Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Evening Prayer: 2nd Hinge Of The Liturgy Of The Hours

     In today’s post on the Liturgy of the Hours I will discuss Evening Prayer, traditionally called Vespers (which itself comes from the Latin word for evening, vesper).  The traditional canonical hour for the prayer is 6:00 p.m., although in practice it can be prayed any time between 4:30 and 7:30 (or thereabouts).
     Evening Prayer is one of the “Hinges” of the liturgy, along with its counterpart Morning Prayer (Lauds; see here).  Like Morning Prayer, Vespers begins (after the usual opening verse) with two Psalms and a canticle.  Here the canticle comes after the two Psalm readings (it comes in between the psalms in Lauds), and, whereas the canticle in Morning Prayer is from the Old Testament, in Vespers it’s from the New Testament (excluding the Gospels).  Next we find a short scripture reading, again from the New Testament, as opposed to Morning Prayer’s Old Testament reading.  After that there is a three-part responsory, yet again following the pattern found in Lauds.  As an example, the responsory for the Tuesday of the Fourth Week of Lent is:

            To you, O Lord, I make my prayer for mercy.
-          To you, O Lord, I make my prayer for mercy.

Heal my soul, for I have sinned against you.
-          I make my prayer for mercy.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit.
-          To you, O Lord, I make my prayer for mercy.

     After this comes the Gospel canticle.  Whereas in Morning Prayer we say the Canticle of Zechariah (the Benedictus, link), here we pray the Canticle of Mary (link), better known as the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55): “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord . . .”  Then, after a series of intercessions, the hour concludes with a closing prayer.
     There is much we can say about Vespers taken alone.  As is the case with all liturgical prayer, and the Divine Office not the least, it takes us out of ourselves so that our focus in prayer is directed outward to our Creator and his saving work. The  structure within each canonical hour, and our need to accommodate our observances to a schedule, even loosely,  remind us that everything is not about us: as St. Paul reminds us: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Romans 12:2).  That transformation needs to come from without, and from above.  We are united to our Christian forebears, and their Hebrew antecedents, in reciting the Psalms that they have been offering up to the Father for thousands of years; in saying the same responses and intercessory prayers along with countless others around the world, we unite with the entire Church in putting ourselves in the hands of God; finally, in the Magnificat  we join Mary in her song of praise and thanksgiving to God for the way in which he has manifested his power in  her life.
     As if that’s not enough, we see a whole different dimension to Evening Prayer when we look at it together with Morning Prayer.  As we have seen, Old Testament readings in the morning give way to New Testament readings in the evening.  The occasion for the Benedictus, the Gosple Canticle we pray at Lauds, is the birth of the last prophet under the Old Covenant, John the Baptist, but the focus of the canticle is on the Savior for whom he is the Forerunner (“. . . For you will go before the Lord to prepare his way . . .”);  at Vespers the Magnificat marks the first meeting of the Forerunner and the Messiah, when the unborn John “leaps with joy” at the approach of the Messiah (Luke 1:44), Himself in the Blessed Mother’s womb.  Through these two prayers we live out every day a microcosm of Salvation History, starting our day with God’s covenant with the Hebrews, with a final focus on its culminating figure, who points us toward the New Jersalem; in the evening we see the New Covenant, and in Mary’s Canticle the reality that the New is the Fulfillment of the Old.
     This last point, I think, is why the Church calls these two hours the “Hinges”; everything else revolves around them, and they draw the other hours together into s single fabric.  The different canonical hours are not simply a series of prayers said at intervals throughout the day, they are really one prayer that extends through the whole day,  and “sanctifies time” by conforming each day to the pattern of eternity.
     In my next post on the Liturgy of the Hours I will look at Compline, or Night Prayer.

To read the whole series go here.