Cathedral Vespers light the lamp of liturgical prayer


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December 3, 2012

Now in its fifth year, Nothing More Beautiful at St. Joseph's Basilica is organized around a catechetical talk and a witness talk on a particular theme. The setting for those talks is the celebration of Cathedral Vespers.

While much preparation goes into the Vespers and Karen Koester and her choir do a marvellous job of leading the singing, the focus remains on the speakers. It is fine that we bring an intellectual focus to this event – the Catholic mind needs to be formed, especially in this era when we badly need to challenge the prevailing intellectual culture.

However, prayer is central to the Christian life, especially liturgical prayer. When we say "liturgy," we usually mean the Mass, but the Liturgy of the Hours is, of course, liturgy also.

Cathedral Vespers are a particular form of Evening Prayer. The early Church took seriously St. Paul's urging to "pray without ceasing" and Christians tried to sanctify all the hours of the day with prayer. But in times of persecution, public liturgies were limited.

After the peace of Constantine (312 AD), an expansion of liturgical forms occurred and the Liturgy of the Hours began to develop. While there were cathedral services for Morning and Evening Prayer, the greatest development occurred in the emerging monastic communities which prayed the psalms seven times a day. A system of praying all 150 psalms every week developed.

This monastic approach to the Hours lacked in ceremony what it achieved in fervour. The cathedral office, however, was attended by lay people and the diocesan clergy. It included only Lauds and Vespers – not all seven offices – and imbued them with much more ceremony.

Cathedral Vespers began with the lighting of the lamp to symbolize Christ the light of the world and included abundant use of incense. Unlike the monastic offices, the psalms, canticles and symbols in the cathedral offices were chosen to suit the particular hour.

Sadly, over time, the cathedral offices became so elaborate and the music and language so elevated that the laity were relegated to being spectators.

The Second Vatican Council called for a renewal of the Divine Office and that renewal included provision for the bishop, surrounded by the clergy, to celebrate the cathedral Hours "and the people should take a full and active part."

The Cathedral Vespers at Nothing More Beautiful grow out of the post-Vatican II renewal of the liturgy. It is marvellous to celebrate this restored liturgical form in our cathedral and all the faithful should aspire to participate. It would be grand if the local Church continued to hold cathedral Vespers after the conclusion of Nothing More Beautiful next spring. In the meantime, the next celebration will be Dec. 6 at 7 p.m.