Liturgy Celebrating Prayer

Celebrating Evening Prayer In Your Parish

by Kevin A. Demetroff

Written for the January 26, 1999, issue of Liturgy (Volume 20, No. 1), the newsletter of the Office of Worship of the Diocese of Fort Wayne – South Bend

Evening Prayer and Morning Prayer form the two “hinges” of the daily worship of the church. They are the principle “hours” of the Liturgy of the Hours, and the church expects them to be celebrated in parish churches, particularly Evening Prayer (also known as Evensong) on Sundays.

Evening Prayer began in the daily cycle of worship of the early church. Those who were able gathered at daybreak and at sunset to mark the holiness of God’s gift of life and the time through which we live. These simple daily services of the first centuries became, in the large urban centers around the Mediterranean, part of Sunday public worship, with the entire populace moving through the city streets to different “stations” for Morning Prayer, Eucharist, and Evening Prayer. Sunday worship lasted all day and took in the whole city. This type of public prayer varied only slightly from day to day and from season to season. Those who celebrated the “hours” got to know them well, and could participate without any special preparation. Today’s scholars call such celebrations the “cathedral office” because of their popular, public, urban character. This was the prayer of the people with their ministers – bishop, presbyters, deacons.

Monastic communities worked out their own, more complicated form of daily prayer. They would chant all 150 psalms weekly, or even daily, during the “hours.” They added prayers, antiphons, readings, and songs. They compiled large, complex books to track the ever-changing texts and tunes. Scholars call this form of prayer the “monastic office,” prayed almost exclusively by monks and nuns.

Some people assume that such prayer in its public form still belongs to monks and nuns, and in its private form to parish priests. This is a reasonable assumption, due to our recent history (before the 1970s) with the Divine Office, now known as the Liturgy of the Hours. The church’s daily prayer was little by little taken away from the Christian people, beginning in the Middle Ages, and entrusted to clergy and religious.

Still, the church’s public prayer never died out completely, and some people, particularly those who grew up in ethnic parishes, remember Vespers on Sunday afternoon. Now, with the liturgical renewal begun by Vatican II, the Liturgy of the Hours has been restored so that we may all sanctify the passage of time in our communal prayer.

The singing of psalms is integral to the Liturgy of the Hours, but this type of worship is, in origin, a time of intercessory prayer at morning and evening, a time of intense pleading for all the world. The psalms, along with hymns and prayers, give our hearts and minds the voice they need to address the God upon whom we depend.

Start with the four-volume Liturgy of the Hours. It may seem impossible to implement this form of worship in a parish church. The complete text, with its General Instruction that describes the forms of celebration, is a rich resource, heavily influenced by the monastic practice that long ago replaced parish celebrations. It does not have to be used “as is,” though the form of prayer must be respected. The General Instruction states that “It belongs to the whole Christian community.” (270) and encourages local adaptation.

Adapted forms of Evening Prayer can be found in many places. One of the best resources is “Praise God in Song: Ecumenical Daily Prayer” from GIA Publications. This book provides several complete musical settings. For practical hints on adaptations, read “Morning Praise and Evensong: A Liturgy of the Hours in Musical Settings,” published by Fides Publishers in 1973 – an early model for parishes. Our major hymnals also include service outlines, with music in place.

The basic pattern for Evening Prayer or Evensong includes:

I. Invitatory
a. opening versicle and response
b.  hymn
Lucernarium (service of light)
a. opening greeting
b. hymn
c. evening thanksgiving
II. Psalmody
a. first psalm (in parish usage, often Psalm 141 as an incense psalm) followed by silent prayer and psalm prayer (collect)
b. second psalm, followed by silent prayer and psalm prayer
c. New Testament canticle
III. Readings
a. biblical reading
b. optional: more biblical or patristic readings, homily, reflection, etc.
IV. Gospel Canticle – the Magnificat is sung, and incense may be burned
V. Intercessions
VI. The Lord’s Prayer
VII. Conclusion – blessing, dismissal, sign of peace

Let me describe for you 5:00 p.m. Sunday Evensong at St. Jude Church in Fort Wayne.

About half an hour before we begin, the presider turns on the few lights we will need, places the Easter Candle in the midst of the assembly area and lights it, prepares incense, marks a lectionary or bible for the reader, prepares folders for presider / assistant / cantor (often one person, sometimes two or three), and then unlocks the doors. No special outlines or handouts are needed, since we use the outline for the service found in the Worship hymnal.

Ten minutes before we begin, a bowl with a burning coal is placed at the foot of the Easter candle. All gather quietly around the candle. At 4:55 p.m. the tower bells ring briefly. During Advent/Christmas or Lent/Easter, we spend the next five minutes singing an ostinato, perhaps one of the well-known Taize pieces, appropriate to season or occasion. During ordinary time, we remain silent.

The second peal rings from the tower at 5:00 p.m. When the bells finish, the presider rises, faces the assembly, announces the location of the order of the service in the hymnal, motions for all to stand, and chants “Light and peace in Jesus Christ our Lord”, to which all respond “Thanks be to God.” We then sing an evening hymn, either the hymn in the order of service, or a seasonal hymn announced by the cantor. After the hymn, the presider (or assistant, or cantor, whoever sings best) chants the Evening Thanksgiving.

Psalmody begins with the presider’s chant “Let us pray for pardon and peace, and for protection throughout the coming night.” We sit and a member of the assembly places incense on the coal while the cantor may chant the proper antiphon.

When the smoke begins to rise, the cantor chants “As the smoke of this incense rises, we raise our hands in prayer and we sing.” We then sing Psalm 141 responsorially, all raising their hands in prayer during each refrain. We alternate three tunes throughout the year. After the singing, we remain seated for silent prayer. We then stand and the presider chants or recites the incense psalm prayer.

We sit to sing a variable evening psalm, responsorially or antiphonally. Occasionally we use a through-sung adaptation. Silent prayer and psalm prayer follow. Then we sing the appointed New Testament canticle responsorially.

We sit as a lector stands near the candle to proclaim the biblical reading. Silent reflection follows. At times there may be a second biblical reading, or another reading from traditional or contemporary sources. During a large festal gathering, e.g. our patronal feast or Corpus Christi, there may be a homily. During Lent and some other times, we celebrate a ritual action or sacramental, or we may sing a responsory or hymn.

We stand, make the sign of the cross, and sing the Gospel Canticle of Mary, the Magnificat. We alternate three musical versions with the seasons.

The presider invites us to kneel and complete our evening prayer to the Lord. (During Easter season we stand around the baptismal font.) The cantor then leads the litany of intercession, with the tune we are currently using at Mass. We include spontaneous intercessions.

We stand to chant the Lord’s Prayer with its doxology and Amen. The presider chants or recites a final collect, a blessing and dismissal. We then exchange a sign of peace and go our separate ways.

This is a fairly complete version of Evening Prayer, with all the components in place. We use the Liturgy of the Hours books as a resource, along with the materials provided in Worship and Gather, the hymnals in our pews.

We did not, however, start this way. It took us four years to get to this complete version. If you have not prayed Evening Prayer communally, begin with a simpler format. A simple service of light includes greeting and response, evening hymn, and collect. Sing Psalm 141 (or Psalm 25) while incense is burned, followed by silent prayer and perhaps a collect. Proclaim a biblical reading, followed by silence. Sing the Magnificat and pray intercessions in the form your parish knows best. Sing the Lord’s Prayer and end with a sign of peace.

You do not have to change music and texts all the time. Such changes mark the seasons, but the assembly needs to know its songs and prayers well, some even by heart. This encourages intense prayer, a spirit of community, and a sense of reverent beauty. You may find many fine musical settings for Evening Prayer, but begin with music that your parishioners already know and love, and little by little make additions that will enhance the worship of the entire assembly, not just musicians or other ministers. Communal prayer needs strength, directness and familiarity.

If you start simply, adapt to your community, explain what’s going on and why (in preaching, adult ed sessions, bulletin columns and inserts, etc.), and integrate simple forms of the Liturgy of the Hours into parish life (committee meetings, rehearsals, festivals, etc.) you will find that your parish, too, will stand firm with the whole People of God in our daily prayer.

St. Jude Catholic Church
2130 Pemberton Drive
Ft. Wayne, IN 46805
(260) 484-6609

St. Jude Catholic School
2110 Pemberton Drive
Ft. Wayne, IN 46805
(260) 484-4611

Parish Office Hours
8 am - 4 pm Mon-Fri

Music Ministry
(260) 484-6609

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