Monday, December 17, 2012

First Vespers of Christmas and the Divine Offices

As pointed out in a previous post, this coming Saturday, December 22nd, at 7:00 P.M., St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Milwaukee, Wisconsin is hosting a pan-Confessional Christmas Eve Service. I have the great privilege of playing the organ for this Divine Service, which will follow the traditional liturgy for the First Vespers of Christmas. Since many of our readers are probably unfamiliar with the idea of a “First Vespers,” I thought it might be useful to consider the meaning and historical development of the occassion.

Before the Reformation, churches and monastic orders observed the Divine Offices on a daily basis. The Divine Offices are also known as the “canonical hours,” or liturgical prayer Services (as distinct from the Chief Divine Service which is centered on the Blessed Sacrament). The Divine Offices roughly corroborate with the “prayer hours” referenced in Sacred Scripture (cf. Luke 1:10; Acts 3:1, 10:9, etc.). In these pre-Reformation times, there were a plethora of Offices, including Matins, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, and Compline. While the Reformation sought to limit the legalistic observance of these Offices that the Papists forced on burdened consciences (indeed, the Blessed Reformer called it “the unprofitable and burdensome babbling of the Seven Canonical Hours” in his Large Catechism), in practice the Lutheran Church never abandoned the use of the Divine Offices.  Rather, the essentially repetitive seven offices were typically reduced from seven to two, three, or four Offices, which are still observed (though some sources, like the Lutheran Brotherhood Prayer Book, offer resources for all seven Offices). Of these, Matins (morning) and Vespers (evening) are the most prominent.

The point of this historical treatise is to highlight the fact that Vespers is the evening Office of the Church. But there is only one Vesperal Office. Where, then, does this “First Vespers” business come from?

In the ancient Church (borrowing from Jewish precedence), on particular solemnities (solemnities being defined as Sundays and Feasts) it was the custom to begin the observance of the feast at hand during the evening of the preceding day. Looking at Christmas, one of the most prominent examples, this would mean that “Christmas Day,” as far as the Church is concerned, actually begins Christmas Eve’s evening. Since Vespers is the Church’s evening office, what would otherwise be Christmas Eve’s Vespers actually marks the liturgical beginning of Christmas Day. However, since there is also a Vespers on the 25th of December, which is still considered Christmas Day, the Vespers on the 24th of December is considered the “First Vespers.”

All of this may seem like a lot of hyper-liturgical gobledy-gook, but in the context of the actual liturgy of First Vespers, it makes a whole lot of sense. For example, consider the proper Responsory: “This day you shall know that the Lord cometh. And in the morning, then you shall see His glory.” The symbolism is stark enough, but it is especially powerful in light of the emphatic Law-Gospel reading from Titus 3 that it follows: “For we ourselves were also once foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving various lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful and hating one another. But when the kindness and the love of God our Savior toward man appeared, not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior, that having been justified by His grace we should become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.”

So too, the proper Hymn of the Day, St. Ambrose’s beautiful “Christe, Redémptor Ómnium,” is another wonderful expression of the day’s liturgical meaning. It is not used as the Office Hymn throughout Advent, but is instead retained until the First Vespers.

All this to say, I hope you will consider joining us as we celebrate the traditional First Vespers of Christmas.  The Service is scheduled for the 22nd to prevent attendees from missing out on any of the special Services that their home parishes may be offering. As such, this is a wonderful opportunity for Confessional fellowship and for celebrating the high Feast of Christmas with your Lutheran brothers and sisters from the greater Milwaukee area. Hope to see you there!

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