The Lighting of the Lamps

Since early Christian times, the evening service of Vespers has been associated with a thanksgiving for light at the end of the day. Both pagans and Christians would greet the lighting of an evening candle or lamp as the world became dark; Christians saw this light as a symbol of Christ, and from Jerusalem and Constantinople in the East to Spain in the West, this became part of the ritual of evening prayers in church.

This article describes the lighting of the lamps at Vespers in the Byzantine Rite (sometimes called the lucernarium, or "lamp-lighting ceremony"). For musical details, see Singing Vespers: The Lighting of the Lamps.

The incensing of the church

After Psalm 103 and the variable psalms of Vespers, the deacon (or at daily Vespers, the priest) begins to incense the entire church, while the cantor and faithful sing the opening verses of Psalm 140:

O Lord, I have cried to you, hear me.
     Hear me, O Lord!
O Lord, I have cried to you, hear me;
receive the voice of my prayer when I call upon you.
     Hear me, O Lord!

Let my prayer ascend to you like incense
and the lifting up of my hands like an evening sacrifice.
     Hear me, O Lord!

The deacon incenses the holy table (from all four sides), the main icons in the sanctuary and on the icon screen, the interior of the church, and the faithful, before returning to the sanctuary and incensing the front of the holy table once more. The faithful normally stand throughout the incensing, until the deacon or priest finishes censing and enters the sanctuary.

Incense is an ancient symbol of purification, and of sacrifice; in the psalms and the Book of Revelation, it is also a symbol of prayers rising to God. We pray to God with our minds, our bodies, and all our senses, and ask his assistance.

The Lamp-lighting psalms

The assistance we ask for is described in Psalms 140, 141, 129, and 116, which are sung or chanted at this point in the service. We ask God:

We conclude with Psalm 116, a hymn of trust in God:

Praise the Lord, all you nations;
acclaim him, all you peoples!
For strong is the love of the Lord for us;
he is faithful forever.

During the chanting of these psalms, the servers light the candles and lamps of the church. Remember that throughout Vespers, the church has become darker as night approaches. We need light to see our way, as well as spiritual illumination. As the outside world grows dark, the church is filled with light. (In churches with electric lighting, additional lights may be turned on, or un-dimmed.)

To accompany the physical symbolism of light and incense, the Typikon calls for the singing of hymns called stichera, which are inserted after the last verses of the Lamp-lighting Psalms:

These hymns are rich in theology and poetry, and are drawn from the various liturgical books that contain hymns for the entire liturgical year. These hymns form the principle changeable or proper part of Vespers. The hymns(s) sung at "Glory... now and ever..." (called doxastika) are particularly important.

At Great Vespers on the eves of Sunday (that is, on Saturday evening) and feast-days, during the singing of the doxastika, the clergy and servers go in procession through the church and make a solemn entrance into the sanctuary. During this procession, the church is brightly lit, and the procession concludes with the singing of the hymn, "O Joyful Light." This is followed by a prokeimenon and, on feast days, one or more readings, usually from the Old Testament. See The Entrance and Readings at Vespers.

At daily Vespers on other days, there is no procession; the hymn "O Joyful Light" and the prokeimenon of the day are sung, and the service continues with the Prayers of Vespers.

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