About the All-Night Vigil, Part I (in English and Russian)

(see below for Russian)

Preface

CHRIST DENOUNCED THE SCRIBES of His time for elevating rituals and ceremonies to the level of exalted religious virtues, and He taught that only service offered "in spirit and in truth" (John 4:24) is appropriate to be offered to God. Denouncing the legalistic attitude toward the Sabbath day, Christ said, "The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath" (Mark 2:27). While the Savior's harshest words were directed against the Pharisaical devotion to traditional ritual form, Christ Himself visited, taught, and prayed in the Temple in Jerusalem, as did His apostles and disciples. 

Not only did Christianity not abandon ritual, but also in time, in the course of its historical development, it established its own complex system of worship. Does this constitute a self-contradiction? Is not private prayer sufficient for a Christian?

Faith expressed only in the soul becomes an abstraction rather than a living faith. For faith to become a living faith, it must be realized in life. Participation in church religious ceremonies is the realization of faith in our lives, and those who not only reflect upon their faith, but also live it, of necessity participate in the liturgical life of the Church of Christ; they attend Church and they know and love the order of Church services. 

In his book Heaven on Earth: Worship in the Eastern Church, Archpriest Alexander Men' explains the need for external forms of worship: "Our life, in all of its most diverse manifestations, is clothed in rituals. In the Russian language the noun "obryad" is derived from the verb that means "to dress in" or "to clothe." Joy and sorrow, daily greetings, approval, delight, and indignation, all assume external forms in human life. So what right do we have to strip these forms from our feelings toward God? What right do we have to reject Christian art and Christian rituals? The words of prayers, and the hymns of thanksgiving and repentance that poured forth from the depths of the hearts of great theologians, great poets, and creators of great melodies are not without benefit for us. Immersion into them schools the soul, educating it in genuine service to the Eternal One. Worship services lead to the enlightenment and elevation of man; they ennoble his soul. Thus, Christianity, serving God 'in spirit and truth' preserves both rituals and ceremonies." 

Christian worship, in the broad sense of the term, is collectively known as liturgy; that is, communal activity and common prayer, while the science of worship is known as liturgics. 

Christ said, "Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I" (Matthew 18:20). One may call divine services the focus of a Christian's entire spiritual life. When a multitude is inspired by common prayer, the people find themselves surrounded by a spiritual atmosphere that enables true prayer. At that point, the faithful enter into a mystical, sacramental communion with God, a state essential to genuine spiritual life. The holy fathers of the Church teach that just as a branch broken from a tree dries up because it is deprived of the sap it needs to live, so a person severed from the Church no longer receives that strength, that grace, which lives in the divine services and mysteries of the Church, and which is essential for man's spiritual life. 

Fr. Pavel Florensky, a famous Russian theologian of the early 20th century, called divine services "the synthesis of the sciences," because within the temple all of the substance of man's being is ennobled. Everything in an Orthodox church is essential: its architecture, the smell of incense, the beauty of the icons, the singing of the choir, the homily, and the actions performed. 

The actions carried out in Orthodox divine services are distinguished by their religious realism; a realism that engenders a sense of immediacy in the faithful to the principal events commemorated in the Gospel by removing the barriers of time and space between the events and those who pray. 

During the Nativity services, we not only remember the birth of Christ, but Christ is actually mystically born, just as He is resurrected on Holy Paskha (Easter). Similar statements can be made about His Transfiguration, His Entry into Jerusalem, the Mystical Supper, His Passion, His Burial, and His Ascension; and about all of the events in the life of the Most Holy Theotokos, from her Nativity to her Dormition. Through its divine services, the life of the Church is revealed to be the mystical accomplishment of God's Incarnation. The Lord continues to live in the Church and in the same human image which, once manifested, continues to exist throughout all time; and to the Church is given the ability to bring to life the commemorations of divine events; to endow them with power, so that we might become their new witnesses and participants. Thus all of the divine services together acquire the meaning: the life of God, and the temple, which is His dwelling place.

This begins a series of commentaries on the meaning and structure of the All-night Vigil. We hope that our work will help our readers to appreciate and love this marvelous divine service of the Orthodox Church.

In the service of the All-night Vigil, the Church conveys to the faithful a sense of the beauty of the setting sun and turns their thoughts toward the spiritual light of Christ. The Church also points the faithful toward prayerful consideration of the coming day and of the eternal light of the Heavenly Kingdom. The All-night Vigil is a service that sets before us the turning point in time between the day now passing and the day now coming. 

St. Basil the Great described the aspirations that guided the ancient composers of evening hymns and prayers as follows: "Our fathers did not wish to receive the grace of evening light in silence; rather, they offered thanks as soon as it appeared." 

In participating in the All-night Vigil, the faithful in a sense prayerfully bid farewell to the past and welcome the future. Moreover, in the All-night Vigil they are prepared for the Divine Liturgy and for the Mystery of the Eucharist.

As its name suggests, the All-night Vigil 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. 

The All-night Vigil transports the faithful into a time long ago, into the services of the earliest Christians. For the earliest Christians, their evening meal, their prayers and commemorations of the martyrs and of the reposed, as well as the Liturgy itself, comprised one whole; traces of these observances have been preserved even to this very day in the various evening services of the Orthodox Church. These traces include the blessing of bread, wine, wheat, and oil, as well as those times in which the Liturgy is combined in one whole with Vespers; for example, the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts, celebrated during Great Lent; the liturgies on the eves of the feasts of the Nativity of Christ and of His Baptism; the Liturgies of Great Thursday and Great Saturday, and the midnight Liturgy of the Resurrection of Christ. 

In fact, the All-night Vigil consists of three services: Great Vespers, Matins, and the First Hour. Sometimes the first part of the All-night Vigil consists not of Great Vespers, but of Great Compline. Matins is the central and most substantial part of the All-night Vigil. 

Reflecting on what we hear and see in Vespers, we are transported into the historical Old Testament times of humanity, and we experience in our hearts what those people experienced. 

Knowing what is recounted in Vespers and Matins makes it easy for us to understand and learn the flow of Church services; the order in which they proceed, as well as the hymns, readings, and the religious ceremonies they contain.

(Archpriest Victor Potapov, http://www.stjohndc.org)


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(????. ?. ???????, http://www.stjohndc.org)

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