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There is a broad range of opinion found both within and between our member churches. These opinions give life to our discussions. This blog is an opportunity to showcase the range and tapestry of thinking that we experience when we come together. Views are the authors own and do not necessarily represent the views of the Council or the Member Church.

Inter–Church Meeting: Orthodox Vespers

By Rev Fr Godfrey O’Donnell

Date12.12.16
CategoryReflection
© William Hunter
© William Hunter

At this year’s Irish Inter–Church Meeting evening prayer was led by the Romanian Orthodox Church. In this article Fr Godfrey O’Donnell explains and reflects upon the significance of vespers in the Orthodox tradition.

Vespers

‘Vespers’ is the sunset evening prayer service in the Orthodox, Catholic, Anglican and Lutheran traditions. It is also referred to as Evening Prayer or Evensong. In the Orthodox Church, the liturgical day begins at sunset. Vespers is the first service and the hymns that take place during this service introduce the themes of the upcoming day. 

In the early church, as told by New Testament texts, we learn that Christians, in their prayers, used biblical psalms, canticles, and benedictions, or compositions of a similar literary genre. Their prayers included praise and blessing, thanksgiving, confessions of faith and petitions: 

  • to overcome temptation, 
  • to fulfil God’s will, 
  • for the forgiveness of sin of their persecutors,
  • for the salvation of Israel, 
  • for aid in the preaching of the gospel, 
  • for the coming of the kingdom, 
  • for the forgiveness of sin,
  • for rulers and the peace only they can assure us, 
  • for wisdom, holiness, sinlessness, strength and perseverance, faith hope, love, health, revelation, enlightenment and the gift of the Spirit.

The New Testament summary teaching on prayer contains one frequently repeated command, which later tradition will structure into the Cathedral Offices and monastic Divine Offices and their canonical hours both east and west. It is the command to ‘pray without ceasing’ (1 Thess 5:16–18; Col 4:2; Eph 6:18; Lk 18:1). Our vespers, with its incorporation of litanies, psalms, hymns and canticles around the theme of ‘Christ the Light’ is one of the ways of fulfilling this. See Robert F Taft, The Liturgy of the Hours in East and West (The Liturgical Press, Collegeville,1993), 4–5.

Veneration of Saints

‘One only is holy, one only is the Lord, to the glory of God the Father.’ Jesus is holy both as the Son of God and as bearer of the Spirit when the Holy Spirit descended on him at his baptism (Lk 3:22). With this power he destroyed the unclean spirits (Lk 4:33–7). Christians ‘have been anointed by the Holy One’ (1 Jn 2:20), being called to become ‘a temple of the Holy Spirit’ (1 Cor 6:19). The identity of the saint is to be the bearer of the Spirit and the faithful are called saints because of their participation in the holiness of God (1 Pet 1:15; Phil 4:21), who is holy in his own nature (Isa 6:3). They are God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved’ (Col 3:12).

It is part of the mystery of the church to be the manifestation of God’s glory and holiness (Eph 1:3–4). He presents the church to himself in splendour, ‘without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind – yes, so that she may be holy and without blemish’ (Eph 5:27). ‘Christ loved the church and gave himself up in order to make her holy’ (Eph 5:25–6). Christ made the church his body, in spite of the sin of its members. Hence the church must always be in a state of renewal, of repentance.

We Orthodox recognise the saints as encouraging examples on the pilgrim journey and as symbols of the church universal. When we use the apostles’ creed in our worship (c.377/8), we affirm our belief in the community of saints. Thus we are reminded that we live together with the martyrs of all times. Christians who who give their lives for the sake of the kingdom are martyrs. We remember them in our worship as encouraging examples. They are symbols of the total church. They give us inspiration as to how ‘worship and work must be one’. 

The tradition of mentioning the names of saints and of making intercession for one another is apostolic (see Eph 1:15–23). The commemoration of saints is a liturgical act. Whereas some saints are only venerated in certain local churches, the names of other saints appear in the calendar of the church universal. ‘We worship him, the true Son of God. We honour our martyrs, as teachers and followers of the Lord’, we are told in the Martyrdom of Polycarp (17.3). Polycarp died in 167AD; the Martyrdom account was written shortly after his death. The second Council of Nicaea (787) made the distinction between the true worship due to God (latreia) and proper devotion accorded to the sacred images and the saints (the Council also decided that each new church should contain a relic of a saint on the altar table). The veneration given to the saints in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox tradition always points to the only Holy One, Jesus Christ. In the liturgy of this tradition, Christians invoke saints as intercessors and protectors, not as mediators. Saints make supplication for the pilgrim church (Eph 6:18). See Ion Bria, Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement (WCC Publications, Geneva, 2002), 1006–8.

Rev Fr Godfrey O’Donnell is a Romanian Orthodox priest in Blanchardstown, West Dublin, and a former President of the Irish Council of Churches.