The Weekly Cycle
Mr Brad Vien
When I was a teenager I dreaded Sunday evening. Sunday evening meant the end of the weekend, and the end of the weekend meant the beginning of the school week. I didn’t want to go to school…
I wished the weekend would never end.
But, of course, I had to go to school, so I lived from weekend to weekend, counting down the days in between. Monday was the worst day of the week because it was the furthest from the next weekend. Wednesday wasn’t too bad, because it meant I was halfway to the weekend. And Friday was great, if I could just survive a few more hours of school, because it signalled the end of the week and the beginning of the weekend. I just couldn’t wait to experience that feeling of freedom that washed over me when I left school each Friday afternoon. I’d finally made it! This same experience of living weekend-to-weekend, of dreading Mondays, looking forward to Wednesdays (“hump day”), and rejoicing when Friday finally arrived, followed me into college and then into my life after graduation.
In his 2011 study of Orthodoxy in America, Alexei Krindatch estimates that only about 40% of Orthodox Christians (including children) in the OCA regularly attend Divine Liturgy on Sundays.[i] It is reasonable to assume that an even smaller percentage attend daily services during the week. One could conclude that no more than a third of Orthodox Christians in the OCA attend daily services outside of the Sunday Liturgy. There is a variety of possible reasons for this: some parishes only offer services on the weekends, many parishioners live too far from church to attend services regularly, and many feel they are just too busy with the cares and responsibilities of life to attend. Whatever the reasons, many Orthodox Christians are rarely, if ever, exposed to the fullness of Orthodox worship. This is unfortunate, for it is in the prayers and hymnography of these services that the various “cycles” of the Church’s worship are most clearly expressed. By means of services such as Daily Vespers and Daily Matins, the Church, by the grace of God, sanctifies and redeems time, transforming the mundane weeks, days, hours and minutes of our lives, time which we so often allow to slip by unaware, into opportunities for worship, thanksgiving, praise, and repentance. The neglect of these services, however, ultimately leads to an impoverished spiritual life.
One of the “cycles” of the Church’s worship that so often goes unnoticed is the Weekly cycle.[ii] In Orthodox worship, each day of the week has a particular commemoration. On Sundays, the Resurrection of Christ is commemorated; on Mondays, the Angelic Powers; on Tuesdays, St John the Forerunner; on Wednesdays and Fridays, the Cross and the Theotokos; on Thursdays, the Apostles and St Nicholas of Myra; and on Saturdays, the Saints and those who have fallen asleep in the Lord. These commemorations are expressed in the hymnography of the daily services,[iii] which is collected in a book called the Octoechos, a word derived from the Greek word for “eight tones.” This book is arranged in a cycle of eight weeks based on a musical system of eight tones or modes, each week being governed by one of the tones. Each tone has a particular melody, and the hymns of each week are sung according to the melody of the tone governing the week.
The eight-week cycle begins with Tone 1 on the second Sunday after Pentecost. Since the daily cycle of services begins with Vespers, the week governed by Tone 1 begins at Saturday evening Vespers and concludes with Ninth Hour the following Saturday. All of the Octoechos hymns sung at the services between these two services are sung in Tone 1. At Saturday evening Vespers of the third Sunday after Pentecost, the next tone (Tone 2) takes over. This process then repeats itself over the course of the eight tones, at which point it begins again. Each of the eight tones with its associated hymnography may be sung as many as six times over the course of the year.
Where does the Octoechos come from? Traditionally, authorship of the Octoechos has been ascribed to St John of Damascus in the early 8th century. It is likely, however, that he was more editor than author, compiling and arranging the material in addition to adding his own compositions. In fact, the most ancient material in the Octoechos originated at an earlier date in Jerusalem, and focuses on the Sunday celebration of the Resurrection. This material includes the resurrectional stichera [iv] sung at “Lord, I call…” and the resurrectional hymns sung at the Aposticha at Saturday Vespers, as well as the stichera sung at the Praises of Sunday Matins. Later additions of resurrectional kontakia and oikoi [v] were made at Constantinople. In fact, the title Octoechos originally applied only to this Sunday resurrectional material. Later additions of hymnography (from the 9th century onward) for the weekday services constitutes what is called in the Byzantine tradition the Parakletike, otherwise known as the “Great” Octoechos to distinguish it from the “Small” Octoechos, i.e., the original Sunday resurrectional material.
Although the history of the development of the Octoechos is complicated, its application in our lives as Orthodox Christians need not be. Do you remember how I lived from weekend to weekend during high school and college? I wanted a way to connect my Sunday morning faith to the other days of the week. For me, it was a great discovery to learn of the Orthodox faith and its daily cycle of services. Here, finally, was a way to redeem and sanctify the time. Mondays no longer had to be merely the first day back at work or school. Instead, Monday became a day to call to mind the Angelic Powers gathered around the throne of God. Wednesday and Friday no longer had to be merely “hump day” and the end of the work week. Instead, they became days of repentance and the remembrance of the Holy Cross of our Lord. Now I had a framework within which to structure my weekly life, a way to always be reminded of the “real world” in which we as Christians truly dwell. The “weekly cycle” as expressed in the Daily Offices of the Church offers all of us as Orthodox Christians opportunities for spiritual edification and growth by redeeming and sanctifying the very weeks, days, hours, and minutes of our lives.
[i] Alexei Krindatch, ed. Atlas of American Orthodox Christian Churches (Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 2011), 143.
[ii] See Job Getcha, The Typikon Decoded: An Explanation of Byzantine Liturgical Practice (Crestwood, NY: SVS Press, 2013), 24-31.
[iii] There are eight services each day: Vespers, Compline, Midnight Office, Matins, 1st Hour, 3rd Hour, 6th Hour, and 9th Hour.
[iv] Stichera is plural for sticheron, a word that refers to a short hymn between Psalm verses. The Psalm verse is called a stichos (pl. stichoi).
[v] A kontakion (plural, kontakia) is a hymn sung after the sixth ode of a canon. It is followed by another hymn called an oikos (plural, oikoi).