In the Orthodox Church Saturday evening is dedicated to preparation for Sunday morning Divine Liturgy. The liturgical day in the Orthodox church begins with the Great Vespers services the evening before. In the Russian Orthodox Parishes the tradition is to also celebrate the Matins service (done the morning of Liturgy in Greek influenced churches) and the 1st hour. The combined service is known as the “All-Night Vigil Service”. Archpriest Victor Potapov teaches us that this service, “….is a service that in principle lasts all night. True, in our times, such services, lasting all night, are infrequent, and take place for the most part in some monasteries, such as those on Mount Athos. In parish churches, an abbreviated form of the All-night Vigil is served.”1
This entire service is profoundly beautiful and comprises the majority of the theology of our Orthodox Church. It was in times past a strict requirement to attend this service in preparation for receiving Holy Communion the next day. Sadly, in todays parishes, especially in America, this requirement is no longer enforced and there is a small minority that attend these services, even in our large cathedrals. In fact, in our small mission sized parishes the All-Night Vigil may not be served at all except for the first part of the service, Great Vespers, due to a lack of singers or knowledge of complicated rubrics. This is truly a tragedy and a sign of the times.
What can be done about this?
1. The All-Night Vigil should be held as the ideal for Saturday Night services in the parish. Clergy should strive to offer the service if it is possible! Further, the faithful need to be educated and encouraged to attend these services as part of the preparation for communion.
2. If for some reason the parish is just not capable of serving the entire All-night Vigil, then make every effort to serve the Great Vespers and then add to it. One option if the Diocesan hierarch blesses, is to offer even more abbrievated Vigil. One such abbreviation is called the “Cathedral Vigil”. This service takes parts of the matins services and adds them to the end of Great Vespers. The added parts include: Psalm 118 or the Polyeleos (Psalms 135-136); during Lent, add (Psalm 137): “By the waters of Babylon”; Megalynarion (on feast days only); Evlogitaria (on Sundays only: “Blessed are you, O Lord, teach me your statutes”); Anabathmoi (on feast days only: “From my youth”); Prokeimenon; “Let everything breath praise the Lord”; Gospel of the resurrection (or of the feast); Resurrection troparia (on Sundays only: “Having beheld the resurrection of Christ”).
Dr. Paul Meyendorff contends that this addition to Great Vespers “is also very much a return to ancient practice. For 700-800 years, in the cathedral of Constantinople, Hagia Sophia, the Saturday evening service was very much like this, consisting of vespers and a brief service called a pannychis (=vigil). It contained much singing, processions, incensations; and all the people sang the responses to the psalmody. This can still be seen in the refrains at the Polyeleos and the Evlogitaria, and there is no reason why these should not be sung by the entire congregation.” 2
3. The two options above both depend of the parish having the ability to add to the Vespers and presupposes that the laity will be present for the service. Another option can also be to add or combine with the above is to take portions of the Matins service to the Sunday Liturgy. How? The singing of the 3rd Antiphon (Beatitudes) have the option of adding troparia from the canon at matins. Adding these verses brings to the people some of the rich theology from Matins to Liturgy. Also, a moleben (supplication service) at the end of Liturgy can be added which also sings the refrains from the canon of Matins and offers the Magnification to the saint or feast being celebrated. The short Moleben also called a “Slavlanie” is presented here.
In conclusion, we all need to offer our best efforts to be faithful to the Church and her Divine Services both as an offering to God but also for the benefit of our souls. Again Archpriest Victor reminds us:
“We live in a world of vanity, in which it is extremely difficult to find the time, even if only a few minutes, to enter into the interior cell of our soul and to enjoy silence and prayer; to gather one’s thoughts, to consider one’s spiritual fate, to heed the voice of one’s conscience and to cleanse one’s heart through the Mystery of Confession. The Church gives us such an opportunity during the hours in which the All-night Vigil is served.
How good it would be if we trained the members of our households and ourselves to come to love this Service! One could, at first, attend the All-night Vigil only once every two weeks, or once per month. It is necessary only to begin, and the Lord will reward us with a precious spiritual honor: The Lord will visit our hearts, will take up residence in it, and will open up to us the broad, spacious, and extremely rich world of Church prayer. Let us not deprive ourselves of this opportunity.”