Start of Catecheses on Liturgy of Vespers
John Paul II Reflects on Prayer at the End of the Day
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VATICAN CITY, OCT. 8, 2003 (Zenit.org).- Here is a translation of the address John Paul II gave at today's general audience, with which he began a new cycle of catecheses on vespers, or evening prayer.
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1. Given that "every day of our pilgrimage on earth is always a new gift" of the love of God (Preface of Sundays, VI), the Church has always felt the need to dedicate the days and hours of human life to divine praise. So dawn and sunset, which are typical religious moments for all peoples, which were already considered sacred by the biblical tradition of the morning and evening offering of the holocaust (see Exodus 29:38-39) and of incense (see Exodus 30:6-8), represent for Christians, since the first centuries, two special times of prayer.
The rising of the sun and its setting are special moments of the day. They have an unmistakable character: The joyful beauty of dawn and the triumphal splendor of sunset mark the rhythm of the universe, in which the life of man is profoundly integrated. Moreover, the mystery of salvation, which unfolds in history, has moments linked to different phases of time. Therefore, together with the celebration of lauds at the beginning of the day, the Church began to celebrate vespers as evening fell. Both liturgical hours have their evocative content which recalls two essential aspects of the paschal mystery: "In the evening the Lord is on the Cross, in the morning he rises. ... In the evening I narrate the suffering endured by him in death; in the morning I proclaim the life that arises from him" (St. Augustine, "Esposizioni sui Salmi" [Commentaries on the Psalms], XXVI, Rome, 1971, page 109).
Precisely because they are linked to the memory of the death and resurrection of Christ, the two hours of lauds and vespers constitute, "according to the venerable tradition of the whole Church, the double foundation of the daily Office" (constitution "Sacrosanctum Concilium," No. 98).
2. In ancient times, at sundown, the lighting of an oil lamp brought to homes a note of joy and communion. The Christian community also lit a lamp as evening fell, and invoked with a grateful spirit the gift of spiritual light. It was the so-called "lucernario," namely the ritual lighting of the lamp, whose flame is the symbol of Christ, the "sun that never sets."
With the coming of darkness, Christians know, in fact, that God illuminates even the dark night with the splendor of his presence and with the light of his teachings. In this connection, it is worth recalling the very ancient hymn of light, "Fôs hilarón," included in the Armenian and Ethiopian Byzantine liturgy: "Joyful light of the holy glory of the immortal, celestial, holy, blessed Father, O Jesus Christ! Having reached sundown and seeing the evening light, we sing hymns to the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. It is a worthy thing to sing to you at all times with harmonious voices, O Son of God, who gives us life: because of this the universe proclaims your glory." The West has also composed many hymns to celebrate Christ the light.
Drawing inspiration from the symbolism of light, the prayer of vespers developed as an evening sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving for the gift of physical and spiritual light and for the other gifts of creation and redemption. St. Cyprian writes: "The sun having set, at the end of the day, it is necessary to pray again. In fact, as Christ is the true sun, at the setting of the sun and the day of this world, we pray and ask that light be shed on us again and we invoke the coming of Christ which will lead us to the grace of eternal light" ("De oratione dominica," 35: PL 4,560).
3. The evening is a propitious time to consider in prayer before God, the day that has ended. It is the time "to render thanks for what has been given and for what we did with rectitude" (St. Basil, "Regulae fusius tractatae," Resp. 37,3: PG 3, 1015). It is also the time to ask forgiveness for the evil we have done, imploring from divine mercy that Christ will shine again in our hearts.
However, the coming of the evening also evokes the "mysterium noctis." Darkness is regarded as the occasion of frequent temptations, of particular weakness, of yielding to the incursions of the Evil One. With its insidiousness, night assumes the symbol of all the evil from which Christ came to liberate us. Moreover, with the coming of evening, prayer renders us participants in the paschal mystery, in which "the night shines like the day" (Exsultet). So prayer makes hope flower in the passage from the transitory day to the "dies perennis," from the tenuous light of the lamp to the "lux perpetua," from the vigil anticipating the dawn to the encounter with the King of eternal glory.
4. For ancient man, even more than for us, the succession of night and day regulated life, eliciting reflection on the great problems of life. Modern progress has altered in part the relation between human life and cosmic time. But the intense rhythm of human activities has not totally removed the people of today from the rhythms of the solar cycle.
So the two fulcrums of daily prayer retain all their value, being linked to immutable phenomena and immediate symbolisms. The morning and evening constitute moments that are always opportune to dedicate to prayer, either in community or alone. Linked to important times of our living and acting, the hours of lauds and vespers are thus seen as effective means to orient our daily way and direct it toward Christ, "light of the world" (John 8:12).
[Translation by ZENIT]
[At the end of the audience, the Holy Father gave the following summary in English:]
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Morning and evening are always excellent times to turn to the Lord in prayer, both in the company of others and in private. Evening prayer in particular reminds us that even the darkness of night is illuminated by God's presence and love. Our prayer at the end of the day fills us with longing and hope for the promised day that will never end, for Christ who is the light of the world.
I am pleased to offer special greetings today to the deacon candidates from the Pontifical North American College and their family members. May the light of Christ always shine brightly in your lives! Upon all the English-speaking visitors present, especially those from, England, Scotland, Ireland, Nigeria, Indonesia, Taiwan, Korea and the United States of Am