How We Celebrate Vespers

Last month I described how we have celebrated the Sixth Hour every week since 2013 in the Jesuit Church in Innsbruck, right beside the School of Catholic Theology. The Sixth Hour is a short service, mainly focused on singing psalms according to the principles of Gregorian Chant. The atmosphere is calm, and there is not much technical preparation needed.

There is another weekly prayer service which was established around ten years earlier, also based on a request by students of theology, but using a completely different stylistic approach.

Around 2003, two students from Innsbruck went to the University of Muenster in Germany for one year. This is a large university with well-organized Catholic, Evangelical, and Orthodox students’ congregations. Students from all three traditions created and established a weekly Ecumenical service which turned out to be something like an Episcopalian Evensong. When the two Catholic students returned to Innsbruck in 2004, they wanted to continue this prayer tradition even in the absence of their Evangelical and Orthodox fellows.

While the service in Muenster had been celebrated in a small chapel with students sitting and kneeling on carpeted floor, we tried to find a style that would work in our large baroque church (you can see the setup here). While the psalms in Muenster had been selected spontaneously by the presider from the German hymnal Gotteslob, we decided to create neatly arranged leaflets with a fixed frame section and a replaceable inner part with psalms for different occasions.

When the new edition of Gotteslob came out in 2013, we replaced some of our elements by new ones from Gotteslob, especially since that new hymnal included a pattern for an “Abendlob” (which roughly means Evensong) which was surprisingly similar to ours.

Here is our full pattern:

  • We gather in the first rows of the church (or around the altar in the crypt). In front of the altar is a large candlestand, filled with sand, with a lighted Paschal candle in its middle. Close to the altar is a small bowl with a piece of hot coal for incense. Everyone has their leaflets and a small candle in their hands.
  • Acclamation In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ: light and peace. Thanks be to God.
  • The presider lights her or his candle from the Paschal candle, hands the light to the others and lights all candles around the altar.
  • Hymn of light Du Licht vom Lichte (a German adaption of the Greek evening hymn Phos hilaron). The verses are monophonically sung by a chanter. You can hear a recording from a service in a German parish here. While the verses are sung, everyone brings their candles to the candlestand and puts them around the Paschal candle.
  • Prayer of light (Gotteslob 661,1):
    Our help is the name of the Lord. – Who made heaven and earth.
    Let us pray.
    We praise you, Lord, our God.
    Day and night is yours.
    We thank you for light,
    the first gift of your Creation,
    and we beseech you:
    Let Christ, the sun of justice,
    never set in our hearts,
    so that we may pass from this time,
    which is tainted with fear and doubt,
    to the light in which you dwell.
    We ask you this through him, Jesus Christ,
    your Son, our Lord and God,
    who lives and reigns in unity with the Holy Spirit
    forever and ever. – Amen.
  • Psalm 141 (140):1–4 with antiphon May my prayer be counted as incense before you, my Lord and my God, hallelujah. You can hear the antiphon here. The verses are not the same as in the video; they are sung monophonically by the chanter. During this psalm the presider offers incense in the bowl.
  • For the following psalmody the replaceable inner part of the leaflet comes into play. Most psalms are taken from the Benediktinisches Antiphonale, with the verses sung alternately between the chanter and the others. For some occasions we chose other versions, but all of them are monophonic German Gregorian chant. This recording from a small German monastery gives you an impression. We chose the following psalms and canticles:
    Advent: Pss 130 and 146
    Lent: Is 64:3–8 and Ps 31:2–6
    Eastertide: Pss 118:1.19–24 and 114
    Feast Days: Ps 145:10–21 and Matt 5:3–10
    Times of Mourning (e.g. on All Soul’s Day): Ps 39:6–14 and selected verses from Is 25–26
    Ordinary Time (six options):
    Pss 33:1–6.21 and 121
    Pss 91 and 117
    Pss 97 and 87
    Pss 111 and 23
    Ps 138 and 15
    Ps 104 (mainly for September in the Ecumenical Time of Creation)
  • After each psalm there is a short collect, such as: “Father in Heaven, through your Son you proclaimed peace to the poor. Impregnate all who await salvation with joy and delight. Amen” (after Ps 23) or “God, your wisdom enlightens us and shows us the path that leads to you. Assist us, so that we can follow your Word and always stay righteous. Amen” (after Ps 15).
  • A short Biblical reading, chosen from a large collection that we compiled for ourselves.
  • One minute of silence.
  • A canon for two, three, or four voices; we mainly use canons from the Taizé repertory. Here ends the replaceable inner part of the leaflet.
  • Magnificat with a triple Hallelujah as its antiphon, following a tune for three voices from a Ukrainian version of the Hymnos Akathistos. You can find an audio file here. (In Lent, we use a Gregorian pattern from the Benediktinisches Antiphonale in order to create a more austere mood and to avoid the word hallelujah.)
  • Universal prayer from a collection that we compiled for ourselves.
  • Lord’s prayer, sung in four parts using a tune by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (Gotteslob 661,8), you can hear an audio here.
  • Concluding prayer following St. Augustine:
    Lord, you created us, and our heart is restless until it finds rest in you.
    Yours is the light of the day.
    Yours is the darkness of the night.
    Life is yours and death.
    I myself am yours and adore you.
    Let me rest in peace,
    bless the forthcoming day,
    and let me awake to praise you.
  • If there is still time (the service is limited to ca. 30 minutes, since there is Mass afterwards), we attach a version of Hagios o Theos in Greek–German–Greek in three voices, following a famous Greek tune. You can hear a version here.
  • Final blessing following Num 6:23–27.

The pattern should be quite familiar to worshippers coming from different traditions, and it even enjoys similarities to the Roman Catholic Liturgy of The Hours. You might get the impression that it is too much of a hodgepodge of different musical styles, but actually it proved to be a good combination of the more copious and symbolic elements in the frame section and the more austere and calm elements in the middle.

This sort-of Evensong has taken place in the Innsbruck Jesuit Church since Advent 2004 in almost every week. Its regularly scheduled day and time is Tuesday at 6 p.m. In most weeks we are an assembly of around 8–10 people, sometimes fewer, rarely more. Although this service has never grown into a huge event, it is well established and fully supported by the Jesuits as a more than welcome addition to the regular schedule which is otherwise highly focused on Masses.

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