AN INTRODUCTION TO ORTHODOX CHRISTIAN WORSHIP,
Part 2: Divine Services other than the Divine Liturgy & Sacraments
Volume 4 in the Series, WHAT IN THE WORLD IS THE ORTHODOX CHURCH?
Written by St. Innocent/ FIREBIRD Multi-Media, a ministry of St. Innocent Religious Community
This is the text of the narration, that doubles as an essay, of a future DVD that will be made, the fourth of a DVD series, where icons, photos and video footage that correspond to the text, plus music, will be added to the recorded narration.
In this educational series entitled “What in the World is the Orthodox Church?”, we continue here with the second of the three-part “Introduction to Orthodox Christian Worship Services.” In Part 1, we looked at the Divine Liturgy. In this Part 2, we will offer a brief introduction to the Divine Services other than the Divine Liturgy or Sacraments. In Part 3, the Sacraments, or “Holy Mysteries,” and their accompanying Services, will be considered.
The Divine Services other than the Divine Liturgy and the Holy Mysteries that we are discussing here may be divided into two categories: the first are Daily Services; and the second could be called Occasional Services.
WHAT ARE THE DAILY SERVICES?
From the first days of the Church, the Apostles, who were devout Jews, observed the Jewish prayer and worship customs of both the synagogue and the temple, which the Christian Church thus inherited, including praying seven times a day. A significant component of Jewish worship and prayer was the singing of the 150 Psalms (called The Psalter). Thus, the Psalter was the first hymnal of the Christian Church, and continues to play a vital role in Orthodox worship today. In the Acts of the Apostles, we find mention of the early disciples worshipping and praying at certain designated times, which were especially the morning worship at around the third hour (9:00 am), and the late afternoon worship, at around the ninth hour (3:00 pm). There was also the Jewish tradition of praying privately at home at various times of the day. The Book of Acts tells us that the Apostle St. Peter and the Centurion Cornelius both were praying at the sixth hour, or 12 noon, and that St. Paul was praying at midnight in prison.
WHEN DO ORTHODOX CHRISTIANS CONSIDER THATTHE DAY BEGINS?
First, we must explain about calculating when the liturgical day begins. Whereas according to today’s Western civil calendar, the day begins at midnight, the Christian Church inherited from the Jews the custom of starting the day at sundown, which the Orthodox Church continues to this day, following biblical precedent. The first book of the Bible, Genesis, opens by clearly stating that first there was darkness and then there was light. Thus, the biblical day starts with darkness—that is, sundown— and therefore, the first half of the day is considered to be from sundown to sunrise, approximately 6:00 pm until 6:00 am, divided into four, three-hour watches of the night. After darkness, then light was created — and thus the second half of the day is from approximately 6:00 am until 6:00 pm. Consequently, the liturgical day starts with Vespers, not in the morning with Matins. This is why feastdays always start on the eve, the night before, and why Sunday starts with Vespers on Saturday evening, the first service of the new week. (This same principle also explains why major Jewish feasts, such as Passover, start the evening before, as we see in the Gospels.) Knowing that the beginning of each day starts the prior evening is vital to understanding the Orthodox liturgical life, and the celebration of feastdays and Sundays, and of course, the regular observance of the cycle of Divine Services.
WHAT IS THE DAILY CYCLE OF DIVINE SERVICES?
There are five short daily services, collectively called “The Hours:” the First, Third, Sixth and Ninth Hours and Nocturns, and are in large part, personal and monastic. In addition, there are three major daily public Services — Vespers, Matins and Compline, that are longer and more complex, with many variable parts that change each day. The full cycle of these daily services are understood to be a means of sanctifying time, as the people who pray the services, are continuously worshipping God throughout the day, and allowing this sanctification of time through prayer to gradually transform them and their lives. Time is also sanctified by means of the liturgical year and the daily commemoration of saints every day of the year, plus special feasts of our Lord and of the Mother of God, that are made present realities as we today form a link with the past and the future. (The cycle of the liturgical year will be explained in a later volume in this series.)
WOULD YOU TELL ME MORE ABOUT THE SHORTER DAILY SERVICES?
The five shorter Services — the Hours — are basically monastic daily services, although sometimes the lay faithful privately pray the Hours at home. Due to daily responsibilities that can prevent lay people and even monastics from stopping every three hours from their work, it is not unusual for the Hours to be read grouped together. They are fairly short, and have few variable or changeable parts; they are chanted (or even sometimes spoken), but not sung; they can be done without a priest, even by oneself, and are comprised primarily of three Psalms and various prayers.
These services have existed from Apostolic times, although the details have changed. As we already mentioned, the Hours correspond to the hours or ‘watches’ of the day, beginning with the First Hour at sunrise, or approximately 6–7 am. Thus the themes of the three Psalms and the prayers are awakening, the morning and the light of day, while we pray that God would bless the day ahead of us, and that as we behold the physical light, we may also be awakened and enlightened to behold the spiritual light which is Christ. The Third Hour corresponds to 9:00 am. It was at this time that the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples gathered together for morning prayer. Thus the themes of the three Psalms and the prayers are that our paths, our thoughts, and all our ways would be guided and guarded by the Holy Spirit. The Sixth Hour corresponds to 12:00 noon, which is when our Lord was crucified on the cross. The themes of the Psalms and prayers are the struggles against the mid-day demons and the conflict with The Enemy, while expressing our gratitude to the Lord for His sacrificing Himself on the cross for our salvation. The Ninth Hour corresponds to 3:00 pm, and commemorates Christ completing His earthly work and voluntarily giving up His spirit on the cross. The themes of the Psalms and prayers are that we may find our strength in the Lord and always follow His paths, and may dwell with Him in His house. The liturgical day ends with the Ninth Hour. There is a fifth similar service which is read at midnight, and thus is called the Midnight Office or Nocturn(s). There are both Old and New Testament references to praying at midnight. Thus the night is sanctified as well as the day, as we praise the glories of the Lord and His great goodness and kindness towards us.
In practice, when both Vespers and Matins are served, the Ninth Hour is frequently chanted before Vespers, and the First Hour is likely to be chanted after Matins. In parish churches it is also very common, at least in the Russian tradition, to have the Third and Sixth Hours chanted before Divine Liturgy, but this is usually only on Sundays. In some monasteries, the services might be grouped together in two services, in the morning and evening — and then the First, Third and Sixth Hours are likely to be read after Matins in the morning. In other monasteries, when their circumstances permit, the Hours are spread out and chanted at the designated times. For individuals who wish to privately recite the Hours, the times when they would pray the Hours would naturally be determined by their own personal daily schedules.
WHAT ARE THE OTHER THREE DAILY SERVICES?
The other three daily services are Vespers, Matins and Compline, which are public, liturgical services, whose roots are to be found in the public services of the Jewish synagogue and temple in the morning, late afternoon and night. They are longer, more complex, and, in addition to many standard (or “ordinary”) sung or chanted hymns, prayers and Psalms, they also have a number of variable parts that change for each day, and teach about the saints of the day or the meaning of a feastday, in addition to some hymns changing in a rotating cycle of either 8 or 11 weeks. There are two versions of each of these three Services, a shorter and simpler “daily” version, in which some hymns are either omitted or chanted instead of sung, and a longer, more elaborate version (called “Great” or “Grand”), in which there are additional hymns, and almost all the hymns are sung rather than chanted. Vespers and Matins are frequently served in parish churches. Although it is usually only in monasteries that the full cycle of Orthodox services can be followed each day, in some large urban churches, especially in Eastern-European countries, it is not unusual today to have daily Vigil Services, comprised of Vespers and Matins, the two most important of the daily services. In some monasteries, Vespers is combined with Compline in the evening, and Matins is served in the morning.
WOULD YOU EXPLAIN WHAT VESPERS IS ALL ABOUT?
The liturgical day begins with the first of the two most important daily services — Vespers — which, in the Eastern European tradition, is the daily service most frequently done. Vespers is the evening service sung at approximately 5:00 or 6:00 pm, as the sun sets, and in most parish churches of Eastern European heritage in America, Great Vespers is usually sung at least on Saturday evening and the eves of Great Feasts. Some parishes might be fortunate enough to serve the Vigil, in which Matins is joined to Vespers — the full liturgical name then is the “All-Night Vigil.” Some American parishes try to serve Daily Vespers at least once or more a week. In strict Russian/Ukrainian observance, many of the faithful attend Vespers on Saturday evening and the eves of feasts, and it is an expected, even necessary, part of preparation for receiving Holy Communion. Furthermore, in contrast with the Divine Liturgy, where there are few variations for feast days, it is in the variable hymns of Vespers and Matins — that are poetic expressions of the meaning and theology of the Resurrection, of feastdays and of the lives of the saints commemorated each day — where we can learn the most. It is also in Vespers and Matins when the Psalter (the 150 Psalms) is appointed to be read.
Since the liturgical day starts with the darkness of evening, the themes of Vespers emphasize God’s creation of the world, its subsequent fall into darkness, the conflict and choice between the two paths—the path of light and the path of darkness, the appearance of both physical and spiritual light that illumines the darkness of the world, and the promise of the future salvation of the world. Thus Vespers always starts with the grand Psalm of Creation—Psalm 103/104—sung at Great Vespers and chanted at Daily Vespers. After the Great Litany, the Kathisma of the Psalter are appointed to be read, although this is not usually done in parish practice.
WHAT ARE THE KATHISMA AND THE PSALTER?
The Psalter is the collective name for the 150 Psalms. The Orthodox Church divides the 150 Psalms of David, into 20 groups, each called a Kathisma. Each Kathisma is further divided into 3 groups, each called a stasis. In monasteries the Kathisma are read so that the entire Psalter is read once each week (and twice a week during Great Lent). Saturday evening Vespers marks the first Service of the new week as well as the beginning of Sunday’s weekly celebration of the Resurrection, and therefore, the First Kathisma is read, beginning, of course, with Psalm 1. This Psalm sets the whole tone of the Psalter, of Vespers, and of the whole Christian life and its spiritual struggle—that is, the choice of which of the two paths we will follow: the way of the righteous or the way of the wicked. The Kathisma Hymn, “Blessed is the Man,” is usually sung, which is comprised of a few verses of the First Kathisma.
WHAT ARE THE OTHER PARTS OF VESPERS?
Following the Kathisma Hymn is the extended hymn sequence of Psalm 141, “Lord, I Call Upon Thee,” that expresses humanity’s penitent appeal to the Lord to receive the prayers of us His fallen creatures, to let our prayers arise as incense, and to accept the lifting up of our hands as an evening sacrifice. While this hymn is being sung, the priest censes the sanctuary and the entire nave and narthex, walking all around the perimeter. Following the initial unchanging Psalm verses, a group of up to ten changeable hymns are sung, interspersed with a Reader chanting additional verses from Psalm 141. These hymns comprise a very important teaching ministry in the cycle of daily services. First, there are the groups of hymns that are regularly repeated for each day in an eight-week cycle, and then there are also the hymns for the particular feast or saint observed on that day. At Great Vespers the Holy Doors are opened, the large chandelier turned on, and there is an Entrance with the Censer during the concluding “Dogmatik” hymn to the Mother of God, with which the Lord, I Call Upon Thee hymn-sequence ends. This ‘Entrance’ symbolizes the promised restoration of fallen humanity and all creation through the coming of the Savior, Who took flesh from the Mother of God, and is declared in the great hymn that immediately follows, “O Gladsome (or Joyous) Light.” This is one of the oldest Christian hymns, dating probably from the third century. Traditionally, the candles would be lit during the singing of this major hymn, that glorifies Jesus Christ, Who is the Light of the Immortal Father, and the Giver of Life. The whole creation, illumined by the Light, participates in the glorification of the Holy Trinity. Following the singing of this hymn, there is the antiphonal singing of Psalm verses for the day (called the Prokeimenon), sometimes the chanting of three Old Testament readings, one or two major Litanies and the important and vital evening prayer, “Vouchsafe, O Lord, to keep us this night without sin,” that may be either sung or chanted. Sometimes in Great Vespers—especially for a major feast—a special group of prayers, called the Litiya [lee-tee-ya], that invoke the prayers of numerous saints, may be served here, with all the clergy standing at the very back of the church or in the narthex. After this the Apostikha is sung, which is the second variable extended set of teaching-hymns in Vespers that change for each day in a weekly cycle of eight weeks, with interspersed Psalm verses. For major feasts and saints’ days the Apostikha is replaced by different hymns composed expressly for that particular feast or saint. Vespers is coming to a close with the St. Simeon’s Prayer, which is the affirmation of having seen the Lord’s promised Savior of the world, and His Light and Glory. Having seen Jesus Christ the Lord, we may now take our evening rest in peace. We conclude with a few further prayers and short hymns, either to the Mother of God or for the day, and have the customary dismissal.
PLEASE EXPLAIN WHAT MATINS IS ALL ABOUT?
When Matins is not combined with Vespers in the evening, Matins is customarily served in the morning, both in monasteries and in parish churches. In actual practice in the United States, it is usually parishes in the Slavic tradition that serve Vespers (sometimes combined with Matins) on Saturday evening, and parishes in the Byzantine tradition that typically serve an abridged Matins on Sunday morning prior to Liturgy. Occasionally some parishes try to have daily Matins in the morning at least one or more days of the week. In addition to regular Matins throughout the year, there are some other times when people participate in Matins and may not realize it. During Holy Week, there are special evening Matins services everyday: in the evenings of Sunday, Monday, Tuesday (and sometimes Wednesday), there is “Bridegroom Matins” — special Matins services with hymns and Gospel readings expressly for Holy Week; and the special services held in the evenings on Holy Thursday (with the twelve Gospel readings) and Holy Friday (with the Lamentations) are also Matins services, adapted for the particular commemoration of the days of Christ’s Passion. Also, the Paschal “Resurrection Service,” served at midnight on Pascha, is Matins. And finally, the so-called “Memorial” service for the departed is also based on Matins.
WHAT ARE THE THEMES OF MATINS?
Theoretically, Matins starts around dawn, or as dawn approaches, so that the daylight arises during Matins. Thus the themes of Matins have to do with the beginning of the day emerging from the darkness of night; the Light of God versus the darkness of the world; the coming of salvation and the Savior Who will illumine the darkness; the proclamation and affirmation of Christ’s Resurrection; and our subsequent repentance, and the offering of our praise and glorification to God for His goodness. These themes reach their ultimate fulfillment and realization, of course, in the Divine Liturgy.
WHAT IS THE OVERALL STRUCTURE OF MATINS?
Matins is a very beautiful, rich and meaningful Divine Service. However, in terms of the liturgical structure of Matins, it is the most complicated and variable Divine Service. There are the unchanging or “ordinary” parts, in addition to numerous variable hymns, which contain the most extensive teaching. Because the complete service is somewhat long, combined with the difficulty of knowing what to sing when, and the difficulty of having the texts available for all the changeable parts—sometimes Matins is served in an abbreviated manner in which only most of the “ordinary” parts are retained, and most of the variable hymns are omitted, but what is and is not omitted varies enormously in individual parish practice.
WHAT ARE THE DIFFERENT PARTS OF MATINS?
After the glorious opening doxology, the mood immediately changes as we are plunged into the night-time darkness of sin and the attacks of the Evil One. While the priest quietly reads twelve beautiful morning prayers in front of the closed Holy doors, symbolizing the doors of paradise closed to us because of mankind’s sins, the Reader chants the Six Matins Psalms. These Six Psalms make reference to lying in bed at night, struggling against the demons of the night, the soul tormented by its sins and subsequent repentance and longing to be reconciled with God, concluding with the praise of God who does not forget us, but in His mercy and love, forgives, heals and saves us. Similar to the beginning of Vespers and the Divine Liturgy, we immediately express our proper relationship with God by offering our petitions for the world in the Great Litany, with the faith and firm hope that the Lord will have mercy on us. The tone of the rest of Matins is then established in the antiphonal singing of “God is the Lord, Who has revealed Himself to us; blessed is He Who comes in the name of the Lord.” The special hymn or hymns of the day immediately follow. It is here that two of the twenty Kathisma divisions of the Psalms are appointed to be read, divided into their three sections or “stases,” followed by the appointed Kathisma Hymns. If Matins is abbreviated in parish use, sometimes the Kathisma are omitted or shortened.
At Sunday or major feastday Matins outside of Great Lent, there is now a major transition to the joy and glory of the Resurrection or the feast: the Holy Doors are opened, the lights turned up, and while the church is fully censed, the great and glorious “Praise Ye the Name of the Lord” is joyously sung to an energetic and triumphant melody. These verses from Psalm 134/135 are a favorite Orthodox hymn that is frequently sung at other joyful times. On special feasts and saints’ days, the Magnification is now slowly sung before the icon of the feast or saint. However, on the three Sundays prior to Great Lent, the solemn hymn “By the Waters of Babylon” is mournfully sung at this point, reflecting the sorrow of living in exile apart from the Lord. This hymn, which is Psalm 136/137, is much beloved as a type of musical symbol of Great Lent and is frequently sung at other times throughout the Fast. At Sunday Matins the Troparia of the Resurrection always follow now, comprised of six verses that musically proclaim the joy and mystery of Christ’s Resurrection, with the refrain: “Blessed art Thou, O Lord! Teach me Thy statutes!” As we continue the gradual crescendo of rejoicing in the Resurrection or joy of the feast, several additional hymns might be sung here, and then we continue to ascend to the high point of Matins: the chanting of one of eleven Gospel readings that proclaim Christ’s Resurrection, (that rotate in an eleven-week cycle), or that proclaim the feast. We are prepared to hear the Gospel first by the Prokeimenon Psalm verses chanted by the Reader, and then by the antiphonally sung “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord!” The priest or bishop now chants the Gospel, but, in contrast to the Divine Liturgy, he usually stands in front of the altar, inside the sanctuary facing the altar, not the people. This is because the Matins Gospel is fulfilled only in the Divine Liturgy, where we experience the fulness of Christ coming to us and uniting Himself to us through the partaking of His Body and Blood. At Sunday Matins, after the proclamation of Christ’s Resurrection in the Gospel, the glorious Hymn of the Resurrection is immediately sung, in which the veneration of Christ’s Resurrection is inseparably intertwined with the veneration of His Holy Cross. During the singing of this pivotal hymn, the Gospels book is brought out from the sanctuary into the midst of the people for veneration. Immediately following the hymn, a Reader chants Psalm 50/51. We note that no sooner have we liturgically ascended to Matins’ high point in the proclamation of Christ’s Resurrection in the Gospel, but we are immediately reminded that not only is there no Resurrection without the cross, but also, that we cannot experience the joy of the Lord’s salvation without repentance and imploring God’s mercy and forgiveness. We are now in the process of a gradual descending from the Gospel peak, in a similar, but more subdued way than we did during the Divine Liturgy. This motif of imploring God’s mercy is then continued in the Post-Gospel Verses hymn, which is even more intensified in the replacement for this hymn sung on all the Pre-Lenten and Great Lenten Sundays: “Open to me the Gates of Repentance,” called the Penitential Troparia. This beautiful and beloved Orthodox hymn is almost a symbol of Great Lent, and is frequently sung at other times during the Great Fast. This motif of intercession continues in the Prayer of Intercession, usually read by the priest while standing in the center of the church, before the Gospels and icon of the day.
WHAT HAPPENS AFTER THE GOSPEL-READING CENTRAL HIGH-POINT OF MATINS?
As we continue the very gradual descent back into our daily lives from Matins’ high point — the singing of the Canon begins; everyone goes and kisses the Gospels and icon; then the Gospels are returned to the altar; the Royal Doors are closed; the lights dimmed. The Canon is a very important part of Matins, containing much instruction, but, as one of the major variable hymns, can be somewhat long and complex. Therefore it is usually shortened in parish practice. It is comprised of nine sections or Odes, each of which begins with a hymn (called an Irmos) that is sung to a special Canon melody. Then there are additional hymns of varying numbers that are chanted in each Ode, with short refrains in between, that explain the meaning of the feast or saint’s life or the Resurrection. Just before the 9th Ode (which is always in honor of the Mother of God), the Holy Doors are opened, the lights turned up, and a major hymn is sung (except for big feasts), during the full censing of the church. This is the Magnificat or “My Soul Magnifies the Lord,” which is the great hymn of praise and prophesy, exclaimed by the Mother of God herself, about herself, as recorded by St. Luke in his Gospel. After the Magnificat, the Canon ends with the singing of the 9th Ode.
ARE THERE OTHER CANONS THAT ARE USED OUTSIDE OF MATINS?
Indeed, there are many others. The poetic-hymn form of the 9-part Canon is widely used outside Matins. Not only are there frequently Canons in Grand Compline and sometimes in Molebens, but there are numerous other Canons for a wide variety of various purposes (for example — to Christ, to the Mother of God, for Repentance, for healing, and for Preparation for Holy Communion, to mention just a few). These can be chanted separately, and frequently are prayed privately by the faithful.
WHAT FOLLOWS AFTER THE CANON, AND HOW DOES MATINS CONCLUDE?
Following the 9th Ode of the Canon, Holy is the Lord our God is sung on Saturday evenings, and then the Exapostilarion or Hymn of Light, that lead us into another crescendoing peak experience. As we move towards the conclusion of Matins, having participated and rejoiced in the presence of the Holy Divine Light amongst us, we continue that joy by also rejoicing in the coming of a new day and its physical light. Thus, we find ourselves once again being elevated in praise by singing and chanting The Praises, which combine the last three Psalms, numbers 148, 149 and 150, with additional variable hymns for the resurrection or feast and saints of the day. Then, following two short hymns, the priest proclaims: “Glory to Thee Who has shown us the Light!” In response, we now triumphantly and jubilantly sing the lengthy, magnificent hymn, the Great Doxology, that begins with the words: “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, good will towards men!” We then have a rather rapid decrescendo as we prepare to re-enter our daily lives, taking with us the joy of the Lord that should transform our daily lives. How can we re-enter our daily lives? By once again bringing to the Lord our many petitions for all the various concerns in our daily lives, in two Litanies, as we continue to entreat the Lord to have mercy. After the usual Dismissal, we have completed our ascent into the Lord’s Presence that was granted to us in Matins, and we have now descended to face the new day, renewed by the Holy Spirit.
PLEASE EXPLAIN WHAT COMPLINE IS ALL ABOUT?
The final Office or Service each day is Compline (both Daily and ‘Grand’ Compline), which is basically a late evening daily service, intended to be served prior to going to bed, at about 9:00 or 10:00 pm, but when Matins is served in the morning, sometimes Daily Compline might be combined with Vespers and served much earlier. The themes of the Psalms, prayers and hymns are all focused on: the end of the day; death and sleeping; protection and deliverance from the Enemy that stalks us in the darkness of night; repentance and forgiveness; and the Lord’s ever-present love and mercy for us. Some major hymns and prayers of Compline are: God is with Us! (in Great Compline); the Nicene Creed; the All-Holies; various evening troparia and prayers; the Prayer of Manasseh; the Lesser Doxology (chanted instead of sung); the Praises; sometimes a Canon; and concludes with Priest’s Prayers of Supplication to the Theotokos and to Our Lord, Jesus Christ. There are some major Compline hymns that are sung, and include some beautiful melodies, mostly with more somber, penitential moods, although significant portions are chanted.
ARE THERE OTHER TIMES WHEN GREAT COMPLINE IS SERVED?
Whereas in parish churches daily Compline is rarely served, there are several times when Great Compline is served, but people may not be aware of what it is. There are two extremely important feasts — the Nativity of Christ (Christmas) and Theophany (the Baptism of Christ) — when Great (or Grand) Compline is served as the first part of the Vigil on the eve of both feasts, which many of the faithful customarily attend. As previously mentioned, the Vigil service is usually comprised of Vespers and Matins, but for these two major feasts, instead of Vespers, Grand Compline is served in the Vigil, followed immediately by Matins. (This is because Vespers, combined with the Liturgy, has already been served earlier in the day of the eve of both feastdays.) In fact, probably the most well-beloved of all the Orthodox liturgical music for Christmas actually is the glorious hymn sung at the beginning of Grand Compline in the Christmas Vigil, “God is With Us!” — with the verses from the Prophet Isaiah about the birth of the Messiah that are chanted or sung with it (the same verses, by the way, that the Western composer, Handel, used in his famous composition, “Messiah”).
ARE THERE ANY ADDITIONAL TIMES WHEN GREAT COMPLINE IS CUSTOMARILY SERVED?
Yes there are. On Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and sometimes Wednesday evenings of the first week of Great Lent, plus on Thursday of the fifth week of Great Lent, a special Lenten service comprised of a monumental penitential work, called the “Canon of St. Andrew of Crete,” is served combined with Grand Compline, although with some additional penitential hymns and prayers that are added and are used only during Great Lent.
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WHAT ARE THE ORTHODOX “OCCASIONAL” DIVINE SERVICES?
We now have concluded our brief introduction to the various daily Divine Services — the Hours, Vespers, Matins and Compline, and several related topics. We will now turn our attention to a different category of Services that might be called “occasional” services, (but not including the Sacraments). These include services for the departed, Akathists and Molebens, Canons, plus the wide variety of prayers said by the priest for various specific and frequently more private occasions.
WHAT TYPE OF SERVICES DO THE ORTHODOX HAVE FOR THE DEPARTED?
There is another very significant group of Orthodox Divine Services that many people attend (including non-Orthodox, who might be present at an Orthodox Divine Service for the first time). We are referring to funeral services and special so-called “Memorial” services, that commemorate the departed, called by various names in different language traditions, (such as “Panikhida,” “Parastas,” “Saracusta,” or “Trisagion” service), and which are sometimes called in English, “Memorial Services,” because they end with singing “Memory Eternal!” It is necessary to stress here, that liturgical prayers for the departed are not only extremely, but even vitally, important in the Orthodox Church, and have no real corresponding equivalent in other Christian traditions.
ARE THERE SPECIFIC DAYS WHEN ORTHODOX HAVE DIVINE SERVICES FOR THE DEPARTED? WHAT ARE THE SERVICES LIKE?
The Orthodox Church appoints special prayers for the departed especially on the first three days, the ninth day, the fortieth day (and sometimes everyday for the first forty days), after the soul’s departure, and then annually, on the anniversary of the falling asleep of one’s loved ones, (plus annual Resurrectional or ‘Paschal’ grave blessings, and “Memorial” or “Soul-Saturday” Liturgies six times a year). The Divine Service (that is, the Panikhida or “Memorial Service”) done on these commemorative days (other than the Memorial Liturgies) basically follows the structure of Matins, and is extremely beautiful. The major themes of the prayers are that the departed be forgiven their sins and that they may dwell in a place of peace and rest with the righteous. There are a variety of wonderful hymns and prayers that are chosen and usually designated as either a ‘short’ or ‘full’ so-called “Memorial Service,” but the specific hymns, prayers and Psalms that are included in these abridged services can vary considerably in different ethnic traditions and individual parish practices. The actual entire service is extremely long, (usually only done for the funerals of clergy and monastics), and consequently, only certain portions are excerpted for customary parish use. This applies also to the funeral or burial service itself. Funerals are most customarily served on the third day, whenever possible.
Contained in the words of these incredible hymns is the Orthodox Church’s teachings about the nature and purpose of life and death, and they offer guidance to the living about the importance of preparing one’s soul to face the inevitable time when we will be the ones lying in the coffins. The hymns and prayers remind us that we should live our lives everyday as though it might be our last day.
This important Kontakion hymn expresses a major theme of the Orthodox services for the departed:
With the saints give rest, O Christ, to the soul of Thy servant,
where sickness and sorrow are no more, neither sighing, but life everlasting.
The various services for the departed end with the deacon or priest intoning: “Grant rest eternal in blessed repose, O Lord, to Thy servant(s) who has/have fallen asleep, and make his/her/their memory to be eternal!” after which “Memory Eternal!” is sung three times very slowly, to a deeply profound and intense melody, which is normally repeated three times.
There are also prayers at the cemetery, that include a “short Memorial Service,” the blessing and anointing of the coffin and of the grave. It is contrary to Orthodox tradition to just leave the coffin at the cemetery and let cemetery employees put the coffin in the grave without an Orthodox priest present to bless the grave and sing “Holy God” while the body is being moved and placed into the tomb.
There is also a short “grave-blessing” service done at the graves of departed loved ones on or near “Joy Day,” or “Day of Rejoicing,” which is the Tuesday following St. Thomas Sunday (the first Sunday after Pascha). This tradition brings the joy and hope of the Resurrection to the departed. It also marks the day when “Memorial Services” for the departed are allowed again after Passion Week and Bright Week.
WHY DO ORTHODOX PUT SUCH EMPHASIS ON PRAYERS FOR THE DEPARTED?
Perhaps there is nothing else that so clearly and dramatically distinguishes—and separates—the Orthodox Christian Faith from the heterodox and the secular world-view, than the issue of prayers for the departed, because Orthodox funeral practices are based on a concept of Reality that is radically opposite to that of the secular world-view.
Therefore, in order to explain why Orthodoxy puts such emphasis on prayers for the departed, we must define what really is Real? Western secular society basically teaches us that only the visible, material, physical world is real. On the contrary, Orthodox Christianity teaches that it is the invisible, immaterial, spiritual world that is ultimately Real, and is what gives life and meaning to the material world. (This principle is, indeed, the foundation of all Orthodox thought, worship and practice, and thus cannot be overemphasized.)
HOW DO ORTHODOX PRAYER SERVICES FOR THE DEPARTED FIT IN WITH THE ORTHODOX UNDERSTANDING OF THE MEANING & PURPOSE OF LIFE?
Although Orthodoxy believes that the invisible, immaterial, spiritual world is the truly Real world, by no means does Orthodoxy consider the physical world to be bad. This is because all that God created is good. However it is fallen as a result of mankind’s free-will choice to sin and to disobey God’s commands.
From the Orthodox perspective, then, the goal of the life of the physical world is for it to be restored to its original created beauty, along with the spiritual world, so that they may both together fully participate in the resurrection of all things. The purpose of life, according to the Orthodox Christian world-view, is to be united with God, both now and eternally. Thus, Orthodox pray for the repose of the souls of the departed, that they may indeed dwell with the righteous, be united with God, and participate in the resurrection — with full confidence in the effectiveness of our prayers.
HOW DO ORTHODOX PRAYER SERVICES FOR THE DEPARTED REFLECT FUNDAMENTAL TEACHINGS OF THE CHURCH?
Orthodox prayers for the departed continue an unbroken tradition and practice of the Apostles and the early Church, and reflect the most fundamental biblical and Apostolic teaching about the nature of reality, of life and death, of resurrection, of the power of prayer, of the nature of the soul, and of the nature of the Church. Orthodox practices of offering prayers for the departed are the most natural and logical expressions of several major underlying principles of the Orthodox Christian Faith—especially, that physical so-called “death” is not the end of life, but that life continues eternally. What we call “death” is a separation of the soul from the physical body, but the soul continues to live. Thus, there is a continuing interconnection between the living and the departed, that forms the basis for the Divine Services for the departed (and is also very evident in the Divine Liturgy). This interconnection is between the two parts of Christ’s Holy Church—the visible and invisible. Those who are still alive in the world, belong to the Church Militant; and those who have fallen asleep in the Lord, are alive in the Church Triumphant. In every Divine Liturgy, especially in the Proskomedia (see Volume 3 of this series, on “The Divine Liturgy”), persons in both these parts of the Church are equally commemorated. There is a pervading sense of the interaction between that which is visible and that which is invisible, between those alive in this world and those alive in the next world, and there is the strong underlying awareness that the two realms exist side by side and constantly interpenetrate each other. Fundamental to the awesome power and Truth of the Orthodox Faith is acceptance of this underlying principle about the nature of reality — that the invisible and immaterial Reality is what ultimately is really Real. Resurrection is Real! The power of prayer is Real! The eternal life of the soul is Real! Prayers for the departed are effective, powerful and Real!
ARE ORTHODOX FUNERALS & “MEMORIAL SERVICES” THE SAME AS WHAT NON-ORTHODOX CALL “MEMORIAL SERVICES”?
There is little relationship between these two things, confusingly called by the same name. Therefore, it is important to stress that for Orthodox, a funeral is not a type of a “Memorial Service” as our American society means by the term, that is, a service that “remembers” the life of the departed, or that “celebrates a person’s life.” On the contrary, the rather lengthy Orthodox funerals are almost entirely comprised of hymns and prayers for the soul of the departed, based on Orthodoxy’s firm belief in the effectiveness of our prayers for them, as well as being based on the most fundamental principle of Christianity — Jesus’ Resurrection from the dead and His affirmation that those who are united with Him will also be resurrected with Him.
ARE ORTHODOX FUNERALS ALWAYS HELD IN AN ORTHODOX CHURCH?
Although occasionally an Orthodox funeral might be held in a funeral home, funerals for faithful Orthodox are to be served in an Orthodox church (unless impossible for practical reasons). If a person lived a life faithful to God and His Holy Orthodox Church, and he sought to unite himself with the Lord through receiving His Holy Sacraments in His Holy Church, that is the Body of Christ, it only makes sense that the Church would send him on his way into the Kingdom of God from an Orthodox church that nourished him in the Faith.
It might be noted that, in contrast to non-Orthodox funerals, there is no place during an Orthodox funeral service, especially when held in an Orthodox church, for different friends and family members to speak about the departed person’s life. Instead, when it is desired, this should be incorporated into the memorial meal that traditionally follows the funeral and burial.
Unlike funerals, the Orthodox “Memorial Service” is frequently served at the funeral home at least the night before the funeral, if the body has not yet been brought to the church. However, clergy, monastics and very faithful Orthodox are customarily laid out in the church, not at a funeral home. In traditional Orthodox countries abroad, the modern American-style funeral homes and embalming customs are non-existent, and people are laid out in their homes or in their parish churches. The other times that “Memorial Services” are done are always done in the church.
WHAT IS THE ORTHODOX ATTITUDE TOWARDS CREMATION?
When people believe that “when you’re dead, you’re dead!” and that there is no soul and no resurrection, then they are likely to think that there is nothing wrong with cremation of the dead body— rationalizing that it is a lot cheaper and more convenient. (And therefore, increasingly today, even heterodox churches and clergy accept cremation.) However, Orthodox believe that cremation is a great, profound sin, whose effects are obviously irreversible, and (in most instances), an Orthodox funeral is not allowed for a cremated person. Orthodox are totally opposed to cremation on several basic principles. First, Orthodox believe that the physical world will participate in the transfiguration of all things at the final judgment, and that our transformed, spiritualized bodies will be reunited with our departed souls at the resurrection of the dead. Therefore, the bodies of the deceased should be treated with respect, and not be mutilated or burned, but reverently buried, while awaiting the final resurrection. Second, cremation shows contempt and lack of respect for the bodies that God created, just as the Nazis showed their contempt by cremating the dead in their concentration camps. Also, there are numerous historical examples of the relics of the saints being burned as a sign of contempt by enemies of Christianity. Third, the nature of Orthodox funeral and burial rites require the presence of the body of the departed person (except in exceptional situations). Fourth, Orthodox liturgical practices include praying for the departed at their grave sites whenever possible, most especially in Paschal grave-blessings after Christ’s Resurrection, in anticipation of the final general resurrection.
ARE THERE OTHER OCCASIONAL ORTHODOX SERVICES THAT MIGHT BE HELD?
Yes, there are three other wonderful Orthodox Divine Services that you might attend or even read privately at home: an Akathist, a Moleben [mol-yeb-ben], and sometimes, a Canon.
WHAT IS AN AKATHIST?
Since the word “Akathist” (pronounced either—“a-ká-theess” or “á-ka-theess”) doesn’t have any English translation at all, it simply is not translated, although literally, the word simply means “not sitting down.” When serving an Akathist, the clergy usually stand in front of an icon on a stand in the front center of the church, and all the people also stand. The Annunciation Akathist to the Mother of God is so highly revered in some ethnic traditions, that sometimes it is called “The” Akathist, as though it were the only one, but, of course, there are countless others.
In fact, there are thousands of Akathists, for they have been written for virtually every major saint and feastday, and also for the various types of icons of the Mother of God, but they aren’t always available in print. In Russia and Ukraine, Akathists are very frequently served, often on Sunday evenings at 5:00 pm combined with Vespers, and in some churches, after Sunday Liturgy. In America very few parish churches serve Akathists, but as more and more Akathists are being translated into English and become available in print, more parishes are discovering the joy and blessing of serving Akathists, either sung as a Service with a priest, or chanted by a Reader. In fact, many people like to read Akathists at home.
An Akathist is an extended hymn composed according to a very particular structure of thirteen sections, usually concluding with one or more kneeling prayers. Each of the first twelve sections is comprised of two parts: first, is a hymn called a “Kontakion,” that is chanted by the priest, and ends with “Alleluia!” that is sung by the people. The second part is called an “Ikos.” It is comprised of a paragraph that is chanted by the priest, followed by a series of single lines that most commonly start with the word “Rejoice,” and are sung by everyone to a particular four-line “Akathist melody,” ending with a refrain. The thirteenth section is a single Kontakion that is chanted three times, ending with a triple “Alleluia!” each time. Then the first Ikos and Kontakion are repeated, followed usually by one or more kneeling prayers. When done as a separate church service, sometimes an Akathist is combined with Vespers, a Moleben or a Canon.
An Akathist is the one Service that can, and frequently is chanted by a Reader. Most of the Akathists are to a particular saint, but some are to Christ, to the Theotokos, for various feastdays, for icons of the Mother of God, or for special themes — such as thanksgiving, Holy Communion, the Cross, the Resurrection. Reading or listening to akathists provide excellent ways for anyone to venerate and learn about a particular saint’s life or feastday or icon, and to nourish one’s prayer life.
WHAT IS A MOLEBEN?
The other Orthodox Divine Service that you might attend is the Moleben [mol-yeb-ben] Service. The word “Moleben,” or “Molieben,” (like the word “Akathist”), doesn’t have any English translation, and hence is frequently simply not translated. But in English, Moleben services are sometimes called by a generic name, such as “Prayer Service,” “Service of Supplication,” or “Service of Thanksgiving.” Like Akathists, Molebens are not frequently served in America, and thus, many Orthodox in America are not familiar with them.
Like an Akathist, so too a Moleben is usually served with the clergy standing in the front center of the church, before the Gospels and hand-cross on a small table or analogion. It is a fairly short Prayer Service for various particular intentions, such as: thanksgiving; travel; healing; the New Year; anniversaries; beginning of studies; in times of troubles, war, sickness, discord and strife; for soldiers going to war; to request prayers of a particular saint or to invoke the prayers of many saints; for particular icons, especially of the Mother of God; for general supplication of the Mother of God; and other types of general supplication. Basically, you name the need, and there is a Moleben Service for it. In Russia it is very common to serve Molebens — sometimes a general Moleben or Moleben to the church’s patron saint is served every Sunday after the Divine Liturgy, or for a special event or gathering, but unfortunately, in America, Molebens are rarely served.
The structure of Molebens can vary enormously, with a broad mixture of chanting and singing, back and forth, by Reader, Deacon, Priest and choir. Generally, the structure includes some Psalms, hymns and prayers that are appropriate to the purpose of the Moleben, relevant Gospel and Epistle readings, one or more Litanies with relevant petitions, combined with several additional elements from Matins, which at times may include a “Canon.” Frequently there is a long priest’s prayer at the end.
WHAT IS A CANON? ARE THERE CANONS THAT ARE USED OUTSIDE OF MATINS?
As we explained above in the Matins Service, a Canon is an extended hymn-form comprised of nine sections or “Odes,” each of which begins with a hymn, called an Irmos, that is sung to special Canon melodies. In most Canons, each Irmos is based on nine hymns from the Old Testament. Then there are additional hymns (“troparia”) of varying numbers that are chanted in each Ode, that poetically comment on whatever the subject of the Canon might be, with short refrains in between each troparion.
Although the Canon is a very important part of Matins, the poetic-hymn form of the nine-part Canon is widely used outside Matins. Not only are there frequently Canons in Grand Compline and sometimes in Molebens, but there are numerous other Canons for a wide variety of purposes (for example — to Christ, to the Mother of God, for Repentance, for healing, and for Preparation for Holy Communion, to mention just a few).
One much-beloved Canon is called the “Paraclis (par-a-klese) Canon,” which is a prayer service of supplication to the Mother of God. Also, during the first and fifth weeks of Great Lent, the awesome “Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete” is served, combined with Great Compline (that we mentioned above). It is a very lengthy penitential contemplation of countless examples of repentance throughout the Bible/Old Testaments, that seeks to arouse in us the desire to imitate these examples of sincere repentance. After the priest chants each of the troparia, the people and choir reverently sing the refrain, “Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me!”— while making a low reverence or bow. Although Canons may be chanted by a Reader, when done as a Divine Service, Canons are usually combined with some other service.
Serving Akathists, Molebens or Canons provide wonderful opportunities for people to come together and pray as a Church family for some particular need, purpose or event, or to commemorate a particular saint — or for the faithful to enhance their personal prayer life by praying these services privately.
ARE THERE OTHER OCCASIONAL SERVICES THAT A PRIEST MAY SERVE?
There are various other occasional services or prayers, usually fairly short, that are offered, that are not so much public Divine Services, but are more in the category of personal or private prayers that a priest offers for a particular need or occasion. Such occasional prayers are frequently served only by the priest, (sometimes with a Reader), and the person or family requesting the prayers, and often it is not in the church, but in the home (which Orthodox consider a “little church”) or in the hospital, or wherever the need is. These may include: prayers for the dying, and immediately after the departure of the soul from the body; for a woman about to give birth, and after giving birth; for a new-born child; for the naming of a child on the eighth day; various prayers for the sick, such as before surgery, after an accident, thanksgiving for recovering from illness or surgery; prayers said in time of war and blessing of those going into war; prayers before lessons and when school begins; and countless blessings of various objects, from vestments, icons, prayer ropes, crosses, prayer books, Bibles, palms, water, candles, Paschal foods, grapes and first-fruits, flowers, animals, cars and other vehicles of transport, and of course, the blessing of a new home and Theophany home-blessings, as well as the blessing of any new building. For virtually anything that is important in people’s lives, there is a prayer service to be said for it — for the blessing and sanctification of most any object, endeavor, or activity.
We thus conclude our brief explanation of most of the Orthodox Church’s Divine Services other than the Divine Liturgy and the Holy Sacraments. We hope that this has helped you to understand more about Orthodox worship and some underlying principles behind the Divine Services, and consequently, to participate more deeply in them.
GLORY TO GOD FOR ALL THINGS!