Matins / Órthros
O God, my God, unto Thee I rise early at dawn — Psalm 62:1
In Greek, this service is known as órthros, which simply means ‘early morning’ and is the word used in the Gospel of Luke, when the myrrhbearing women arrived at the tomb ‘very early in the morning’ (24:1) only to find that the Lord had risen.
Like Vespers, matins is largely a sung service, and much of the content is variable, depending on the day and tone of the week, the date, and the season. It should ideally take place in the early hours of the morning, before sunrise, but in a parish setting will normally be held later in the morning.
While the midnight office recalls the Second Coming of Christ, the beginning of Matins reminds us of Judgement Day. After the customary introductory prayers, the priest exclaims: ‘Glory to the holy, consubstantial, life-giving, and undivided Trinity, always, now and forever, and to the ages of ages’.
The reader (anagnóstēs) will then read the Hexápsalmos (Six Psalms: 3, 37, 62, 87, 102, 142), during which the faithful stand completely still (we do not even make the sign of the Cross) as if before the Judge. The Psalms express the realisation of our sinfulness and brokenness, but also the Lord’s great mercy and the hope of salvation. After the first three Psalms, the priest comes out of the Sanctuary and stands in front of the icon of Christ, where he silently reads twelve morning prayers.
Having reentered the Sanctuary, the priest says the Litany of Peace (Eirēnēká), after which the choir sings the apolytíkia of the day. We then read two kathísmata from the Book of Psalms (see the entry on the Psaltērion).
If it’s a Sunday, the next part of the service recalls the visit of the myrrhbearing women to the empty tomb. We first sing the Evlogitária of the Resurrection, which recounts their encounter with the angels: ‘Very early the myrrhbearing women hastened to Thy tomb, lamenting, but the angel stood before them and said: The time for lamentation is past, weep not, but tell of the Resurrection to the apostles’. The priest then reads one of the eleven Morning Gospels, standing on the right side of the altar, symbolising the angel sitting to the right of the tomb, who had told the women,
‘He is risen; He is not here: behold the place where they laid Him’ (Mark 16:5-6)
After the reading, Psalm 50 is sung. At the verse, ‘Behold, Thou hast loved truth’, the priest comes out of the sanctuary and stands in the centre of the church holding the Holy Gospel, which the faithful then come up to venerate — their personal encounter with the risen Lord.
After Psalm 50, we sing the canon(s) of the day. A canon is a set of nine odes, each with several verses relating to the theme or saint of the day. These verses are intended to accompany the nine Biblical odes (see the entry on the Psaltērion), though most of the time they are sung without the odes, which are replaced by a simple refrain — e.g., ‘Glory to Thee, o God’, ‘Saint of God, intercede on our behalf’, etc.
After the sixth ode, there is a reading from the Synaxárion, a list of all the saints commemorated on that particular day.
After the eighth ode, the choir sing the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55), with the following refrain after each verse: ‘More honourable than the Cherubim, and beyond compare more glorious than the Seraphim, who without corruption gavest birth to God the Word, the very Theotokos, thee do we magnify’, for which reason it’s also called the Timiōtéra (more honourable). While the Magnificat is sung, the deacon (or priest) will process around the church, censing first the holy altar, the icon screen, and then all the people present.
The next major part of the service are the Praises / Lauds, Psalms 148, 149, and 150, sung with accompanying verses relating to the theme of the day.
If the Divine Liturgy is to follow the matins, the service ends with the chanting of the Doxology, a moving song of praise. While it is being sung, the priest will silently read the concluding prayers and dismissal of the service, and prepare for the start of the Liturgy.
The word matins likewise comes from the Latin matutinus — ‘of the morning’.
In Greek, the Sanctuary is often called the vēma (judgement seat), and so it is as if the priest stands before Christ the Judge, interceding for his flock.
In parishes, we normally don’t read the kathísmata, but only sing the accompanying hymns (also called kathísmata).
Eleven, reminding us of the eleven disciples who got to see the Resurrection; the twelfth, Judas, hanged himself in despair and did not encounter the risen Christ.
In the current practice of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, everything described in this paragraph is instead done before the chanting of the 9th Ode.
In reality, eight odes, since the second ode is only ever sung during Lent, meaning the canons used outside of Lent don’t have one.