Thursday, February 7, 2013

The Liturgy of the Hours - Vespers

“Sunrise and sunset are not anonymous moments in the day. They have unmistakable features: the joyful beauty of dawn and the triumphant splendour of sunset follow the cosmic rhythms that deeply involve human life. Furthermore, the mystery of salvation that is actuated in history has moments linked to various phases of time. So it is that together with the celebration of Lauds at daybreak, and the celebration of Vespers at nightfall, these have gradually became a regular practice in the Church. Both of these Liturgical Hours have an evocative charge of their own that recalls the two essential aspects of the paschal mystery: "In the evening the Lord is on the Cross, in the morning, he rises to new life.” - Saint Augustine of Hippo

Vesperial Light and Sunset

Vespers marks the start of the new liturgical day in the Christian tradition and as such is one of the two Dominical Hours of the Church. This is based upon the account given in Genesis whereby morning followed evening.

"There was evening and there was morning, the first day." (Genesis 1:5).

The word “Vesper” is a latin word that means evening star. Just as the stars light up the darkness of the night sky, and led the magi to the worship of the incarnate Word, so our first prayer of the new day begins with hope in Christ the Light of the world who brightens spiritual darkness. In antiquity, the lighting of the oil lamp after sunset brought a note of joy to a household in what would have been an otherwise dark world. In lighting the lamp at dusk, the Christian community also prayed with gratitude for the gift of spiritual light. This was called the "lucernarium", the ritual lighting of the lamp whose flame is the symbol of Christ, "the Sun that never sets". It is God who brightens the darkness of night with the radiance of his presence and the light of his teachings.

"The sun has set and with the ending of the day, once again we are called to pray. Since Christ is the true Sun, let us pray while the sun sets and the day fades in this world, imploring that the light shine on us anew; and let us call for the coming of Christ who will bring us the grace of eternal light." - Saint Cyprian of Carthage

Drawing inspiration from the symbolism of light, the prayers of Vespers developed as an evening sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving for the gift of physical and spiritual light, and for the other gifts of the Creation and the Redemption of mankind, as Saint Basil the Great says:

“[It is a fitting time] to give thanks for what has been given to us or for what we have been able to do with integrity."

Order of Vespers

The order of vespers begins with introductory prayers, usually some form of the Gloria Patri is used in most traditions followed by other hymns or responsorials. In the Syrian tradition, Ramsho (Vespers) begins with a little prayer recounting the theme of creation.

“You created me and placed your hands upon me. In the beginning God created Adam from the dust and breathed on him the spirit and gave him speech that he might sing praise to him, halleluiah, and give thanks to his creator.”

After this follows the psalter. Depending on the day, time of year, and proximity to a Great Feast, the number of psalms and order can change. Abbreviations occur for parochial use, and if you are praying this alone, then the number of psalms prayed of course, is at your discretion. This forms the first part of the Liturgy. You can think of this as akin to the Liturgy of the Word in the Mass.

The second half of vespers can be seen as the Liturgy of the Faithful or Eucharist, in a very superficial way of course. It begins with a hymn or canticle. The hymn “O Joyful Light” marks the second part of vespers in the Byzantine tradition, and features the transition from darkness to light by the illumination of chandeliers during liturgy. In Roman vespers, a canticle of creation signals this transition.

Following the transitional hymns, supplications for the world and the Church in the form of litanies or responsorials occur. In the Armenian vesperial service, this begins with a portion of a psalm of David, “... may our prayers arise as incense before [God], and the lifting up of our hands be as an evening sacrifice (Psalm 141).”

Readings may also occur in the second half of vespers, though they are not a universal feature. Scriptural readings were the last development to occur in the formation of the Hours, and only begin to be found in the middle ages, appearing initially only on the eves of great feats.

Vesperial services conclude with some form of Hymn or Canticle often to Our Lady, or the Song of Symeon, and an invocation of protection and visitation upon all the faithful in the night to come. This would constitute the primary evening liturgy in most parishes during antiquity. In some cases, a vigil Mass would follow the celebration of vespers as the first mass of the new day.

In Hours celebrated by a Priest, additional prayers proper to his office will occur, including blessings appropriate only to a Priest.

If you’d like to know more about Vespers, or pray Vespers, Universalis contains the entire revised Office (The Hours) according to Pope Paul VI available with daily updates for variable material for your convenience.

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