Vespers, Prayer of Sunset
Just as we open and close each day by praying to God, so too the Church opens and closes each day with the prayers of 'Lauds', 'Vespers'
At the General Audience of Wednesday, 15 October, in St Peter's Square, the Holy Father reflected on the structure of Evening Prayer in the Roman rite. "Just as Lauds is prayed at daybreak", he said, "so Vespers is prayed close to sunset" in order that we start from God and end in him. After greeting the pilgrims in various languages, the Pope invited them all to take part in Mass in St Peter's Square on 16 October, the date of the 25th Anniversary of his Pontificate. The following is a translation of the Holy Father's second Catechesis on Evening Prayer, given in Italian.
1. We know from numerous testimonies that from the fourth century onwards Lauds and Vespers had become an established institution in all the great Eastern and Western Churches. This is borne out by St Ambrose: "Just as every day, in going to church or devoting ourselves to prayer at home, we start from God and end in him, so the entire day of our life here below and the course of every single day always starts from him and ends in him" (De Abraham, II, 5, 22).
Just as Lauds is prayed at daybreak, so Vespers is prayed close to sunset, at the hour when, in the temple of Jerusalem, the burnt offering was made with incense. At that hour, after his death on the Cross, Jesus was lying in the tomb, having offered himself to the Father for the salvation of the world.
The various Churches, following their respective traditions, organized the Divine Office in accordance with their own rites. Here, let us consider the Roman rite.
The grace to praise God properly can come only from him
2. The invocation Deus in adiutorium in the first verse of Psalm 69 opens the prayer that St Benedict prescribes for every Hour. The verse recalls that the grace to praise God as befits him can come only from God. The "Glory be to the Father" follows, because the glorification of the Trinity expresses the essential approach of Christian prayer. Finally, except in Lent, the Alleluia is added. This Hebrew word means "Praise the Lord" and, for Christians, it has become a joyful manifestation of faith in the protection that God reserves for his people.
The singing of the Hymn is vibrant with the reasons for the Church's praise in prayer, evoking with poetic inspiration the mysteries wrought for the salvation of man at the hour of Vespers and, in particular, the sacrificial work of Christ on the Cross.
The place of the Psalms and the Reading in Evening Prayer
3. The Psalmody of Vespers consists of two Psalms suitable for this hour and of a canticle from the New Testament. The typology of the Psalms for Vespers displays various nuances. There are Psalms that deal with the ritual lighting of the lamp in which "evening", the "lamp" or "light" are explicitly mentioned; Psalms that express trust in God, the stable refuge in the precariousness of human life; Psalms of thanksgiving and praise; Psalms from which flow the eschatological meaning suggested by the end of the day; and others with a sapiential character or penitential tones. We also find Psalms of the Hallel, with a reference to the Last Supper of Jesus with his disciples. In the Latin Church, elements have been handed down that facilitate the understanding of the Psalms and their Christian interpretation, such as the themes, the psalm prayers and especially the antiphons (cf. Principles and Norms for the Liturgy of the Hours, nn. 110-120).
The brief Reading at Vespers that is taken from the New Testament has an important place. Its purpose is to propose some sentences from the Bible forcefully and effectively, and impress them on hearts so that they will be expressed in practice (cf. ibid., nn. 45, 156, 172). To make it easier to interiorize what has been heard, the Reading is followed by an appropriate silence and by a Responsorial whose function is to "respond" to the message of the Reading with the singing of some verses, fostering their warm acceptance by those taking part in the prayer.
'Magnificat', incensing of the altar help us surround Christ in prayer
4. The Gospel Canticle of the Blessed Virgin Mary is chanted (cf. Lk 1:46-55) with great honour and introduced by the sign of the Cross. Already attested by the Rule of St Benedict (chapters 12 and 17), the custom of singing the Benedictus at Lauds and the Magnificat at Vespers "is confirmed by the age-old and popular tradition of the Roman Church" (Principles and Norms for the Liturgy of the Hours, n. 50). In fact, these Canticles are exemplary for their expression of the sense of praise and thanksgiving to God for his gift of Redemption.
In the community celebration of the Divine Office, the gesture of incensing the altar, the priest and the people while the Gospel Canticles are being sung, is reminiscent ― in light of the Hebrew tradition of offering incense morning and evening on the altar of incense ― of the sacrificial character of the "sacrifice of praise" expressed in the Liturgy of the Hours. Surrounding Christ in prayer, may we be able to live personally what is said in the Letter to the Hebrews: "Through him, then, let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name" (13:15; cf. Ps 50; 14:23; Hos 14:2).
Liturgy of Vespers culminates in the 'Lord's Prayer'
5. After the Canticle, the Intercessions addressed to the Father or, sometimes, to Christ, express the supplicant voice of the Church which is mindful of God's solicitude for humanity, the work of his hands. The character of the Intercessions at Evening Prayer is, in fact, a petition for divine help: for people of every class, for the Christian community and for civil society. Lastly comes the remembrance of deceased faithful.
The liturgy of Vespers is crowned in Jesus' prayer, the Our Father, which sums up all the praise and all the petitions of God's children, reborn from water and the Spirit. At the end of the day, Christian tradition has connected the forgiveness implored from God in the Our Father and the brotherly reconciliation of men with one another: the sun must never go down on anyone's anger (cf. Eph 4:26).
The prayer of Vespers concludes with a Prayer which, in harmony with the crucified Christ, expresses the entrustment of our lives into the hands of the Father, knowing that his blessing will never be lacking.
L'Osservatore Romano October 22, 2003
Reprinted with permission