Every Saturday evening, (more generally, every evening before a divine liturgy) Orthodox churches of the Slavic tradition hold a service called the “all-night vigil”. This is a long, solemn, beautiful service, one that has served as an inspiration for some of Russia’s greatest musical composers. Both Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff have produced celebrated choral compositions based on the hymns of the all-night vigil.
As proof of the enduring appeal and beauty of this service, Rachmaninoff’s version (performed by the Phoenix and Kansas City chorales) won a Grammy in 2016!
The all-night vigil is actually a combination of two services: vespers and orthros (matins). Traditionally, vespers is the service on Saturday evening, and orthros occurs early on Sunday morning, before the divine liturgy service where communion is served. This is still how the weekend services are organized in Greek churches. However, in Slavic churches both of these occur consecutively on Saturday evening.
I don’t intend this post to be a theological study on the all-night vigil service. There is a tremendous amount of depth in its liturgy, to the extent that I don’t feel I am knowledgeable enough to discuss it well. Visit this page if you want to learn about the theological elements of the service. Instead, in this blog post I will talk about why I, as a layperson, consider the all-night vigil an indispensable part of my weekend.
The word “vigil” has the connotation of someone waiting expectantly. In this way, the all-night vigil is well-named. Firstly, it is a long service, usually longer than the “main” Sunday morning service. But more importantly, in this service one gets a sense of the desperate yearning of Christ’s first followers after the crucifixion: huddled together, wishing, waiting for a miracle on the promised Sunday. So many elements of the vigil dwell on the wistful yearning of fallen humanity for deliverance- “Lord, I have cried to thee, here thou me!”- begins a hymn early in the service.
“Having a Vigil last for two-and-a-half hours may seem long. Yet, the spiritual life of us modern folk – and I’m speaking just as much to myself – is collapsing because of our impatience to achieve results. It doesn’t work like that, we need time and effort, consistent effort, to achieve the results we need. Our Vigil service takes time seriously, and relates to the history of salvation. Christ taught that we should ‘watch and pray’, not knowing the hour of his return, training ourselves to live in expectation of His coming again .”
–Father Andrew Smith, Holy Annunciation Orthodox Church, Brisbane
Impatience is a great sin of our age. We have become so accustomed to getting what we want instantly, that the slow deliberate work of Christian salvation becomes unappealing. The all-night vigil is a balm for this malady.
A large part of the all-night vigil service is the reading or singing of Psalms. In a typical vigil service we go through more than 20 of them. The service starts with Psalm 102: “Bless, the Lord, O my soul!”
The first half of the service (the “Vespers” half) focuses more on the fallen nature of humanity, and our desperate need for God’s help. When that half ends, we enter a series of Psalm readings, known as the “Six Psalms”. All the lights in the church are turned off at the start of the Six Psalms, and all candles are extinguished. The darkness lends solemnity and intimacy to the occasion, and it feels like we are staying awake all night, praying over the grave of a loved one.
When the lights are turned on at the conclusion of the Six Psalms, it is as if we have completed the transition from Saturday night to Sunday morning. We proceed with the “Matins” half of the vigil. Here, the texts capture the wonder, and bewilderment the first disciples felt as word of the Resurrection leaks out. There is a gospel reading which covers one of the chaotic, joyous first moments when the disciples encounter the newly-risen Christ: the road to Emmaus, Peter’s miraculous catch of fish, Mary Magdelene’s discovery at the tomb, etc. (Wikipedia has an article on the Matins gospels, with a full list of the gospel readings) . Immediately after the gospel reading, we sing this stirring hymn, as an expression of how we today share in that wonderful moment two thousand years ago:
Having beheld the Resurrection of Christ, let us worship, the holy Lord Jesus, the only Sinless One! We venerate Thy Cross, O Christ, and Thy Holy Resurrection we praise and glorify; for Thou art our God, and we know no other than Thee; we call on Thy name. Come, all you faithful, let us venerate Christ’s Holy Resurrection! For, behold, through the Cross joy has come into all the world. Let us ever bless the Lord, praising His Resurrection. By enduring the Cross for us, He destroyed death by death!
Near the end of the vigil service, there is a series of prayers known as the canons. These prayers contain are long, beautiful, and contain a rich depth of theology, regarding the person of Christ, the cross and the resurrection, and the saints and commemorations of the day. The prayers sometimes go to a lot of detail with regard to the theology: here is a not-too-atypical example, from the Canon of the Resurrection, Tone VII:
Our flesh, which was assumed by the Creator, was not incorrupt before His suffering; but after His suffering and resurrection it was rendered untouchable by corruption, and restoreth mortals, who cry: Hymn the Lord, all ye works of the Lord, and exalt Him supremely for all ages!
Here is an example of a canon for Saint James, the brother of the Lord, chanted for his feast day on October 23rd:
Thou didst manifestly adorn the choir of the apostles as the first hierarch, O most wise one, anointed by the Word’s own action, in that thou art the disciple and brother of God, O most sacred preacher of sacred things.
From constantly participating in these prayers, someone regularly at the vigil service will emerge with a great familiarity of the nuances of Orthodox theology, and also a rich knowledge of the life of the saints and the history of the church.
The vigil is a service that I always look forward to, and on the occasions when I cannot attend it always feels like my weekend is incomplete. I especially need it in the moments when I feel most frustrated with myself and with the world, when it seems like I am struggling pointlessly in my life, or when I see all the violence and injustice in the news, and find myself asking why God is so slow to intervene. The vigil reminds me that while Christ’s work of transformation is slow and painful, there will be fruit from this suffering. The vigil reminds me that while God’s deliverance can seem like it is never coming, his promises are true. We will see their fulfillment, as Christ’s first followers did two thousand years ago