Theological Themes of the Vespers

The Church is primordially a worshipping community. The doctrines fall secondary to worship. It is in the corporate and communal experience of worship the Church identifies its being as the realized eschatology and the extension of the love of the triune God. The uniqueness of Orthodox ecclesiology lies in its “coming together” rather than “going out.”[1] Liturgy forms the basis of worship. The liturgy serves as the visible expression of the unfathomable and mysterious realm of the Divine. Liturgy at the same time is the doxological faith affirmation of the Church. The common axiom should be brought into mind lex orandi lex credendi “as we pray so we believe.” The Church urges the faithful to pray seven times a day alluding to the Psalmist orison – Ps 119: 164 “Seven times a day I praise you for your righteous ordinances.” This blog attempts to succinctly explore the major theological themes discerned in the Ramsho[2] (Vespers) of the Syriac Orthodox Church.

The Significance of Evening

In the Syriac tradition the day begins in evening predicated on the biblical reference Gen 1:5 “And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.” The first act of the day thus is the Ramsho i.e. evening prayer. Evening to morning is a transition from darkness to light which symbolizes the transitory nature of human beings and we are overwhelmed to incessantly thank and praise God for his abounding grace and mercies in our lives. Darkness also bears the overtures of ignorance and doubts so we pray for the bliss of enlightenment and illumination. The Bo’utho of Mor Jacob of Monday Ramsho states;

“In the evening when the light of the sun sets upon earth, may I be enlightened, Lord, to praise your creation; may your word be a lamp to my feet, Son of God, and in place of the sun may it give light to me and I will walk by it.”[3] 

Yet another prominent reason to begin the day with the vespers is to pay reverence to the fact that our Lord Jesus Christ was sacrificed as an offering on the Cross in the evening. The Bo’utho of Mor Jacob of Monday Ramsho states;

“Praise to you at this time of evening from your flock, for which you were sacrificed as an offering in the evening; she sings praise to you who gave her your blood to drink on the Cross and she takes pleasure in your flesh and blood, glory be to you.”[4]

Themes of Vespers

The West Syriac Liturgy has a particular theme associated with each day which are as follows;

a. Sunday – Resurrection

b. Monday – Repentance

c. Tuesday – Repentance

d. Wednesday – Mother of God

e. Thursday – Apostles and the Communion of Saints

f. Friday – Cross and Martyrs

g. Saturday – Faithful departed both clergy and laity[5]

Let us very briefly explore each theme.

1. Resurrection

The theme set apart for Sunday is Resurrection; the reason being our Lord resurrected on a Sunday. Resurrection is the ultimate hope of each faithful Christian. We gain courage in the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ for it is the attestation that good would triumph over evil; faith over fear; love over hate and life over death. The Qolo of the Sunday Ramsho challenges us;

“If there is no resurrection, what did the martyrs gain by death? And if there is no other world, why did the righteous labour? And if the resurrection is not true, even Christ did not rise from the dead. You dead, await the Son, for the hope of his promise is sure, when he said in his Gospel that in the hour, when the dead hear the living voice of God, the graves shall be opened and they shall come forth to meet him when he comes.”[6]

2. Repentance

The theme for Monday and Tuesday is Repentance. Repentance has its etymological roots in the Greek word metanoia which essentially means ‘to turn around’ or ‘change in direction.’ Repentance is not only the first step to reconcile with God after we recognize our sin but also the purification of our conscience. This could be constructively viewed. Heed the saying of St John Climacus; “To repent is … to see, not what I have failed to be, but what by the grace of Christ I can yet become.”[7] Repentance is our refusal to succumb to the temptations. The preface of Tuesday Ramsho explicates;

“Praise to the everlasting Lord and creator of all mankind; you are he who fashioned man in your image, and when he sinned and fell, gave him the pledge that he should rise again and should know you have authority over all and try all men, so that he might return to you and all his children should not be lost.”[8]

3. Mother of God

Wednesday being set apart for Mary stems from some traditions attested to apocryphal literature. The Blessed Virgin Mary whom the Church exalts as the Mother of God is the paragon of virtue. She inspires us not only by her humility and obedience to the will of God but also by her audacity to concretize the preferential option for the poor. The Magnificat is indeed a revolutionary song that poses a threat to the sinful order of the world existing contrary to the divine order. The Church bestows a lot of symbolisms on Mary the Mother of God which is evident in the prefatory prayer of Wednesday Ramsho;

“O mother of Christ our God … we acknowledge you as a fountain of life, source of salvation, blessed field, ladder of ascent to heaven … blessed are you mystical bush and ark in whom the most High was seen.”[10]

4. Apostles and the Communion of Saints

Thursday commemorates the Apostles and saints who are considered to be the stalwarts of the Orthodox faith. In the process of witnessing Christ they jeopardized their lives with joy. They epitomised the pinnacle of love by laying down their lives for the sake of others, a divine virtue they inherited from our Lord himself. The saints resisted the enticements of the world so as to illumine themselves with the glory of God. We beseech the grace to imitate them. The prefatory prayer of Thursday Ramsho pleads;

“By their prayers, Lord be reconciled with us and establish us in their hope, adorn us with their grace and gird us with their love; enrich us by their example and strengthen us that we may tread in their footsteps; support us that we may imitate their endurance and grant that we may please you like them.”[11]

5. Cross and Martyrs

Friday is set apart for the Cross and Martyrs. The Cross is the visible expression of God’s solidarity with human suffering. We do not have a numb God who cannot sympathise with our suffering but in Christ, God suffers and dies the most tragic death to liberate us from death and grant us by his grace the eternal life. He trampled death by death. This is what inspired the martyrs to lay down their lives for the sake of our Lord. The Qolo of the Friday Ramsho states;

“The martyrs say to their persecutors; we do not fear the fire or the sharpened sword and if the body perishes, the soul shall live and sing praise and thanksgiving. The martyrs were slain for their Lord and their Lord was slain for the salvation of Adam; blessed is He who by His death and the death of the martyrs redeemed His church, and behold she sings praise to Him.”[12]

The Passion of Christ is the pivotal reality around which the entire Christian Theology revolves. Just as Eve was taken from the side of Adam so was the Church taken from the side of Christ on the Cross drenched in His blood and water. Metropolitan Kallistos Ware remarks;

“The victory on the Cross is a victory not of superior force, not of military might, but of suffering love. Christ’s victory is a kenotic victory, victory of self-emptying, a victory won through weakness and vulnerability. In a moving phrase, St. Ephrem the Syrian calls Christ “the mighty one who put on vulnerability.” So Christ’s victory is won precisely through the refusal to use force and violence. As Gregory of Nyssa says, “His descent to our lowliness is the supreme expres­sion of his power. God is never so strong as when he is most weak.” Humble compassion­ate love is the strongest thing in the universe. As Karl Barth says, “The God of Christianity is great enough to be humble.”[13]

6. Faithful Departed

Saturday is set apart to commemorate the faithful departed. Death is yet another phase of this temporal life. The faithful who have communed in the holy body and blood of Christ is assured that death is only the point of departure to eternal life. We beseech that our Lord’s body and blood which we have received be neither for our judgment nor for our condemnation but for the remission of our sins and resurrection. We take repose in our Lord only to be comforted in the bosoms of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  Death cannot conquer us as our Lord has already conquered death. The introductory prayer of Saturday Ramsho states;

“Blessed are you dead on the day, when the resurrection comes, you who ate the living body and drank the propitiatory blood; it shall raise you up at the right hand side.”[14]

The Qolo of the Saturday Ramsho further comforts us;

“The death which the just ate is not the death which is forever; their bodies rest, as it were, in sleep, until the day of the resurrection; their bodies remain in the earth and shall rise and inherit paradise.”[15]

To conclude, vespers being the first prayer of the day is an integral part of the daily liturgical offices. The depth of the themes itself elucidates the vitality of the office. Evening being the auspicious time set apart for the Old Testament sacrifices and even the institution of Lord’s Supper, it embarks upon a new day and time which needs to be observed with sheer reverence and spiritual discipline.

In Christ

Dayroyo Fr. Basil

[1] This framework has its roots in Didache which says; “Just as this loaf was scattered all over the mountains and having been brought together was made one, so let your church be gathered from the ends of the earth in your kingdom”. (Didache 9:4)

[2] Ramsho is the Syriac word for Vespers.

[3] Bede Griffiths, trans. The Book of Common Prayer of the Syrian Church (Gorgias Press: New Jersey, 2005), 38.

[4] Bede Griffiths, trans. The Book of Common Prayer of the Syrian Church, 38.

[5] Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church, Shehimo, Book of Common Prayer (Ministry of Liturgical Resource Development: Diocese of South West America, 2016)

[6] Bede Griffiths, trans. The Book of Common Prayer of the Syrian Church, 316.

[7] Fr. Stephan Freeman, “Repentance and the Kingdom” Posted on January 7, 2007.

[8] Bede Griffiths, trans. The Book of Common Prayer of the Syrian Church, 75.

[10] Bede Griffiths, trans. The Book of Common Prayer of the Syrian Church, 129.

[11] Bede Griffiths, trans. The Book of Common Prayer of the Syrian Church, 168.

[12] Bede Griffiths, trans. The Book of Common Prayer of the Syrian Church, 216.

[13] Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, “Salvation in Christ: The Orthodox Approach” Posted on 21 June, 2019.

[14] Bede Griffiths, trans. The Book of Common Prayer of the Syrian Church, 266.

[15] Bede Griffiths, trans. The Book of Common Prayer of the Syrian Church, 270.

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