Friday, May 18, 2012

Liturgical Fullness, the Vesperal Liturgy, and Parish Participation

Dear Parish Faithful,

Christ is Risen!     

Indeed He is Risen!

As I related to the parish, our new diocesan hierarch, Bishop Matthias, issued some “directives” at our recent Clergy Convocation in Chicago, concerning some of the liturgical practices that he observed throughout the Diocese of the Midwest during the first year of his episcopacy. One of those directives was aimed at the current practice of serving a Vesperal Liturgy in the evening in celebration of a given Feast – usually one of the major Feasts of the Lord or of the Theotokos. In his assessment these Vesperal Liturgies are not a good practice, and he would like to see them eliminated – eventually. As of now, the clergy of the diocese are allowed to continue this practice until the end of the civil year (December 31), and at that point His Grace will either direct us to no longer serve the Vesperal Liturgy, or perhaps – and here I remain uncertain as to what he exactly said or meant – “re-assess” their future viability.

The Vesperal Liturgy is at times – and for certain Feasts – served in the evening of the eve of the Feast.  As an example, the Feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord is celebrated on August 6.  Therefore, if we served the Vesperal Liturgy, it would be scheduled for August 5; for once we conclude the Vesperal portion of the service, we have entered into August 6 liturgically, and hence the Eucharistic part of the service.  As the name indicates, this service combines the services of Vespers and the Divine Liturgy.  The services are combined in such a way, that a part of both Vespers and the Liturgy are somewhat truncated.  That, of course, is regrettable in that we do then miss some of the beautiful hymnography that poetically, theologically and prayerfully reveal the meaning of the given Feast being celebrated.  I have always been aware of this and have tried to address this issue as effectively as possible, as I will explain presently.

It is actually in Great Vespers and Matins of a given Feast that we hear the overwhelming majority of the beautiful hymnography mentioned above.  This hymnography can be found in the liturgical books known as The Festal Menaion  and The Pentecostarion.  Due to pastoral considerations of parish life, we limit ourselves to the Great Vespers of the Feast and do not serve the Matins of the Feast.  In Great Vespers this hymnography is presented to our minds and hearts primarily through the hymns known as stichera  and aposticha.  These are Greek terms basically transliterated into English – thus enriching our ecclesial vocabulary! (Every Saturday evening at Great Vespers we hear the stichera and aposticha in the given tone of the week glorifying the Savior’s resurrection from the dead in the liturgical cycle of the Lord’s Day, culminating in the Eucharistic Liturgy on Sunday morning).  In his translation of The Festal Menaion (an invaluable book that has allowed us to celebrate the Feasts in all of their hymnographic splendor since its publication in 1969), Archbishop Ware has included a glossary of terms that assist us in understanding our rich liturgical tradition in a fuller manner. Thus, he defines stichera (sing. sticheron) and aposticha in this way:

STICHERON (Gk. sticheron).  Stichera are stanzas inserted between verses (Gk. stixoi) taken from the Psalms.  They occur in particular:

(i) at Vespers, between the closing verses of Lord, I call upon Thee;
(ii) at Matins, between the concluding verses of Lauds (the Praises).

Stichera also occur at the Litia, but without verses from the Psalter.

APOSTICHA (Gk. apostixa; Slavonic, stikhiry na stikhovne).  Stichera accompanied by  verses taken from the Psalms.  Apostikha occur:

(i)  at the end of Vespers, both on feasts and on ordinary days.
(ii) at the end of Matins, on ordinary days only (i.e. on days when there is no Great Doxology).

(The Festal Menaion, p. 545-546; 558)

I would highly recommend adding The Festal Menaion to your personal libraries.  It is now published in a reasonably-priced paperback edition. Then, you could study the texts of the great Feasts in preparation of their liturgical celebration; and for the simple joy of reading and meditating on these theologically rich texts for one’s personal edification.  In addition, The Festal Menaion is introduced by two brilliant essays by Archbishop Ware and the great Orthodox theologian George Florovsky on the meaning of the Great Feasts and on liturgical prayer.  These two essays are “must” readings for the serious Orthodox Christian. 

Or, you can now go the OCA’s official website at and click on the link to Liturgical Texts and Music.  A further click of the appropriate date will pull up at least all of the stichera and aposticha for Great Vespers of the given Feast, together with the troparion and kontakion of the Feast and the specially-appointed antiphons for the Liturgy. In addition, the scriptural readings for the given Feast are also included. This will allow for access to the fullness of a given Feast’s liturgical hymnography on those occasions that the Vesperal Liturgy is celebrated. The splendid and powerful Feast of the Ascension of the Lord (May 24) is approaching.  All of the above-mentioned liturgical material can now be found at the OCA’s website.  What we do on the parish level is sing some of the aposticha that were missed in the truncated version of Vespers during the time of preparation for Communion.  This way, those hymns are also included for our edification.

Though certainly not a “perfect” solution for reasons briefly outlined above, I believe that the Vesperal Liturgy has proven to be on the whole an effective solution, to what I referred to earlier as pastoral considerations within the setting of our contemporary, urban Orthodox parishes.  The whole point is to allow for wider parish participation – including especially the reception of the Eucharist on the day of Feast – when that participation is precluded because of the working schedules of the vast majority of our parishioners.  We thus “sacrifice” some of the appointed liturgical material so that we are not faced with a thinly-attended Liturgy on the following morning.  That is one pastoral approach to the simple facts of our daily lives in and where we live.  Yet, this is only effective when there is clearly a far larger number of participants at the service manifesting an eagerness and willingness to enjoy the Feasts on the part of the faithful.  Otherwise, it can be argued that without that greater participation the usual cycle of Great Vespers on the eve of the Feast, and the Divine Liturgy the following morning would remain the best schedule to maintain, because of an even greater liturgical fullness.  The “pastoral” approach must be in response to the desire of the faithful in this instance, for otherwise it loses its purpose.

We can “test” that desire next week with the approaching Feast of the Ascension of the Lord.  As we have suffered through an even greater post-paschal malaise this year than in previous years, perhaps this truly glorious Feast – in which we commemorate, celebrate and actualize the glorification of the Risen Lord and His ascension into Heaven – can initiate a much-needed parish renewal.  In order to maximize the potential for greater participation in the Eucharist when the Feast actually falls, we will schedule a Vesperal Liturgy for next Wednesday evening at 6:00 p.m.  The Ascension is an event that further fulfills the paschal victory over death revealed by Christ in His Resurrection.  The Ascension into Heaven of the Lord is absolutely essential in the over-all divine economy.  It celebrates the deification of our human nature at the right hand of the Father in the risen and glorified Christ.  Anyone who celebrates Pascha with the faith that Christ is indeed risen from the dead, will have a strong desire to celebrate His glorious Ascension.  And that may involve working on our domestic schedules, establishing our deepest priorities, and manifesting some effort to be present in the church and worshipping at the service.

The future fate of the pastorally-initiated Vesperal Liturgy is uncertain.  Taking “advantage” of its current usage is something everyone should strongly consider.

1 comment:

  1. Christ is Risen! A possible alternative, which we do on certain feasts: hold Divine Liturgy at 7 a.m., so people can attend before going to work. -in Christ, Mike Strelka, HROC, Palatine, IL


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