The Daily Offices
The Daily Cycle of divine services is the recurring pattern of prayer and worship that punctuates each liturgical day in the life of the Orthodox Church. Monasteries generally serve the entire cycle of services, and while some cathedrals do as well, most parishes do not.
The Divine Liturgy is not itself a part of the Daily Offices but is inserted into the cycle, usually after Orthros (Matins). The services of the Daily Office are usually contained in a bound collection called the Book of Hours, also known as the Horologion (Greek).
The Daily Cycle follows this pattern:
- Vespers (sunset)
- Compline (after-dinner)
- Midnight Office (12:00 am)
- Orthros (sunrise) – also known as Matins
- First Hour (6:00 am)
- Third Hour (9:00 am)
- Sixth Hour (12:00 pm)
- Ninth Hour (3:00 pm)
The Vespers service (the first service of the liturgical day) is meant to remind us of the Old Testament period, the creation of the world, the first human beings fall into sin, of their expulsion from Paradise, their repentance and prayer for salvation, the hope of mankind in accordance with the promise of God for a Savior, and ending with the fulfillment of that promise.
In the Orthodox Church the liturgical day begins in the evening with the setting of the sun. This practice follows the Biblical account of creation: "And there was evening and there was morning, one day" (Genesis 1:5).
The Vespers service in the Church always begins with the reading of the evening psalm: "…the sun knows it's time for setting, You make darkness and it is night…" (Psalm 103(104): 19-20) This psalm, which glorifies God's creation of the world, is our very first act of worship, for humanity first of all meets God as Creator.
"O Lord, how manifold are Your works! In wisdom have You made them all. The earth is full of Your creatures..." (Psalm 103(104):24). Following the psalm, the Great Litany, the opening petition of all liturgical services of the Church is intoned, during which we pray to the Lord for everyone and everything.
Following this litany, Psalm 140 (141) is chanted during which the evening incense is offered: "Let my prayer arise as incense before You, the lifting up of my hands, as an evening sacrifice." (Psalm 140 (141):2). At this point special hymns are sung for the particular day. If it is a Church or Saint's Feast Day, songs in honor of the celebration are sung. On Saturday evenings, the eve of the Lord's Day, these hymns always praise Christ's resurrection from the dead.
Following these hymns, the vesperal hymn is sung:
"O joyful light of the holy glory of the immortal Father, the heavenly, holy, blessed Jesus Christ. Now that we have reached the setting of the sun and behold the evening light, we sing to God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is fitting at all times to praise you with cheerful voices, O Son of God, the Giver of life. Behold, the world sings your glory."
Christ is praised as the Light which illumines man's darkness, the Light of the world and of the Kingdom of God which shall have no evening (Isaiah 60:20, Revelations 21:25).
A verse from the Psalms, called the Prokeimenon, follows (a different one for each day) announcing the day's spiritual theme. If it is a feast day, three readings from the Old Testament are included. Then more evening prayers and petitions follow with additional hymns for the particular day all of which end with the reciting of the Song of Saint Simeon:
"Now let your servant depart in peace, Master, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for the glory of your people Israel" (Luke 1:29-32).
After proclaiming our own vision of Christ, the Light and Salvation of the world, we say the prayers of the Trisagion and the Lord's Prayer. We sing the hymn of the day, called the Troparion, and we are dismissed with the usual benediction.
The service of Vespers takes us through creation, sin, and salvation in Christ. It leads us to the meditation of God's word and the glorification of His love for humanity. It instructs us and allows us to praise God for the particular events or persons whose memory is celebrated and made present to us in the Church. It prepares us for the sleep of the night and the dawn of the new day to come. On the eve of the Divine Liturgy, it begins our movement into the most perfect communion with God in the sacramental mystery of the Holy Eucharist.
The Vespers Service is celebrated throughout the year at Orthodox Churches throughout the area on the eve of their parish's Feast Day.
Compline is a service of psalms and prayers that takes place after dinner. It takes two distinct forms: Small Compline and Great Compline. The two versions are quite different in length.
At Compline (whether Small or Great), a set of hymns to the Theotokos will normally be read or chanted. The Office always ends with a mutual asking of forgiveness. In some traditions, Evening Prayers (i.e., Prayers Before Sleep) will be read near the end of Compline. It is an ancient custom, practiced to this day on Mount Athos and in many monasteries, for everyone present at the end of Compline to venerate the Relics and Icons in the church, and receive the priest's blessing.
The Midnight Office originated as a purely monastic devotion inspired by Psalm 118(119):62, "At midnight I arose to give thanks unto You because of the judgments of Your righteousness," and also by the Gospel parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins (Matthew 25:1-13).
Concerning the Midnight Office, Saint Mark of Ephesus says: "The beginning of all the hymns and prayers to God is the time of the midnight prayer. For, rising from sleep for it, we signify the transportation from the life of the deceit of darkness to the life which is, according to Christ, free and bright, with which we begin to worship God. For it is written, "The people who sat in darkness saw a great light" (Isaiah 9:2). The general tone of the office is one of penitence, tempered by an attitude of hopeful expectation.
The morning service of the Church is called Matins or Orthros. It opens with the reading of six morning psalms and the intoning of the Great Litany.
After this, verses of Psalm 118 are chanted: "God is the Lord and has revealed Himself unto us. Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord." The Troparion is then chanted; on major feast days, special praises and psalms are sung, which on Sunday proclaim Christ's Resurrection from the dead. On major Feast Days and on Sundays, the Gospel is also read.
After the Gospel reading there is a long intercessory prayer followed by a set of hymns and readings called the Canon. These songs are based on the Old Testament canticles and conclude with hymns honoring the Theotokos.
On Sundays resurrection hymns called Praises and those of the saints (if they celebrate their Feast Day on that day) are chanted after the following hymns:
"Let everything that has breath praise the Lord. Praise the Lord from the heavens; praise him in the heights. To you, O God, is due praise."
"Let all His angels praise Him; let all his hosts praise Him. To you, O God, is due praise."
These hymns are followed by the chanting of a Doxastikon and the Great Doxology and on Sundays and Feast Days the celebration of the Holy Eucharist.
The Orthros service of the Church unites the elements of morning psalmody and prayer with meditation on the Biblical canticles, the Gospel reading, and the particular theme of the day in the given verses and hymns. The themes of God's revelation and light are also always central to the morning service of the Church.
The services of Hours are comprised of four parts: the First, Third, Sixth, and Ninth. These "hours" conform generally to the hours of six and nine in the morning, noon, and three in the afternoon. The services consist mostly of psalms which are generally related to the events in the Passion of Christ which took place at that particular hour of the day. The Third Hour also refers to the coming of the Holy Spirit to the disciples on Pentecost.
The Troparia of the given day or of the feast being celebrated are added to the Hours. During the first days of Holy Week as well as on certain major feasts, the Gospel is also read during the Hours. On days when there is no Divine Liturgy, the so-called Typical Psalms which include elements of the Divine Liturgy such as the liturgical psalms, the Beatitudes, and the Creed are read after the Ninth Hour. The service of the Royal Hours is celebrated at the Annunciation on the eve of the feasts of the Nativity, Theophany, and on Great and Holy Friday.