We are called to praise and reflect deeply on two qualities of the resurrected Lord, two qualities He alone possesses in full measure: kingship and beauty. The Lord, as Creator of the beautiful material world and as the source of all power or kingship, emerges from the Tomb in His resurrection, clothed in beauty, – His resurrected human body.
Hello, everyone! I’m Sr. Vassa, and, as usual, I’m having my coffee here in Vienna, in Austria, because… well, because that is where I live. Today we will be continuing our thrilling discussion of Byzantine Vespers, but before I begin, I have to tell you, zillions, something very important: and that is, that I have some talks coming up all over the United States, in the following cities: in Loveland, Ohio (that’s where the ROCOR St. Herman’s Conference will be taking place); in Wayne, West Virginia; Ann Arbor, Michigan; Goshen, Indiana; Elmhurst, Illinois, which is in the Chicago-area; and then in California, in Diamond Springs and Irvine (in the Los Angeles area). – Yes, that’s all over the place in America. (Music: “Coast to coast, L.A. to Chicago…”) Very funny. Oh, and I forgot – I’ll also be in Atlanta, Georgia. So please check out the exact dates if you live in one of those areas, on our new website, www.srvassa.com and please come and join me, if you live in one of those areas. And another thing, very quickly, we do have a new series of “Coffee Breaks,” – mini-episodes (just 2-minute episodes), of our show. So please check that out if you haven’t seen one yet, or, you know, when you don’t feel like listening to me for 10 minutes.
Now, moving on with our program, let’s get back to Vespers. Please go back and watch our previous episode, if you haven’t done so yet, so that you know what I’m talking about. I am moving on with the second part of Vespers, after the prayer “Vouchsafe, O Lord,” – we mentioned that prayer last week. Now, after this prayer, we hear a series of hymns on the topic of the upcoming liturgical day, called the Aposticha (Stchiri na stichovne in Slavonic); this is followed by a Canticle, taken from the Gospel, of St. Simeon the Godbearer – the very old man who greeted Jesus when Jesus was brought as a baby into the Temple, soon after His birth. This prayer begins with the words, “Now You dismiss…” (Lk 2:29-32) – this is the “Nunc dimittis” (for you, Latins out there). Thus, after the first parts of Vespers were dominated by elements from the Old Testament, like remembering God’s creation of the world and many different Psalms, we now hear this prayer of St. Simeon, signalizing a transition from the Old Testament to the New.
This also introduces another topic, – of death, actually, because, according to Tradition, St. Simeon said these words shortly before his repose. But we will talk more about this in future episodes. Now, the final major element of Vespers is the final Troparion or Apolytikion. This is a brief hymn, usually of the feast or saint of the day. But at Sunday Vespers, it is the hymn to the Mother of God, “Rejoice, o Virgin, Mother of God,” which also reminds us of the very beginnings of the New Testament, – more precisely, of the greeting of the Archangel Gabriel to the All-Holy Virgin at the Annunciation. Thus Vespers helps us to redirect our thoughts, in the evening, inspiring us for a new day tomorrow, by reminding us of our beginnings: from God’s creation of the world, as a gift to us, to the very good news of Christ’s entrance into our history.
Now, I haven’t mentioned yet another very ancient element of Vespers, and that is the several litanies, that happen throughout the service, what the Russians call “Ektenii,”. This is a series of petitions read by the deacon or priest, followed by a response of the choir, usually “Lord have mercy,” (Kyrie eleison) or “Grant this, O Lord.” These litanies, in which we pray together for all of us, as a community, and for various people and groups of people who particularly need our prayers, like the poor and sick, – these commemorations are a very ancient part of Christian evening services, as I already mentioned, because really, it is the most natural thing in the world to pray for one another before going to bed. It’s as natural as kissing your children good-night. From ancient times, these litanies offer prayers, first informals, actually, for the church and civil authorities – for our bishop, our president, and so on. – And let’s face it, we do a much better job criticizing people in positions of authority, than we do praying for them.
But now let’s go back to one of these parts of Vespers, and talk about the Prokeimenon, more precisely. This is he short Psalm-verse that is repeated several times in the middle of Vespers. At Sunday Vespers, celebrated on Saturday evening, when we begin the weekly celebration of the Resurrection, the Prokeimenon is “The Lord is King, He is clothed in beauty.” (Ps 92/93:1) This verse is taken from Psalm 92, and it is sung several times, with the deacon or priest proclaiming other verses from the same Psalm in between the repetition, by the choir, of the main verse, the Prokeimenon. The Greek word προκείμενος means ‘that which precedes or lies before’, because the Prokeimenon, you see, sometimes precedes – and, in ancient times always preceded, readings from the Bible.
Now, the particular form of this part of the service – one brief verse being repeated several times – is different from the other parts of Vespers, and we might wonder: What is the point of repeating the same thing several times? You see, this repetition actually teaches us to take pause and reflect deeply on one verse of Scripture, one particularly expressive verse. We might think that deeply reflecting over separate verses of Scripture is the type of spiritual exercise accessible only to monastics leading a contemplative life in some far-away monastery. But, we are all called to do this, actually, in the ancient service of Vespers, for which Christian laypeople have gathered for many centuries in cities everywhere.
As I already mentioned, the Prokeimenon or Psalm-verse we sing several times on Saturday evening, in the Sunday service, Saturday evening, is one of praise: “The Lord is King, He is clothed with beauty.” We are called to praise and reflect deeply on two qualities of the resurrected Lord, two qualities He alone possesses in full measure: kingship and beauty. The Lord, as Creator of the beautiful material world and as the source of all power or kingship, emerges from the Tomb in His resurrection, clothed in beauty, – His resurrected human body. When we praise and contemplate these qualities of the God-Man in our Sunday celebration, we integrate into our prayer-life a refreshing, new level of communion with God. Because, so often, we are so preoccupied with ourselves and our mundane cares, that our daily prayers look like a shopping list we are presenting to God: get me this, get me that… But re-directing our attention to God and His absolute goodness, His power, and beauty lifts us out of our preoccupations, like our worries, our politics, our limited and limiting perceptions, because we lighten the burdens of our human shortcomings by keeping God and His absolute goodness in our hearts and minds.
That’s it for today, ladies and gentlemen! Please don’t forget to check out our new website, www.srvassa.com, and subscribe to our mailing list there, so we can notify you about all the fun that goes on here more easily. And I hope to see you all next week for our next thrilling discussion of Vespers! Thank you!