Singing Vespers: The Lighting of the Lamps

This article describes the singing of the psalms and stichera that accompany the lighting of the lamps at Vespers in the Byzantine Rite.

Up until this point in Vespers, the cantor can "wing it" and lead without extensive preparation. But for this part of Vespers, it is essential to know how many hymns (stichera) will be sung, what those hymns are, and the tone or melody for each. The cantor should also have music handy for both the stichera themselves, and the psalm verses in the corresponding tones.

  • The stichera for Saturday evening in each tone can be found in the MCI Sunday Vespers book.
  • The weekday stichera for the eight tones and for the various classes of saints can be found in the MCI Daily Vespers book.
  • Stichera for feast-days can be found on the MCI Liturgical Calendar. Sometimes there are two sets of music: one using the special melodies (podobny) appointed in the liturgical books, and one marked "samohlasen" that uses only the samohlasen melodies.
  • Music for the psalm verses in each tone can be found in the MCI Cantor Verses book. (Music for these verses is gradually being incorporated into the other materials.)

Before starting this part of the service, make sure you know the tone of the FIRST sticheron that will be sung, and how many stichera will be sung before "Glory" (usually 6 for weekdays, 8 for feasts, and 10 on Saturday evening).

The opening verses of Psalm 140: "O Lord, I have cried"

While the deacon or priest incenses the sanctuary, the church, and the congregation, the cantor and faithful stand and 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!

By tradition, these are sung to the samohlasen sticheron melody in the tone of the first sticheron that will be inserted later in the Lamp-lighting Psalms. Music for "O Lord, I have cried" in all eight tones can be found in the Vespers books, and also in the green Divine Liturgies book.

This is a solemn and festive point in Vespers, but the singing should be lively. The faithful remain standing until the incensing is completed. (The cantor, of course, should always be standing to sing!)

The chanted verses of the Lamp-lighting Psalms

After the verses above have been sung, we continue with the psalms (140, 141, and 129), chanting them to the usual psalm tone. If possible, alternate the chanting between two sides of the church, or men and women.

Beginning with the Psalm 141 verse, "Bring my soul out of this prison, and then I shall praise your name", the verses are numbered in reverse order: 10, 9, 8, and so on. This helps the cantor find the first psalm verse that will have a hymn sung after it:

  1. If there are 10 stichera: "Bring my soul out of this prison..."
  2. If there are 8 stichera: "Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord"
  3. If there are 6 stichera: "If you, O Lord, should mark our guilt..."

The cantor and people chant the verses up to, but not including, this verse, to the usual psalm tone, then switch back to singing (described below). The problem, of course, if that the congregation may continue to keep chanting the psalm verses over the top of the cantor. As cantor, you have two basic choices:

Also: when using older books, you may find that the chanted verses of the psalms are omitted entirely; this sometimes occurred because priests or cantors were using books that ONLY included the changable parts of the services. These days, when many churches are trying to restore the fuller tradition of the Byzantine Rite services, the chanted verses are more likely to be included. They are not "filler"; they are an important part of our prayer.

The stichera

Now we come to the second sung part of the Lamp-lighting Psalms, the hymns or stichera. The cantor sings the first psalm verse (marked "on 10", "on 8", or "on 6", etc., indicating how many verse back it is from the Glory that ends the psalm), using the verse melody for the sticheron that comes NEXT. Even though the verse and sticheron use different melodies, they share the same tone, and members of the congregation will know that a particular verse melody is followed by a particular sticheron melody.

After you have sung the psalm verse, begin singing the sticheron to the appropriate sticheron melody; the people should join in. You may need to change the tone in your voice, or sing slightly louder or more broadly, to indicate where the congregation should come in.

Repeat this process - psalm verse, sticheron, psalm verse, sticheron - for as many stichara as are appointed. If you have to change tones, mark your place in the Cantor Verses book in advance; sticky notes or markers are useful here.

Make sure you know whether there is one doxastikon (stichera at Glory....) or two; if there are two, one will be sung at Glory... and one will be sung at Now and ever. Byzantine Rite services are often arranged so that if there are two doxastika, they are sung in the same tone.

Exception: on Saturday night (to begin the new tone) and Friday night (to end the tone), the Lamp-lighting Psalms will end with the dogmatikon in the Tone of the Week, regardless of the tone(s) of the saints' stichera or other hymns for a particular day. The dogmatika are long (and once had melodies of their own); they are rich in theology, and should be sung with attention and devotion.

The service continues

If Great Vespers is being celebrated, then during the singing of the last stichera (the doxastika), the clergy will be making a procession through the church, concluding with the singing of "O Joyful Light"; there will be a prokeimenon and, on feast days, readings. See The Entrance and Readings of Vespers.

At daily Vespers, there is no procession; instead we sing "O Joyful Light" and the prokeimenon of the day, and continue with The Prayers of Vespers.