As our usual pattern of over-all poor parish attendance at Great Vespers on Saturday evenings is once again the norm with the coming of Summer, I wanted to re-issue a short meditation about this service that I wrote after a visit by His Grace, Bishop Paul, and his comments about the positive nature of this service and our Christian martyria. Whether anything changes or not, I believe that many of you are missing something important in our parish life, and should at least give it some consideration. The "invitation" to the service comes, ultimately, from God: "Come, let us worship and fall down before Christ ..." is the first hymn that we sing at Great Vespers. Since we would consider any other Saturday evening invitation with great care and attention - and probably accept it - we may want to think of applying that same care and attention to the things of God.
The Saturday Evening Great Vespers and Christian Martyria
Continuing a series of short meditations based upon Bp. Paul's talk on the content and shape of a contemporary Christian martyria (meaning witness), I would like to apply it to the Saturday evening service of Great Vespers.
Actually, the first topic that Bp. Paul addressed to those of us present last Saturday evening following the service, was the missionary content of the Great Vespers service, a real point of contact and a potential source of appeal to an inquirer or non-Orthodox visitor to the church.
In fact, His Grace shared his opinion that Great Vespers is the best introductory service to such an inquirer/visitor. Its compactness has something to do with this, but he stressed primarily the content of the service. This service proclaims the Gospel - it is "evangelical" - because it proclaims the Crucified and Risen Lord. This could be an element of strong appeal to a visitor hungering for the truth of the Gospel.
However, first and foremost, the service of Great Vespers on Saturday evening is for the members of the Church!
Saturday evening Great Vespers is a splendid proclamation of the Death and Resurrection of Christ at the heart of the service. Meaning that in addition to the basic structure of the service which remains the same, the hymnography (called stichera and aposticha) is devoted to glorifying the Crucified and Risen Lord.
Great Vespers not only prepares us for the Lord's Day on Sunday - the Day of Resurrection in our weekly liturgical cycle - but we actually enter into the Lord's Day at the service on Saturday evening. As it is written in the Scriptures: "And there was evening and there was morning, a second day" (GEN. 1:8). Liturgically, therefore, Sunday begins during the service on Saturday evening, following the biblical reckoning of time. Returning to the theme of the Death and Resurrection of Christ, a random selection from the eight tones will eloquently make the point:
We stand before Thy life-bearing tomb unworthily, O Christ God,
Offering glory to Thine unspeakable tenderness of heart.
Thou hast accepted the cross and death, O sinless One,
To grant resurrection to the world, as the Lover of man.
Saturday Vespers, Stichera, Tone 1
Descending from heaven to ascend the cross,
The eternal Life has come for death -
To raise those who have fallen;
To enlighten those in darkness!
O Jesus, our Savior and Illuminator, glory to Thee!
Saturday Vespers, Aposticha, Tone 8
As one of the expressions of an Orthodox Christian martyria in the contemporary world mentioned by Bp. Paul, we can leave the cares and attractions surrounding us, enter into the prayerful atmosphere of the church, and praise the Crucified and Risen Lord on Saturday evening as we prepare for the Lord's Day. At least, with some kind of pattern or regularity. This is our witness that the life of the Church comes first in our lives.
Certainly this is a "little cross!" And it should be a "joyous cross" that we assume lightly and gladly. We are, after all, according to St. John the Evangelist, "children of God!"
I am not trying to twist anyone's arm, and I do not work through "guilting" anyone into anything. I am simply trying to raise parish awareness of an integral part of our parish life and the liturgical cycle at the heart of our communal worship. And I have been doing this for years. In this way, we can grow beyond the usual (and to this day relatively small) "Vespers crowd" as our personal and communal martyria to the secular world's indifference toward Christ. My appeal is to make the martyria concrete and practical in its effect. I believe this was Bp. Paul's point.
Plan on coming to a Great Vespers service in the near future, and let that be a beginning, a starting point for expanding your participation in the liturgical life of the Church by integrating the Lord's Day cycle into your life as an event to be anticipated and embraced with regularity. Allow the Bible Study, the great Feasts and Saturday evening Great Vespers to assume a place in your lives that manifests the modest Christian martyria that nevertheless reveals a great deal about our life in the Church.