Friday, April 22, 2016

The Office of Vespers as Sacrifice - Guest Article

Skyler Neberman is a student of Theology and Philosophy at Benedictine College, and hopes to continue on to graduate studies in Systematic Theology and the Liturgy. He is interested in the restoration of Gregorian chant, especially in the Divine Office, and the Mixolydian is his favorite mode. We are very pleased to be able to share with our readers this article which he has written on the Office of Vespers as a Sacrifice.

The Evening Sacrifice
A Historical Case for the Office of Vespers as Sacrifice
One of the first experiences that began my formation in and devotion to the Liturgy was attending Cathedral Vespers in my youth. Though I have since experienced much more solemn Vespers in many rites and forms, I was struck even in that office’s simplicity, which stirred a dormant sense that it was “right and just” to worship at eventide. Vilma Little says in The Sacrifice Of Praise, “Of the two original offices of praise the Evening Hour has always been the prime favorite. It was in the calm of evening that God walked with our first parents in the Garden.” That Evensong stirred something of the first homo adorans that awoke in the evening of Creation, when the evening star first arose upon the imagines Dei, who saw it and offered thanksgiving to God. In this essay I will attempt to trace the tradition of the early Church in an effort to discern the theology of the office of Vespers, especially the understanding of Vespers as the evening sacrifice of the Last Supper and of Christ on the Cross.

The Creation of the World; mosaic in one of the cupolas of the Basilica of St Mark in Venice, 1215-35.
The liturgy of the hours has its earliest roots in the Jewish Temple sacrifices and prayers. Exodus mandates “thou shalt sacrifice upon the altar: Two lambs of a year old every day continually. One lamb in the morning and another in the evening. … It is a sacrifice to the Lord, by perpetual oblation unto your generations” (Ex 29:38b-39, 42a). When the Divine Office comes into its own in the 4th century, the Church Dathers develop this connection, but as Fr Robert Taft says in The Liturgy of the Hours in East and West, the “raw material and symbols for what would later become the Liturgy of the Hours” are already present.

The earliest Church documents show little in the way of a Liturgy of the Hours beyond exhortations to pray at set hours of the day: St Clement of Rome, in his Letter to the Corinthians, encourages us to keep Christ’s commands by observing the “sacrifices and services … at the set times and seasons he fixed” (40.2-3). But Taft points to the greater importance of Clement’s comments, which develops the symbolic value of the times of day: “We see, beloved, that the resurrection was accomplished according to the time. Day and night make visible to us a resurrection. Night goes to sleep, the day rises; the day departs, the night follows.”

Among the most important of the earlier writings is the Apostolic Tradition of St. Hippolytus, from around the year 215. In chapter 25, Hippolytus covers what Taft calls the “evening agape.” The agape is a rather curious office, which begins with “The Lord be with you. … Let us give thanks to the Lord. … It is proper and just. Greatness and exultation and glory are due to him,” but doesn’t continue to the “Lift up your hearts … for this is only said at the oblation.” (25:2-6) This is a meal which is not the Eucharist, though bread and the cup are blessed, and the blessed bread is given to the faithful by the deacon or bishop, “Yet it is not the Eucharist, like the body of the Lord” (25:15-26:1). Still, the agape is very Eucharistic, in the sense that it is a thanksgiving; where the translation I have used says the bishop “shall bless the cup” (25:15), Taft’s translation says “give thanks over the cup.” The prayer over the lamp, a precursor to the lucernarium of Cathedral Vespers according to Taft, is also Eucharistic in nature:
We give thanks to you, O God, / through your Son Jesus Christ our Lord, / because you have enlightened us / by revealing the incorruptible light. / Therefore, having finished the length of a day, … and since we now do not lack a light for the evening through your grace, / we sanctify you and glorify you. (25:7-8)
The Divine Office comes into its own in the 4th century Cathedral Office. In this period, Taft shows us St. Basil, who tells us that at the lucernarium “thanksgiving for the light” was made with the hymn Phos Hilaron. Later on, St. John Chrysostom makes another important contribution. Taft notes that in commenting on psalm 140 - which forms the fulcrum of cathedral Vespers (16) - Chrysostom applies the Old Testament sacrifices to Matins and Vespers (43); these sacrifices show that “it is necessary to be zealous in worshipping him at both the beginning and the end of the day.” (The Phos hilaron is still sung at Vespers every day in the Byzantine Rite; here is a version in Old Church Slavonic.)

The last ancient source we shall consider is the Institutes of St. John Cassian. In chapter 3, Cassian discourses on the theological significance of the canonical hours, connecting them to significant moments in Scripture. When he comes to evening prayer, he calls it the “evening sacrifice”, which even in the Old Testament we can see is offered in the morning and night,
although with figurative victims, from the fact that David sings: “Let my prayer come like incense in your presence, the raising of my hands like an evening sacrifice.” Here the true evening sacrifice can be understood in a more spiritual way as either that which the Lord, the Savior, delivered to his apostles as they supped in the evening, when he initiated the sacred mysteries of the Church, or as that evening sacrifice which he offered to the Father on the last day—namely, at the end of the ages—by the raising of his hands for the salvation of the whole world. (3, 3, 8-10)
Cassian is saying that Vespers is the Evening Sacrifice of Christ on the cross and the offering of the Last Supper, the fulfillment of the old Jewish Temple sacrifices wherein the Lamb of God is offered.

But how can it be the Evening Sacrifice without the Eucharist? The answer can be found in Psalm 115, 17, “I will offer to you the sacrifice of thanksgiving, and call on the name of the Lord,” as well as in Psalm 49, 23 “He who brings thanksgiving as his sacrifice honors me; to him who orders his way aright I will show the salvation of God!” The psalmist writes in Psalm 140 “Let my prayer be counted as incense before you, and the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice!” The offering of our selves in worship is a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, as the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews writes, “Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God” (13, 15-16). At Vespers we offer up to God, not the Bread of Heaven which is the Body and Blood of Christ under the appearance of bread and wine, but rather the Bread of Heaven as the word that proceeds from the mouth of God (cf. Mt. 4:4).

The incensation of the altar during solemn Vespers in the Ordinariate Use. (Photo by Fr Lew.)
The General Instruction of the Liturgy of the Hours says this.
In the Liturgy of the Hours, the Church exercises the priestly office of its Head and offers to God ‘without ceasing’ a sacrifice of praise, that is, a tribute of lips acknowledging his name. … All who render this service are not only fulfilling a duty of the Church, but also are sharing in the greatest honor of Christ’s Bride for by offering these praises to God they are standing before God's throne. (I-III.15).
This is especially true of the character of Vespers, for as the Evening Sacrifice of Christ on the Cross, it commemorates and offers the wedding feast of the lamb, for according to St. Chrysostom in his Catecheses, the Church is born and wedded to Christ when, in the sleep of death, His side is pierced and blood and water pour forth—the Sacraments of the Eucharist and Baptism—just as Eve is born from and wedded to Adam from the rib of his side after God places him in a deathlike sleep. Therefore, while Morning Prayer celebrates the Resurrection, Vespers celebrates the Wedding Feast of the Lamb, which is ratified in the offering of the last supper, and consummated upon the cross. In the modern office, we could posit too that this is expressed in the twofold nature of Vespers on Sundays and Feasts or Solemnities in the Roman Rite; First Vespers can be seen as the offering, and Second Vespers as the consummation, wherein in the Ordinary Form the New Testament canticle is taken from Revelation: “The wedding feast of the lamb has begun … and his bride is prepared to welcome him.”

Today, the Divine Office has to a large degree fallen by the wayside in terms of devotion, but given the incredible purpose that it fulfills—especially in Vespers—of bringing us into the eternal worship of God, we should strive to celebrate it in our Cathedrals, Parishes, religious communities, and even our families, and where possible, with the greater perfection of Gregorian Chant, as the music proper to the Roman Rite. Benedict XVI makes this very exhortation in Verbum Domini (62), asking that prayer of the Liturgy of the Hours, especially Lauds and Vespers be promulgated among the people of God: “Emphasis should also be placed on … First Vespers of Sundays and Solemnities … To this end I recommend that, wherever possible, parishes and religious communities promote this prayer with the participation of the lay faithful.” In the Church offering Vespers with greater frequency and devotion, we her members may better enter into the mystery of the eternal offering of Christ the eternal high priest and sacrificial lamb, and ultimately reach consummation in the vision of Divine light, to which humanity was first drawn when they looked upon the stars and gave thanks.

A Greek icon of the Second Coming of Christ, ca. 1700

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