The Services of Vespers and Matins define the day. In Genesis, the first book of the Bible, we read: 5And there was evening and there was morning, the first day (Genesis 1:5 [LXX]). For this reason, in ancient times the order of services called for Vespers, the first part of the All-night Vigil, to end late in the night; and Matins, the second part, to finish with at dawn. In contemporary practice, Matins (if served apart from Vespers) is usually moved to a later hour in the morning or back to the eve of the feast.
The Six Psalms
Matins, if served as a part of the All-night Vigil, begins with the reading of the Six Psalms or Hexapsalmia, which consists of Psalms 3, 37, 62, 87, 102, and 142 ([LXX]), read in order as one liturgical whole. The reading of the Six Psalms is preceded by two bible verses: the thrice repeated words of praise spoken by the angel at Bethlehem: 14Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men (Luke 2:14), and the twice repeated words from the 50th Psalm: O Lord, Thou shalt open my lips, and my mouth shall declare Thy praise (Psalm 50:15 [LXX]).
The first of these verses, the angelic words of praise, clearly and eloquently point out hree fundamentally related paths of struggle in pursuit of a Christian life. Upward, toward God in the words of praise, “Glory to God in the highest,” outward toward your neighbor in the words, “and on earth peace,” and downward into the depth of your heart in the words, “good will among men.” Seen together, the thrust of these struggles, upward, outward, and downward, form the symbol of the Cross; thereby manifesting the ideal of the Christian life: granting peace with God, peace among men, and peace in the soul.
While it is not normal parish practice, the order of services calls for the candles in the church to be extinguished during the reading of the Six Psalms. The falling darkness symbolizes that dark night when Christ came to earth, as the angel sang the hymn of praise, “Glory to God in the highest.” The semidarkness of the church helps us to pray more earnestly. The Six Psalms encompass the entire range of human experiences that enlighten the New Testament Christian life; not only its overall joyousness, but also the sorrowful path that leads to that joy.
At the midpoint of the Six Psalms comes the fourth psalm, Psalm 87; the most sorrowful of the six, filled as it is with a dreadful bitterness. While this psalm is being read, the priest leaves the altar and stands before the Beautiful Gates and continues to read the twelve special morning prayers; prayers which he has already begun to read in the altar before the Holy Table. At that moment the priest symbolizes Christ, Who, having heard the sorrow of fallen mankind, not only came down to man, but shared in his suffering to the end. The psalm, which is being read at that moment, speaks of this theme.
The priest’s silent morning prayers contain prayers for the Christians standing in church; petitions that they be forgiven their sins, that they be given true faith and sincere love, that all their works be blessed, and that they might be made worthy of the Heavenly Kingdom.
Psalm 117, God is the Lord
Immediately following the Litany of Peace we hear the singing of the 117th Psalm, God is the Lord, and the oft repeated refrain, “God is the Lord and hath appeared unto us; blessed is he who cometh in the Name of the Lord.” The Order of divine services appoints that these words be sung at this specific point in Matins in order to direct our memory and attention to Christ’s embarking on His public ministry. This verse expands upon the praise of the Savior which was heard at the beginning of Matins during the reading of the Six Psalms. These words also served as a greeting to Jesus Christ when He final entered Jerusalem for the final time before His passion on the Cross. The doxology “God is the Lord and hath appeared unto us . . .” and three special verses which follow are chanted by either the deacon or by the priest before the main, or local, Icon of Christ in the iconostasis; this is the icon of Christ immediately to the right of the Beautiful Gates. The choir then repeats the first verse, “God is the Lord and hath appeared unto us. . . .”
The singing or chanting of these verses should reflect a joyous, festive mood. For this reason, the candles which had been extinguished during the reading of the Six Psalms penitential are lighted once again.
Immediately after the verses for God is the Lord, the Resurrection Troparion is sung. The Feast is glorified in it and the reality of the words “God is the Lord and hath appeared unto us” are explained. The Resurrection Troparion heralds the sufferings of Christ and His Resurrection from the dead; events which will be illuminated in detail later in the service of Matins.
At the All-night Vigil, the second and third kathismata (the Greek plural of kathisma) are read after the completion of the Great Litany, the verses of God is the Lord, and the troparia. As we have already stated, the Greek word καθισμα — kathisma means “seat” or “stall,” and according to the Church order of services, during the reading of the kathismata the faithful are allowed to sit.
The entire Psalter, composed of 150 psalms, is divided into 20 kathismata; that is, into 20 groups or chapters of psalms. Each kathisma is in turn divided into three “glories,” that is, each section of the kathisma concludes with the words, “Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit,” being chanted three times, and after each “glory” the choir sings “Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia. Glory to Thee, O God.”
The kathismata contain expressions of a penitential, contemplative character. They call us to consider our sins; and they are included by the Orthodox Church in her Divine Services to call the faithful to look into their own lives and actions, and deepen their repentance before God.
The second and third kathismata, read during Sunday Resurrection Matins, are of a prophetic character. They describe the passion of Christ: the abuse He endured, the piercing of His hands and feet, the casting of lots and dividing of His garments, and His death and Resurrection from the dead.
The kathismata of the Resurrection during the All-night Vigil bring the faithful to the central and most festive portion of the services, to the polyeleos.
“Praise ye the Name of the Lord. Alleluia.” These and the following words are taken from the 134th and 135th Psalms and introduce the most festive portion of the Resurrection Vigil Service, the polyeleos, which celebrates the Resurrection of Christ.
The word Πολυελεοσ — Polyeleos comes from two Greek words which mean “plenteous in mercy.” The crux and fulcrum of the polyeleos rests in the chanting of “Praise ye the name of the Lord,” with each verse of the Psalms followed by the refrain “for His mercy endureth forever.” In this refrain, the Lord is glorified for the abundant mercies He had shown toward man; the first and foremost of which is His salvation and redemption of man.
At the polyeleos, the Beautiful Gates open, the entire church is illuminated, and the clergy come out of the altar and cense the entire church. Through these liturgical actions, the faithful witness the events of the Resurrection. In the opening of the Beautiful Gates, they see how Christ rose from the tomb; and in the clergy procession from the altar to the center of the church, they see how He again appeared among His disciples. While this is taking place, the psalm, 3Praise ye the Lord (Psalm 134:3 [LXX]), continues to be chanted, together with the angelic refrain, “Alleluia” (Praise the Lord); it is as if the choir is acting on behalf of the angels, calling the faithful to praise the Risen Lord.
The chanting of, “plenteous in mercy,” during the polyeleos, a service typically done during the Vigil on the eves of Sundays and great feast days, especially demonstrates God’s mercy. It is especially appropriate to praise His Name and to thank Him for His mercy during this service.
In preparation for Great Lent, the short 136th Psalm is added to the verses of Psalms 134 and 135 which constitute the polyeleos. This Psalm, which begins with the words “By the waters of Babylon,” tells of the suffering of the Hebrew people in the Babylonian captivity and of their grief over the loss
of their homeland. This psalm is sung during the several weeks prior to Great Lent, so that, like the Hebrews who strove to free themselves from Babylonian captivity and return to their Homeland, the Promised Land; Christians, who are the New Israel, might strive in repentance and abstinence toward their spiritual home, the Kingdom of God.
During feasts of the Lord and of the Theotokos, as well as on days commemorating especially venerated saints, the polyeleos is followed by a magnification, a short verse of praise for the feast or saint of the day. First the clergy, standing before the festal icon in the center of the church, sing the magnification. Then, while the entire church is censed, the choir repeats the same text several times.
The angels were the first to learn of the Resurrection of Christ and to tell people the Good News. Thus, the polyeleos begins with the angels bidding us to: “Praise ye the Name of the Lord.” The next to learn of the resurrection were the Myrrh-bearing Women, who, in accordance with ancient Hebrew custom, came to the Tomb of Christ to anoint His body with myrrh, an aromatic oil. So, the singing of the angelic Alleluia is followed by the resurrection troparia which tell of the Myrrh-bearers’ visit to the tomb, and of the appearance of the angel who told them of the Savior’s resurrection and directed that they tell this news to His apostles. Each troparion is preceded by the words “Blessed art Thou, O Lord, teach me Thy statutes.” The last of Jesus Christ’s followers to learn of His resurrection from the dead were the apostles. This moment in Gospel history is commemorated with the reading of the Resurrection Gospel, the central part of the Vigil Service.
Several preliminary doxologies and prayers precede the Gospel reading. Thus, after the Resurrection troparion and the Small Ektenia, which is an abridged form of the Great Ektenia, special verses known as the Hymns of Degrees are sung. These ancient verses come from 15 psalms known as Hymns of Degrees because in Old Testament times they were sung by two choirs facing one another along the steps, here called degrees, of the Temple in Jerusalem. Usually, we hear the first part of the Hymns of Degrees in Tone IV, beginning with, “From my youth many passions have warred against me. . . .”
As just related, the highlight of the All-night Vigil is the reading of a Gospel passage about Christ’s resurrection from the dead. The order of divine services calls for a number of prayers to be read in preparation for this holy Gospel. The reason for the rather lengthy preparation of the faithful for the reading of the Gospel is that the Gospel has been called the book “behind seven seals” and “a stumbling block” for those whom the Church does not teach to understand and heed it. Furthermore, the Holy Fathers teach that a Christian must first pray in order to draw the maximum spiritual benefit from the reading of the Holy Writ. This prayerful introductory preparation for the reading of the Gospel at the All-night Vigil serves this purpose.
Our prayers in preparation for the reading of the Gospel include the following liturgical elements. First, the deacon chants “Let us attend,” then “Wisdom”; then comes the prokeimenon relevant to the Gospel reading. The prokeimenon, as we said earlier, is a short excerpt from Divine Scripture, ordinarily from one of the psalms, which is read together with other verses complementing the theme of the prokeimenon. The deacon chants the prokeimenon and its accompanying verse, and then the prokeimenon is repeated by the choir thrice; once, after the chanting of each accompanying verse.
The doxology, “For holy art Thou . . .” and the chanting of, “Let every breath praise the Lord . . .” conclude the polyeleos with its festive words of praise introducing the Gospel. The gist of their meaning is: Let everything that has life praise the Lord, the giver of life. Afterward: the wisdom, holiness, and benevolence of the Lord, Creator and Redeemer of all creation, is explained and preached through the holy Word of the Gospel.
The Holy Gospel
“Wisdom. Upright. Let us hear the holy Gospel.” This is an invitation to stand up straight, with respect, piety, and spiritual uprightness, to hear the Word of God.
As we have said before, central part of the All-night Vigil is the reading of the Gospel. In it we hear the voice of the apostles, heralding the Good News of the Resurrection of Christ.
Eleven differing Resurrection Gospel lessons, all of which tell of the Resurrection of the Savior and of His appearance to the Myrrh-bearing Women and to the disciples, are read in turn during the Saturday All-night Vigils.
The Resurrection Gospel lessons are read from within the altar, the most important part of the Orthodox temple, which here represents the Tomb of our Lord. On other feast days, the Gospel is read in the midst of the people. This is done because in the center of the Temple is the icon of the saint or event being celebrated, the meaning of which the Gospel proclaims.
After the Resurrection Gospel reading, the priest brings the Holy Gospel Book out for veneration. He emerges from the altar as from the Tomb, and holding the Gospel, he emulates the angel as he shows us Christ, whom he had preached. Like the disciples, the parishioners bow down before the Holy Gospel, and like the Myrrh-bearing Women, they kiss it, and everyone sings, “Having beheld Thy Resurrection O Christ. . . .”
Beginning with the polyeleos, our exultation and joy in encountering Christ increases. This part of the Vigil instills in the faithful a recognition that in the person of Jesus Christ, Heaven has come down to earth. The Church also reminds its children that whenever we hear the chanting of the polyeleos, we must bear in mind the coming day and with it the Feast of Eternity, the Divine Liturgy, which is not simply a representation on earth of the Heavenly Kingdom, but is in fact, its coming to pass, unchanged and in all its fullness, on earth.
We must greet the Heavenly Kingdom with a broken spirit and with repentance. For this reason, immediately after the joyous singing of “Having beheld Thy Resurrection O Christ,” the penitential 50th Psalm, beginning with the words “Have mercy on me, O Lord . . .” is chanted. It is only during
the night of Pascha and the entire following week, when we are permitted to experience such ultimately joyous rapture, free of sorrow or penitence, that the reading of the 50th Psalm is omitted from divine services.
This penitential Psalm “Have mercy on me O Lord” is concluded with a prayer for the intercession of the apostles and the Mother of God. Then, the opening verse of the 50th Psalm is repeated: “Have mercy on me O God, according to Thy great mercy, and according to the multitude of Thy compassions, blot out my transgression!”
Further on, it is with the mixture of both joy in the Resurrection and repentance that we hear the sticharion, “Jesus, having risen from the dead, as he
foretold, hath given us life eternal and great mercy.” The “great mercy,” which Christ shows to those who repent, is the granting of “life eternal.”
According to the Church, the Resurrection of Christ illumines the nature of anyone who unites himself with Christ. This enlightenment is demonstrated in the extremely important variable part of the All-night vigil known as the canons.
Translated by priest Peter Perekrestov
Edited by Lawrence Miller
From the Introductory chapter, “The History of Church Rubrics”
of The Explanatory Typicon by Prof. Michael Skaballanovitch
of the Kiev Theological Academy, 1910