The Psalms of Vespers

Vespers as we celebrate it today is a fusion of two different kinds of evening prayer, both of which make use of the Book of Psalms:

The Psalms offer themes and content from the entire range of human experience, and are an important part of Christian services. This article describes the psalms that are chanted or sung at the beginning of Vespers in the Byzantine Rite. (For musical details, see Singing Vespers: The Psalms of Vespers.)

The call to worship

Immediately after the beginning prayers, the following invocation of Christ is chanted:

Come, let us worship our King and God!
Come, let us worship Christ, our King and God!
Come, let us worship and bow before the only Lord Jesus Christ, the King and our God!

These words are often chanted before the singing of psalms in our service, and are echoed in the "Come, let us worship and bow before Christ" sung at the Divine Liturgy. This is an action of the whole community, before God, in which we encourage each other to recognize Christ as God, and worship him.

It is essential when we take part in divine services to think about what we are praying. We should not treat these words (or any others in the services) as meaningless; on the contrary, we ought to adjust our thinking so that we can and do mean them.

The fixed psalm - Psalm 103

Most Byzantine Rite services begin with one or more unchanging psalms that suggest theme of the service. For Vespers, this is Psalm 103:

Bless the Lord, O my soul!
Lord my God, how great you are,

clothed in majesty and glory,
wrapped in light as in a robe.

You stretch out the heavens like a tent.
Above the rains you build your dwelling.

You make the clouds your chariot,
you walk on the wings of the wind...

This psalm calls us to bless God, who is "wrapped in light as in a robe." (Remember that the appearance of Christ as the light of the world is one of the themes of Vespers.) Psalm 103 is an extended hymn of praise and thanksgiving for the created world, and for God's wisdom displayed in it. At one point, it also mentions man, who "goes out to his labor, and works until evening falls." This is why we chant it daily at the beginning of Vespers: it shows us how to praise God (especially in created things) at the close of the day.

At the end of the psalm, we chant the small doxology:

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit,
now and ever and forever. Amen.

and then sing Alleluia ("Praise God!") a total of nine times in groups of three, making a reverence (a bow from the waist, accompanied by the sign of the Cross) each time:

Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!
Glory to you, O God!      (three times, with a reverence each time)

We will see this conclusion ("Glory... now and ever.... Alleluia...") very frequently when psalms are chanted in the Byzantine Rite. And with this, we have come to the end of the "fixed psalm" that begins our Vespers.

Immediately after Psalm 103, we pray the Litany of Peace, just as at the Divine Liturgy. This is the first of the intercessory prayers of Vespers, about which we will say more later.

The changeable psalmody

In the monastic tradition, it is customary to chant the psalms in order, for meditation, reflection, and spiritual growth. For this purpose, the 150 psalms were divided into twenty approximately equal sections. A complete section of psalms were called a "sitting" – in Greek, a kathisma.

These twenty kathismata are assigned to Vespers and Matins in a rotating schedule throughout the week, so that the entire 150 psalms are chanted once per week through most of the year, and twice per week during the Great Fast. In most parishes, this changeable psalmody of Vespers is omitted, with one exception: the first kathisma of the psalter.

On Saturday evening, when we begin the week's cycle of psalmody, selected verses from Psalms 1-8 are sung, with each verse followed by a triple Alleluia:

Blessed is the man (Alleluia!) who has not walked in the counsel of the wicked.
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

For the Lord knows the way of the just, but the way of the wicked shall perish.
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

Serve the Lord with fear and exult in him with trembling.
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

Blessed are those who put their trust in him.
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

Arise, O Lord; save me, my God.
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

Salvation is of the Lord; upon your people, your blessing!
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit.
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

Now and ever and forever. Amen
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

The Church Fathers saw Psalm 1 as a foretelling of Christ, the "blessed man" without sin, as well as a hymn of praise for anyone who follows "the way of the just."

Called"Blessed is the man" from its opening words, the First Kathisma is a staple feature of Great Vespers for feasts of the Mother of God and saints of polyeleos rank and above. It is sung on Saturday evenings, and for feasts of the Lord which fall on Sunday or Monday. It is omitted:

Festive psalmody and the Lighting of the Lamps

So far we have seen two kinds of psalmody in Vespers: an unchanging psalm to begin the service, suited to the hour of the day, and psalms from the monastic tradition to guide our evening meditation. All these psalms are chanted as evening comes on. and the church grows dark with the end of the day.

With the third set of psalmody at Vespers, we enter into the rich symbolism of the cathedral tradition of liturgy, as the church is incensed, the lamps are lit, and Psalm 140 is chanted:

Let my prayer ascend to you like incense, and the lifting up of my hands as a evening sacrifice...

This part of Vespers demands an article of its own. See The Lighting of the Lamps.

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