Vespers is a liturgy of evening prayer, one of the canonical hours in Catholic (both Latin and Eastern rites), Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, and Lutheran liturgies. The word for this fixed prayer time comes from the Latin vesper, meaning "evening".
Vespers typically follows a set order that focuses on the performance of psalms and other biblical canticles. Eastern Orthodox liturgies advertised as "vespers" often conclude with compline, especially the all-night vigil. Performing these liturgies together without break was also a common practice in medieval Europe, especially outside of monastic and religious communities.
Old English speakers translated the Latin word vesperas as æfensang, which became evensong in modern English. The term is now usually applied to the Anglican variant of the liturgy that combines vespers with compline, following the conception of early sixteenth-century worshippers that conceived these as a single unit. The term can also apply to the pre-Reformation form of vespers or forms of evening prayer from other denominations.
Vespers is usually prayed around sunset. In Oriental Orthodox Christianity, the office is known as Ramsho in the Indian and Syriac traditions; it is prayed facing the east by all members in these churches, both clergy and laity, being one of the seven fixed prayer times.
Vespers, also called Evening Prayer, takes place as dusk begins to fall. Evening Prayer gives thanks for the day just past and makes an evening sacrifice of praise to God (Psalm 141:1).
The general structure of the Roman Rite Catholic liturgy of vespers is as follows:
Sundays and solemnities have two Vespers. The church worship day begins in the evening with the setting of the sun or at sunset. This practice follows the tradition of the Old Testament which says in the story of creation: "Evening came, and morning followed—the first day." (Gen1:5). The solemnity begins with First Vespers prayed around sunset on the day before the observance, with Second Vespers held around sunset on the day itself.
The Byzantine Rite has three basic types of vespers: great, daily, and small. Great vespers is used on Sundays and major feast days (those when the Polyeleos is prescribed at matins) when it may be celebrated alone or as part of an All-Night Vigil, as well as on a handful of special days e.g., Good Friday and Pascha afternoon; on certain days of strict fasting when, in theory, fasting before communion should be day-long, vespers also commences the divine liturgy and always commences the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts. Daily vespers is otherwise used. Small vespers, which is seldom used except in monasteries, is a very abbreviated form used only on the afternoon before a vigil and is redundant to the subsequent great vespers, being a placeholder between the ninth hour and compline.
Since the liturgical day begins at sunset, vespers is a day's first liturgy and its hymns introduce the day's themes.
The general structure of the liturgy 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 when 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 liturgy.
Main article: Ramsha
Vespers are known by the Aramaic or Syriac term Ramsha in the East Syriac liturgy which was used historically in the Church of the East and remains in use in Churches descended from it, namely the Assyrian Church of the East, the Ancient Church of the East, the Chaldean Catholic Church, and the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church.
The office of vespers Armenian Երեգոյին Ժամ Eregoyin Zham commemorates the hour when “the Son of God descended from the Cross, and was wrapped in the winding sheet, and laid in the tomb.”
Vespers is the only liturgy in the Armenian daily office other than the Morning Service which has hymns proper to the commemoration, feast, or tone assigned to it: a vespers hymn after Psalm 142 (or after Gladsome Light if it is appointed for the day) and the “Lifting-up Hymn” after Psalm 121.
Vespers undergoes a wide range of changes depending on the liturgical season. The following outline contains only some of these variations.
Outline of Armenian Vespers
“Blessed is our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen. Our Father...”
Psalm 55:16 “I cried unto God, and he heard me in the evening...(Es ar Astouats kardats`i...)”; Psalm 55:17 “I waited for my God...(Spasēy Astoutsoy imoy...)”; “Glory to the Father...Now and always...Amen.”; “And again in peace...”; “Blessing and glory to the Father...Now and always...Amen.”; “Peace to all.”
Psalm 86; “Glory to the Father...Now and always...Amen.”; “Glory to you, O God, glory to you. For all things, Lord, glory to you.”; “And again in peace...”; “Blessing and glory...Now and always...Amen.”; “Peace to all.”
Psalm 140 “Rescue me...(Aprets`o zis...)”; Psalm 141 “Lord I called unto you...(Tēr kardats`i ar k`ez...)”; Psalm 142 “With my voice I called out unto the Lord...(Dzayniw imov ar Tēr kardats`i...)”; “Glory to the Father...Now and always...Amen.”
At Sunday Vespers (Saturday Evening): “Alleluia, Alleluia. Gladsome light...(Loys zouart`...)”; Exhortation for the blessing of candles: “Blessed Lord who dwells in the heights...(Awrhneal Tēr...)”; Proclamation: “Having assembled...(Hasealk`s...)”; Exhortation: “Having assembled...(Hasealk`s...)”
Vespers Hymn (varies)
At Sunday Vespers (Saturday Night): Proclamation: “Let us all say...(Asasts`owk`...)”; Exhortation: “We have the intercessions...(Barekhaws ounimk`...)”
During Fasts: Proclamation: “Let us beseech almighty God...(Aghach`ests`ouk` zamenakaln Astouats...)”
Otherwise continue here:
Prayer: “Hear our voices...(Lour dzaynits` merots`...)”; “Holy God...(varies)”; “Glorified and praised ever-virgin...(P`araworeal ev awrhneal misht Astouatsatsin...)”; Exhortation: “Save us...(P`rkea zmez...)”; Proclamation: “And again in peace...That the Lord will hearken to the voice of our entreaty...(Vasn lsel linelov...)”; “Blessing and Glory to the Father...Now and always...Amen.”; “Peace to all.”
Psalm 121 “I lifted my eyes...(Hambardzi zach`s im...)”; “Glory to the Father...Now and always...Amen.”
Hymn After Psalm 121 (varies); Proclamation: “For the peace of the whole world...(Vasn khaghaghout`ean amenayn ashkharhi...)”; Prayer: “Father compassionate...(Hayr gt`ats...)”
On fasting days:
Exhortation: “Almighty Lord...(Tēr amenakal...)”; Proclamation; Prayer
On fasting days and lenten days which are not Sundays (Saturday evenings), continue here:
The Prayer of Manasseh; “Glory to the Father...Now and always...Amen.”; Exhortation; Proclamation; Prayer; “Remember your ministers...(Yishea Tēr zpashtawneays k`o...)”; “Merciful and compassionate God (Barerar ev bazoumoghorm Astouats...)”
On Sundays (Saturday Evenings) and during the 50 days of Easter:
Psalm 134: “Now bless the Lord, all you servants of the Lord...(Ast awrhnets`ēk`...)”; Psalm 138; Psalm 54; Psalm 86:16-17; “Glory to the Father...Now and always...Amen.”; Proclamation: “Let us entreat...(Khndrests`ouk`...)”
On Sundays: Prayer: “King of peace...(T`agawor khaghaghout`ean...)”
On Sundays during Eastertide: Prayer: “By your all-powerful and joyous resurrection...(K`oum amenazawr ev hrashali...)”
On Feasts of the Cross: Proclamation: “By the holy cross...(Sourb khach`iws...)”; Prayer: “Defend us...(Pahpanea zmez...)”
All liturgies conclude with: “Blessed is our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen. Our Father...”
Further information: Agpeya
In the Coptic Orthodox Church, Vespers refers to a series of liturgies:
Vespers, as a whole, is an introduction and preparation for the Eucharistic Liturgy, consisting of a collection of prayers, praises and Thanksgiving prayers which request the Lord's blessings upon the sacramental liturgy.
The rite of Vespers Praises in the Coptic Orthodox Church is as follows:
The rite of Vespers Raising of Incense in the Coptic Orthodox Church is as follows:
Main article: Shehimo
In the Indian Orthodox Church, Vespers (Ramsho) is one of the canonical hours given in the Shehimo.
Main article: Vespers in Lutheranism
Following the Reformation, the form of Vespers in the Lutheran Church remained largely unchanged. First Vespers and Second Vespers of Sundays and major feasts continued to be sung in Latin in many places, while some cathedrals and larger city churches continued singing Vespers in Latin on a daily basis into the eighteenth century.
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 the Anglican prayer book. 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. The Liberal Catholic Rite also includes Vespers, including the Te Deum as an alternative to the Magnificat.
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 Latin 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".
This section incorporates information from the Catholic Encyclopedia of 1917. References to psalms follow the numbering system of the Septuagint, and said in the Latin of the Vulgate.
From the time of the early Church, the practice of seven fixed prayer times have been taught; in Apostolic Tradition, Hippolytus instructed Christians to pray seven times a day "on rising, at the lighting of the evening lamp, at bedtime, at midnight" and "the third, sixth and ninth hours of the day, being hours associated with Christ's Passion."
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. Vespers is, therefore, together with Vigil, 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". 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). Cassian describes this Office as it was celebrated by the monks of Egypt and says they recited twelve psalms as at the vigil (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. 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 Vigil, 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.
As has already been remarked, 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. St. Benedict called 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 as described in the Genesis creation narrative, according to the day of the week, thus:
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 liturgy 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; calling it "Vespers" was an error in judgement made by a translator.)
Peterson quotes a passage from the Acts of Hipparchus and Philotheus: "In Hipparchus's house there was a specially decorated room and a cross was painted on the east wall of it. There before the image of the cross, they used to pray seven times a day ... with their faces turned to the east." It is easy to see the importance of this passage when you compare it with what Origen says. The custom of turning towards the rising sun when praying had been replaced by the habit of turning towards the east wall. This we find in Origen. From the other passage we see that a cross had been painted on the wall to show which was the east. Hence the origin of the practice of hanging crucifixes on the walls of the private rooms in Christian houses. We know too that signs were put up in the Jewish synagogues to show the direction of Jerusalem, because the Jews turned that way when they said their prayers. The question of the proper way to face for prayer has always been of great importance in the East. It is worth remembering that Mohammedans pray with their faces turned towards Mecca and that one reason for the condemnation of Al Hallaj, the Mohammedan martyr, was that he refused to conform to this practice.
Hippolytus in the Apostolic Tradition directed that Christians should pray seven times a day - on rising, at the lighting of the evening lamp, at bedtime, at midnight, and also, if at home, at the third, sixth and ninth hours of the day, being hours associated with Christ's Passion. Prayers at the third, sixth, and ninth hours are similarly mentioned by Tertullian, Cyprian, Clement of Alexandria and Origen, and must have been very widely practised. These prayers were commonly associated with private Bible reading in the family.
Clement of Alexandria noted that "some fix hours for prayer, such as the third, sixth and ninth" (Stromata 7:7). Tertullian commends these hours, because of their importance (see below) in the New Testament and because their number recalls the Trinity (De Oratione 25). These hours indeed appear as designated for prayer from the earliest days of the church. Peter prayed at the sixth hour, i.e. at noon (Acts 10:9). The ninth hour is called the "hour of prayer" (Acts 3:1). This was the hour when Cornelius prayed even as a "God-fearer" attached to the Jewish community, i.e. before his conversion to Christianity. it was also the hour of Jesus' final prayer (Matt. 27:46, Mark 15:34, Luke 22:44-46).
Not only the content of early Christian prayer was rooted in Jewish tradition; its daily structure too initially followed a Jewish pattern, with prayer times in the early morning, at noon and in the evening. Later (in the course of the second century), this pattern combined with another one; namely prayer times in the evening, at midnight and in the morning. As a result seven 'hours of prayer' emerged, which later became the monastic 'hours' and are still treated as 'standard' prayer times in many churches today. They are roughly equivalent to midnight, 6 a.m., 9 a.m., noon, 3 p.m., 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. Prayer positions included prostration, kneeling and standing. ... Crosses made of wood or stone, or painted on walls or laid out as mosaics, were also in use, at first not directly as objections of veneration but in order to 'orientate' the direction of prayer (i.e. towards the east, Latin oriens).