The Church's evening prayer, one of the two main hours of the daily Office. The Latin word vesper, from which it takes its name, means evening and by transference evening star and evening meal. It was only natural then to use it also of evening prayer. Lucernarium (literally: lamp, lamplighting time) was another early name for Vespers. When the light of day faded, lamps were lighted. The Jews had a blessing prayer for this, and Christians continued the custom. Thus the lucernarium, a preliminary rite, lent its name to the prayer service that followed.
Vespers was also called the evening sacrifice, a counterpart of the sacrifice of incense offered every evening in the Temple at Jerusalem and alluded to in Ps 140.2: "Let my prayer come like incense before you; the lifting up of my hands, like the evening sacrifice." This Psalm became the favorite Vesper Psalm, in some places the only Psalm, and prompted the use of incense, at first during its recitation and later during the magnificat. The Fathers of the Church regarded burning and sweet-smelling incense as a symbol of the sacrifice of Christ on Calvary. They read the Psalm as a prayer of the crucified Lord who stretched out His arms on the cross and celebrated the first Vespers of the New Covenant at the hour of the evening sacrifice. Hence the Church made Vespers her evening sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, commemorating Calvary and the Last Supper and offering thanks for all the benefits of creation and Redemption.
History. Scholars agree that by the end of the 4th century there did exist a public prayer of the Church in the sense in which we understand it today. This liturgical Office was the outcome of a long development going back to apostolic times. The Jews had a daily evening sacrifice, and in the last centuries before Christ they had a corresponding prayer service in their synagogues. The Essenes of Qumran prayed regularly at evening. It is practically certain, therefore, that the Jews had a longstanding tradition of prayer at this hour, whether public or private. Most scholars believe that the testimony to customary prayer three times a day in the late text, Dn6.10 is to morning, noon, and evening prayer as specified in Ps 54.18, Enoch 26.1–3, and the Qumran Manual of Discipline (1QS 10.1–3, 9–11). The 1st-century Didache in its exhortation to pray the Our Father three times a day could well have been a Christianizing of this usage (8; Ancient Christian Writers, ed. J. Quasten et al., 6:19).
The 3d century provides the first clear and extensive evidence of a Christian evening prayer. Tertullian asserted that morning and evening prayer were prescribed, obligatory prayers (De oratione 25; Corpus scriptorum ecclesiasticorum latinorum, 20:198). Fifteen years or so later, the Apostolic Tradition described a common evening service that consisted of a lucernarium, psalmody, and an agape [25, 26; M. Bouquet, Recueil des historiens des Gaules et de la France (Rerum gallicarum et francicarum scriptores ) 64–66]. The Alleluia Psalms it mentions are still among the group of Psalms reserved for Vespers.
The work of converting these primitive evening prayers into the set form of today's Vespers was done mainly in the 4th, 5th, and 6th centuries. Cathedral churches and monastic communities were chiefly responsible. The Office described in the Rule of St. Benedict (ch. 8–18) was basically the Roman Office of the 6th century. It shows that Vespers had then reached its present shape in all essentials.
Subsequent reforms of the Roman Office have affected Vespers but slightly. When the Breviary came into
use in the 12th and 13th centuries, Vespers went untouched. In Trent's reform, only an introductory Pater and Ave were prescribed and the Preces limited to certain days. Pius X in 1911 ordered a new arrangement of the weekly Psalter. Vespers was the hour least affected. The reforms of 1955 and 1960 dropped the introductory Pater and Ave, limited First Vespers (Vespers of the previous evening) to Sundays and first class feasts, and radically reduced the practice of commemoration.
Content. In the revised Liturgy of the Hours (1972), Vespers begins with an introductory versicle and response, followed by a hymn, two psalms and one New Testament canticle, the capitulum (a short reading from Scripture), the Magnificat with its antiphon, the Preces or intercessory prayers, the Lord's Prayer, the closing prayer and concluding versicle. Hymns were introduced as early as the 4th century but not adopted by the Roman Office until the 12th. They either stress the festal theme or elaborate on a theme appropriate to the hour. Traditionally, the Psalms used at Vespers are those from 109 (a very fitting proclamation of Christ's triumph) to 144. The antiphons that accompany the Psalms are ordinarily taken from the Psalms themselves. Major feasts have proper antiphons to elaborate the festal theme. The capitulum was once of some length, but since the 6th century at least it has been very short. The Magnificat is the climax of the hour. In Mary's sublime words the Church loves to express her own thanks for the mighty and merciful works of God.
Bibliography: p. f. bradshaw, Daily Prayer in the Early Church: A Study of the Origin and Early Development of the Divine Office (London 1981). g. guiver, Company of Voices: Daily Prayer and the People of God (New York 1988). r. taft, The Liturgy of the Hours in East and West: The Origins of the Divine Office and Its Meaning for Today 2nd rev. ed. (Collegeville, Minn.1993).
[g. e. schidel/eds.]