The Vespers Entrance

In addition to the entrances of the Liturgy, there is also an entrance of Vespers in the Orthodox practice. The Little Entrance of the Liturgy corresponded to the arrival of clergymen at the church and the beginning of the Liturgy of Catechumens, and the Great Entrance was a ceremony of bringing bread and wine to the altar of the Lord. What, then, is the meaning of the similar ritual at the evening service? What are the symbolic and early Christian meanings of this ceremony in the divine service?

History of the Rite. The Vespers Entrance already existed in the 4th century in the Church of the Resurrection of Christ in Jerusalem. The bishop entered the cave of the Holy Sepulchre (there was no iconostasis yet) to pray and bless the faithful from there. Interestingly, this was done at all services, including the Hours, but initially there was no entrance to the altar during the Vespers. A possible explanation is that there was an entrance performed during the Liturgy, which was still celebrated in the evening at that time. This rite repeats and builds upon the entrances of the Liturgy. The focus of the Vespers Entrance is on the priest himself, who serves as the icon of Christ in the figurative sense. In this way, the procession with the censer and candles honors Christ through the figure of the priest.

Antique Form, Christian Content.  The very idea of entrances, incense burning, and carrying lamps had existed for a long time both in Judea and in the Roman Empire. Thus, torches were carried in front of the Roman Caesars during processions. These customs were also adopted by Christians, who filled the antique form with a new Christian content. A special official known as the lampadarius also carried a candlestick with a golden lamp in front of the Christian emperor on special occasions. A similar lamp was carried before the Patriarch. It is known that twelve monks with candles marched in front of the Patriarch of Jerusalem on solemn occasions in the 8th and 9th centuries, and this practice was also observed in the ancient Russian Church. According to the Typikon of the Great Church of Constantinople, the evening entrance of the clergy was accompanied by three lamps.

Rich Symbolism. According to St. Symeon of Thessalonica, the entire rite of the vespers entrance is a visible expression of the wisdom of our salvation. The entrance of the priest is the coming of Christ to us; the priestly garments are the incarnation; and his lowered hands symbolize humility and humiliation of Jesus. Standing in the midst of the church with a bowed head (the practice of the times of the Thessalonica saint) means the death of Christ on the cross—”working salvation in the midst of the earth” (Psalm 74:12)—and His descent into hell. Frankincense symbolizes the fragrant soul and life of the Savior. Returning to the altar signifies the bodily Ascension of the Lord to where He had come from for our salvation and theosis. It is worth noting that Symeon of Thessalonica was the first in the Orthodox East who interpreted the evening entrance in this way. We do not know any similar interpretations prior to it.

The Rite of Light. We should not forget about the original meaning of the Vespers Entrance, which is closely connected with the rite of lighting the lamps in the evening and offering the so-called thanksgiving light to God. This tradition comes from the Old Testament worship, when the Jews, at the command of the Lord (Leviticus 24:1-4), set up a lampstand in the Tabernacle every evening, and brought evening praise to God by burning incense. This rite was so sacred to the Jews that it was preserved in spite of the destruction of the Temple. The Orthodox Vespers Entrance also repeats in detail the ancient ritual of the Old Testament Church, when during the evening ritual meal the mother of the family entered the dining room with a lamp and put a candle on the table saying, “May the eyes of my children be enlightened by the light of the Torah” Interestingly enough, when a candle is carried out at the Vespers entrance, the choir sings a Dogmaticon — a hymn in honor of the most important Lady in the Church, the Mother of God. Christians have continued this evening sacrifice of praise and the kindling of lights, linking this ritual to their faith in Christ, the Gladsome Light that enlightens everyone.

Therefore, the core and central meaning of the Vespers Entrance, which is the culmination of the evening praise, is the confidence of Christians that Christ is invisibly present in the thickening darkness, and that He came into the world through the obedience of the Virgin Mary, the Senior Lady in the Christian house. The gloom of night is coming, but “for the sons of light even nights are as bright as days”, St. Cyprian of Carthage assures us. “For how can the one who has light in his heart ever be without light? How can there be no sun and no day for those whose sun and day is Christ?”

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