A Brief Guide to the Service of the Orthros (Matins)

https://ieropsaltis.files.wordpress.com/2010/01/344549e2633037a8e8a049ea6af6099a.jpg?w=640One of the most important services of the Greek Orthodox Church is the service of Orthros, or “Matins”.  The Orthros can be chanted every single day, as it is a commemoration to the saint or feast of a particular day or period in the ecclesiastical calendar.  It typically begins early in the morning and immediately precedes the Divine Liturgy, although it can be chanted alone.  But what is so special about the Orthros?  Why is it so important?  What are the hymns that comprise this service?  This brief article will answer those and other questions, and will hopefully allow the reader to gain a deeper understanding and appreciation for the service of the Orthros.


Orthros (from the Greek, meaning “morning”, “dawn” or “daybreak”) is the longest and most complex of the cycle of daily services of the Orthodox Church.  In its entirety (typically in monastic settings), it can last up to three hours. The Typikon of the Great Church of Christ (which is the official book of rubrics followed by the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople and, subsequently, our Archdiocese here in America) outlines the order of the Orthros, but allows for certain abbreviations in parishes (as opposed to monasteries).

The Orthros illustrates and recreates, experientially and literally, the time prior to Christ’s arrival on earth. We learn about the prophecies, the Old Testament; and as we near the end of the Orthros, the thematology becomes more Christologic, in preparation for the second part of the Eucharistic play, which is the Divine Liturgy (Christ’s life on earth, death, Resurrection and promise of return). The Great Doxology joins the Orthros and the Liturgy and serves to illustrate Christ’s birth and a new beginning. In all, it is a revitalization of the Law in a new light and with a new focus away from the type (typos) to the experience and the acts of repentance and salvation.

The Orthros also serves a didactic role, and through hymns and readings, outlines the lives of the saints being celebrated that day. We learn about their lives, trials, tribulations and triumphs, and how they can serve as an example to us in our search for spiritual perfection.

The Orthros is probably the only time on Sunday mornings when the splendor of Byzantine music can truly be appreciated; that is, when the style of hymnography (poetry) of our church can be appreciated temporally (an historical evolution). The start of the Orthros features brisk and short eirmologic hymns (the oldest). The service then evolves into idiomela (later poetic styles between the 9th – 16th centuries) and finalizes into the slow stichiraric (doxastika) of the 15th century and later. In essence, Orthros is a history class in which you can actually hear the evolution!  Let’s take a brief look (in chronological order) at the highlights of a typical Sunday Orthros:


  • Exapsalmos – From the Greek words exi (“six”) and psalmos (“psalm”), the Six Psalms are read at the very start of the Orthros. The set consists of Psalms 3, 37, 62, 87, 102, and 142, during which the priest says a series of 12 short, silent prayers – six in front of the Holy Altar, and six outside the Royal Doors, in front of the icon of Christ. The reading of the Exapsalmos is one of the most solemn points of the Orthros.  In monasteries, it is read by the presiding priest or a monk; in parishes, is read by the Anagnostis (“Reader”).
  • Apolytikia – The “Dismissal Hymns” were the last hymns of the previous evening’s vespers (chanted immediately before the dismissal of that service, thus its name: apolysis = “dismissal”) and the first chanted hymns of the morning.  They consist of the day’s Resurrectional Apolytikion, the Apolytikion of the Saint or Feast of the day (if any; otherwise, the Sunday Resurrectional Apolytikion is repeated) and the Theotokion, which is a hymn to the Mother of God.  These hymns vary according to the mode of the week as well as the saint’s feast or festal period.
  • Kathismata – From the Greek kathisma or “seat”, these are Resurrectional hymns chanted when the faithful are typically seated. According to ancient practice, monastics recite all 150 Psalms (called the Psalter) on a regular basis. The Psalter was divided into 20 sections (called kathismata) and three sub-sections to facilitate the chanting. Originally, the hymns that we NOW call kathismata were chanted at the end of each of these sections of the original Matins Psalter. Since we don’t read all 150 Psalms during our services anymore, only these hymns have been retained, which collectively are called the kathismata.  These hymns also vary according to the mode of the week and the festal period.
  • Evlogitaria – With few exceptions, these troparia (hymns) are chanted every Sunday during Orthros, and encapsulate the story of the Resurrection in eight hymns. They are called Evlogitaria simply because each hymn begins with a verse Evlogitos ei Kyrie (“Blessed art Thou, O Lord”).  They are always the same and always chanted in Plagal of the First mode.
  • Ypakoe – The word in Greek means “obedience” (from ypakouo = “I obey” or “I listen”). This is a single hymn (which, in modern practice, is usually read rather than chanted), and typically refers to the command of the angels to the myrrh-bearing women at the tomb. It differs depending on the mode of the week.
  • Anavathmoi – From the Greek anavasis, or “ascension”, these hymns were originally Psalms of King David which the Jews chanted when they ascended the steps of their Temple in Jerusalem in order to pray. Today, the anavathmoi are hymns which paraphrase those Psalms.  They vary according to the mode of the week. The chanting of the anavathmoi is concluded with the prokeimenon , which is a Psalmic verse that is chanted three times.
  • Kanon – The kanon or kanona (canon) is a complex set of hymns that represents probably the most ancient melodies of our hymnology. Rather than go into a lengthy discussion of the format and content of the hymns of the canon, suffice it to say that the canon develops a specific theme, such as repentance or honoring of a particular saint. It consists of nine Odes, each of which consists of an Eirmos followed by two or more (as many as 14!) troparia (hymns), each with a short refrain or verse introducing it. The melodies and metrical structures of the troparia for each Ode are modeled after that of the Eirmos.  On Sundays we chant hymns from the Resurrectional canon and hymns from the canon of the saint of the day.  (If we are in a festal period, such as Christmas or Theofany, for example, that feast’s canon is chanted, as well.)

Because chanting the canon in its entirety can become too lengthy for parish use, local usage typically determines the number of troparia that will be chanted. Typically, the first “section” of the canon is chanted in an Orthros, which consists of Odes I and III.  (Ode II, because of its very penitential content, is normally used only during Great Lent.) The rationalization to omit the canon entirely is based on the perception that it may use up too much of the Orthros. That is untrue. The reason seems to lie more with the ignorance of psaltai concerning the Eirmoi and not temporal issues. If there are temporal issues, Odes I and III of the canon take up no more than five minutes. In fact, if the entire Orthros were omitted, the Canon would be more than enough to tell a detailed story of the celebration of the day (principal feast day, celebrated saint(s)) and so on. Because of its liturgical history (dating back as early as the 7th century), the canon is a prime example of our early hymnology and has didactic properties  and meanings seldom equaled.  Hymns of the canons vary depending on the week’s mode and the festal period.

  • Mesodia Kathismata – These are a short set of 2-4 kathismata which are inserted in between the chanting of the canon. (The word mesodia means “in the middle”.)  Typically, these are hymns of the saint or of the festal period which interrupt the continuity of the canon after the third Ode.
  • Kontakion, Oikos and Synaxarion – The Kontakion and the Oikos were another complex poetic form whose origins date back to St. Romanos the Melodist during the 6th  (His masterpiece is considered to be the Kontakion of Christmas, E Parthenos simeron.)  Historically, the original format of the kontakion  (best described as a “sermon in verse accompanied by music”) consisted of 18 to 24 metrically identical stanzas called oikoi (“houses”) preceded by a short prelude called a koukoulion (“cowl”).  Over time, however, the original and lengthy kontakion was replaced by the canon, and today, only the first koukoulion (now referred to as the Kontakion) and the first Oikos are read at this point in the Orthros.  The only time an original Kontakion is chanted in modern times is during the service of the Akathist Hymn on the fifth Saturday of Great Lent (typically heard the prior Friday evening, portions of which we hear during the first four Friday evenings of Lent), a work originally composed in honor of the Theotokos. Incidentally, the word kontakion is derived from the Greek word kontax, or “pole”, which refers to the pole around which the written scroll was wound.

The Synaxarion is actually a collection of summaries of the biographies  of the saints, the oldest of which go back to the 10th century. The Synaxarion of the day is simply a brief commemoration of the life of the Saint of the day and/or the feast that is celebrated.

  • Katavasies – This is the name given to a collection of hymns which were originally chanted within the context of the Canon. Each Ode of the Canon was completed with a final hymn known as the katavasia, which was a repetition of the Eirmos (the initial hymn of each Ode) from the canon of the day, the Eirmos of an upcoming feast, or some other verse prescribed by the service books. The word katavasia itself is derived from the Greek word “katavasis”, which means a “descension” or a “stepping down”.  It is called this because, originally, the left and right choirs would descend from their respective Analogia and would come together in the middle of the Soleas to chant the katavasia.
  • Gospel – The order of the Matins Gospel is introduced with the chanting of the short verse, “Let every breath praise the Lord.” On Sundays, it is one of eleven pre-selected readings having to do with Christ’s Resurrection. The chanters step down from their respective Analogia during the reading of the Gospel.
  • Psalm 50 – This is a psalm of repentance and God’s mercy, and prophecy about salvation through baptism. Immediately before the 50th Psalm on Sundays and every day during the Paschal season, the prayer, “Having beheld the Resurrection of Christ” is read aloud by the reader. Traditionally, Psalm 50 is chanted only in Second Mode and in a quick rhythm.
  • Pentikostarion – Immediately following the chanting of the 50th Psalm are two hymns that entreat the intercessions of the Apostles and of the Theotokos to blot out ones “many offences”. The Pentikostarion, a short Pentecostal hymn affirming the Resurrectional mission of Christ, is then chanted to close the Order of the Gospel: “Jesus, having risen from the grave as He foretold, has granted us eternal life and great mercy.”
  • Megalynaria – On a typical Sunday, the Megalynaria – or “Magnificat”, as it is called in the Latin West – is a hymn preceded by a series of verses honoring the Virgin Mary. These verses, taken right out of Luke 1:46-55, were spoken by the Virgin Mary upon the occasion of her visitation to her cousin, Elizabeth, in response to Elizabeth’s praise of Mary’s faith. The first verse begins with, “My soul doth magnify the Lord”, which explains the name (megalyno = ”I magnify”). The Megalynarion is sometimes call the Timiotera, because the main troparion which is chanted after each of the verses is: “More honorable than the Cherubim” (Tin timiotera ton Xerouvim), and more glorious beyond compare than the Seraphim, without corruption thou gavest birth to God the Word; true Theotokos, we magnify thee.” Out of respect to the Virgin Mary, the chanters typically step down from their respective Analogia to chant the Megalynaria, which concludes with the chanting of the 9th Ode of the Canon (e. the Katavasia of the 9th Ode).
  • Exaposteilaria – These hymns typically have as their subject matter the Myrrh-bearing women, but are always themed according to the Resurrectional Gospel chanted earlier in the Orthros. The term exaposteilarion, related to the word “Apostle”, is derived from the Greek word exaposteilon, meaning “to send out”.  (In ancient times a chanter was sent out from the choir into the center of the church to chant this hymn.) The word is also derived from the verse, Exaposteilon to fos sou, Kyrie (“Send out your Light, o Lord”), which is why these hymns are sometimes referred to as Fotagogika – “Hymns of the Light (of Christ)”. They vary according to the mode of the week.
  • Ainoi – From the Greek meaning “Praises” or “Lauds”, these hymns praise God and are preceded with a psalmic verse, which begins with the command Aineite – “Praise” (g. Aineite ton Kyrion – “Praise the Lord”). The hymns are Resurrectional in theme (Ainoi of the day’s saint are also chanted), and vary according to the mode of the week.
  • Doxastikon – Named because it is preceded by the words, Doxa Patri kai Yio (“Glory to the Father and the Son…”), this is typically the longest – and usually the richest – hymn of the Orthros On a typical Sunday, one of eleven Matins Doxastika are chanted, although a special festal Doxastikon may be chanted for certain feasts or feasts of a major Saint.
  • Great DoxologyMegali Doxologia in Greek, this is always chanted on Sundays according to the mode of the week. On weekdays, the Small Doxology is read, followed by other hymns to complete the Orthros. The Great Doxology is majestic and full of grandeur, and is the ultimate glorifying hymn to God.  Out of reverence, the chanters typically step down from their respective Analogia to chant this.

I hope this brief guide to the Orthros has been helpful.  Let me emphasize the word “brief”, because what I have outlined typically occurs on Sundays, but the format is slightly altered depending on the feast being celebrated, or if the Orthros is chanted on a weekday.  When chanted properly, it flows majestically and paints a picture of Christ’s Resurrection as the ultimate sacrifice for the salvation of our souls.  It is a magnificent service and is the best opportunity for one to experience the majestic tradition of Byzantine Music.

Many people ask if the Orthros is a mandatory prerequisite to the Divine Liturgy. Indeed it is. Without the Orthros, the celebration of the Liturgy would be meaningless. For one thing, the Orthros provides the background under which the priest performs the Proskomidi, or the Office of Oblation.  The Proskomidi is a prerequisite for the Divine Liturgy, during which the priest prepares the wine and bread for the Holy Eucharist.  Furthermore, the Orthros shapes the Liturgy and prepares the faithful both intellectually (who and what is being celebrated on the particular day) and spiritually (like in any sport, without a warm up, the athlete risks injury). It gradually takes us from the slumber of morning sleep (via the brisk melodies) to the majestic and slower music and poetry of the end of the Orthros to prepare us for the reception of the Lord through Communion. Indeed, the Orthros service can stand on its own as a daily celebration without one needing to conduct the Liturgy (examples are the Orthros services of the early part of Holy Week). The Liturgy cannot be conducted on its own without a preparatory service (e.g. Vespers for Presanctified Liturgy).

Without the Orthros, it would be difficult to determine what period of the ecclesiastical year we are in. With the exception of a few hymns after the Small Entrance, the Divine Liturgy is the same every Sunday; however, it is the Orthros, which varies according to feast and mode, that offers a variety of our rich Orthodox hymnology. This hymnology prepares us for the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist, that is, the Divine Liturgy, which is about to follow.  I encourage all of you to come and experience this wonderful service.

[This article originally appeared in the May/Jun/Jul/Aug 2011 edition of The Chalice, the triannual publication of St. Barbara Greek Orthodox Church in Toms River, NJ.]
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