The Procession at Vespers

In the fourth and fifth centuries, as each region of the Church developed its own liturgical traditions, Vespers in Jerusalem's Church of the Resurrection, close to the holy places, always concluded with a procession to the garden of Gethsemane, and the hill of Golgotha, where prayers were said before the bishop dismissed the people. Later, some monasteries ended Vespers with a procession to the tombs of the monasteries founders, where hymns were sung in their honor; while in Constantinople, public processions called lite (entreaty, or fervent prayer) were held before feasts, or when a calamity threatened the city.

Parts of all of these were eventually incorporated into a special procession called the litija, which is part of the Slavic tradition of Byzantine Vespers. It takes place after the prayers of Great Vespers on the eves of feasts, and sometimes on Saturday evenings as well, and includes the singing of hymns and a litany for the needs of the world. If the procession is not held, then only the final groups of hymns (the aposticha) are sung.

Litija is also associated with the blessing of bread, which was once distributed to monastics or laypeople who would attend the all-night vigil. This blessing is described in the section on the dismissal of Vespers.

The Litija procession

As we have already seen, the prayers of Vespers move from natural needs (peace, fair weather) to the spiritual needs of all, then to our own personal needs. But at the end of Vespers, this progression is reversed, and we go to the narthex (representing the entire world as it awaits healing and redemption). There we will pray fervently for the world and its needs.

Note: this is an optional part of Great Vespers, appointed for the eves of great feasts, and those of Vigil rank and above. (In general, this is the principal difference between polyeleos-rank and vigil-rank feast-days.) In the Russian tradition, Litija is also celebrated as part of the all-night vigil on Saturday evenings. In all cases, it is up to the celebrant to decide whether a Litija procession is part of the service.

After the Litany of Supplication, the priest takes the hand cross and the deacon the censer, and they leave the sanctuary, along with the servers, and make their way to the narthex or vestibule. The people follow them; this is one procession in which everyone takes part! In some churches, the procession may even go outside the church entirely, to the "porch" or exonarthex.

The hymns of Litija

During this part of the procession, the cantor and people sing the hymns of the Litija. These are stichera which may include the hymns of the patron of the church, as well as hymns for the feast being celebrated. Usually stichera are preceded by psalm verses, but the litija stichera are an exception: they are sung without verses, but with "Glory... now and ever" before the final one or two stichera (the doxastikon, or a doxastikon and a theotokion).

Although the liturgical books often contain quite a few Litija hymns, in practice only as many hymns are sung as are needed to accompany the procession to the narthex.

The Litija litany

When the procession reaches its destination, the deacon censes any icons that are present (that is, in the narthex or outside the church), the priest and people begin the Litija litany with the following petition:

Save your people, O God, and bless your inheritance.  Watch over your world in mercy and compassion.  Exalt the strength of true Christians and send down upon us your abundant mercies.
      Through the prayers of our all-pure Lady, the Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary;
      by the power of the precious and life-creating cross;
      through the protection of the honorable and heavenly angelic powers;
      through the prayers of the honorable and glorious prophet, forerunner and baptist John;
      of the holy, glorious, and illustrious apostles [or:  of the holy apostle (and evangelist) (Name) and of all the holy, glorious, and illustrious apostles];
      of our holy fathers, the great hierarchs and universal teachers, Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian, and John Chrysostom;
      of our holy father Nicholas the Wonder-worker, archbishop of Myra in Lycia,
      of the holy equals to the apostles and teachers of the Slavs, Cyril and Methodius;
      of the holy equal to the apostles, the faithful great prince Vladimir;
      of the holy martyr Josaphat, bishop of Polotsk;
      of the blessed martyrs, Theodore, bishop of Mukačevo, Paul, bishop of Prešov, and Basil, bishop of Medila;
      of the holy, glorious, and victorious martyrs;
      of our venerable and God-bearing fathers Anthony and Theodosius of the Monastery of the Caves, and of all other venerable and God-bearing fathers;
      of the holy and just ancestors of God, Joachim and Anna;
      of the holy (Name/s of the patron/s of this church);
      of the holy (Name/s) whose memory we keep;
      and of all the saints,
we beseech you, all-merciful Lord, hear the prayers of us sinners and have mercy on us.

Here, the deacon prays for all the needs of the world, and invokes the whole range of our heavenly intercessors and most beloved saints. The people respond, "Lord, have mercy" twelve times.

Additional petitions follow:

for the Pope and bishops, for all our spiritual fathers (pastors), and all our Christian brothers and sisters;
for the protection of our city and its inhabitants;
for the peace of the whole world;
for those who are absent or traveling;
for the healing of those confined by illness;
for the repose of those who have gone before us;
for all those present.

After which we sing, "Lord, have mercy" twelve times.

The priest asks God to hear us and have mercy on us, and then (over the bowed heads of those present) prays once more, invoking the saints listed above to ask God to grant us remission of sins, protect us, drive away all adversaries and make our lives peaceful - to which the people respond, "Amen."

The aposticha

Then the clergy, followed by the people, return to the nave of the church. During this part of the procession a series of "dismissal stichera" or aposticha are sung. (If there was no Litija procession, then we sing the aposticha from within the nave of the church.)

On Saturday evening, there are normally four stichera of the Resurrection in the Tone of the Week, with the following psalm verses in between:

V. The Lord reigns; he is clothed in majesty.
V. The world he made firm, not to be moved.
V. Holiness is fitting to your house, O Lord, until the end of time.

Then "Glory... now and ever..." and a final theotokion. If a notable saint is being celebrated, the doxastika (hymns sung at Glory.... now and ever...) may be for the saint(s) of the day; on pre-festive or post-festive days, they may be for the feast. The Typikon provides the rules for the aposticha.

On ordinary weekday evenings (Sunday through Friday), there are normally three stichera from the Octoechos for the day's theme, in the Tone of the Week, with the following psalm verses in between:

V. To you have I lifted up my eyes, you who dwell in the heavens; my eyes, like the eyes of slaves on the hand of their lords. Like the eyes of a servant on the hand of her mistress, so our eyes are on the Lord our God until he show us his mercy.

V. Have mercy on us, O Lord, have mercy. We are filled with contempt. Indeed, all too full is our soul with the scorn of the rich, with the proud man's disdain.

Then "Glory... now and ever..." and a final theotokion. If a notable saint is being celebrated, the doxastika may be for the saint(s) of the day, or (on pre-festive or post-festive days) for the feast.

Feast days of polyeleos rank and above have their own aposticha, proper to the feast; the psalm verses are usually particular to the feast as well.

After the procession

Once the aposticha have been sung, the dismissal of Vespers begins, starting with the singing of the Prayer of Simeon, "Now you may dismiss your servant, O Lord." See The Conclusion of Vespers.

Recommended reading