Thursday, February 25, 2021

Vespers in the Morning?

In the Breviary of St Pius V, the following rubric is placed before Vespers of Ash Wednesday. “Today and the following two days, Vespers are said at the accustomed hour. But on Saturday, and thenceforth until Easter, they are said before eating (ante comestionem), both on feasts and on ferias, except on Sundays, on which they are said at the accustomed hour.” This is based on the rubrics to the same effect which appear in the Ordinal of Pope Innocent III (1198-1216), the ancestor text of the Tridentine missal and breviary; it appears in all the revisions of the Tridentine books subsequent to St Pius V, until it was expunged in the revision of 1960. This custom derives from the Church’s very ancient discipline of Lenten fasting, and its connection to the celebration of the Mass and the Divine Office.
The relevant rubric in the first edition of the Breviary of St Pius V
In the traditional missal, there is a rubric “on the hour of celebrating Mass” (rubr. gen. xv), which gives the liturgical schedule for the celebration of conventual Masses, the main public Masses celebrated in choir by the community of clergy or religious who have the charge of a particular church. This schedule ties the conventual Mass to certain Hours of the Office; on double and semidouble feasts, it is said after Terce, on simple feasts and ordinary ferias after Sext, and on fast days, after None.
This custom is attested in some of the oldest liturgical documents of the Roman Rite, and analogous customs are found in most other historical rites. For example, in the first surviving Roman sacramentary, known as the old Gelasian Sacramentary, the Mass of Christmas Eve includes a notice in its title that it is to be celebrated “at None.” There are several references to this tradition in Gratian’s Decretals, the collection of canons which formed the basis of all medieval canon law. This collection dates to the middle of the 12th century, but contains decrees from various councils and Popes that are much older. In the article of the Summa Theologiae that discusses the rite of the Mass, St Thomas sums up the reason for this very simply by saying “since our Lord’s Passion was celebrated from the third to the ninth hour, therefore this sacrament is solemnly celebrated by the Church in that part of the day.” (S.T. III q. 83 a. 2 co.)
Folio 1v of the Gellone Sacramentary, ca 780 AD., with the rubric before the Mass of Christmas Eve, “On the vigil of the birth of the Lord, at the ninth hour, (station) at St Mary (Major.)” In the ancient liturgical books of the Roman Rite, the year begins with Christmas Eve, and ends with Advent. (Bibliothèque nationale de France. Département des Manuscrits. Latin 12048)
There is furthermore a very ancient custom of the Roman Rite and others that Vespers was to be celebrated immediately after any Mass that was said after None. Therefore, back in the days when the discipline of Lenten fasting was still kept very strictly, the liturgical schedule of a Lenten feria would go as follows.
In Rome, where the observation of the station churches formed an integral part of the liturgy, the people would gather in the later part of the day in a church not far from the stational church, which was known as the “collect church.” There None would be sung, and the Pope and his ministers would vest for the Mass; then everyone would process to the station church, where Mass would be celebrated, followed by Vespers. It was only after all of this was done that it was permitted to break the fast. (It was also a common custom for the people in attendance to break the fast together in the church’s courtyard, or at least nearby; this is why the Lenten Masses traditionally ended with “Benedicamus Domino”, rather than “Ite, missa est”, since the faithful did not actually depart.)
From the second post of our 2019 series of the Roman station Masses - the procession on Ember Friday from the church of the Holy Name of Mary to that of the Twelve Apostles.
Of course, very few cities in antiquity had anywhere near as many churches as Rome did, and according to their circumstances, either kept a limited schedule of stational observances, or none at all. However, the principle that one fasted on Lenten ferias until after Mass and Vespers was universal, and again, similar customs are found in other liturgical traditions both of the East and the West. This would require one to eat nothing from midnight to roughly 4-5 p.m., a discipline which many people would, of course, find it very difficult to keep up six days a week for six weeks.
From this comes the rule that Vespers was to be said “before eating”, which is to say, before breaking the fast. And this is why this rule does not apply to the Sundays of Lent. Sunday is never a fast day in the West, and the conventual Mass on a Sunday is always said after Terce; there was an obligatory fast for Communion, but once the clergy had celebrated and communicated in the morning, they were free to eat. (In practice, however, it was very common to sing Sext and None immediately after Mass, and then eat.)
It is no secret, of course, that over the centuries, the discipline of fasting was much relaxed in the Church, although it did not become the official farce that it is now until Paul VI’s Apostolic Constitution Paenitemini, one of the worst mistakes of his pontificate, was promulgated in 1966. As a matter of fairness, it also has to be said that this relaxation began in the High Middle Ages, when the liturgical duties of the clergy had increased considerably over what they had been when the discipline was first formed. Most of them were required by the terms of their benefices to say a private Mass in addition to their participation in the various conventual services, which was not the case in antiquity. The Lenten Office in particular had also become very long with the addition of frequent recitation of the Gradual and Penitential Psalms, the Office of the Dead, and in many places, the Litany of the Saints.
Therefore, as part of this relaxation, there arose the custom of maintaining the liturgical schedule in its long-standing order (None, Mass, Vespers, breaking of the fast), but anticipating to the morning (or later morning) the services which were originally proper to the afternoon and evening, so that one could break the fast earlier.
A screen-shot taken last year of the website of the Ionisky Monastery in Kyiv, Ukraine, which keeps a Lenten schedule similar to that of the older Roman tradition. Beginning at 7am, they celebrate the Hours up to and including Vespers, and in the evening, Great Compline, and Matins of the following day. (This was the first day of Lent on the Julian calendar last year. I took this in order to ask a Ukrainian friend about the weird mistakes in the automatic translation, which turns “Hours” into “clocks”, thinks the word “izobrazitelny” means “fine” in Ukrainian but “pictorial” in Russian, and calls “litia”, a prayer for the dead similiar to the Roman absolution, “lithium.”)
This combination of rules and traditions has sometimes been misunderstood to mean that prior to the reform of 1960, the Church positively required Vespers be celebrated in the morning in Lent. And of course, this perception was reinforced by the common custom of celebrating all major Masses in the morning, including those of the Triduum; hence the oft-criticized blessing of the fire and singing of the Exsultet (“This is the night…”) at the Easter vigil in the full sunlight of a spring morning.
The truth of the matter is more complex. It is true that this was very widely done, but it was in point of fact never mandatory. The rubric states clearly that Vespers were done “before eating”, not “before noon.” Furthermore, the rubric “on the hour of celebrating Mass” states that private Masses must be celebrated after the recitation of Matins and Lauds, anytime from one hour before dawn until 1 pm, but this did not apply to conventual Masses. In theory, therefore, a religious community of any sort was always free to observe the ancient discipline, which is to say, to keep the strict fast during the day, say None, Mass and Vespers at the appropriate time in the afternoon, and then break the fast. And indeed, the rubrics do not require that these things all be done in immediate succession, so they would also be free to say None at 3pm, the conventual Mass immediately after, then continue to fast until Vespers at 6pm, and finally take their first meal of the day.
One final note needs to be added to properly understand this custom, namely, that in the Roman Divine Office, more often than not, Vespers makes no reference of any kind to the time of day. In the original Tridentine Breviary, the weekday Vespers of the current week would be evenly split between feasts (Monday – Wednesday) and Lent. (Thursday to Saturday.) In all the liturgical texts of these Vespers from start to finish, there is exactly one reference to the evening, and that purely incidental, the words “the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice” in Psalm 140. I call this incidental because it is not said at Vespers specifically because it refers to the evening, but rather, because that Psalm is in the part of the weekly cursus which is assigned to Vespers.
Breaches of the veritas horarum have long been a favorite subject for moral panic among modern liturgists, but liturgical time is not ordinary time, and there is no historical liturgical tradition that has ever considered it necessary above all else to always follow the hours of the sun or the clock exactly in keeping the liturgical Hours.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: