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Vespers is the sunset evening prayer service in the Orthodox, Western Catholic, Eastern Catholic, Anglican, and Lutheran liturgies of the canonical hours. The word comes from the Greek ἑσπέρα ("hespera") and the Latin vesper, meaning "evening." It is also referred to in the Anglican tradition as evening prayer or evensong. The term is also used in some Protestant denominations (such as the Presbyterian Church or Seventh-day Adventist Church) to describe evening services.
The general structure of the Roman Rite Catholic service of vespers is as follows:
In the Orthodox Church and those Eastern Catholic Churches which follow the Byzantine Rite, there are three forms of Vespers: Great Vespers, Daily Vespers and Small Vespers. Great Vespers is the form served on Sundays and major feast days (those of Polyeleos rank or above) when it may be celebrated alone or as part of an All-Night Vigil, or as the commencement of the Divine Liturgy, or on a few special occasions, e.g., Good Friday or Pascha afternoon. Daily Vespers is the form served on other days when Great Vespers is not served. Small Vespers is a very abbreviated form of the service which is celebrated only on the afternoon before an All-Night Vigil.
Since the liturgical day begins at sunset, Vespers is the first service of the day, and the hymns of Vespers introduce the themes of the upcoming day.
The general structure of the service is as follows (psalm numbers are according to the Septuagint):
On strict fast days when food and drink are prohibited before vespers, e.g., Christmas Eve, the Annunciation when it falls on a weekday of great lent, or Holy Saturday, Vespers is joined to the Divine Liturgy, functioning in place of the typica as the framework of the hymns of the Liturgy of the Catechumens. After the readings from the Old Testament, the Trisagion is chanted, followed by the Epistle and Gospel, and the Divine Liturgy proceeds normally from that point. On these occasions, as at other times the Gospel is read at vespers, the Little Entrance is made with the Gospel Book instead of the censer.
The Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts always is similarly combined with vespers, with the first half of Vespers (up to and including the Old Testament readings) making up a significant portion of the service.
In The Armenian Order of Daily Common Prayer-The Hours Of The Lord Ժամ ադրութիւն-ZHAMAYERKUTIUN-HOURS/TIMES-OF SONG is called "Evening Hour of Song" and is sung and prayed before and at sunset and is "Fulfilled before the Son of God Who descended from the cross and was shrouded in fine linen and placed in the tomb."
In some oriental orthodox it is also called the Raising of Incense, Vespers is an introduction and preparation for the Liturgy, consisting of a collection of prayers, praises and Thanksgiving prayers which request the Lord's blessings upon the sacramental service.  This is true for the Coptic Orthodox Church; use of the term and order of services are somewhat different in the Ethiopian, Syrian, and the other Oriental Orthodox Churches.
The rites of Vespers in the Coptic Orthodox Church are as follows:
Since its inception, the Anglican communion has maintained an evening office, which is called evening prayer (or evensong). There are prescribed forms of the service in Anglican prayer book. A similar form of the service is found in the Vespers section of The Lutheran Hymnal. The Anglican breviary contains Vespers in English according to the pre-1970 Roman rite. For information on that service, see above, as in the Roman breviary.
Daily office books that conform to the historic structure of Vespers have also been published by the Pilgrim Press (The New Century Psalter) and Westminster John Knox Press (Book of Common Worship Daily Prayer). Both publishing houses are affiliated with churches in the Reformed tradition.
From its traditional usage, the term vespers has come to be used more broadly for various evening services of other churches, some of which model their evening services on the traditional Roman Catholic form. Presbyterians and Methodists, as well as congregationalist religious bodies such as Unitarian Universalism, often include congregational singing, readings, and a period of silent meditation, contemplation, or prayer.
Some regular community vespers services are completely areligious (or at least are not sponsored by any church) and serve simply as a time for quiet contemplation in the evening hours.
In addition, during the 19th and early 20th centuries, synagogues in the Classical Reform tradition sometimes referred to their Friday evening worship services as "vespers". Nowadays, such services are instead called kabbalat shabbat, which means "welcoming the Sabbath".
Before the fourth century allusions to the evening prayer are found in the earlier Fathers, Clement I of Rome (Clemens Romanus), St. Ignatius, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Origen, the Canons of St. Hippolytus, St. Cyprian. Pliny the Younger, in his famous letter at the beginning of the 2nd century, speaks of liturgical reunions of the Christians in the morning and in the evening: "coetus antelucani et vespertini". Vespers is, therefore, together with Vigils, the most ancient Office known in the Church.
The Rule of St. Benedict was written about 530-43. Much earlier than this we find an evening Office corresponding to both that of Vespers and that of Compline. Its name varies. John Cassian calls it Vespertina synaxis, or Vespertina solemnitas. Benedict used the name vespera which has prevailed, whence the French word vêpres and the English vespers. The name, however, by which it was most widely known during that period was Lucernalis or Lucernaria hora. It was so called because at this hour candles were lit, not only to give light, but also for symbolical purposes. The "Peregrinatio", the date of which is probably the 4th century, gives the liturgical order as practised at Jerusalem. The author states that this Office took place at the tenth hour (four o'clock in the evening); it is really the Office des lumières, i.e. of the lights; it was celebrated in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre; all the lamps and torches of the church were lighted, making, as the author says, "an infinite light". The Lucernal psalms were sung, after which followed the recitation of the supplication and commemorations or litanies, then the prayers, and finally the blessing and dismissal. In the "Antiphonary of Bangor", an Irish document of the 6th century, Vespers are called hora duodecima, which corresponds to six o'clock in the evening, or hora incensi, or again ad cereum benedicendum. All these names are interesting to note. The hora incensi recalls the custom of burning incense at this hour, while at the same time the candles were lighted. The ceremony of the lights at Vespers was symbolic and very solemn.
Vespers, then, was the most solemn office of the day and was composed of the psalms called Lucernales (Psalm 140 is called psalmus lucernalis by the Apostolic Constitutions). The "Peregrinatio" does not mention the number of psalms sung at this hour, but Cassian, who, a short time after the "Peregrinatio", describes this Office as it was celebrated by the monks of Egypt, says they recited twelve psalms as at vigils (matins). Then two lessons were read as at Vigils, one from the Old, and the other from the New Testament. Each psalm was followed by a short prayer. Cassian says the Office was recited towards five or six o'clock and that all the lights were lit. This evening synaxis is looked upon as deriving from the evening sacrifice of the Old Law. The use of incense, candles, and other lights would seem to suggest the Jewish rites which accompanied the evening sacrifice (Exodus 29:39; Numbers 28:4; Psalm 140:2; Daniel 9:21; 1 Chronicles 23:30). It may thus be seen that the Lucernarium was, together with Vigils, the most important part of the Offices of the day, being composed of almost the same elements as the latter, at least in certain regions. Its existence in the fourth century is also confirmed by St. Augustine, St. Ambrose, St. Basil, St. Ephraem, and, a little later, by several councils in Gaul and Spain, and by the various monastic rules.
In the sixth century the Office of Vespers in the Latin Church was almost the same as it has been throughout the Middle Ages and up to the present day. In a document of unquestionable authority of that period the Office is described as follows: The evening hour, or vespertina synaxis, is composed of four psalms, a capitulum, a response, a hymn, a versicle, a canticle from the Gospel, litany (Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison), Pater with the ordinary finale, oratio, or prayer, and dismissal (Regula Sancti Benedicti, xvii). The psalms recited are taken from the series of psalms from Pss. 109 to 147 (with the exception of the groups 117 to 127 and 133 to 142); Pss. 138, 143, 144 are each divided into two portions, whilst the Pss. 115 and 116 are united to form one. This disposition is almost the same as that of the "Ordo Romanus", except that the number of psalms recited is five instead of four. They are taken, however, from the series 109 to 147. Here, too, we find the capitulum, versicle, and canticle of the "Magnificat". The hymn is a more recent introduction in the Roman Vespers; the finale (litanies, Pater, versicles, prayers) seems all to have existed from this epoch as in the Benedictine cursus. Like the other hours, therefore, Vespers is divided into two parts; the psalmody, or singing of the psalms, forming the first part, and the capitulum and formulæ the second. Vesper time varied according to the season between the tenth hour (4 p.m.) and the twelfth (6 p.m.). As a matter of fact it was no longer the evening hour, but the sunset hour, so that it was celebrated before the day had departed and consequently before there was any necessity for artificial light (Regula S. Benedicti, xli). This is a point to be noted, as it was an innovation. Before this epoch this evening synaxis was celebrated with all the torches alight. The reason of this is that St Benedict introduced in the cursus, another hour—that of Compline—which was prescribed to be celebrated in the evening, and which might be considered as a kind of doubling of the Office of Lucernarium.
We have already remarked that the institution of the office of compline transformed the lucernarium by taking from it something of its importance and symbolism, the latter at the same time losing its original sense. We have seen that St. Benedict calls it only Vespera, the name which has prevailed over that of lucernarium (cf. Ducange, "Glossarium med. et inf. lat.", s.v. Vesperae). The Gallican liturgy, the Mozarabic Liturgy, and, to a certain extent, the Milanese, have preserved the lucernarium (cf. Bäumer-Biron, l. c., 358). The Eastern Orthodox Church retains the "Lumen hilare" and some other traces of the ancient lucernarium in the offices of vespers and compline (cf. Smith, "Dict. Christ. Antiq.", s.v. Office, Divine). In the Rule of St. Columbanus, dated about 590, Vespers still has twelve psalms, amongst which are Pss. cxii and cxiii, the Gradual psalms, Pss. cxix sqq. (cf. Gougaud, "Les chrétientés celtiques", 309; "Dict. d'arch. chrét. et de liturgie", s.v. Celtique, 3015). The "Antiphonary of Bangor", a document of Irish origin, gives for vespers Ps. cxii and also the "Gloria in Excelsis". For modifications since the 12th century, cf. Bäumer-Biron, l. c., II, 54 sqq.
The decree "Divino afflatu" (November 1, 1911) involves important changes in the old Roman Rite office. There is an entire rearrangement of the psalms (see Reform of the Roman Breviary by Pope Pius X) with new ones appointed for each day of the week. These psalms are to be recited with their antiphons, not only at the Office de tempore (Sundays and feriæ) but also on feasts of a lesser rite than doubles of the second class, that is to say, on simples, semidoubles (double minors), and double majors. On feasts which are doubles of the second class and a fortiori of the first class, as well as on feasts of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Holy Angels, and Apostles, the psalms are proper to the feast as heretofore. On all feasts, of whatever rite, the second part of vespers, that is, the capitulum, hymn, antiphon of the "Magnificat", is taken from the Sanctorale. On semi-doubles and those of a lesser rite the suffrages are now reduced to a single antiphon and orison which is common to all the saints heretofore commemorated, whilst the preces ("Miserere" and versicles) formerly imposed on the greater feriæ are now suppressed.
The office of Vespers in general use before 1970 continues to be used today by those adhering to the Roman Rite as in 1962 or to earlier versions. The structure of Vespers prior to 1970 is as follows:
Notwithstanding the changes brought about in the course of time, Vespers still remains the great and important Office of the evening. As already pointed out, it recalls the sacrificium vespertinum of the Old Law. In the same manner as the night is consecrated to God by the Office of the Vigil, so also is the end of the day by Vespers. It terminates, as Matins formerly terminated, and Lauds at present terminates, by a lection, or reading, from the Gospel, or canticum evangelii, which, for Vespers, is always the "Magnificat". This is one of the characteristic traits of Vespers, one of the liturgical elements which this particular Office has retained in almost all regions and at all times. There are, however, a few exceptions, as in some liturgies the "Magnificat" is sung at Lauds (cf. Cabrol in "Dict. d'arch. et de liturgie", s.v. Cantiques évangéliques). This place of honour accorded so persistently to the canticle of Mary from such remote antiquity is but one of the many, and of the least striking, proofs of the devotion which has always been paid to the Blessed Virgin Mary in the Church. The psalms used at Vespers have been selected, from time immemorial, from Pss. cix to cxlvii, with the exception of Ps. cxviii, which on account of its unusual length does not square with the others, and is consequently ordinarily divided up into parts and recited at the little hours. Pss. i to cviii are consecrated to Matins and Lauds, whilst the three last psalms, cxlviii to cl, belong invariably to Lauds. The series of hymns consecrated to Vespers in the Roman Breviary also form a class apart and help to give us some hints as to the symbolism of this hour. The hymns are very ancient, dating probably, for the most part, from the 6th century. They have this particular characteristic—they are all devoted to the praise of one of the days of the Creation, according to the day of the week, thus: the first, "Lucis Creator optime", on Sunday, to the creation of light; the second, on Monday, to the separation of the earth and the waters; the third, on Tuesday, to the creation of the plants; the fourth, on Wednesday, to the creation of the sun and moon; the fifth, on Thursday, to the creation of the fish; the sixth, on Friday, to the creation of the beasts of the earth; Saturday is an exception, the hymn on that day being in honour of the Blessed Trinity, because of the Office of Sunday then commencing.
We can now see the great importance which the Church appears to have attached always to the Office of Vespers. It is the only one which has remained popular (excepting, of course, the Holy Sacrifice which we do not consider here as an Office) among Roman Catholics up to the present day. Matins and Lauds, on account of the hour at which they are celebrated, have always been more or less inaccessible to the faithful; likewise the little hours, except, perhaps, Terce, which serves as an introduction to the Mass. Vespers, on the contrary, occupies a privileged place towards the end of the day. On Sundays it is the Office most likely to bring the faithful together in church for the second time and thus becomingly completes the Divine Service for that day. This is why, in the majority of Catholic countries, the custom of Sunday Vespers has been for so long a time, and is still, maintained. It is quite conformable to tradition, moreover, to invest this Office with a particular solemnity. The Vesper psalms, as well as the hymns and antiphons, are well calculated to edify the faithful. Lastly, the ancient custom of having a lection or reading from the Old, or New Testament, or from the homilies of the Fathers, might well in certain cases and to a certain extent be re-adopted, or serve as the subject-matter for the sermon which is sometimes delivered at this service.
On weekdays that are not major feasts Vespers features hardly any ceremonies and the celebrant wears the usual choir dress. However, on Sundays and greater feasts Vespers may be solemn. Solemn Vespers differ in that the celebrant wears the cope, he is assisted by assistants also in copes, incense is used, and two acolytes, a thurifer, and at least one master of ceremonies are needed. On ordinary Sundays only two assistants are needed while on greater feasts four or six assistants may be used. The celebrant and assistants vest in the surplice and the cope, which is of the color of the day. The celebrant sits at the sedile, in front of which is placed a lectern, covered with a cloth in the color of the day. The assistants sit on benches or stools facing the altar, or if there are two assistants, they may sit at the sedile next to the celebrant (the first assistant in the place of the deacon and the second assistant in place of the subdeacon).
The celebrant and assistants follow the acolytes into the church wearing the biretta. Upon arriving in the sanctuary the acolytes place their candles on the lowest altar step, after which they are extinguished. The celebrant and assistants kneel on the lowest step and recite the Aperi Domine silently, after which they go to their places and recite the Pater noster and Ave Maria silently. A curious practice which exists from ancient times is the intoning of the antiphons and psalms to the celebrant. The rubrics presuppose that the first assistant or cantors will intone all which the celebrant must sing by singing it to him first in a soft voice after which the celebrant sings it again aloud. The five antiphons and psalms are sung with the first assistant intoning the antiphons and the cantors intoning the psalms. During the singing of the psalms all sit. After the psalms, the acolytes relight their candles and carry them to each side of the lectern for the chapter. The assistants follow, standing facing each other in front of the lectern. The celebrant then sings the chapter, after which all return to their places. The first assistant intones the hymn to the celebrant, and all stand while the hymn is sung. The first assistant intones the Magnificat to the celebrant, who sings the first line aloud. The celebrant and the first two assistants go to altar, and the altar is then incensed as at Mass while the first two assistants hold the ends of the cope. Other altars in the church may be incensed as well. The first assistant then incenses the celebrant, after which the thurifer incenses the others as at Mass. If there are commemorations, the acolytes and assistants again go to the lectern as described above for the chapter. The choir sings the antiphons, the cantors sing the versicles, and the celebrant sings the collects. After all commemorations, the celebrant sings Dominus vobiscum, the cantor sings Benedicamus Domino, and the celebrant sings Fidelium animae.... The Marian antiphon is said in the low voice. Especially in English-speaking countries, Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament often follows Solemn Vespers.
The psalms and hymns of the Vespers service have attracted the interest of many composers, including Claudio Monteverdi, Antonio Vivaldi, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Anton Bruckner. (Sergei Rachmaninoff's "Vespers" is really a setting of the Eastern Orthodox all-night vigil.)
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