'Not just spectators': The faithful may celebrate Evening Prayer with new bishop Aug. 28

On Monday, Aug. 28, the faithful are invited to gather for Evening Prayer at 7 p.m. at Holy Name of Jesus Cathedral. This Evening Prayer is open to the public on a first-come, first-served basis. Evening Prayer occurs in anticipation of the Aug. 29 installation of Bishop Luis Zarama as Raleigh’s sixth bishop. (Please note the installation is by invitation only, but it will be streamed live at dioceseofraleigh.org/livestream.)

NC Catholics magazine recently sat down with Aaron Sanders, Ph.D, director of the Office of Divine Worship, to discuss the tradition of Evening Prayer and why it’s an important event. Read the Q&A from that interview.

NC Catholics: What are the roots of Evening Prayer in Catholicism?

Dr. Aaron Sanders: The roots of Evening Prayer actually go back well beyond Catholicism because they come from Jewish practice. It was instituted by God in the Old Testament. When he was giving the law to the people on Mt. Sinai, he commanded that every day there would be two sacrifices. One lamb in the morning and one in the evening. So that practice of a morning and evening sacrifice carried over through the time of Christ and into the Church of the New Testament. The Christians obviously didn’t need to kill animals any more. Jesus had replaced those sacrifices, but that time of prayer was still a good time to offer up their sacrifice of praise in Jesus Christ. But also, very often it was connected with the lighting of lamps in the evening so that as they are praising Christ they are also seeing symbolized before them Christ the light of the world that saved them from sin and darkness. So as the Liturgy of the Hours took shape it was around these two focal points for Morning and Evening Prayer.

NCC: You mentioned the Liturgy of the Hours. Please describe what that is.

AS: Put most simply, the Liturgy of the Hours is the way that the Church fulfills the command that St. Paul gave us: to pray without ceasing. Now on the one hand you could say that it’s impossible to pray all the time … we have to work and eat and all that sort of stuff. But it’s very true that we can interiorly pray because praying is lifting the mind and the heart to God. And the greater we grow in the spiritual life, the more constantly we do direct our thoughts and our heart to God in all that we do.

The way the Liturgy of the Hours helps us to keep praying at all times is that these fixed times of prayer throughout the day train us to pray even when we are not gathered together. So as the centuries went on, the early Church took not only those formal times that Jews would have gathered in the evening or in the morning, but they also took various traditions of private prayer throughout the day and slowly developed a set of hours that would punctuate the day every few hours. In the modern era, we’ve simplified somewhat.

NCC: What characterizes Evening Prayer?  

AS: There are certain fundamental components that go into all of the hours in the Liturgy of the Hours, so all of them are going to have a hymn, they are going to pray the psalms, and there will be a reading from Scripture that elicits a short response from the congregation. Evening Prayer as one of the main hours of the day, though, has more added into it as well. So once we have praised God through the psalms and heard his word, we respond with the prayer that Mary prayed when she visited Elizabeth that we typically use the Latin name for, the Magnificat. That’s where she says, “My soul magnifies the Lord. And my spirit rejoices in God my savior.”

She goes on to tell of all the wonderful things God has done for his people and how in his mercy he has remembered them and is now finally sending them the Savior. So we have heard God’s word, and we rejoice in this same way that we have experienced salvation through Jesus. Once we have prayed that, we then go on to offer up prayers for the whole world. Whereas at Morning Prayer we offer some intercessions that try to consecrate the whole day to come to God in his service, now at Evening Prayer we are thanking God for all the blessings he has given us during the day, and we are asking him to take care of all sorts of people throughout the world. It changes day to day. There are set intercessions that we pray for all classes of people in all situations.

NCC: When is Evening Prayer most appropriate?

AS: There are many times where it’s appropriate for people to gather and pray Evening Prayer. The great thing about the Liturgy of the Hours is that while it’s designed to be presided over by an ordained minister, it doesn’t need to be. And lay people can gather in all sorts of different situations and pray together. And wherever we are, however separated we might be when we join in this form of prayer, we know that we are taking part in something that’s bigger than just those people in the room because, as the public prayer of the church, this is being shared by Roman Catholics throughout the world. As the sun passes on around the world, this evening sacrifice is getting lifted up by everyone who joins in.

NCC: On Aug. 28 at Evening Prayer with Bishop Zarama, will the psalms be sung or read?

AS: At this liturgy, we are going to read them simply because folks in our diocese aren’t as familiar with singing, and we want to make sure that everyone can participate with their own voice as easily as possible.

NCC: What’s the difference between Evening Prayer and Vespers?

AS: Well, within a Catholic context, Evening Prayer and Vespers are two different names for the same liturgy. Vespers comes from the Latin, which means evening. And, thus, for a long time in Catholic parlance we refer to Evening Prayer as Vespers. When everything was getting translated into the vernacular anyway, our liturgical books now say Evening Prayer.

There are many other Christian traditions, though, that will have some version of Vespers that isn’t going to be exactly the same as the Catholic version. At the time of the Reformation, the Protestant Churches rejected the notion of Mass as a sacrifice, and so you saw that that Sunday celebration received a lot of modification. But there’s really nothing objectionable to those Churches in praying the psalms and reading from the Scripture, singing hymns. And so they carried over that tradition from the Liturgy of the Hours, especially of Morning and Evening Prayer in which the whole congregation could assemble and take part. So there’s very strong traditions to this day within the Anglican and Episcopal Churches, especially, of gathering for Even Song, as they came to call it in their tradition.  

NCC: Why would you encourage people to come to Evening Prayer on Aug. 28?

AS: Well, our diocese is very large. Half of the state, separated by great distances, and we have a great many cultures, languages and traditions. But a focal point of our unity, other than Jesus Christ himself, is the shepherd that we have been given in our bishop. And so coming together from all those different places of origin that we have to unite at this liturgy to welcome that new focal point of our unity within the diocese, is very important to us. It’s a way that we get to express that out of all these differences we are one, and we are united around this one shepherd who is going to lead us in Christ to our home.

NCC: Is Evening Prayer common before events such as ordinations and installations?

AS: Before installations of bishops, it’s very common. That’s sort of the standard tradition. Evening Prayer as a prelude to some great event is common across the board … for one, because just like the roots of Evening Prayer go back to the evening sacrifice, the Jewish day was reckoned not from midnight to midnight as we do now but from sunset to sunset. And so the beginning of a feast day, even to this day, within our liturgical calendar happens the evening before the feast.

Evening Prayer is the way that we start out one of these great events in the life of the church. Now the installation of a bishop isn’t a feast day, but another precedent is that any great event, like an ordination or receiving some big sacrament, requires some preparation.

We don’t walk in on Easter Sunday, turn on the lights, and say, “Bam we are ready to celebrate!” Right? No. We take 40 days, and we pray, we fast, we give alms, we get ourselves ready to really celebrate. Well, in the early church, before these major events, the community would gather and they would hold an all-night vigil of prayer. There would be readings from the Scriptures and psalms, periods of silence, singing all the way up until sunrise when they were ready to celebrate the Mass. Now, we have slackened off a little bit. This is a much more accessible way of the church gathering in a form of preparation for this big event that’s going to take place.

NCC: Is there anything else you think would be important for people to know?

AS: I think it’s important for people to know that when we take part within the Liturgy of the Hours, we’re not just spectators there or folks who are reading the Scriptures from a page as if that’s all the farther we got. The liturgy, any kind of liturgy that we celebrate, gives us a chance to cooperate with Jesus and the work that he does for us. So when we read the psalms in Evening Prayer, we are offering them up.

It was God’s gift to us to reveal this to us. And now he’s given us the words to praise him or call out to him for help. And so they become a sacrifice that we offer with Jesus to God the Father.

We hear about the priesthood of all the baptized. Offering up this kind of sacrifice is one of the main ways that we can share in that priesthood of Jesus and offer this up for ourselves [and] for the whole world. So learning to pray in this way is an excellent way for all the laity of the diocese to find a new means of taking part in the work of the Church day in and day out. It’s especially important when it’s an event that unites our whole diocese, but even through the rest of our lives when we are scattered in our various homes, we can come together and share in the work of Christ for the world by praying the Liturgy of the Hours.