by Dr. Paul Meyendorff
Professor of Liturgical Theology at St. Vladimir's Seminary

Editor’s Note: The following article is recognized by Archbishop Peter, Hierach of the New York-New Jersey Diocese, as providing an interesting suggestion concerning our evening worship and is made by a competent Orthodox liturgical theologian.


According to the Typikon, the book that regulates Orthodox liturgical practice, Saturday evening is a busy time indeed. Near sunset, vespers begin, lasting for approximately two hours (if the service is performed in full). Vespers concluded, all remain in church and partake of bread and wine that have just been blessed following the lite, and the Acts of the Apostles are read. Having consumed their snack and listened to the entire Book of Acts, the faithful begin matins, which (if done in its entirety) last about three hours more. The reading of the first hour concludes the vigil, and at 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning the tired faithful go home for a few hours rest before the eucharistic liturgy begins. The entire service lasts about eight hours.

This entire ordo is rarely followed, even in monasteries. For many centuries already, this “all-night vigil” has been greatly abbreviated in parish practice, typically lasting about two hours in churches following Slavic practice. In communities of Greek or Antiochian heritage, vespers is celebrated alone on Saturday evening, and matins on Sunday morning before the eucharistic liturgy. In recent decades, there has been an even further reduction, with most parishes celebrating only an abbreviated form of Great Vespers. Matins has largely disappeared from parochial usage, and the Sunday-morning matins celebrated in Greek and Antiochian communities is sparsely attended, often abbreviated beyond recognition, and chanted by a cantor alone, much like “the hours” in Slavic practice. An increasing number of parishes have eliminated these services have eliminated these services altogether, reducing their liturgical life to the Sunday eucharist alone.

Few people today would argue for a return to the monastic practice of celebrating an eight-hour vigil each Saturday night. Even the greatly abbreviated two-hour vigil, so popular in 19th-century Russia, survives only in our seminaries and in a tiny minority of parishes. The “typical” parish today celebrates only Great Vespers, which typically lasts from 30-45 minutes and is attended by 10-25% of the parishioners. Many clergy and faithful who attend this brief service have expressed a desire for something more. On the one hand, parishioners who may drive a half-hour or more to get to church feel that this service is too brief: why make all the effort to get ready and come to church for such a brief service? On the other hand, clergy who have, if only in their seminary training experienced a fuller liturgical cycle, realize that the faithful never hear the Sunday resurrection gospel proclaimed, except once a year on Holy Saturday! This gospel, located in the middle of matins, is the focal point of the weekly resurrection vigil and certainly ought to be restored. Several ways to restore the resurrection matins gospel have been proposed:


  1. Restore the Saturday night vigil. While restoring the two-hour Saturday evening vigil is indeed a possibility, this is not a viable option in many circumstances. First, the service will be sparsely attended. Second, the abbreviated service creates the anomaly of celebrating a morning service (matins) in the evening: Does it make sense to say, “Let us complete our morning prayer” at 7:30 in the evening?
  2. Read the gospel at vespers. Some clergy have chosen to read the gospel at vespers, either at the end of the service or, more logically, after the prokeimenon. This has the advantage of restoring the resurrection gospel and of maintaining the brevity of the service.
  3. Celebrate a new version of the abbreviated vigil. This is an option that was first proposed in about 1980 by the Liturgical Commission of the Orthodox Church in America, then headed by Fr. Alexander Schmemann. Outlined below, this service consists of vespers, and a portion of the Sunday/festal matins which liturgical experts generally refer to as a “cathedral vigil.” This new service is approximately 1-1 ¼ hours long and contains many of the festal elements of matins.


The present Sunday/festal matins is a composite service consisting of four distinct units:


  • An opening section called a Royal Office, consisting of fixed opening prayers, Psalms 19-20, troparia in honor of the emperor (“O Lord, save your people”), and a brief litany interceding for the civil authorities. This section is often omitted in parish usage.
  • A Noctural Office, consisting of the six psalms (Hexapsalmos), the Great Litany, the verses from Psalm 118 ("God is the Lord"), the troparia and the monastic psalmody (kathisma – nearly always omitted in parish usage).
  • A Cathedral Vigil, consisting of: Psalm 118 or the Polyeleos (Psalms 135-136); during Lent, add Psalm 137: "By the waters of Babylon"); Megalynarion (on feast days only); Evlogitaria (on Sundays only: "Blessed are you, O Lord, teach me your statutes"); Anabathmoi (on feast days only: "From my youth"); Prokeimenon; "Let everything that breathes praise the Lord"; Gospel of the resurrection (or of the feast); Resurrection troparia (on Sundays only: "Having beheld the resurrection of Christ").
      This entire unit is not an integral part of matins, and it is omitted at daily matins. It does not pertain to any time of day and focuses exclusively on the celebration of Sunday or the feast.
  • The Morning Office proper, consisting of Psalm 51, the intercessions, the canon with the Magnificat, the exaposteilarion, the praises, the Great Doxology, the troparion, the litanies, and the dismissal.


The proposed “parish vigil,” then would consist of the customary Great Vespers, with the “cathedral vigil” above inserted just before the dismissal. This service has been used very successfully in several parishes. It is of suitable length, very popular in character, yet it maintains the integrity of both vespers and of the “cathedral vigil” portion of matins. The only change to the “cathedral vigil” is the removal of the verse from Psalm 51 from the resurrection troparia, since this verse belongs to the morning psalm and not to the troparia.

Remarkably, this proposed service is also very much a return to ancient practice. For 700-800 years, in the cathedral of Constantinople, Hagia Sophia, the Saturday evening service was very much like this, consisting of vespers and a brief service called a pannychis (= vigil). It contained much singing, processions, incensations; and all the people sang the responses to the psalmody. This can still be seen in the refrains at the Polyeleos and the Evlogitaria, and there is no reason why these should not be sung by the entire congregation.

I would therefore urge the hierarchs of our church once more to consider this proposal. The Orthodox liturgical tradition has always been extremely flexible, responding to the needs and demands of each age. At a time when the Church’s cycle of resurrection services is undergoing a profound crisis, is on the verge of extinction, we are called once more to respond creatively. We can simply do nothing and complain that we are losing our “traditions.” Or, as the 21st century is about to dawn, we can put on the “mind of the fathers” and respond, faithfully and creatively, to the challenges of a new age.

From Jacob's Well
Newspaper of the Diocese of New York and New Jersey
Orthodox Church in America
Spring 1995