Participating in the Resurrection: the All-Night Vigil
Dn Gregory Ealy
What is Liturgy?
When we say the word liturgy, probably a few different things come to mind. Most likely, the first thing we think of is the Eucharist service that we celebrate every Sunday at church: the Divine Liturgy. By far, the Divine Liturgy is probably the most familiar service to Orthodox Christians. Whether or not we consciously think of it every week, Sunday is undeniably a special day. For us Sunday is the day that we set aside in our lives to go to church, both to hear and to be nourished by the Word of God. Even our civil calendar has been influenced by this notion that Sunday is an important day. Most public places, banks, and the postal service are closed. Schools and universities don’t hold classes. Regardless of whether you’re connected to the life of the Church, Sunday is a unique day for almost all people living in North America.
The word liturgy, though, does not just refer to the Divine Liturgy, nor is it only on Sunday that people can celebrate liturgy. Generally speaking, liturgy can refer to any service held at a church throughout the day, week, or year. In other words, liturgy is the work of the church. When people come together to worship – whether it is on a Sunday at the Divine Liturgy or at a weekday vespers service – they are fulfilling their role as the Church; they are working together as the body of Christ. In fact the word liturgy (λιετουργία) is actually a Greek word, which literally translates as “people’s work” or “common work”. In the New Testament, in the original Greek, St. Paul uses the word liturgy to describe a work carried out for the greater whole, a ministry, or those who minister. St. Paul even describes the work that Christ accomplished through his death and resurrection as liturgy. So, liturgy does not just have one meaning, but has a broader understanding within the life of the Church.
On Saturday evenings in the Orthodox Church, especially at monasteries and cathedrals in many parts of the world, communities gather to worship, or, rather, to do their “work” as the Church in a service called the All-Night Vigil. This service unfortunately is not as well-known to many Orthodox, but it inaugurates the Church’s weekly commemoration of the death and resurrection of Christ while also preparing the Church for its most important service on Sunday, the Divine Liturgy. More immediately, though, the Church at this vigil comes together to remember the work or liturgy that Christ accomplished on the Cross and in his resurrection.
The Hymnography of Vigil
The hymnography of the Vigil service reveals quite clearly that the focus of the Vigil is a celebration of the work Christ accomplished on the Cross, through his death and resurrection. And although the service is a hybrid of multiple individual daily services, the theme of salvation through the Cross forms an expansive continuity through the entire service.
Simply put, the All-Night Vigil on Saturday evening is a service that combines the Church’s evening (vespers) and morning (matins) services together to form one longer and festive service. (Don’t let the term “All-Night Vigil” scare you either. In most parish practices this service doesn’t last all night, but only a couple of hours). Both of these services are made up of psalmody, litanies, scripture readings, and hymnography. When vespers and matins are served together on Saturday evening as a vigil, they are decidedly different than when they are celebrated individually during the week. The chief reason for this is because of the hymnography they contain. Since the structure of both services is more or less fixed, it is the composed hymns (such as stichera, troparia, kontakia, and the Canon) that make each service unique for every day. Each day throughout the calendar year a saint, a feast, or a particular event that is important to the Church is remembered. And, over the Church’s long history, hymnography has been compiled for all of these saints and feasts for every day of the year. Since the All-Night Vigil is a service that prepares the Church for the weekly remembrance of Christ’s resurrection, all the hymnography on Saturday evening recalls the events surrounding Christ’s death and resurrection.
There are different tools or techniques that hymnography uses to convey its message. For example, one way that a sticheron or troparion makes its point is simply by telling a story. On Saturday evenings, we repeatedly hear in many different hymns things about Christ’s death and resurrection; we hear about the tomb, the Cross, the Myrrhbearing Women, etc. Inseparable from this narrative and found within it is a theological truth that the text is trying to convey to us as well. We can see a nice example of this in a sticheron for vespers. It reads: When Thou wast placed in the tomb as one asleep, the sight was great and awesome. But when Thou didst rise on the third day as almighty God, Thou didst resurrect Adam with Thyself. Glory to Thy Resurrection, O only Lover of mankind! This sticheron is recreating in our minds the most important events that surround our faith: Christ’s death and resurrection. The theological truth we hear in this narrative is that, just like Adam, we also share in Christ’s resurrection. In other words we follow the same path as Adam. This first human, who was created by God and loved by Him, yet fell short of his potential to be with God through his own selfishness and choices, was nonetheless redeemed by God and shares in His resurrection. This I think is an important point. By singing this sticheron we are not just remembering these events, but, because we are like Adam, these events become a reality for us at that very moment. We are drawn into this narrative and we participate in Christ’s resurrection. By doing this we are doing the liturgy of the Church.
Many of the hymns also contain dialogue as part of its narrative. In stichera on Saturday evening we sometimes hear Christ having a plainspoken conversation with hell, or with his disciples, or with those in hell. Here is an example of a sticheron that has conversation between the Myrrhbearing Women and the angel at the empty tomb of Christ: Desiring to return us to Paradise, Christ was nailed to the Cross and placed in a tomb. The Myrrhbearing Women sought Him with tears, crying, “Woe to us, O Savior! How dost Thou deign to descend to death? What place can hold Thy life bearing body? Come to us as Thou didst promise! Take away our wailing and tears!” Then the Angel appeared to them: “Stop your lamentations! Go, proclaim to the Apostles: ‘The Lord is risen, granting us purification and great mercy!’”
Another great example of a dialogue comes from the troparia at the Evlogitaria in matins. One of the troparia reads, “In the tomb, the radiant angel cried to the Myrrhbearers, ‘Why do you women mingle myrrh with your tears? Look at the tomb and understand! The Savoir is risen from the dead!’”
If we allow it to, the liturgical dialogue can actually draw us deeper into the vigil’s celebration. Similar to the first example with Adam, we are drawn into the narrative, but here it is intensified in a way because, since we are uttering the words of the Myrrhbearing Women and Angel, we participate with them in the dialogue. Their words become ours as well. This is an important feature in Orthodox worship. We are not merely remembering past events, but making them present reality again, so that we can actively participate as well. In other words, at the Resurrection Vigil when we sing these stichera and remember Christ’s death and resurrection, we are doing the “common work” or liturgy of the Church. In doing so, the divisions of time and space are bridged, and we are joined and grafted more securely to one another, the Church, and ultimately Christ.