Orthodox Church in America

The Bishop of San Francisco and the West

650 Micheltorena Street
Los Angeles, California 90026-3629

Telephone: (213) 913-3615; Facsimile (213) 913-0316

Ven. Nikon, Student of St. Sergius

A Letter of Instruction (III) on the Topic:


The Very Reverend and Reverend
Rectors, Parish Clergy and Councils, Diocese of the West

Dearly beloved in Christ!

The blessing of the Lord be upon you!

A. INSTRUCTION: A liturgical innovation has taken hold in one at least one of our parishes, i.e., the more or less regular serving of "Vesperal" Liturgies, i.e., Divine Liturgies celebrated in the evening according to the pattern of the Vesperal Liturgies of Nativity Eve, Theophany Eve, and Great Saturday (that are not celebrated in the evening.) Perhaps the innovation may have taken hold elsewhere in the diocese. If so, it seems to me that I have to confess to allowing this to happen through default and inattention. I want, first of all, to instruct you all that:

  1. The Holy Synod tolerates the serving of "Vesperal" Liturgies; however, neither I nor any other ruling bishop of the Diocese of the West has authorized the serving of the Evening Vesperal Liturgy anywhere or anytime in the Diocese of the West. (I have authorized a one-time related innovation, but that proposal was not realized due to re-consideration by the pastor involved. This proposal was to experiment with moving the Divine Liturgy of Christmas Day back to the first stroke of midnight.)

  2. To my knowledge, in my years in the Diocese of the West, beginning as a Deacon in 1972, and from the time, in 1973, when I began to regularly take minutes at Diocesan Council meetings, and continuing through my years as Priest, Rector, Dean, Diocesan Council member, and Chancellor, no ruling bishop or administrator of the Diocese of the West has issued any general authorization of the Evening Vesperal Liturgy, although I've recently learned that one temporary administrator authorized one parish priest to perform "Vesperal Liturgies" (Evening Liturgies) within certain parameters that seemed appropriate to that administrator at that time.

  3. The serving of the "Vesperal Liturgy" (as defined in the discussion below) is not authorized by me in any parish of the Diocese of the West. In any parish where the practice has been introduced with neither the specific authorization of a diocesan administrator nor my own, it must, of course, be stopped immediately.

  4. I recently received a copy of the May 1996 (Volume 4, Number 5) issue of Diocesan News For Clergy and Laity, published by the Greek Orthodox Diocese of Denver. On page 2, under "Bulletin Board," Liturgical Hints, one may read the following edifying instruction of His Grace, Bishop Isaiah:

    "There is no such thing as a "vesperal Liturgy" (a combination of Vespers and the Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom) celebrated in parishes on the evenings of feast days. Vespers and the Liturgy of Saint Basil is celebrated only on Holy Thursday and Holy Saturday mornings, as well as at Christmas and Theophany when these fall on certain days. The other, corrupted "vesperal Liturgy" must never be celebrated."

  1. The Typikon of our Church is a book that prescribes the framework and many of the details of our church services. While current practices and customs may diverge from exact compliance with every prescription of this authority, the Orthodox Church has been characterized over the centuries by a consensual observance of all the Typikon's basic principles and guidelines, of its underlying theology of time and order, the "order" that the great Apostle enjoined: "Let all be done decently and in order."

  2. The Typikon directs that three times in the year, on the occasions of Pascha, the Feast of Feasts; of the Nativity of Christ; and of the Appearance, or Baptism, of Christ, the day before would be marked by especially solemn preparation and "strict" fasting. This is in keeping with the Typikon's general system of ordering the feasts at various levels according to number of hymns, types of antiphons, type of Divine Liturgy, and time of day. In addition to, and to enhance this solemn fasting and preparation, Divine Liturgy is prescribed on these three Eves: the Eve of the Nativity; the Eve of Theophany, and the Eve (Great and Holy Sabbath) of Pascha. Moreover, that Divine Liturgy, prescribed by the Typikon to be served on the Eves, is prescribed to be served at an unusually late hour (but not in the evening), distinguishing these commemorations even more from the other Feasts. Here are the relevant instructions:

    a. For Nativity: "At the 7th hour of the day, the great campanile is struck, and heavily on all (bells): and, having gathered in the temple, we begin Vespers as usual." (Here the seventh hour of the day means the 7th hour after sunrise, i.e., 1:00 p.m.) At the end of the directions for Divine Liturgy, after the singing of the troparion and kontakion before a lighted candle in the center of the Church, we are instructed: "And we go to the Trapeza, and we eat boiled (wheat) with oil, but we do not eat fish. But we do drink wine, thanking God."

    b. For Theophany: "At the 5th hour of the day, we signal on the great one, and then on all, heavily.. And, having gathered together in the temple, we begin Vespers and sing the customary psalm." (Here the fifth hour of the day means the 5th hour after sunrise, i.e., 11:00 a.m..) A the end of the directions for Liturgy, we are instructed: "..we light a candlestick in the middle of the temple, and after taking up our stand before it with the choristers, they sing the Troparion of the Feast, Glory, both now, and the Kontakion. And we enter the Trapeza, and we eat, with tree-oil (olive oil) , and we also drink wine. But cheese and the like, as well as fish, we do not dare to eat, since this is forbidden by the Divine canons."

    c. For Great and Holy Sabbath: "At the 11th hour of the day, we clap on the great one (great simandron or great bell). And after having come together into the Temple, the priest and deacon vest, and after the priest has given the blessing, we begin Vespers, uttering, "O heavenly King" (Here the eleventh hour of the day means the 11th hour after sunrise, or 4:00 p.m.) After the dismissal of Liturgy, there are the following instructions: "The Ecclesiarch should be careful that the Liturgy must end by the 2nd hour of the night." (That is 8:00 p.m.) "After the dismissal we go out of the church to the Trapeza, and we sit, each at his place, in silence and reverence. And immediately the Cellerer comes and gives to the brethren one by one a loaf of bread, and these are made like prosphora, a half-liter of bread, in equal portions, and up to six figs, and one measured cup of wine. And where there is no wine, he pours beer made from honey. But figs are found in most countries. When we've eaten we begin the great reading, of the Acts of the Holy Apostles from the beginning. The Reader says the Title and the Priest says the verse: "Through the prayers of the Holy Apostles, Lord Jesus Christ, our God, have mercy on us." And after the Amen, the Reader begins to read.

  3. Most of the clergy, to be sure, and the educated Laity as well, especially those coming from parishes of predominantly Slavic make-up, are quite familiar, at least superficially with this general basis in 2.a., b., and c., above. Most Russian Orthodox senior citizens, for example, remember that Christmas Eve is called "Sochelnik" (originally "sochevnik") or "Rozhdestvenskyi sochelnik," and that Theophany Eve is also called "Sochelnik" or "Kreshchenskyi sochelnik." Few, however, may realize that this word, "Sochelnik" comes from the (Church Slavonic) word for boiled wheat, or kutiya: "sochivo," the plainest of foods, eaten on these two Eves. And they know that all three Eves are Strict Fasts, and that the Liturgies of those days begin with Vespers and that the Vespers has long and many readings. In most parishes of our times, the Divine Liturgies of the Eves of Pascha, Nativity, and Theophany, are not served at the exact time prescribed by the Typikon, but they are still served somewhat later in the day than the Sunday and Feastday Liturgies. Moreover, with the serving of the Eve Liturgy earlier, the fast is not ended with "kutiya" on Theophany and Nativity Eve until after the All-Night Vigil, consisting of Compline & Matins, in order to "not eat before the first star is sighted." Only on the Great and Holy Sabbath is the bread and wine still served as the Typikon prescribes: right after the Dismissal. No thinking Rector would serve, of course, the prescribed Divine Liturgies of the Eves of the Nativity or Theophany, that begins with Vespers, later in the day than usual, and then go on to serve, for the Feasts of Nativity and Theophany another "Vesperal" Liturgy that evening.

  4. One may say, "Well, that's all right for Theophany and Nativity and Great and Holy Sabbath, but what about authorizing the Evening Vesperal Liturgy for the other Feasts?" But to serve the Divine Liturgy of one of the Twelve Great Feasts at an even later hour of the day than the Divine Liturgy of a strict fast day (actually, at the time of the Pre-Sanctified Liturgies of the Great Fast) would be to completely discard any kind of sense or rationality, such as breathes from every page of the Typikon, from our Church's sanctification of TIME.

  5. The justifications I have heard (and read) that are proffered for the institution of the innovation of "Vesperal" Liturgies revolve mainly around two points: the practice in the early Church of serving all Liturgies at night, and the difficulty of the modern American Orthodox Christian to attend Divine Liturgy on "workdays." Included under the heading of the second justification may also be the holding of an "outside" job by the parish priest so that he is not available to serve Divine Liturgy after, say, 5 a.m.

    a. One prominent and revered modern Orthodox thinker, the ever-memorable Archimandrite Justin Popovich (D.D. honoris causa, St. VladimirÝs Seminary) has written that the Church has known its infancy and its maturity and that to adopt the practices of the Church's infancy would be the equivalent of adults subsisting on the diet of infants. We all together, clergy and Faithful, are responsible to guard and pass on what we have received, not what we have not received, not what has not survived the test of time and the never-failing inspiration of the Holy Spirit in the life and consensus of our liturgical Tradition. The resurrection of discarded and outgrown customs (very clearly it is the customs that have survived that we call Tradition, since nothing NOT handed over can be considered to have been "traditted") has been till now the province of those who have no concept of Holy Tradition, the Protestant sects, who have to turn to customs lost in antiquity in order not to be at peace with Tradition. Further, one wonders what the limits would be on reviving dead practices: will someone propose to read in Church from some writing, e.g., the Shepherd of Hermas, that is not contained in the Canon of Scripture as laid down at the Council of Laodicea, since there was a time when the Canon was not clearly defined? Surely not.

    b. The second consideration, that of practicality, is not so much a sin against Tradition as it is a betrayal of all that the Orthodox Church, especially the Church under Communist domination just ended, endured. I, as, I'm sure, many of you, at least those who read books, have read many books, themes, articles, etc., about the conditions of religious life in Communist-dominated countries. In discussing the countries where Orthodoxy was a significant element in Christian life, the commentators would invariably point out how difficult it was to maintain a ýbare-bonesţ existence for the Church, since the Orthodox Church required so much: a building, incense and iconostasis, candles, icon-stands and candlesticks, "full vestments", chalices, patens, spears, star-covers, hand-crosses, separately bound Gospels, trained singers and readers and time, and so on. A Roman Catholic "Low" mass could be celebrated in a closet. A Protestant worship service could be held in a restaurant's banquet room or in a field, with no outward indication that any ýchurch activityţ was going on. All one needed was someone (anyone) to preach and someone to listen. The Orthodox Churches were fully aware of this handicap. Was it heard anywhere that any of the Orthodox, hierarchy, priests, deacons, monastics, laity, ever put forward a proposition like, "Well, Father, why not serve in a business suit?" In fact, the Orthodox went in the opposite direction. If anything, the Faithful insisted that the services would be longer and fuller than they had been, and that when they concluded the clergy would be importuned to add more services. We here in America are familiar with the kind of Liturgies that missionaries of an earlier time brought to these shores: The Divine Liturgy began with an extremely abbreviated typical psalm; the second typical psalm was completely omitted and only the Troparion: Only begotten Son was sung; the Beatitudes were not only not sung with their stanzas, they were sometimes abbreviated to only four. The verses for the Alleluias were forgotten and the solemn Alleluia itself sometimes was only said quickly three times by the reader. And so forth. It was under the extreme conditions of persecution and repression, exile and emigration as well, that this awful "living Church" trend vanished from the scene. Under conditions of persecution and a repression that exceeded in horror and strength that of the days when Divine Liturgies were celebrated at night for fear of the Romans, the Orthodox once again returned to a fuller liturgical expression. Are we now doomed to repeat history? Are we, living in luxury and comfort unimaginable to the Orthodox of any other time in history, finding that the "requirements" of a "monastic and arch-Orthodox" Typikon are too difficult for the conditions of modern life?

    c. There are a few other liturgical factors that may mean something only to me and a few others, but I feel I should express them as your father and friend. Bear with me. The Twelve Great Feasts of our Lord have Festal Antiphons (unlike the Eves of Theophany, Nativity, and Pascha) that proclaim in Psalm and Troparia the triumphant and festal nature of the day. In a "Vesperal" Liturgy, these are suppressed, and the Divine Liturgy begins with Vespers, as on a Strict Fast day. Further, the Twelve Great Feasts are distinguished from other Feasts by having an All-Night Vigil, that includes Matins with all its rich, beautiful hymnody, full of doctrine and sacred history. Even in parishes that serve the Matins in the morning, the Faithful are not deprived of this beauty and "on-going education" provided by the provisions of our Holy Typikon. To serve a "Vesperal" Liturgy is to suppress that all, or to kill the possibility of the parish ever growing up into its full stature. I believe that nothing worthwhile was ever attained or will be attained by lowering our sights, our expectations. After all, we have not ever adjusted our life in Church to conform to our own sinfulness. Our fallen sister Church has never ceased to condescend to the weakest of her members, especially regarding Fasting, while the Orthodox Church has never done so. The Romans lost their Wednesday fasting in the Middle Ages, retaining only their Ash Wednesday. In our times, they did away with their Friday fasting as well, retaining, in fact, only Good Friday. The Orthodox Church has never stopped hearing these words "Be ye perfect therefore as your heavenly Father is perfect." We have always considered that perfection IS possible with God's help, we have never considered that we have lost both image and likeness. We have never accepted the idea that "perfectionism" is a pathology in our life in Christ, as others may have.


  1. Our Liturgy, like our Theology, is our life. The stunning Gift of our worship Tradition is one of which we are all aware, but we are often walking in an obscurantist night relative to the Order that is at the basis of and provides the essential framework for this brilliant Tradition, namely that brilliant and mostly anonymous creation of the pious: the Typikon. Hardly any pages of this main Liturgical book of the Orthodox Church exist in English. Our Mother Victoria some time ago embarked on the project of translating it, but it is not clear what the timetable is. In the meantime, we must deal with some crises arising from the crudest ignorance of its provisions, and the awful misapprehension that it is some kind of rigid ritual nightmare applicable only to fanatical monks. That it most certainly is not. Our mostly educated and earnest flocks must be made more aware of the riches of our Tradition.

  2. The proper celebration of our Feastdays must be placed high among the priorities that parishes are now placing in their "strategic plans." Such things as the Liturgy of time, and its relation to the Feasts and to the services of the Resurrection- to the way that a modern life can be adjusted to the "ordo" so that all the gifts of that Ordo may be bestowed on the Faithful and not quietly and gradually removed from their lives- must be incorporated into parochial, deanery, and diocesan education programs.

  3. The parish Rectors must address the problem of weekday Feasts seriously, in council with the parish leadership and the Faithful in general. Parish Rectors (like bishops!) must treat those entrusted to their care as adults, that will follow conscientiously the precepts of the Church if they know them. One must be ready with intelligent, informed responses to those who imagine that our times are more stressful and difficult than were the times of our forefathers or that there is "less" time for Church services. Priests must be willing to begin a Proskomedia at 4:00am, if necessary, if it is determined that the maximum attendance at Divine Liturgy would be attained only at 4:45 or 5:00 am. In general, the problem of priorities must be attacked with vigor. We all know that the struggle for maximum attendance and participation at even the Sunday Divine Liturgy is exhausting and on-going, yet our zeal and determination here does not flag. Commitments must be sought. The ever-memorable Metropolitan Theophilus in his day strove to establish committed groups called "Orthodox Zealots" in all the parishes. Perhaps some parish Rectors may wish to see organized such groups that would make specific stewardship-of-time commitments, vis-a-vis the Feasts of our Church, in their parishes.


I do not wish to leave an impression that "practical" considerations are foreign to me. On the contrary, these preoccupy me inordinately. However, any student of religions in America must recognize that, with the exception of Sunday evenings, Americans have not taken to evening church services. This is especially plain and painful to the Orthodox clergy and faithful that compare American attendance at Vespers and All-Night Vigil with the Tradition of the Church and what is the practice in other, Orthodox, countries. It is paradoxical to me that , outside the Diocese of the West, of course, pastors that do not even hold a Vespers on Saturday night anymore, "because no one will come," are pleased to introduce evening celebrations of festal Liturgies so that "more people will come!" And I am fully aware of parishes where that attendance has been excellent, indeed. In one case that I know of, it is to me obvious that the Faithful of the parish in question are so loyal to and even enamored of their hard-working and brilliant pastor that they will turn out for anything that he asks them to, with vigor. I am pessimistic, however, about what the future will hold when this Priest falls asleep and is replaced by someone not so gifted.

Further, I would encourage all the Parish Rectors and Councils to be steadfast in serving the Faithful all the services of which the parish is capable without noticing the popularity of those services or that lack of same. Every service of the Church is the realization of a possibility for mankind, and for the Faithful. One may, by having a service at any given day or evening provide an unexpected opportunity for a truly salvific encounter of one individual with his or her life and with God, that would not be provided if the given service were not held. Which of us would like to answer a question about that when it is time to give an account of ourselves before Christ's judgment seat?

Invoking the Lord's blessing and assuring you of my prayers,

With love in Christ,


CC: His Beatitude
Members of the Holy Synod

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