If you’ve never been to an Orthodox service before, Vespers is a good place to start. It’s a low-key service, quiet and serene, with beautiful music. It’s very much a “teaching” service, with theology, history, and spiritual truths presented through poetry and metaphor. Vespers asks nothing of the congregation except attention.
Vespers, or evening prayer, happens “at sundown,” which is the traditional beginning of the day. (As in the opening of Genesis, where the creation is punctuated by, “And the evening and the morning were the ____ day.) At St. Nicholas, vespers begin at 6 p.m.
If you come to vespers, you’ll find that the choir does most of the “work,” carrying the bulk of the service in simple melodies with the lyrics exploring the theme of the next day. If it’s Saturday night, that will be largely Resurrection. Other themes of the hymnography might be martyrs’ stories, historical events, or theological ideas of the saint of the day.
There are so many saints and events being celebrated most days that preparing for vespers means selecting just a few verses from a vast number.
One song that occurs in every vespers service is “O Gladsome Light,” the oldest Church hymn we have outside the Bible, probably dating back to the fourth century. Here are the words as we sing it at St. Nicholas:
O Gladsome Light of the holy glory of the Immortal Father, heavenly, holy, blessed: Jesus Christ.
Now that we have come to the setting of the sun and behold the light of evening, we praise God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
For it is right at all times to worship Thee with voices of praise, O Son of God and Giver of Life.
Therefore, all the world glorifies Thee.