On the Value of First Vespers
Having reviewed a bit of the pre-Reformation and pre-conciliar practice regarding First Vespers Offices, we move to the practical question of how to define and utilize a First Vespers within the prayer-book tradition.
The first question to be tackled, of course, is: who cares? And indeed, the ’79 BCP itself seems to be raising that question. To sketch briefly, the 1662 BCP allowed First Vespers, the American 1928 BCP recommend First Vespers, while the 1979 BCP permits and appoints them but then turns around and relegates them to a back-shelf.
Let me explain that a bit…
Going by strictly BCP materials, there are only two items at Evening Prayer that indicate the liturgical observance: the Collect and the Lessons. Since 1662, using the Collect of a Sunday or Feast on the evening before has been approved. The American 1928 goes a step farther and provides proper Lessons for Eves in the Fixed Holy Days table (pp. xliv-v). The American 1979 provides Eves for a few Feasts in its own table of Holy Days (pp. 996-1000) but places most of them after the table itself in a lump titled “Eves of Apostles & Evangelists”. Comparing the ’79 to the ’28 there is a clear minimization of proper Lessons for Eves and the logic behind this is probably correctly captured in Hatchett’s discussion of the Daily Office Lectionary rubrics:
One of the frequent criticisms of earlier lectionaries in the Prayer Book was that sequential readings were often interrupted by proper lections for saints’ days and their eves, lections which contributed little or nothing to the congregation’s knowledge of the saint being commemorated or of sainthood in general. The reading of John 11, the story of the raising of Lazarus, for example, was frequently interrupted by lessons for the feast day (and/or eve) of Saint Matthias; none of these lections mentioned Matthias. In the 1979 Book, a general permission is given, when a major feast interrupts the sequence of readings, to lengthen, combine, or omit some of the appointed readings in order to secure continuity or avoid repetition. (Hatchett, CotAPB, 592)
Or, to restate more simply, the Daily Office Lectionary should be as continuous as possible for it to achieve its catechetical function.
While I agree with the premise as restated above, I disagree with Hatchett and am disappointed in how the ’79 Lectionary has changed to make these charges more credible.
First, let’s consider the catechetical aspect. We must recognize that when we discuss the liturgy in general and the Office in particular, we’re never dealing with just one “goal”; instead, we’re operating within an economy of catechetical goods—some of which come into conflict with each other. I would identify some of the catechetical goods from daily recitation of the Offices as:
- An increasing awareness of the presentation of the Gospel through the patterns of the liturgical year
- An awareness of the Communion of the Saints through liturgical celebration of those who intercede on our behalf
- Saturation in the Scriptures through yearly repetition
- Saturation in the Psalter through monthly repetition
- Formation into key evangelical principles in the daily repetition of the Gospel Canticles
- Formation into key interpretive principles with twice-daily repetition of the Apostles’ Creed
Hatchett is identifying a conflict between two of these goods: repetition of the Scriptures and acknowledgment of the saints. There are three problems, however, with the way that he constructs this.
The first is the nature of the conflict. I don’t see this as being a conflict between the Scriptures and saints. Rather, we are dealing with two different means of encountering the Scriptures. All of the feasts that have readings appointed for First Vespers are either Principal Feasts, Feasts of our Lord, or Major Feasts—all of which are Scriptural in nature. All of these people and events celebrated are specifically called out in Scripture. Thus, I think that Hatchett is setting up a false dichotomy.
The second is scope. Yes, the lessons for St Matthias will impede part of John 11—-in some years. But not others. Hatchett’s criticism makes sense if we are going to go through the lectionary cycle once. But if it is to be repeated year after year, then this charge does not make sense. Christian formation is a process measured best in decades. In a similar fashion, if I miss the Daily Office for an entire day, I regret not having said those psalms but have confidence that I’ll get them the next month. Perhaps that’s lackadaisical, but I’ve found that my spiritual health is greatly improved when I balance scrupulosity with a long-view approach to my holy habits.
The third is that, when Hatchett mentions “avoid[ing] repetition” at the end of the passage, he refers to a problem of the ’79 BCP’s own making. Repetition for Holy Days is not a credible charge when the American ’28 lectionary is concerned; each Holy Day has its own distinct readings for the Eve and the Day. Six readings with no overlap in the table. Look at the ’79, though. There is no overlap in what is presented in the table, but all Eves of Apostles and Evangelists are grouped together with two readings provided for them all. Now there’s repetition!
Not only that, but due to this way of proceeding, feasts not in the ’28 table (and even some that are) are now Eve-less: St Joseph, Independence Day, St Mary Magdalene, St Mary the Virgin (!!), St Michael and All Angles (!!), St James of Jerusalem, and Thanksgiving Day. Yes, we can stretch the definition of “Apostle & Evangelist” for St Mary Magdalene and St James of Jerusalem, but no reading for the BVM or St Michael?! You’ve got to be kidding me!! Oddly, four readings are presented for Evening Prayer on these days, providing enough readings for a First and Second Vespers but the sets are not specified for use at either.
In other words, in comparison to the ’28 BCP, the ’79 BCP has made a hash of the Eves of Holy Days under the guise of simplification.
I disagree with Hatchett and, presumably, whoever compiled the Daily Office Lectionary tables. There are two ways to celebrate a First Vespers in the Prayer Book tradition: with the Collect alone or with the Collect and Appointed Lessons. My sense is that the first is appropriate for Sundays, the second is appropriate for Principal Feasts and Holy Days. The interruption of the continuous reading of Scripture is unfortunate but it is occasional (31 days sprinkled throughout the year), and is not consistent over years. No Scripture will be permanently impeded due to these occasions.
The benefit is that a First Vespers puts emphasis on those days, those events, those concepts, and those individuals who truly are important as examples, intercessors, and signs of the Christian life. No, Matthias is not mentioned in the readings on his day as Hatchett notes. He’s only mentioned in one pericope of Scripture which is appointed for his Mass. But, like other of the apostles, his significance is in his life and witness. His importance in our faith rests not on how many times he appears in Scripture but that he was a called and consecrated apostle. Indeed, most of us will be far more like him than Peter and Paul, not large in the annals of the church but nonetheless the faithful workers through whom the Gospel also flourishes.
First Vespers play an important role in marking out liturgical time and structuring our year. They need to be observed because of the emphases and counter-point that they give to the liturgical seasons.