Be very diligent in coming here early in the morning to bring prayers and praises to the God of all, and to give thanks for the benefits already received... and so pass the time of day as one obliged to return here in the evening to give the master an account of the entire day and to ask pardon for failures... Then we must pass the time of the night in sobriety and thus be ready to present ourselves again at the morning praise.
- St John Chrysostom
I often encounter very high expectations of parishes, particularly from my fellow ROCORites in Australia and North America, so I should explain that, in Great Britain, unless you are willing to travel to the south, and then mainly London and some of the more well-established parishes in Oxford and perhaps Cambridge, you will have considerable difficulty finding a parish that actually serves the Vigil. To serve the Vigil requires resources in terms of clergy time, clergy knowledge, musical knowledge and ability, and singers that many mission parishes simply do not have.
The result of this is that I have had very little exposure to the Vigil. My parish sometimes serves Vespers on the evening before a Great Feast, and we tried it every Saturday night when we first moved into our church, which saw nobody come most of the time. Yet Matins is something that does not happen at my parish. My experience of the Vigil was limited to one occasion in the Pokrov parish in Manchester and a few occasions at our cathedral in London. In both places it was served entirely in Slavonic. Once I know a service, I can pray and follow it in most liturgical languages, but when it is entirely unfamiliar, I cannot appreciate it because the opportunity to learn it is not there. Entirely in Slavonic, the unfamiliar Vigil was nothing more to me than three hours of standing during incomprehensible singing. So I developed a dislike for it.
To be borne in mind, as well, is that I came to Orthodoxy from a modern Anglican liturgical background which, much like most of Roman Catholicism and other modern western liturgical traditions, has all but lost any sense of the Eucharist as part of an entire liturgical cycle of worship throughout the day. A few very devout people may pray the divine office in one form or another but they are the exception rather than the norm, and their private practice is seldom reflected in their parishes. I had been one of those keenies but my parish's liturgical life centred on one thing: the mass in isolation. There was never a culture of it as the culmination of the liturgical celebration of the day that had begun the night before. The modern Roman Catholic "vigil mass" is a nonsense that further exacerbates the problem. If they must do that, can they not at least serve Vespers first? A handful of places - usually cathedrals - do just that, but hardly anywhere else. It's hardly as though the services are long enough to warrant any legitimate complaint.
Over time, I began to develop a basic understanding of what the Vigil was. It seemed that it was a composite of the various services from the daily liturgical cycle from evening until morning, strung together to form a very long night service, often with no bearing on the times of day at which these services were properly appointed. So we witnessed such occurrences as the deacon exhorting us to "complete our morning prayer to the Lord" at half past eight in the evening, only a few minutes before greeting the dayspring with the words "Glory to Thee Who hast shown us the light" - a light that he knew full well was a good seven hours away yet. This was then followed by the First Hour (or Prime, in western parlance), which is, of course, that of the little hours to be prayed at sunrise, reflected in the office hymn in Roman practice (Now that the daylight fills the sky we lift our hearts to God on high) and in the prayer of the hour in Byzantine practice (O Christ the True Light, Who enlightenest and makest holy every man who comes into the world). This all served to harden my dislike for the Vigil, convincing me that it was not worth doing and that Vespers alone in the evening was infinitely more sensible.
On the sabbath. keep awake from evening until cockcrow, as it begins to dawn towards the first day of the week, and, assembled in church, keep vigil, praying and entreating God, and reading the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms until cockcrow.
- Apostolic Constitutions, Book 8
Then I went to our parish in Colchester for a visit earlier this year, and attended the Vigil, and absolutely loved it. It was almost entirely in English, so for the first time I was able to understand many of the hymns and prayers that constituted it, and found them to be truly beautiful. I also realised just how much of the General Moleben (my favourite paraliturgical service, which I learnt independently of the daily cycle) comes from Matins. It was a real eye-opener and I vowed to be more open minded.
My reading at the time happened to be Daily Liturgical Prayer by Abbot Gregory (Woolfenden), in which I learnt much more than I had previously understood about the practice stemming from very early in the life of the Church of Christians gathering to keep vigil in honour of the Resurrection of the Lord, firstly for Pascha, then for Sundays generally, and how this later spread to other feasts when the various calendars of the Church began to take shape and become established. I could not believe that, until that point, I had not made the connection between the weekly and festal All-Night Vigil, beloved of Russians, and the Paschal Vigil, which is my favourite service of all time, and was so even in my Anglican days.
Therefore the fast of Friday and Saturday is especially required of you. And also the vigil and watching of the Saturday, and the reading of the Scriptures, and Psalms, and prayers and intercession for those who have sinned, and the expectation and hope of the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus, until the third hour in the night after the Sabbath. And then offer your oblations. And after this eat and enjoy yourselves, and rejoice and be glad, because the earnest of our resurrection, Christ, is risen.
- The Didascalia
I have since been back to the Colchester parish and again thoroughly enjoyed the Vigil, and on my recent trip to London I visited the other Russian Orthodox cathedral for the Vigil for the Dormition of the Mother of God, (which is served partly in English). On both occasions, I developed a much clearer idea of the structure and loveliness of the Vigil to supplement what I have picked up from the liturgical books and other instructional sources.
I do wish that the Vigil were more readily available and that people were able to develop a fuller understanding of the liturgical day. Perhaps smaller parishes could make a concerted effort to learn it and serve it at least once each month. Then... who knows?