Midweek Vespers – An Explainer

If you have not been to a mid-week service for a while, or just not with me leading them, it is worth an explanation of what you might expect.  Probably the most practical thing is that I aim for the service to be between 20 and 30 minutes.  Their purpose is not a midweek Sunday.  It is a daily office.  Prayer at the close of day, but for a time during a season of preparation like Advent for communal prayer and praise.  The order of service is the canonical office of Vespers.

Now what does that string of words mean?  Canonical is a fancy word for regular. The canon of scripture is the list of regularly accepted books.  The ministers of a Cathedral church were known as the canons. The canons would lead prayer at regular intervals throughout the day.  The Didache, the first catechism coming from the 2nd century, encouraged Christians to pray three times a day.  That would have been morning, evening and at mid-day.  These canonical hours were expressions of living in community.  The canons, or the monks when monasticism grew and often replaced the canons, followed the daily office.  And the community around would join as desired.  It remains an open question to me if any of us moderns live in community.  Yes, we all live in communities, but do we know our neighbors? What do we share with them? These simple regular or canonical services were about shared burdens and joys.  They were the daily prayer and praise of living communities. But that is a deeper question of modern life.

The office of Vespers is the office that was originally sung after the day’s work had been accomplished, but usually before the evening meal.  Compline, meaning completion, was the prayer before bed.  But much of that was dependent upon the sun.  Vespers consists typically of a Psalm, a reading, a homily, prayer and a couple of hymns.  It is the type of thing that one could do alone (minus the homily) or within a family grouping.  This was often the encouragement of the Reformation which saw the extended family as the lived community and the father as the liturgical head of that community.

The one great distinction of the office of Vespers is its use of the Magnificat or Mary’s Song.  This is the song Mary sang carrying Jesus when greeted by Elizabeth carrying John the Baptist. You can find the biblical version and that story in Luke 1.  That song throughout the ages has inspired many different musical settings and translations.  Our hymnbook contains a beautiful chant version that is probably a bridge too far.  Maybe at some future time I will see if I can get the choir to prepare it for us to hear it.  Instead, what I have planned for these services is a tour of the hymn versions of the Magnificat that our hymnbook contains.  Mary’s profound words deserve such a place of honor in our prayer and praise.

So, what can you expect? Hopefully a short encouraging gathering of a community of prayer and praise.  A turning or returning to God in faith and hope and then toward one another in love in a season of preparation.

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