The Entrance and Readings of Vespers

Although in the Byzantine Rite today, we are used to having services like the Divine Liturgy begin and end in the sanctuary, this was not always the case. At one time, the clergy only entered the holy place when it was necessary to do so (for the Eucharist) or for the most solemn parts of major services. (Some services even began outside the church itself!)

The movement of the clergy, sometimes accompanied by servers, from the narthex into the nave, or from the nave into the sanctuary, is called an entrance.

This article describes the central part of Vespers in the Byzantine Rite. For musical details, see Singing Vespers: The Entrance and Readings.)

The Entrance

At Great Vespers, during the singing of the doxastikon (the sticheron at the "Glory...." of the Lamp-lighting Psalms), the clergy leave the sanctuary through the north deacon's door and make their way in procession through the church, carrying the censer (and the Gospel book, if there will be a Gospel reading). Stopping before the holy doors, the priest says the following prayer:

Good and loving King, who have blessed all things, we fervently implore you with contrite heart and humble spirit to bless our comings and goings. For your coming and going, and your dwelling among us are blessed, O Christ our true God, always, now and ever and forever. Amen.

(Notice how all our actions are tied in this prayer to those of Christ, and to his Incarnation.) The deacon says quietly:

Reverend Father, bless the holy entrance.

The priest blesses, saying:

Blessed is the entrance into your holy of holies, always, now and ever and forever.

Then the deacon holds up the censer and exclaims:

Wisdom! Be attentive!

This is the signal to begin singing the evening hymn, "O Joyful Light", while the clergy enter the sanctuary and take their places there.

The Hymn of the Evening

According to Saint Basil the Great (330-379), this hymn was old even in his own time, and no one knew who composed it. It was traditionaly sung when the evening lamp was brought forth to light the house. Here is our English translation.

O Joyful Light of the holy glory of the Father Immortal, the heavenly, holy, blessed One, O Jesus Christ, now that we have reached the setting of the sun, and see the evening light, we sing to God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  It is fitting at all times to raise a song of praise in measured melody to you, O Son of God, the Giver of Life.  Therefore, the universe sings your glory.

Read this through slowly, and cconsider its meaning:

This is one of the principal and best-known hymns of Vespers, and entirely suited to its place in the liturgy. At daily Vespers, even though there is no entrance, the priest and faithful sing this hymn of praise and thanksgiving to God.

The evening prokeimenon

At the heart of Vespers, a few psalm verses - that is, prokeimenon - are chanted. Unlike most changeable parts of our services, it depends ONLY on the day of the week, and is very ancient. As another mark of its solemnity, the deacon (rather than a reader) chants the verses of the prokeimenon,

On Saturday evening, we sing a great prokeimenon, that is, one with several verses:

Prokeimenon, Tone 6 (Psalm 92). The Lord reigns, he is clothed in majesty.
     V. Robed is the Lord and girt about with strength.
     V. The world he made firm, not to be moved.
     V. Holiness is fitting to your house, O Lord, until the end of time.

On other days, there is a prokeimenon of the day which is sung at this point in the service, even on great feasts:

SUNDAY EVENING - Prokeimenon, Tone 8 (Psalm 133). Come, bless the Lord, all you who serve the Lord.
     V. Who stand in the house of the Lord, in the courts of the house of our God.

MONDAY EVENING - Prokeimenon, Tone 4 (Psalm 4). The Lord hears me whenever I call him.
     V. When I call, answer me, O God of Justice.

TUESDAY EVENING - Prokeimenon, Tone 1 (Psalm 22). Your mercy, O Lord, shall follow me all the days of my life.
     V. The Lord is my shepherd, there is nothing I shall want; fresh and green are the pastures where he gives me repose.

WEDNESDAY EVENING - Prokeimenon, Tone 5 (Psalm 563). O God, save me by your name, by your power uphold my cause.
     V. O God, hear my prayer; listen to the words of my mouth.

THURSDAY EVENING - Prokeimenon, Tone 6 (Psalm 120). My help shall come from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.
     V. I lift up my eyes to the mountains, from where shall come my help.

FRIDAY EVENING - Prokeimenon, Tone 7 (Psalm 58). You, O God, are my defender and your mercy goes before me.
     V. Rescue me, O God, from my foes; protect me from those who attack me.

There are also two great prokeimena used on the Vespers that comes at the end of feasts of the Lord..

For the Exaltation of the Cross, Theophany, Bright Monday, Ascension, and Transfiguration:

Prokeimenon, Tone 7 (Psalm 113). But our God is in the heavens; he does whatever he wills.
     V. When Israel came forth from Egypt, Jacob's sons from an alien people.
     V. Judah became the Lord's temple, Israel became his kingdom.
     V. Why is it, O sea, that you fled; O Jordan, that you turned back?

For the feast of the Nativity, Pascha, Thomas Sunday, and Pentecost:

Prokeimenon, Tone 7 (Psalm 76). What god is as great as our God? You are the God who works wonders.
     V. You showed your power among the peoples.
     V. I said:  “This is what causes my grief; that the way of the Most High has changed.”
     V. I remember the deeds of the Lord, I remember your wonders of old.

and two more sung on Sunday evenings during the Great Fast:

On Cheesefare Sunday, and the 2nd and 4th Sundays of the Great Fast, in the evening:

Prokeimenon, Tone 8 (Psalm 68). Do not hide your face from your servant; answer me quickly for I am in distress. Come close to my soul and redeem me.
     V. Let your help, O God, lift me up.
     V. The poor when they see it will be glad.
     V. God-seeking hearts will revive

On the 1st, 3rd, and 5th Sundays of the Great Fast, in the evening:

Prokeimenon, Tone 8 (Psalm 60). For you, O God, hear my prayer, grant me the heritage of those who fear you.
     V. From the end of the earth I call to you; my heart is faint.
     V. Let me dwell in your tent forever and hide in the shelter of your wings.
     V. So I shall always praise your name.

as well as special prokeimena for each weekday evening in the Great Fast.

The readings

On most days, the evening prokeimenon is immediately followed by intercessory litanies and prayers. But at Great Vespers on the eves of feasts, there are three readings:

At daily Vespers, readings from Genesis and Exodus, Proverbs and Job are added during the Great Fast. All these readings are chanted by a reader, standing in the middle of the church and facing East (toward the sanctuary).

The Byzantine Rite does not make extensive use of Old Testament readings in the liturgy; a small number of prophecies and other readings (called paremias) are shared among the major feasts. However, the Annual Typikon of Father David Petras provides recommendations for readings at Vespers for each Saturday of the year, to provide a greater exposure to Sacred Scripture.

Recommended reading