Planning for Vespers

This article explains how to determine the proper liturgical hymns and readings for Vespers (both Great Vespers and daily Vespers) throughout the year. It assumes you already have at least some familiarity with planning for the Divine Liturgy.

What day is it?

The first thing to do is figure out what day you are celebrating Vespers for. In the Byzantine liturgical tradition, each day begins at sundown, and so Vespers is actually the beginning of the next calendar day. We sometimes distinguish between

These are the exact same service. So whenever you hear the word "Vespers", make sure you know which is meant: Vespers on a particular evening, or the Vespers that starts a particular day.

Great Vespers or Daily Vespers?

There are two kinds of Vespers we normally celebrate in parishes: Great Vespers and daily Vespers. They have basically the same outline, but differ in details as well as in overall solemnity.

Great Vespers is celebrated for

Great Vespers always includes an entrance by the clergy into the sanctuary, so another way to tell is Great Vespers is supposed to be celebrated is to look in the propers for the day for a rubric saying "Entrance with censer" or "Entrance with Gospel book."

Daily Vespers is celebrated on all other days, and does not have an entrance.

The Lamp-lighting Psalms

The beginning of Vespers is basically identical, regardless of whethe Great Vespers or daily Vespers is celebrated. The only difference is whether Psalm 103 is sung or chanted, and whether a deacon might be present (Great Vespers only).

The first of the "proper" or changeable parts of Vespers is the set of hymns sung toward the end of the Lamp-lighting Psalms (Psalms 140, 141, 129, and 116). These hymns are called stichera, and are sung in alternation with psalm verses. The psalm verses are unchanging, and the changeable hymns are sung in between.

There are always 10, 8, or 6 stichera:

Some things to note:

  1. Hymns may be repeated, especially since Vespers is traditionally sung in alternation between two sides or "choirs" in the church. Repeating the hymns allows everyone to both sing them and listen to them.
  2. Each sticheron has its own tone, and sometimes a special melody
  3. There is a special hymn sung after "Glory... now and ever..." called a doxastikon; there may be two such hymns, one after "Glory...." and one after "Now and ever..."

For Sundays, we always start by singing stichera in honor of the Resurrection, in the Tone of the Week. (The MCI Sunday Vespers book has a set of seven of Resurrectional stichera in each of the eight tones.) Following the prescribed number of Resurrectional hymns we sing 3, 4, or 6 hymns for the saint(s) of the day, for a total of ten stichera in all before the "Glory...." If the saint of the day has a special doxastikon (hymn at "Glory..."), we sing:

Glory.... (the saint's hymn) Now and ever.... (the dogmatikon in the Tone of the Week).

If the saint doesn't have a special hymn, then we sing "Glory... now and ever...." and the dogmatikon. This situation becomes a little more complicated on post-festive days, when there may be a single hymn at "Glory.... now and ever..." for the post-feast; this is the Church's way of saying "Heads up! Pay attention!"

The Liturgical Calendar at the Metropolitan Cantor Institute website will have a leaflet for each Sunday showing you the proper hymns for Vespers; the ten hymns are numbered in descending order (10 down to 1).

For feast days, there will be eight stichera, and one or two hymns at "Glory.... now and ever..." Very frequently, we end with one of the dogmatika, either in the tone of the last feast-day sticheron, or (on Friday evening) in the Tone of the Week. (This last rule makes sure that we begin and end each week by singing this important hymn in the Tone of the Week.) Singing the dogmatikon is the sign of a "greater feast."

For daily Vespers, we sing six stichera:

The MCI Daily Vespers book includes the Eight Tones weekday hymns for Vespers, and hymns for each class of saint (apostles, martyrs, and so on), so you can celebrate daily Vespers using that book alone.

The Prokeimenon and Readings

There is a Vespers prokeimenon for each day of the week; the one for Saturday evening is "The Lord reigns; he is clothed in majesty." The Vespers prokeimenon is always identified by the day ON which Vespers is being celebrated.  For example, if a feast falls on a Thursday then Vespers would be celebrated on Wednesday evening, and the prokeimenon for Wednesday evening would be used (unless a special one was assigned).

There are a few exceptions:

After the prokeimenon, for feast days (great, vigil, or polyeleos) ONLY, there are three readings: usually from the Old Testament, or (for feasts of apostles) from the New Testament. These are specific to each feast.

Will there be Litija?

After the prokeimenon (and any readings), the service continues with several fixed hymns and litanies.

If it is Great Vespers for certain particular days (great feasts Great feast or vigil feasts Vigil), the celebrant has the option of holding a special procession called Litija. Each feast has special stichera during the first part of the procession, ending with one or two hymns at "Glory... now and ever..." These hymns are found with the propers for the feast.

These Litija hymns are a little different: they don't have psalm verses in between, and ONLY as many are sung (together with Glory... now and ever... and the final hymn(s)) as are needed to accompany the procession. It is quite common for the liturgical books to call for the singing of the patronal hymns of the church (that is, the Litija hymns for the saint or feast the church is named after), followed by the Litija hymns for the feast itself.

The Aposticha

After the Litija procession (if there is one), we sing one more set of stichera: the aposticha, or "dismissal hymns."

For Sunday, there are aposticha for the Resurrection in each tone of the week.

Each feast day (Great feastVigilPolyeleos) has its own special aposticha, with psalm verses chosen for the feast.

At Daily Vespers, the aposticha are for the day of the week and the tone of the week, with an aposticha doxastikon at "Glory" if the saint has one. If so, we sing the theotokion for the day of the week in the same tone as the saint's doxastikon. Otherwise we sing the theotokion for the day of the week and the Tone of the Week.

The Troparia and Dismissal

After the aposticha, Vespers continues with more fixed hymns, prayers, and litanies. Finally, when we are almost done, we sing the troparia. These Vespers troparia are repeated at Matins and the Divine Liturgy, making them a sort of "theme song" for the day.

For Sundays, we sing the familiar troparion of the Resurrection in the Tone of the Week, then "Glory... now and ever..." and a special festive theotokion in the same tone.

For feast days, we sing the troparion of the feast: three times for a great feast, or 1-2 times followed by the festive theotokion in the same tone. If bread will be blessed in conjunction with Litija, there is a special order for the troparia that includes the singing of the hymn, "Rejoice, O Virgin Theotokos" (the Byzantine version of the Hail Mary).

At daily Vespers, we sing the troparion of the saint of the day, together with a theotokion from the Octoechos (for an ordinary saint), or the festive theotokion in the same tone (for feasts of Great Doxology rank and above). If there are two saints, or a saint and a pre-festive or post-festive day, the Typikon gives the order of the troparia.

There is one more special case: on fast days (days of Alleluia, and every day in the Great Fast), Vespers has a special ending with certain fixed troparia (to the Mother of God, John the Baptist, and the apostles) and the Prayer of Saint Ephrem. When this ending is used, we don't sing the usual troparia of the day.

What about a feast day falling on Sunday?

It depends on the rank of the feast. Feasts of the Lord (such as Christmas and Transfiguration) completely replace the hymns of Sunday. But for other feasts, we combine the Sunday and feastday hymns according to the Typikon; the higher the rank of the feast, the more of its hymns we use. The MCI Liturgical Calendar has a Vespers leaflet for every Saturday showing the propers for that celebration.