The Daily Cycle of Services

In the Christian East, the Church's day begins at evening, and its services run from sunset to sunset:"Thus evening came, and morning followed - the first day." (Genesis 1:5, NAB). Since early times, it was customary for Christians to gather in church to prayer. The offices of Vespers (at sunset) and Matins (at sunrise) are extremely ancient, and make use of the natural symbols of light and darkness to evoke thanksgiving and praise.

The service of Vespers is particularly memorable in the Byzantine Rite. Led by a priest, the faithful chant psalms praising God's creation and asking for his help, along with special hymns called stichera that vary from one day to the next. On Saturday night (in preparation for Sunday) and the eves of feasts, there is a procession with lights and incense into the sanctuary. As the candles and lamps of the church are lit, the faithful welcome Christ with the hymn, "O Joyful Light", which according to Saint Basil the Great (330-379) is so ancient "no one knows who wrote it." These are followed by litanies and additional hymns, and the singing of the troparion of the day.

Vespers on the evening before a feast is especially solemn, with additional hymns and readings from Scripture, and may be extended with a special service called Litija, consisting of a procession through the church, prayers for the world, and the blessing of bread, wheat, wine and oil (representing all God's gifts to us).

The evening prayer of Vespers marks the moment of sunset, and the beginning of the church's day. In early Christianity, prayer at night was also common, either at home or in church. These developed in to the office of Compline at bedtime (with a special form, Great Compline, on the evenings of fasting days) and the nocturnal vigil of the Midnight Office. Each of these services has its own character: the prayers of Compline ask for God's protection through the night, while the Midnight Office calls us to watchfulness for the coming of Christ, "like a thief in the night."

The early morning service of Matins (called "Orthros" or "sunrise" in Greek) is a service of praise. After listening to psalms which progress from repentance for our sins to joy in God's presence, we listen to a Gospel reading (on Sundays and feasts) and chant the canon(s) of the day, followed by Psalms 148-150, the great psalms of praise that conclude the Psalter. Then we sing an extended form of the hymn of the angels, "Glory to God in the highest", and conclude with prayers for all the needs of the church and the world.

Like Vespers, Matins is celebrated more solemnly on Sundays and feasts; there is more singing and use of light and incense. If Litija was held the night before, then during the canon of Matins the faithful are anointed with the fragrant oil that was blessed at Vespers in honor, of the feast.

Christianity inherited from the Jews the practice of praying several times during the day, and under monastic influence these prayers developed into the various Hours of the day (First, Third, Sixth, and Ninth Hours). These times of prayer take their names from the Roman practice of dividing both the day and night into twelve equal periods or "hours"; that is why, for example, the "third hour [of the day]" is around 9 o'clock in the morning. These prayer services are short, and can be memorized and prayed at home or at work.

Finally, a short service called Typika may be celebrated on days when there is no Divine Liturgy. It uses the hymns and readings appointed for the day's Divine Liturgy, and at one time included a service of Holy Communion.

The following table lists the services that are celebrated daily in monasteries and churches of the Byzantine liturgical tradition around the world:

Service Time of celebration (approximate) Themes
Vespers Sunset Thanksgiving for creation; Christ the light of the world
Compline Late evening

Protection during the night

Midnight Office During the night Meditation on the unexpected coming of Christ
Matins Sunrise Supplication and praise of Almighty God
First Hour 7 AM (or immediately after Matins) Prayer at the beginning of the day's work
Third Hour 9 AM Descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost
Sixth Hour 12 noon Crucifixion of Christ
Ninth Hour 3 PM Death of Christ
Typika varies Psalms and prayers of the day

Together, these services are called the Divine Praises. They serve to sanctify the day, keep the believer's mind attentive to God's presence, and provide us with regular moments of prayer. The texts for the services are found in the liturgical book called the Horologion, or "book of hours."

The Eucharistic Liturgy

In a certain sense, the Eucharistic Liturgy - the service in which the Church "makes present" the Paschal mystery of the suffering, death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, our Lord, God and Savior - stands outside of time. Not only does it bring those present into contact with realities that transcend created time, but it is actually held "in common" with the heavenly Liturgy, and with all other celebrations throughout the world of the one sacrifice of the Cross. For this reason, the Eucharist is not accounted one of the services of the Divine Praises, but instead accompanies it on those days it is celebrated.

In the Byzantine Rite, the Eucharist, or Divine Liturgy, is not celebrated every day. It is normally celebrated on Saturdays, Sundays and feast days, and may be celebrated on weekdays; but it is not celebrated at all on strict fast days, such as those during the Great Fast in preparation for Pascha.

Two different forms of the Divine Liturgy are used in the Byzantine Churches:

During the Great Fast, an especially solemn service is held in the evening, called the Divine Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts. It consists of Vespers and a service of Holy Communion, allowing the faithful to end a day of strict fasting with psalms, hymns, readings from Scripture, and the Bread of Life. (Although it is termed by the liturgical books a "Divine Liturgy", it does not include an Anaphora or consecratory prayer; the gifts for Communion are consecrated at a previous Sunday or feast-day Eucharistic liturgy.)

The importance of the Divine Praises

The Second Vatican Council (1963-1965) addressed the importance of the daily cycle of services (which the Latin tradition calls the "divine office") in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, the first council document to be issued:

By tradition going back to early Christian times, the divine office is devised so that the whole course of the day and night is made holy by the praises of God. Therefore, when this wonderful song of praise is rightly performed by priests and others who are deputed for this purpose by the Church's ordinance, or by the faithful praying together with the priest in the approved form, then it is truly the voice of the bride addressed to her bridegroom; It is the very prayer which Christ Himself, together with His body, addresses to the Father. Hence all who render this service are not only fulfilling a duty of the Church, but also are sharing in the greatest honor of Christ's spouse, for by offering these praises to God they are standing before God's throne in the name of the Church their Mother. (§84-85)

The divine office, because it is the public prayer of the Church, is a source of piety, and nourishment for personal prayer. And therefore priests and all others who take part in the divine office are earnestly exhorted in the Lord to attune their minds to their voices when praying it. The better to achieve this, let them take steps to improve their understanding of the liturgy and of the bible, especially of the psalms. (§90)

Pastors of souls should see to it that the chief hours, especially Vespers, are celebrated in common in church on Sundays and the more solemn feasts. And the laity, too, are encouraged to recite the divine office, either with the priests, or among themselves, or even individually. (§100)

The same council's Decree on the Eastern Catholic Churches emphasized this point:

Eastern clerics and Religious should celebrate in accordance with the prescriptions and traditions of their own established custom the Divine Office, which from ancient times has been held in high honor in all Eastern Churches. The faithful too should follow the example of their forebears and assist devoutly as occasion allows at the Divine Office. (Orientalium Ecclesiarum §22)

In fact, Vespers and Matins were routinely celebrated in the parishes of the Byzantine (Ruthenian) Catholic Church until the 1950's, when the transition to English and liturgical Latinization led to an almost exclusive emphasis on the celebration of the Divine Liturgy (sometimes several times in one day). This meant that the faithful gradually lost access to the wealth of praise, poetry, piety, and theological teaching in the Byzantine daily services.

This trend began to be reversed in the 1980's, and the 1996 Vatican document, Instruction for Applying the Liturgical Instructions of the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, had this to say about the Divine Praises:

The Eastern Catholic Churches have often run the risk of omitting the communal and solemn celebration of the Divine Praises, substituting it with individual recitation of the Divine Office, on the part of the clergy, while the daily celebration of the Eucharist has remained often almost the only form of communal liturgy. Where such practice of celebrating the Divine Praises with the people has diminished, if not completely disappeared, the ancient tradition should be restored without delay, so as not to deprive the faithful of a privileged source of prayer, nourished by treasures of authentic doctrine. (§98)

The "full cycle of liturgical services" for Sundays and feasts in the Byzantine tradition includes Vespers and Matins as well as the Divine Liturgy, and since the Divine Praises can be celebrated without a priest, they sometimes form part of the regular worship of communities without a resident pastor. Individuals or small groups can also celebrate parts of the Divine Praises, taking advantage of this "school of prayer" in the Eastern tradition.

The All-Night Vigil

In many Greek monasteries, and in monasteries and parish churches of the Great Russian (Muscovite) liturgical tradition, the feast-day services that precede the Eucharist are combined into an All-Night Vigil, consisting of Vespers with Litija, followed immediately by festal Matins. (When the services are celebrated with full solemnity, this vigil can last all night, though in parish use it often takes two or three hours.)

On the other hand, churches in the Ruthenian liturgical tradition (Ukrainian and Ruthenian Catholics, and Carpatho-Russian Orthodox) usually celebrate feast days with Vespers and Litija on the eve of the feast, and Matins and Divine Liturgy in the morning.  The All-Night Vigil remains an option in their liturgical books, but is used much less frequently. Since this website primarily provides documentation on the Ruthenian liturgical tradition, we assume the traditional Ruthenian parochial usage, and omit the service details associated with the All-Night Vigil, including the service of Small Vespers which is celebrated beforehand.

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