Vespers: When And Where Did It Originate?
Vespers (a Latin word meaning "evening") is a very old, yet wonderful,
service. It is reminiscent of the evening sacrifice of incense and lamp lighting that Jews
celebrated in the first century before Christ. (The practice of lighting oil lamps at dusk
goes back to about 1300 BC). The incense and lighted lamps were used amid the singing of
various psalms, such as Psalm 140 ("Let my prayer arise…"). After the Church was
established, Vespers was retained and embellished over time. It was completely developed
by the sixth century.
Vespers was at one time called "Lucernarium," (Latin for "lamp") and
"Lichnicon" (from the similar Greek word "lychnikon") because candles were lighted as
evening approached. This happened sometime between 4:00 PM (the tenth hour) and 6:00 PM
(the twelfth hour), depending on the season, and was followed by prayers and hymns.
According to St. Basil, "O Gladsome Light" was sung just when the candles were lighted.
The Early Church Fathers, such as Sts. Clement, Ignatius, Augustine, and
Ambrose, all mention an evening prayer service. They considered that the burning of incense
represented the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Commemoration of Christ's sacrifice, then,
became the opportunity to praise God and thank Him for the blessings of His creation and
In the Orthodox Church Vespers is a corporate, not a private, service,
i.e., parishioners celebrate Vespers together. Saturday Vespers, especially, makes the
Sunday Divine Liturgy more meaningful and helps bring us closer to God. In the early
church, the greater the number of lighted candles, the greater was the light they shed.
Today, the greater the number of voices that sing "O Gladsome Light" every Saturday
evening, the greater our sound of joy in God will be. Come, join us!