Vespers: Its Meaning and Structure

John Paul II Describes the Church’s Evening Prayer

VATICAN CITY, OCT. 15, 2003 ( Here is a translation of the address John Paul II prepared for today’s general audience, which he dedicated to explain the meaning and articulation of the prayer of vespers.

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From numerous testimonies we know that, from the fourth century onward, lauds and vespers were already stable institutions in all the great Eastern and Western Churches. Thus, for example, St. Ambrose states: “Just as every day, whether going to church or praying at home, we begin with God and end with him, may every day of our life down here and in the course of each one of our days begin with him and end in him” (“De Abraham,” II, 5,22).

Just as lauds takes place in the early morning, so vespers takes place at sundown, at the hour in which the holocaust was offered with incense in the temple of Jerusalem. At that hour, Jesus, after his death on the cross, was lying in the sepulcher, having offered himself to the Father for the salvation of the world.

In keeping with their respective traditions, the different Churches have organized the Divine Office according to their own ritual. Here, we will consider the Roman rite.

2. The prayer begins with the invocation “Deus in adiutorium” (“my God, come to my aid”), second verse of Psalm 69, which St. Benedict prescribes for every Hour. The verse reminds us that only from God can the grace come to praise him worthily. It is followed by the Gloria, as the glorification of the Trinity expresses the essential orientation of Christian prayer. Finally, except during Lent, the Alleluia is added, the Hebrew expression which means “Praise the Lord,” and which for Christians has become a joyful manifestation of confidence in the protection that God offers his people.

The singing of the Hymn makes the reasons for the praise of the Church resound in prayer, evoking with poetic inspiration the mysteries realized for the salvation of man at eventide, in particular, the sacrifice of Christ on the cross.

3. The psalmody of vespers is made up of two Psalms apt for this hour and of a canticle taken from the New Testament. The Psalms chosen for vespers have various tones. There are the luminous Psalms, in which evening, lamp and light are explicitly mentioned; Psalms which manifest trust in God, sure refuge in the precariousness of human life; Psalms of thanksgiving and praise; Psalms which transmit the eschatological sense evoked at the end of the day, and others of a sapiential character or of a penitential tone. We find, moreover, Psalms of the “Hallel,” which refer to the Last Supper of Jesus with his disciples. In the Latin Church, elements have been handed down which foster understanding of the Psalms and their Christian interpretation, such as the titles, prayers of the psalmody, and especially the antiphons (see Principles and Norms for the Liturgy of the Hours, 110-120).

The brief reading has a distinct place, which in vespers is taken from the New Testament. Its purpose is to propose forcefully and effectively a biblical sentence and to imprint it on hearts so that it will be translated into life (see Ibid., 45, 156, 172). To facilitate the interiorization of what has been heard, the reading is followed by an appropriate silence and a responsory, which has the function of responding — with the singing of some verses — to the message of the reading, thus fostering heartfelt acceptance by the participants in the prayer.

4. Introduced by the sign of the cross, the evangelical canticle of the Blessed Virgin Mary (see Luke 1:46-55) is intoned with great honor. Already attested by the Rule of St. Benedict (chapters 12 and 17), the practice of singing the Benedictus at lauds and the Magnificat at vespers “is confirmed by the secular and popular tradition of the Roman Church” (Principles and Norms for the Liturgy of the Hours, 50). In fact, such canticles are ideal to express the sense of praise and thanksgiving to God for the gift of redemption.

In the community celebration of the Divine Office, the action of censing the altar, the priest and the people, while evangelical canticles are intoned, can suggest — in light of the Jewish tradition of offering incense in the morning and in the evening on the altar of perfumes — the character of oblation of the “sacrifice of praise” expressed in the Liturgy of the Hours. United to Christ in prayer, we can live personally all that is said in the Letter to the Hebrews: “Through him then let us continually offer God a sacrifice of praise, that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name” (13:15; see Psalm 49:14,23; Hosea 14:3).

5. Following the canticle, the intercessions addressed to the Father or sometimes to Christ, express the suppliant voice of the Church, mindful of the divine concern for humanity, the work of his hands. The character of the evening intercessions consists, in fact, in asking for divine help for all categories of persons, for the Christian community, and for civil society. Lastly, the faithful deceased are remembered.

The liturgy of vespers culminates with the prayer of Jesus, the Our Father, synthesis of every praise and every supplication of the children of God regenerated by water and the Spirit. At the end of the day, the Christian tradition has placed in relation the forgiveness implored from God in the Our Father and the fraternal reconciliation of men among themselves: The sun must not go down on anyone’s anger (see Ephesians 4:26).

The evening prayer concludes with a prayer that, in harmony with Christ crucified, expresses the entrustment of our life in the hands of the Father, knowing that his blessing will never fail.

[Translation by ZENIT]

[At the end of the audience, the Holy Father gave this summary in English:]

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

The Church’s daily liturgy of praise to the Triune God is centered on the celebration of lauds and vespers. Vespers, or evening prayer, evokes the evening sacrifice of incense offered in the Temple of Jerusalem, and the hour when Christ lay in the tomb, having offered himself to the Father for the salvation of the world. The moving sequence of Psalms, scriptural canticles, readings, and intercessions concludes with the Lord’s Prayer, the perfect expression of the Church’s praise of God, and a final prayer which invokes the fruits of Christ’s saving sacrifice upon the whole world.

I offer a warm welcome to the Sisters of St. Joseph of Chambery celebrating their general chapter. My greeting also goes to the delegation of Paramount Chiefs from Sierra Leone, and to the members of the Euro-American Urological Association. Upon all the English-speaking pilgrims and visitors present at today’s audience, especially those from England, Ireland, Scotland, Sweden, Canada and the United States, I cordially invoke the grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ.

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