This is not a post about culturally and ethnically Orthodox folks who never seem to get to Church before the sermon.
As an Orthodox Convert exposed to other Orthodox Converts and our peculiar brand of stress-inducing hyper-piety I’ve often heard a discussion of “Midnight to Midnight vrs Sunset to Sunset”. The argument being that from Genesis on the Bible “clearly” starts the day at Sunset, and that the liturgy “clearly” starts a feast day with Vespers and that Saturday night “Clearly” is the beginning of Sunday and that the “Fathers clearly” marked time from Sunset to Sunset. Therefore we should not mark our days from some artificially created “midnight” but rather from Vespers to Vespers (at least) if not from actual Sunset to Sunset.
This means fasting from Thursday night at Sunset until Friday night at Sunset. It also means we can go out at Midnight. Curiously, it never seems to mean the pre-communion fast starts at 6PM the night before, and so Saturday’s party goes from Friday Sunset until midnight between Saturday and Sunday.
But all that aside, the argument has me, today, looking at Liturgical Time.
East and West both have the same liturgical tradition in this respect: any feast day starts with a Vespers and continues through with a Eucharistic commemoration the following day. The West the tradition evolved to “extending” the feast by adding a Second Vespers that – rather like the day-and-a-half long Saturday above, makes a feast go just a little bit longer than a “normal” day.
In the Book of Common Prayer this tradition reverses: a “basic” day is Morning and then Evening Prayer. In many ways this makes sense in an essentially parochial environment (and what was initially a very anti-monastic environment). The common folks get the “today is today” matter-of-factness of it all and I suspect that simplicity was a crucial issue in this decision. But also the experience of the day, at least in the west, is that “today” does not include part of last evening before bed.
The BCP tradition therefore became one where a feast day means Morning Prayer, (Possible) Eucharist, Evening Prayer. After a while the BCP tradition gave certain feast days “Eve of” readings. Thus instead of Second Vespers of the Latin Rite it becomes the First Vespers that were the “extra added part” of the feast day in English Usage. In the Orthodox Western Rite it is this way in the Rite of St Tikhon. In the Rite of St Gregory it is the older, Latin way.
As I am editing the office for daily use, this awareness of time strikes me as very important: it is the sanctification of time that is the point of the daily hours, be that just family prayers in the AM and PM or the seven/eight-fold office of traditional monasticism (East or West) or the Western Rite’s offices of Morning and Evening prayer. Certainly the idea of a day starting and ending at midnight, consisting of Morning and then Evening, is an innovation no more recent than the 15th century. But even so it is no where near as recent as some major changes in the Eastern liturgy. (The Pascha service we serve prior to the Divine Liturgy today evolved in the 19th century!) But all the services are about the eucharistic sanctification of time, the inclusion of our daily motions of living, moving and being into the Divine eternal present that is gathered around the Altar of Communion.
To do this we must be aware of the time. No mater how we count the days, we must count them.
The daily hours make us aware of the passage of time, of the daily flow that comes either in the stasis and prayer of a monastery or else the daily ebb and flow of a working or farming life with stops in Morning and Evening, even the four-fold division of modern hours (Morning, Noon, Evening, Bedtime). Each phase is taken, blessed, and broken in offering before God so that it may become a vehicle of grace for us.