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Latin Liturgy
 (ALL Journal)

Pope Benedict XVI




Extract from Newsletter 103, published August 1998

Vespers - its Structure and Place in the Church's Liturgy


For many people, Vespers is a rather unfamiliar word, or at best a rather exotic one. It probably conjures up images of monks chanting in the light of stained glass and under Gothic vaults.

Others may be more familiar with its old English name, now used by the Anglicans for their evening service derived from the ancient office of Vespers: 'Evensong', a name which well expresses the nature of the Office: the Sung Evening Prayer of the Church.


For Vespers is a part of the Church's official worship, sung in the evening. It is the Church's intention, expressed most recently in the Second Vatican Council's Constitution on the sacred Liturgy, that Vespers should be celebrated not just in monasteries and Cathedrals, but in all other Churches and communities.

When we think of the word 'Liturgy', we think first and foremost of the Mass. But the word Liturgy means the 'work of God's People'. It is a sacred action in which the People of God, the members of Christ's mystical Body, take their rightful part, with Christ as their head. The Mass is the greatest example of Liturgy in this sense. It is the work of Christ, His Sacrifice on the Cross which He continually offers to His heavenly Father, through the celebration of the Eucharist by His Church on earth. It is also our work in the sense that we must take part in it in order for it to be effective in our lives. As an ancient prayer, quoted in the Council Document on the Liturgy says, "as often as the commemoration of this sacrifice is celebrated, the work of our redemption is accomplished."

The Liturgy, then is the work of Christ, the Head, in His Body the Church. As such it consists principally of the Mass, but also of the Sacraments, and finally the 'Divine Office' of which Vespers forms a principal part.


Introducing the Divine Office, the Council Fathers teach that:

"Jesus Christ, High Priest of the New And Eternal Covenant, taking human nature, introduced into this earthly exile that hymn which is sung throughout all ages in heaven… The Church, by celebrating the Eucharist and by other means, especially the celebration of the Divine Office, is ceaselessly engaged in praising the Lord and interceding for the salvation of the entire world." (SC 83)

The Office is the praise of God by Christ the Son, and His supplication for the needs of the Church and of the world. Its purpose is therefore not simply devotional. Of course, it should be part of our devotional life, but it is not limited to that. It is not like Stations of the Cross or even Benediction, which are acts of devotion, but not part of the Liturgy, because they are not properly speaking the Work of our Redemption being continued here and now by Christ our head in us, His members. They are means of expressing and increasing our devotion, thereby preparing us the better to take part in the sacramental Liturgy. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it:

"The Liturgy of the Hours, which is like an extension of the Eucharistic celebration, does not exclude but rather in a complementary way calls forth the various devotions of the People of God, especially adoration and worship of the Blessed Sacrament." (CCC 1178)

The Office, then, is not simply a devotional action, but a liturgical one; it is a work of Christ in His Body, that is in us, the Church. It is Christ's continual offering of praise to His heavenly Father, inspired by the Holy Spirit who dwells in the hearts of all the members of the Church, and unites them in that One Body of Christ, who is the Head of the Body.

Prayer of the Church

There is a tendency to think of the Office as the work of monks, or of priests. You will recall that I began by pointing out that if the word Vespers is at all familiar, it may well be only because of our having visited a monastery and heard the monks sing the afternoon or evening office in Church. But the clergy, too, are familiar with the Office. In fact, they make a special promise at ordination, to pray the Office both for and with the church as a whole. (Note that "both for and with" for future reference). After all, the Office book, the Breviary, has for centuries been almost the exclusive Prayer-Book of the clergy. It is not often that the Offices contained in the Breviary have been publicly celebrated in our churches. Yet that is exactly what the Church encourages us to do. Nor is this to be seen as some new-fangled fad, or recent development; rather it is one of many different aspects in which the Second Vatican Council strove to restore elements that had been obscured in the life of the Church for many centuries. Thus we are reminded that the Divine Office belongs to the Liturgy, and so to the whole body of the Church, not just clerics and monastic communities.

So then, the Liturgy is the work of Christ in His Church. It therefore consists of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, and of the saving rites we call the Sacraments, in which Christ Himself acts in us through the ordained minister. But it also consists of the Office. Why is that? What is so special about the celebration of the Office that it should be included in the actions of Christ?

We remember first of all the exhortation of Our Lord to 'stay awake', and to 'watch and pray'. We also recall the teaching of St. Paul that we should pray constantly, at all times. We all need to pray individually, privately; but we must also pray publicly, not in the sense of praying in front of other people, but praying together with them. Nor is this the same as praying in 'Prayer Groups', however excellent they may be. The Office is rightly called 'The Prayer of the Church', because, like the Mass and the Sacraments, the Prayer of the Church does not belong to any one person; it is not created or designed according to the choice or taste of any individual or group, but is a living organism, into which we enter, to which we are called to join our voices and in which we lift up our hearts in union with the Church Universal, and in union with the church in Heaven. The Office is the constant prayer of the Church in praise and supplication to God the Father. It is this that makes it so very central to the life of the Church. This is why the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council said that it should be better known and become a regular part of the lives of our parishes and communities.

Sanctification of Time

Let us look more closely at this idea of the 'Prayer of the Church'. We have seen that it is the prayer of Christ in His Church, and that it is adoration of God, and supplication for the needs of the Church and the world. We have also seen that it is constant and continuous. Now we are going to think of another vital aspect of the Prayer of the Church: that it is the sanctification of time. Hence it is known also known as the 'Liturgy of the Hours', because it reflects the shape of the day, and gives structure to the Church's prayer at each distinct stage of the day from morning through to night-time.

Here is what the Catechism of the Catholic Church has to say:

"The mystery of Christ, His Incarnation and Passover, which we celebrate in the Eucharist especially at the Sunday assembly, permeates and transfigures the time of each day, through the celebration of the Liturgy of the Hours, 'the divine office'.

You may recall that I quoted earlier a statement in the Catechism that the Liturgy of the Hours is like an extension of the Eucharistic celebration. The whole of the Liturgy revolves around the Sunday Mass. It is the very heart of our sacramental life and practice. That is why there has always been such a strongly expressed sense of obligation on all the baptised to take part in the Sunday Eucharist. This marks the high point of each week, and all else looks towards the Sunday Mass. But of course, we are called upon to pray constantly, and so in addition to the Sunday Mass there is the weekday celebration of Mass, though not of obligation; and then, to sanctify each day of the week, and every part of each day, there is the Liturgy of the Hours. The Catechism continues:

This celebration, faithful to the apostolic exhortations to 'pray constantly', is 'so devised that the whole course of the day and night is made holy by the praise of God'.(CCC 1174)

Lauds and Vespers

So now, briefly, let us look at the Liturgy of the Hours, and see how it all fits together. How does the Liturgy of the Hours reflect the passage of time during the day? The Fathers of the 2nd Vatican Council put it thus:

"By the venerable tradition of the universal Church, Lauds as morning prayer, and Vespers as evening prayer, are the two hinges on which the daily office turns. They must be considered as the chief hours and are to be celebrated as such." (SC 89)

For this reason, that they are the cardinal hours (from the Latin word 'cardo' meaning 'hinge'), that is, the "hinges" on which the whole office depends; Lauds and Vespers are quite similar in structure, but distinct in character, as morning differs from evening in quality. First, then, let us look briefly at Morning Prayer, called 'Lauds' from the Latin word Laudes meaning 'Praise'. Lauds is the office which marks the opening of the day. It consecrates the day to God. The General Instruction on the Liturgy of the hours sums up its character well:

"Lauds is designed to sanctify the morning, as is clear from many of its parts. Saint Basil the Great excellently described its character as morning prayer in these words: 'Matins (N.B. as the Greeks call Lauds) consecrates to God the first movements of our minds and hearts; no other care should engage us before we have been moved with the thought of God, as it is written, "I thought of God and sighed" (Ps, 76:4), nor should the body undertake any work before we have done what is said, "I say this prayer to You, Lord, for at daybreak You listen to my voice: and at dawn I hold myself in readiness for You, I watch for you" (Ps. 5:4-5)

This Hour, recited as the light of a new day dawns, recalls the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, the true light enlightening every man (cf. John 1:9), the 'Sun of Justice' (Malachi 4:2), 'arising on high' (Luke 1:78). Thus the remark of Saint Cyprian may be well understood: 'We should pray in the morning to celebrate the resurrection of the Lord with morning prayer.' (De Oratione Dominica 35: PL 4, 561) (Instructio Generalis, 38)

This summary of Lauds contains all that is necessary to understand its character and purpose. This hour contains many references to creation. It marks the return of light after darkness, of the sun as the powerful symbol of Christ, the just one, rising to the new life of the new creation, who raises His faithful to a new life with the dawning of a new day.

If we turn to Vespers at the other end of the day, we can see that its character is going to be very different from that of Lauds. Here once again is the admirably full and clear account from the General Instruction to the Liturgy of the Hours:

Vespers is celebrated in the evening when the day is drawing to a close, so that, (as St. Basil the Great puts it), 'we may give thanks for what has been given us during the day, or for the things we have done well during it'. We also call to mind our redemption, through the prayer we offer 'like incense in the sight of the Lord', and in which 'the raising up of our hands' becomes 'an evening sacrifice'. (Ps. 140:2) This 'evening sacrifice' 'may be more fully understood as that true evening sacrifice which was given in the evening by our Lord and Saviour when He instituted the most holy mysteries of the Church at supper with His apostles; or which on the following day He offered for all time to His Father by the raising up of His hands for the salvation of the whole world.' (Cassian, "De Institutione coenob. lib 3, c. 3: PL 49, 124,125) Placing our hope in the sun which never sets, we pray and beg (as St Cyprian says) that his light may shine on us again; we pray that Christ may come bringing the grace of eternal light.' (De Oratione Dominica, 35: PL 4, 560) Finally, in this Hour, we join the Eastern Churches and invoke 'blessed Jesus Christ, the Light of our Heavenly Father's sacred and eternal glory; as the sun sets we behold the evening light and sing to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit...' (Instructio Generalis 39)

The particular distinguishing characteristics of Vespers relate to its connection with the hour of the Last Supper and the sacrifice of the cross which made the Supper fruitful for our salvation. The sacrifice is expressed in the imagery of the incense rising in supplication to God. Incense therefore plays an important part in the solemn celebration of Vespers, especially on Sundays. Moreover, where Lauds looks forward to the day ahead, Vespers is retrospective, the time for giving thanks to God for the blessings of the day.

Nevertheless, it should be noted that the celebration of the most solemn days of the Church's year, that is all Sundays and feasts of the highest rank, begins not with Lauds in the morning, but with First Vespers the evening before. So these days are more than twenty-four hours long, since they have Vespers and Compline both on the evening preceding the calendar day, and then on the actual day as well. This liturgical pattern resembles the Hebrew custom of counting the day as beginning in the evening. But the connection of this practice with only the most important days, and not with every day, suggests a connection with the very ancient Christian practice of celebrating "Vigils" beginning on the evening before a great feast, and continuing through all or much of the night, ending with Lauds and the Eucharist at daybreak. Both Eastern and Western Liturgies still provide for a more elaborate Vigil Office with many psalms and longer scripture readings for Sundays and Holy Days. Our Easter Vigil is the greatest of these, and rightly called the 'mother of all Vigils' by St. Augustine, not just because it is very big (!) but because it is the origin of all other liturgy, and the one at which par excellence the sacraments of new birth are celebrated. Other vigils at other times are not, like the Easter Vigil, joined to a celebration of the Eucharist. The usual name for this longer office of psalms and readings from both the scriptures and the Fathers of the Church, is 'Matins', or nowadays more usually, 'the Office of Readings'.

What I have given is a general outline of the characteristics of the Hours of Prayer, or 'Offices', of Lauds and Vespers, virtually common to all days. But the character of these offices will also vary with the seasons of the Church's year. So, for instance, the Offices of Advent, Christmastide, Lent and Eastertide, are all quite distinctive from each other and from those of Ordinary time.

Fr Guy Nicholls, Cong. Orat.

N/L 101 | N/L 103 | N/L 104 | N/L 106


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