A couple of days ago, I asked a friend (who admits to knowing nothing about Orthodoxy) to attend Vespers with me this week. He responded by asking me about Vespers. The following was my explanation:
Ah, how do I describe Vespers? The word Vespers means "evening", Vespers is the evening prayer of all Orthodox Christians. Since the Church day begins at sundown, just as detailed in Genesis 1, Vespers is the "first" prayer of the day. Vespers is the service celebrated towards the end of daylight, in which we express our gratitude to God for the day which has passed.
The hours of prayer are generally: 6pm/Sundown (Vespers), 9pm (Compline), 12am (Midnight), 3am (Matins), 6am (1st hour), 9am (3rd hour), 12pm (6th hour), 3pm (9th hour). This all follows a Biblical model. In Old and New Testament times, an "hour" meant a "watch" that lasted about three hours. Each service of the daily cycle corresponds to one of these three-hour divisions. The hours seem perfectly natural when you read the accounts of our Lord's crucifixion (Mark 15:25, Luke 23:44, Matthew 27:45). Additionally, the book of Acts shows how the hours were times of prayer. (Acts 3:1, Acts 10:3, Acts 10:9, Acts 10:30). In the monasteries, these hours are kept strictly. Non-monastic’s, however, do not keep such a strict rule of prayer. In a local congregation, you may only have Vespers celebrated on Saturday night, and Matins celebrated only on Sunday morning, before the Divine Liturgy, which is the main service of the Church. Any further persnal prayer rule can be decided with the help of a Priest or spiritual father.
Vespers (actually most Orthodox services) consists primarily of chanting the Psalms, with other hymns and prayers interspersed. The Psalms are THE hymnbook and prayerbook of the Orthodox Church. Vespers begins with the call to worship ("Come, let us worship and fall down before God our King"), then we move on to chant several Psalms, a Litany, the Phos Hilaron ("O gladsome Light"), more hymns, Psalms, and prayers, then the Canticle of St. Simeon ("Lord, now you let your servant go in peace"), and then the final hymns and closing prayers.
What will strike you about Orthodox worship is how it involves the whole person. We have bowing, kneeling, prostrating, (how else would one expect to act before an earthly king, much less the Heavenly King?) crossing oneself; the Sanctuary looks like a scene out of Revelation, with the Angels and the Saints; the chanting and the icons brings you into Heaven, and the incense takes you outside of time; the icons represent the "great cloud of witnesses" from Hebrews, and the incense represents our prayers rising before the Throne of God, as in Revelation. The worship is totally God-centered, not man-centered, and the current Liturgy (the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom) is from the 4th Century. This was a shortening of the Liturgy of St. Basil, which in turn was a shortening of the Liturgy of St James the Apostle, which was the one used for the first three Centuries (St. James Liturgy took literally hours to complete). This is truly the orthodox Christian faith as recorded in Scripture, taught and practiced by the early Fathers of the Church, and preserved within the spiritual life of the Orthodox Christians around the world from the day of Pentecost until now, unbroken, undivided, and unconquered by the Gates of Hell. The true Body of Christ on earth.