"Let the Lifting Up of my Hands be an Evening Sacrifice" Vespers is the first service of the new Liturgical Day, which, according to the ancient Jewish reckoning, begins at Sunset (cf. Genesis 1:5, "And there was evening and morning, the first day"). It is a service of prayer offered in the early evening, and dates back to the earliest days of the Church, when the Early Christians would gather at Sunset to light lamps, offer incense, and pray. The form currently in use in the Orthodox Church is derived from the Monastic Tradition, specifically of the Mar Saba Monastery in Palestine. There are two forms of Vespers in use in our parish: Great Vespers, for Sundays, Great Feast Days of the Lord Jesus and the Virgin Mary, and important Saints; and Daily Vespers, for lower-ranking Saints and commemorations.
Vespers begins with the reading of Psalm 103*, praising God for the variety and majesty of Creation. As this is read, the priest quietly reads a series of prayers to glorify God and ask that the people's prayers might be acceptable to Him. Then the priest (or deacon) intones a series of petitions, known as the Great Litany (or Great Ektenia), the people responding "Lord, have mercy" to each. After the Great Litany the chanter begins to slowly sing the first two verses of Psalm 140 as the priest censes the entire church, before chanting the rest more quickly, followed by Psalm 141, Psalm 129, and Psalm 116, with the last 6-10 verses (depending on the importance of the day) being interspersed with special hymns in honor of the Saint, Feast, or Commemoration of the Day. If it is Great Vespers, when the last hymn is being sung the priest exits the altar with the censer, and stands in front of the Holy Doors. He then says "Wisdom! Stand upright!" and enters the altar again, as the chanter sings the ancient hymn "O Gladsome Light," which dates back to 200s AD. In our parish practice, the church is fully illuminated during this hymn.
A short psalm verse is then sung, followed on especially important feast days by three readings from the Old Testament. This is followed by more litanies, prayers and hymns for the Saint, Feast or Commemoration. After all this, the Prayer of St. Symeon, "Lord, now lettest thou Thy servant..." is sung, followed by a final hymn for the Saint, Feast or Commemoration and, usually, one for the Virgin Mary. Vespers then concludes with the priest's dismissal prayers and final blessing.
*Psalms are numbered according to the Greek Septuagint