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VESPERS form the fifth of the Day Hours of the Divine Office, and though not positively restricted to any particular hour of the afternoon, are usually celebrated between the hours of three and six.
The eight Services, or Canonical Hours, as they are properly called, of the Divine Office, the order for which is contained in the Breviary, and their music in the Antiphonary, succeed each other in the following order :
Nocturnal or Night Hours.
I. The Matin Office, commencing at midnight.
Diurnal, or Bay Hours.
I. Prime, at the latest regular time, at 6 in the morning. II. Tierce
at 3 in the afternoon
VI. Compline, before retiring to rest, "quasi completorium diei," as the termination of the day.
To gain a correct idea of the Canonical Vespers, it will be necessary to take a preliminary view of the structure of the whole Divine Office, of which they are the part proper to the afternoon of the day.
The Main End of the Divine Office.
The main end at which the Church has aimed in the institution of the Divine Office is the confession of the supreme power and dominion of God over all His creatures, not only in order that confiteantur tibi, Domine, omnia opera tua—all creation should bear testimony to the wisdom and goodness of the God who made them; but that, et Sancti Tui benedicant tibi: that the Church especially, the society of the redeemed, should unceasingly bless God for the mercy of her redemption, and declare all the wonders that He has wrought for her.
To accomplish this work of praise, and in order that, from the society of the redeemed, spread over all the nations of the earth, a voice might never be wanting, day and night, to confess the wonders of God in His work of creation, and more especially in His work of grace and redemption, the Church has instituted the Divine Office, and has entrusted its celebration to various orders of the clergy and religious persons, as their circumstances may permit. The distinction between the wonders of God's power, as shewn respectively in the work of creation and redemption, gives rise to a distinction of the Divine Office into the ordinary Sunday and Ferial Offices, which turn chiefly upon the praise of the creation, and the Offices of the Christian Festivals and Saints, which are principally occupied with the scheme of redemption in general, and the particular event in our Lord's life and ministry, or the life of a particular saint which they commemorate.
Hence the various hours of the Divine Office embrace a compendious history of the whole work, as well of the creation as of the grace of God, in the Church, at the same time that they form the one grand united hymn of praise, in which the universal Church renders her thanks to the ever-blessed Trinity, with the Mother of God, and all the blessed spirits and saints, for these tokens of the Divine mercy and providence over her in this her present condition of trial and pilgrimage to her everlasting rest.
In this varied character of the whole Divine Office, the Vespers have their due share. The ordinary Sunday and Ferial Vespers are respectively a kind of song of praise of each of the six days of creation, and of God's rest on the seventh; while the Feasts of the Calendar commemorate events in our Lord's life, and those of the Saints set forth the example of their sufferings and virtues, and implore their intercession for the generation who are now upon earth.
But to enter upon an examination more in detail of the construction of the Office of Vespers. The several parts of which they are composed are the following:
Pater noster and Ave Maria, in silence.
Deus in adjutorium, &c., Gloria Patri, &c., and Alleluia, or Laus tibi, Domine, &c., according to the season.
Then follow five Antiphons and Psalms, which vary according as the Office happens to be of the Feria, of a Festival, or a Saint.
The Psalms are sung by the choir in alternate verses, but both sides of the choir unite in the Antiphons after cantors have entoned them.
The Little Chapter.
Sung by celebrant, the choir answering, Deo gratias.
Sung in alternate stanzas by opposite sides of the choir.
The . or Versicle, and R. or Response.
Sung by celebrant or cantors, the choir answering with R.
The Antiphon at the Magnificat, followed by Magnificat; Antiphon repeated.
Antiphon is entoned by celebrant, or by cantors.
Celebrant sings, Dominus vobiscum; choir answers, Et cum spiritu tuo.
Celebrant sings, Oremus, and then the Collect of the day, adding, Per Dominum, &c.; choir answers, Amen.
If any commemorations have to be made, cantors entone the proper Antiphon, which they sing through with the choir; they then sing the V., choir answering with the R. Celebrant, Oremus, and immediately proceeds with Collect, and so on with each commemoration, whatever number there may be. But at the last Collect only he adds the conclusion of the Collect, Per Dominum, &c., or whatever else it may be. Choir answers, Amen. Oremus always precedes each new Collect.
The commemorations ended, or if there be none, after the Collect of the day, celebrant, Dominus vobiscum; choir, Et cum spiritu tuo. Celebrant or cantors sing, Benedicamus Domino; choir answers, Deo gratias. Celebrant, Fidelium animæ, &c.; choir, Amen. Then, if Compline does not follow, Pater noster is said in silence, and celebrant sings, Dominus det nobis suam pacem: The Lord grant us his peace; choir answers, Et vitam æternam, Amen: And the Life everlasting, Amen. The Antiphon of the Blessed Virgin, according to the season, may now be sung, with the V. and R. and Collect, as in the Compline Office; with which the Vespers terminate, and the singers leave the choir in the order of their respective rank.
N.B. The Antiphon of B. M. V. may be sung either antiphonally from period to period, or chorally by both sides of the choir; practice in this respect varies. The Psalms, not the Antiphons, may be sung, the singers sitting; otherwise, all in the choir should stand, with the exception of kneeling at the Collects in the Ferial Office, and whenever a special rubric requires it.
The Office of Compline, with the exception of the Octave of Easter, and the addition of Alleluia in the Easter Season, is the same throughout the year. Its structure will be easily learnt from its rubrics.
The perplexity occasioned by the substitution of the Vespers of Saints for the regular Vespers of the day, according to the Sunday and Ferial or week-day Office.
If the Vespers were limited to those of the season, that is of the Sunday and week-days, or Ferias, it would be comparatively easy to understand and follow their order; but as Festivals, and the Saints of the calendar have all their proper Offices, a fourfold intricacy arises, viz. as to the question,
I. Whether the Office of the Saint does or does not take precedence of that of the season.
II. From the circumstance that the Offices of movable
Feasts, and of different Saints, often fall on the same day, and the precedence can be given to one of the number only.
III. From the circumstance that Offices thus displaced are, in some cases, entitled to be transferred to other days, and in others only to be commemorated.
IV. From the fact that the calendar of Saints whose Offices are said, differs in different countries which have the privilege of honouring local saints, whose names are not in the calendar of the universal Church.
The system of rules by which the calendar of the Saints is reconciled with the ordinary calendar of the season, and the order of the Divine Office for the year determined, forms a particular branch of ecclesiastical study, which, as it requires some little patience to master, and a good deal of experience to apply with certitude and precision, the ordinary reader will find it nearly impossible to dispense with the Ordo Recitandi, or the Laity's Directory, in order to find the Vespers proper for the day.
For the sake, however, of those who will be interested to learn something of the beautiful order of the Church with