Over 16,000 pilgrims from 20 countries gathered in St. Peter's Square on October 15—the eve of the 25th anniversary of Pope John Paul II's pontificate—for the Holy Father's weekly general audience. The Holy Father resumed his teachings on the Liturgy of the Hours' evening prayer, which he began at his previous general audience.
Pope John Paul II explained the basic structure of the Church's evening prayer as well as the spiritual significance of the various psalms that are used. “The nature of the psalms that have been chosen for evening prayer varies,” he pointed out. “There are psalms about light, where the evening, oil lamps and light are explicitly mentioned; psalms that manifest a trust in God, who is our sure refuge amid the precariousness of human life; psalms of thanksgiving and praise; psalms that reflect the eschatological sense that the end of the day evokes, and others whose character is marked by wisdom or that are penitential in tone.”
After his explanation of the different elements that compose evening prayer, the Holy Father noted that it fittingly concludes with the Lord's Prayer, which is the perfect expression of the Church's praise of God, along with a final prayer that invokes the fruit of Christ's saving sacrifice upon the whole world.
From numerous testimonies, we know that lauds and vespers were already stable institutions beginning in the fourth century in all the great Churches of the East and of the West. For example, St. Ambrose left this testimony: “Just as we begin every day with God and end with him, whether we go to church or pray at home, may every day of our life here on earth and the course of each one of our days begin with him and end with him” (De Abraham, II, 5,22).
Just as morning prayer takes place at daybreak, evening prayer takes place at sundown, at the hour when a holocaust was offered with incense at the Temple in Jerusalem. At that hour, Jesus, after his death on the cross, was lying in the tomb after having offered himself to the Father for the salvation of the world.
Observing their respective traditions, the different Churches have organized the Divine Office in accordance with their own rite. Here, we will consider the Roman rite.
Christ Our Savior
The prayer begins with the invocation, Deus in adiutorium, from the second verse of Psalm 70,which St. Benedict prescribes for every hour. This verse reminds us that the grace to praise God in the manner he deserves comes only from him. The Glory Be to the Father follows, since glorifying the Trinity expresses the basic orientation of Christian prayer. Finally, an Alleluia is added (except during Lent), which is a Hebrew expression that means “Praise the Lord” and which has become for Christians a joyful manifestation of trust in God's special protection for his people.
The singing of a hymn is an occasion to reiterate the reasons that the Church in prayer has for its praise, evoking with poetic inspiration the mysteries that were fulfilled for the salvation of man as evening set, especially the sacrifice that Christ made for us on the cross.
The Psalm Sequence
The psalm sequence for evening prayer is made up of two psalms that are appropriate for this time of day, along with a canticle that is taken from the New Testament. The nature of the psalms that have been chosen for evening prayer varies. There are psalms about light, where the evening, oil lamps and light are explicitly mentioned; psalms that manifest a trust in God, who is our sure refuge amid the precariousness of human life; psalms of thanksgiving and praise; psalms that reflect the eschatologi-cal sense that the end of the day evokes, and others whose character is marked by wisdom or that are penitential in tone. Moreover, we find psalms from the Hallel, which refer to Jesus' Last Supper with his disciples. In the Latin Church, elements have been handed down which foster our understanding of the psalms and their Christian interpretation, such as the titles, prayers from the sequence of psalms, and especially the antiphons (see Principi e norme per la Liturgia delle Ore, 110-120).
A brief reading, which in evening prayer is taken from the New Testament, occupies an important place. Its purpose is to suggest some biblical principle to us in a forceful and incisive way and engrave it on hearts so that we will apply it to our daily life (see Principi e norme per la Liturgia delle Ore 45, 156, 172). In order to facilitate the interiorization of what we have heard, the reading is followed by an appropriate time of silence along with a responsorial song, which helps us respond by singing some verses to the message of the reading, thereby encouraging all who participate in this prayer to accept it in their hearts.
After making the Sign of the Cross, we sing the Canticle of the Blessed Virgin Mary from the Gospel (see Luke 1:46-55) with a great sense of honor. As the Rule of St. Benedict (chapters 12 and 17) attests, this practice of singing the Benedictus during morning prayers and the Magnificat during evening prayers “has been confirmed by the centuries-old and popular tradition of the Roman Church” (Principi e norme per la Liturgia delle Ore, 50). In fact, these canticles are exemplary for expressing our sense of praise and thanksgiving to God for his gift of Redemption.
A Sacrifice of Praise
When the Divine Office is celebrated by the community, the gesture of incensing the altar, the priest and the people while singing canticles from the Gospel, can suggest—in light of the Jewish tradition of offering incense in the morning and in the evening on the altar of perfumes—the offering of a “sacrifice of praise” that is expressed in the Liturgy of the Hours. United to Christ in prayer, we can personally experience everything that is described in the Letter to the Hebrews: “Through him then let us continually offer God a sacrifice of praise, that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name” (Hebrews 13:15; see Psalm 50:14,23 and Hosea 14:3).
After the canticle, the intercessions that we address to the Father or, at times, to Christ are an expression of the Church's petitions, which is ever mindful of God's concern for mankind, the work of his hands. The nature of these evening intercessions consists, in fact, of asking for God's help for all the different categories of people, for the Christian community, and for civil society. Lastly, we remember the faithful who are deceased.
The liturgy of evening prayer culminates with the prayer of Jesus, the Our Father, which summarizes each praise and petition of God's children, who have been reborn in water and in the Spirit. At the end of the day, our Christian tradition highlights this relationship between the forgiveness we beseech from God in the Our Father and the brotherly reconciliation of men among themselves: the sun must not set on anyone's anger (see Ephesians 4:26)
Evening prayer concludes with a prayer in which we, in harmony with Christ crucified, entrust our lives into the hands of the Father, knowing that his blessing will never fail.