The “Daily Cycle,” or “Hours of Prayer,”
in the Orthodox Church
Adapted from: http://www.orthodoxprayer.org/Hours.html
The Orthodox “liturgical day” begins at sundown. This is in accord with the account of the beginning of time in the Bible:
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form, and void; and darkness was on the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light;” and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good; and God divided the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night. So the evening and the morning were the 1st day.” (Genesis 1:1-5)
“Let the lifting up of my hands be an evening sacrifice” (Psalm 141).
The Orthodox Christian daily prayer cycle naturally commences with the Service of Vespers at the beginning of the liturgical day, at sundown. This was also the Jewish tradition, and is the way that Christ and His disciples prayed daily. Other terms for “Vespers” are “Evening Prayer,” “Morning Worship,” and “Evensong.”
Praying at sundown coincides with the time for lighting lamps in the times before the introduction of electrical lights. This was a definitive transition time in antiquity, something we have lost in modern society where electrical power world allows us to continue our activities despite the setting of the sun.
As the sun begins to set, the faithful come to the Church for the final prayer service of one day, the Ninth Hour (see below), and the 1st prayer service of the new day, Vespers.
The Service of Vespers begins with Psalm 103 which recounts the creation of the world. It continues with Psalm 140 reminding us of man’s fall, the hymn “O gladsome Light,” which celebrates the coming of Christ into the world, and finally the Prayer of Symeon, “Now let Your servant depart in peace, O Master,” foretelling the end of the world.
The evening meal immediately follows the Service of Vespers. Following our supper, we again assemble for the Service of After Dinner Prayer, called “Compline.” During the service we reflect on the day and examine our actions, asking for forgiveness our shortcomings and negligence. After Compline we go to our rooms for sleep.
“In Peace I will both lie down and sleep, for You alone, O Lord, make me lie down in safety.” (Psalm 4).
There are two Compline Services in the Orthodox Church. “Small Compline” is read most nights throughout the year, and “Great Compline” read on weekdays during the Great Fast (Great Lent).
“At midnight I will rise and praise You.” (Psalm 118).
In the monasteries the monastics rise at midnight for prayer, a tradition that goes back at least as far as the time of the holy King and Prophet David the Psalmist.
“O God, You are my God, early will I seek You.” (Psalm 63).
Orthodox Christians rise at dawn to experience the goodness of God, to praise Him, to give Him thanks, to make petitions, and to seek His blessing for the activities of the coming day. Another terms for “Matins” is “Morning Prayer” or “Morning Worship.”
Orthodox Christians also pray throughout the day. While busy and at work, they recite the Jesus Prayer: “Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.”
Wherever possible, the faithful also read “The Hours” which are short Services consisting of three Psalms, prayers, and hymns: the 1st Hour, 3rd Hour, 6th Hour, and Ninth Hour.
“To You I pray, O Lord; in the morning You hear my voice.” (Psalm 5).
Before the use of clocks the hours of the day were determined from sunrise, so the 1st hour is just after dawn. This is also the hour of the day at which Christ was led into the Praetorium before Pilate.
Nominally we understand the “1st hour” of the day to be 6:00 am, and by custom we read the 1st Hour immediately following Matins. In monasteries the Midnight Service, Matins, and the 1st Hour are read and chanted as one continuous liturgical service, usually followed by the Divine Liturgy.
In prayer at the 1st Hour we ask God to guard us from harm to our body and our soul. As our senses are being awakened from sleep we ask for spiritual awakening through Jesus Christ Who is the “True Light Who comes into the world.”
“Take not Your Holy Spirit from me.” (Psalm 50).
Nominally the 3rd Hour is at 9:00 am, the hour when Christ was condemned by Pilate, and the hour when the Holy Spirit came down upon the apostles at Pentecost. We thanks God for this gift and ask that He never deprive us of the fruits and graces of the Holy Spirit.
“There they crucified Him... about the 6th hour.” (Luke 23:33, 44).
Nominally the 6th Hour is at noon, the time when the crucifixion of Christ began. As we contemplate the depth of divine love, we humbly thank Christ for all that He endured for our salvation.
“And at the ninth hour ... Jesus cried out with a loud voice, and breathed His last.” (Mark 15:34, 37).
Nominally the Ninth Hour is at 3:00 pm, the hour when Jesus promised the repentant thief that he would enter the Kingdom of heaven, and also the hour at which Jesus Himself died on the Cross.
The Ninth Hour is the final prayer service of the day, and it immediately precedes the Service of Vespers. This signifies that time is continuous, and that w on earth emulate, as much as possible, the angels in heaven who continuously praise and glorify God.