The Feast of the Theophany

Part III: Vespers

Introduction - Arrangement of Services - Vespers - Great Compline - Matins - Divine Liturgy - Great Blessing of Water

The Vespers of Theophany is the first service of the feast, sung on the afternoon or evening of January 5.

This service usually consists of Vespers combined with the Divine Liturgy of Saint Basil the Great. This combined service is celebrated on four days of the liturgical year, all of which are fast days:

If January 5 falls on a Saturday or Sunday, then Theophany Vespers is celebrated without Divine Liturgy, to avoid having two Eucharistic Liturgies in the same church on the same day. See Arrangement of services.

This page describes the order, hymns and readings of the service, as given in the liturgical books. For information about the prostopinije chant of the service, along with practical suggestions and commentary, see Singing Theophany Vespers.

Vespers with Divine Liturgy

Vespers with the Divine Liturgy can be celebrated in the afternoon or evening of January 5. Historically, it has been anticipated as early as noon. However, in the Typikon of the Byzantine Catholic Church, it is considered to be a service of the feast itself. In some eparchies, attendance at this service satisifes the holyday obligation to attend the Divine Liturgy of Christmas.

The service begins with the opening blessing of the Divine Liturgy, "Blessed is the kingdom of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit", and the singing of Psalm 103, the opening psalm of Vespers, followed by the Litany of Peace.

At the end of the Lamplighting Psalms - "Lord, I have cried to you, hear me", with its references to incense and the hour evening - the Lamplighting stichera are sung, with the cantor intoning the psalm verses and the faithful singing the stichera. These hymns begin by emphasizing the thoughts of John the Baptist at the idea of baptizing the Lord:

When the Forerunner saw the One who is our enlightenment, 
the One who has brought light to all,  coming to be baptized, 
his heart rejoiced and his hand trembled.
He pointed Him out to the people and said: 
This is the Savior of Israel who delivered us from corruption. 
O Christ our God, O Sinless One, glory to You!

and conclude with the reasons for our Lord's actions:

O God and Lord, when You resolved to save those who had strayed from You, 
You condescended to take the form of a servant, 
for it was fitting that You assumed our human nature for us. 
And when You were baptized in the flesh, O our Redeemer, 
it made us worthy of your forgiveness. 
Therefore, we cry out to You:  O Christ our God, our Benefactor, glory to You!

The final sticheron introduces the two great symbols of the feast, light and water, and the reason for our Lord's descent:

You have bowed your head before the Forerunner,  and You have crushed the heads of the demons. 
You have descended into the waters  and given light to all things 
that they may glorify You, O Savior, the Enlightenment of our souls.

This part of the service concludes as the lights are lit and the faithful sing the evening hymn, "O Joyful Light". During the singing, the clergy incense the sanctuary and the faithful.

The faithful sit to listen to the evening prokeimenon of the day of the week, and to Old Testament readings that follow. There are thirteen readings in all, divided into three sets of readings, with responsorial hymns sung in between the groups of readings.

The first three readings are as follows:

After the third reading, the cantor and faithful sing a short troparion:

O Creator of the world, You appeared in the world in order to shine upon those who live in darkness.  O merciful One, glory to You!

The cantor sings a series of verses from Psalm 66, a heartfelt request for God's blessing "till the ends of the earth revere him." After each verse, the people sing the second part of the troparion: order to shine upon those who live in darkness.  O merciful One, glory to You!

At the end, the cantor and faithful sing the entire troparion once more.

The next three readings are as follows:

After these readings, another troparion is sung as before, with verses from Psalm 92:

O our Savior, through the greatness of your mercy,  You cleansed the sinners and the publicans, and now your light shines upon those who live in darkness.  O Lord, glory to You!

The final set of readings (often all but the last reading of this set are omitted):

Note: In the early church, the feast of Theophany was one of the days appointed for solemn baptism; this likely explains the large numbers of readings, during which the catechumens would have been baptized.

With the conclusion of the readings, followed by a Small Litany, the Divine Liturgy of Saint Basil the Great begins at the Trisagion ("Holy God").

The prokeimenon of the Divine Liturgy once again repeats the symbolism of God as light, and as savior:

The Lord is my light and my help: whom shall I fear?

Finally, the Gospel (Luke 3: 1-18) is chanted, telling the story of the ministry of John the Baptist, and his prediction of the coming Messiah.

And at this, we come to the great action of thanksgiving, the Eucharist. As noted earlier, the Liturgy of Saint Basil is the traditional liturgy of the city of Constantinople; it recounts the whole of salvation history, from the Creation, through the Incarnation, suffering, death and Resurrection of Christ, his ascension and sending of the Holy Spirit, and looks forward to His glorious second coming.

The Communion Hymn is the usual one for Sunday, which is also sung on the eves of the Nativity and Theophany:

Praise the Lord from the heavens; praise him in the highest. Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

After the priest's Ambon Prayer, the Great Blessing of Water is held, to bless water in the church.

Vespers without Divine Liturgy

When January 5 falls on a Saturday or Sunday, and the Vespers and Divine Liturgy are not combined, the Vespers service is as follows. (According to some traditions, this Vespers is celebrated immediately after the morning service of the Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom.)

The opening blessing is that of Vespers instead of the Divine Liturgy: "Blessed is our God, always, now and ever and forever." After the Litany of Peace, "Blessed is the man" (the first kathisma of the Psalter) is sung.

The service proceeds as described above with Psalm 103, Lamplighting Psalms and stichera, and so on - until the end of the Old Testament readings.

The Small Litany and Trisagion (parts of the Divine Liturgy) are omitted, and the Prokeimenon, Epistle and Gospel are taken immediately.

The readings are followed by:

Litany of Fervent Supplication ("Let us all say with our whole soul...")
Hymn of Glorification ("Make us worthy, O Lord')
Litany of Supplication ("Let us complete our evening prayer to the Lord")

The Prayer of Simeon ("Now you shall dismiss your servant, O Lord") and the aposticha are not sung here, but will be taken as part of Great Compline. At the end of the service of Vespers, the Great Blessing of Water is held in church.

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