia recount New Testament events and the history of the
Church, presenting a series of verses or hymns glorifying the Lord and the
Mother of God, and also honoring the event being celebrated, or the saint
glorified on this day.
On major feasts each ode is concluded by a
katavasia, a Greek word meaning "descent," and the deacon proclaims
the Small Litany after the third, sixth and ninth odes.
On Sundays, "Holy is the Lord our God"
is then alternated with a few verses, and another special verse for the feast
called the Exaposti-larion, or "Hymn of Lights," is chanted.
Then the Lauds or "Praises" (Psalms
148,149,150) are chanted, along with the verses for the "Praises," in
which all of Godís creation is summoned to glorify Him: "Let every breath
praise the Lord...." If it is a major feast special hymns in honor of the
occasion are inserted between the final verses.
The Great Doxology follows the chanting of the
Lauds. The Royal Gates are opened during the singing of the last hymn of the
Lauds (the Sunday Theotokion) and the priest exclaims, "Glory to Thee Who
has shown us the light." The doxology begins "Glory to God in the
highest, and on earth peace, goodwill among men. We praise Thee, we bless Thee,
we worship Thee, we glorify Thee, we give thanks to Thee for Thy great
glory..." In early Church practice the singing of this hymn just preceded
the first light of dawn.
In the Great Doxology we give thanks to God for
the light of day and for the bestowal of spiritual Light ó the light of Truth,
Christ the Saviour, Who has enlightened mankind with His teachings. The
Doxology concludes with the chanting of the Trisagion and the singing of the
festal troparion. The deacon then intones the Augmented and Supplicatory
Matins for an All-night Vigil concludes with the
Dismissal. The priest turns to the faithful and says, "May Christ our true
God (on Sundays, "Who rose from the dead" through the intercessions
of His Most-pure Mother, of the holy, glorious, and all-praised Apostles, of
the holy and righteous Ancestors of God Joachim and Anna, and of all the
saints, have mercy on us and save us, for He is good and the Lover of
The choir responds with a prayer that the Lord
preserve the Orthodox episcopate for many years, as well as the ruling hierarch
and all Orthodox Christians. The last part of the All-night Vigil, the First
Hour, follows. The service of the First Hour consists of the reading of three
psalms and of various prayers, in which we request that God hear our voices in
the morning and that He guide our hands during the course of the day. The First
Hour concludes with the victorious hymn in honor of the Theotokos, "To
Thee the Champion Leader..." The priest reads the Dismissal for the First
Hour, and the All-night Vigil comes to an end.
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