Worship is at the heart of the life of the Church. The whole life of an Orthodox Christian is imbued with it, both private and public. There would be no Church without serving God. Sadly, very few people understand the Orthodox divine service.
It is extremely tedious to stand up for three or even four hours without understanding anything. Many priests recommend praying in your mind in such cases, doing the internal prayer, but it is hard and actually quite odd: the church prayer is, first of all, a public prayer that requires the participation of the whole community. The whole structure and order of the service is aimed at getting everyone involved in the common prayer.
Full participation in the divine service is hindered, firstly, by a lack of understanding of the divine service texts, because in order to do so one must have at least basic theological knowledge (the language of worship is a separate topic altogether), and secondly, by insufficient knowledge of the exact structure of the Orthodox worship and why it is organized differently each day. We will not address the first aspect. Let us deal with the second one.
If a person only goes to the divine service in the mornings, he will soon know it by heart. The general order of the Divine Liturgy is almost the same on a normal weekday and on a feast day. Surprises will await that person at the evening divine service. When one takes a look at a parish schedule, one will notice that there are several kinds of divine services, and all of them are labeled with obscure terms such as Laudatory, Polyeleos, etc. What can we make out of all this?
I think you all know that every day of the Orthodox calendar is dedicated to the memory of a saint or a holiday. Each saint or holiday has its own level of worship, and it is natural, for one star differeth from another star in glory (1 Corinthians 15:41). There are a total of five such degrees in our divine service. They are called “Typikon Signs”. Typikon is a divine service book that tells you how to celebrate a particular day, and there are special signs next to each day in the year. They indicate the class of service that is to be celebrated on a given day.
The first class is a regular service, or a service without a sign. Those services make up the vast majority of our calendar. It is the shortest one, and it contains much more reading than singing. In fact, there are few prayers to the saint of the day at such a service; many more are addressed to God, the Mother of God and the saint of the week. Each day of the week has its own theme: Monday is dedicated to the angels, Tuesday to St. John the Baptist, Wednesday and Friday to the Cross of the Lord, Thursday to the Apostles and St. Nicholas, Saturday to all the saints and all the deceased. The simpler the service, the more prayers are offered to the saints of the week. The more solemn the service is, the more the saint of the day is celebrated. The services of the fourth and fifth class generally cancel out the prayers to the saints of the week.
The second class is the Six Stichera service. It does not differ much in form from an ordinary service, but there are many more prayers related to the saint of the day, and there are six of them in each fragment of the divine service, which is why it received its name.
The third class is a Great Doxology Feast. Its structure is pretty much the same as that of the ordinary service but there are a lot more hymns dedicated to the saint or holiday celebrated on that day and there are almost no hymns dedicated to the saints of the week. One interesting feature of this service is its solemn end: we sing the Great Doxology, the closing hymn of the divine service (in the service without a sign and a Six Stichera service, this text is read). That is why this service was given its name.
The fourth class is the service with the Polyeleos, or Polyeleos service. It’s a full-fledged celebration service. There is much more singing than reading. There is a special hymn in the middle of the service, which consists of selected verses from Psalms 135 and 136, extolling the grace of the Lord (hence the name: the Greek “polyeleos” means a lot of grace). Unlike all previously mentioned services, during this service an excerpt of the Gospel, specially selected for the feast or the commemoration of the saint, is recited. In addition, all believers kiss the icon of the feast and the priest anoints them with sanctified oil. It should be noted that most of the revered saints are assigned this class, and very few are awarded the fifth class.
The fifth class is an All-Night Vigil. This divine service used to take place all night long, hence its name. It is very similar to a Polyeleos divine service in its composition, but is distinguished by its greater solemnity. For example, the All-Night Vigil begins with the singing of a psalm and a full censing of the church; halfway through the service the priest blesses bread, wheat, wine, and oil, which are distributed among the worshipers after the anointing. Ironically, most parishioners are only familiar with this service. It is this service that takes place on Saturday nights, as well as on the eve of the great feasts and the memory of the great saints.
We have outlined the general principles of service structure. We will analyze each of them in more detail in the upcoming articles. This information is already sufficient for us to have an idea of what awaits us at this or that evening service.
Translated by The Catalogue of Good Deeds