In Britain, we seem to adore complaining about the onset of evening during the winter months. As we move into December and towards our celebration of Christmas, we seem perpetually surprised and disappointed at how early it gets dark. ‘When I wake up it’s still dark,’ we say, ‘and by the time I get in from work again, it’s dark! I never see sunlight!’ Whoever we’re talking to will invariably nod and murmur in solidarity. ‘It’s so depressing!’ we say.
This isn’t how the Church invites us to look at our evenings – even our long winter ones. Rather, we are invited to pause, and to reflect on the waning light of the sun, and to anticipate and celebrate its inevitable rising again. This natural rhythm – light into darkness and back to light – reflects themes from the great history of our Salvation in Christ, images that abound in Scripture and in the prayers and hymns of the Church.
The vehicle we have for engaging thoughtfully and prayerfully with the change from light to darkness is the great service of Vespers – the first service of the liturgical day, which is why the celebration of every Sunday begins on Saturday evening. Through its readings, hymns, and prayers, Vespers introduces themes that will crop up during services the following morning, such as Lauds or the Mass.
As we know from the book of Genesis (“…and there was evening and there was morning, the first day”), we traditionally count the beginning of Creation – and therefore the start of each new day – from evening time, and so it’s natural that the service of Vespers introduces the theme of creation from the outset.
Once we are gathered in a darkened Church, the sunlight ebbing away at the windows, two cantors intone Psalm 103 – The Cosmic Psalm – so named because it provides a panorama of God’s work of creation, and invites us to reflect on it with wonder and amazement. The text of the psalm leaves almost no part of creation untouched, describing with awe natural processes of geological transformation (“Mountains rise up and plains sink down”), weather events (“The trees of the plain will be drenched”), the lives of “creatures small and great”, and even how humankind feeds itself (“vegetation for the service of humankind”) and even experiences emotion (“when you turn away your face, they are troubled”). The Cosmic Psalm is a daily invitation to see the world afresh with new eyes – the Eyes of Faith in the Creator – who is with us as we approach the dark of night.
Then we sing the psalms with their antiphons, which also change according to the feast or the season. The Psalter is the prayer book of the Old Testament Church, prayed daily by Prophets and Patriarchs – even Our Lord Himself – and they have remained central to Christian worship ever since.
After the Psalmody we sing a Short Responsory and then hear a Lesson, or Reading, from the Old Testament. Here, still in a darkened Church and reading by candlelight, we find ourselves searching the books of Kings and Prophets for the One Who is To Come – the True Light, the Messiah, the Christ. In a sense, we’re invited to re-live that time in Salvation History before the Word was made flesh at the Nativity, and we’re also reminded of his Second Coming, and instructed to prepare ourselves for it.
After the reading we sing the Office Hymn, which again varies. Very often, though, we’ll offer our thanks to God, for bringing light to our darkness and we’ll offer Him our praise. During Advent, the Vespers hymn addresses the “Creator of the stars of night, your people’s everlasting light”. Although the Church is still in semi-darkness, we’re reminded through the hymn that God is always with us.
Then comes the liturgical high-point of Vespers – the Lucernarium, or “Service of Light”. We sing the ancient hymn O Joyous Light (Phos Hilaron, Lumen Hilare) and the celebrant lights a candle from the lamp burning in the sanctuary, from which all the other lights in the Church are lit. We move from darkness into light, greeting Christ as the “Joyous Light of the immortal Father – celestial, holy and blessed.” We recall the setting sun and how, “beholding the light of evening”, we are inspired to praised God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – and to worship Him with “voices of praise”.
The Lucernarium hymn sums up everything we should be thinking about the evening we are experiencing – Our gratitude for the day that has passed and our acknowledgement that, despite the dark shadows that sometimes seem to overwhelm our fallen world, we are constantly invited into the Light of God’s presence. Emboldened by this experience of the Light of Christ, we continue our evening service of praise with the raising of incense, the singing of Mary’s joyful hymn of praise and, finally, our own petitions before the Throne of Glory in the Litany.
As we continue our Advent journey, we’re called to deepen this sense of expectation of Christ’s two Advents – his Coming in the flesh at the Nativity, and his Coming again. Even if most of us don’t have the time or resources to pray Vespers daily at home or at Church, we can always stop at sunset and, rather than grumbling about the lack of sunlight, take a moment to reflect prayerfully on the themes of Vespers – awe at God’s creation, our longing for Christ’s coming and our gratitude for the Light of Christ, even in the dark night of our troubled world.
May God bless our Advent preparation for the Coming of the Lord.