Thursday, August 05, 2010

In the solemn recreation of the ancient traditions and rites of the Hebrew Passover, the Christian Church integrates the chronicle of God’s creation of the universe, time, our earth and, of course, His people and the Covenants He established with us, and the progress of salvation history in much the same manner as the ancient Jews marked time during Passover while in exile, namely the re-telling of those sacred stories from what we now call the Old Testament. The night before the pre-eminent holy day in the Christian calendar, Easter Sunday, we celebrate the Great Vigil, in which moments of God’s interaction with His Chosen People are sequentially ordered and re-called from the scriptures. And this accounting begins with Genesis, chapter one, a virtual timepiece of our creation. The Great Vigil of Easter proceeds from this sacralized recounting of epochs of time to other liturgies (“works for the people”.) But I mention this to make crystal clear that ritually “marking time” has been integral to God’s plan of salvation from day one.

On September 8, 2010, the Catholic Churches of Visalia will mark the occasion of the birth of the mother of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, the Blessed Virgin Mary, the patron saint of our parish, by celebrating a Solemn Vespers Service in the evening. This ritual event will also serve to initiate a year-long observance of the 150th year since the founding of St. Mary’s Church in Visalia by Father Daniel Dade. The Solemn Vespers Service will be an occasion when not only Roman Catholics, but Christians of all denominations who profess the ancient Christian creeds are most welcomed to attend and join in full participation. In the modern era, this service will also restore a practice of marking the hours of the day that Jesus himself, His apostles and followers of the Way practiced in apostolic times. Most adult Catholics of our times might only have a slight knowledge that our clergy: bishops, priests and deacons mark certain hours of each day by the recitation of the office, or the Liturgy of the Hours. But more and more laity are coming to know that this practice is not, in any way, restricted to ordained clerics through the spreading of information in media like EWTN Television, Immaculate Heart Radio, periodicals such as “Magnificat” and internet and smart-phone applications. And the daily office of hourly prayers isn’t a uniquely Catholic enterprise as well.

The order of worship of a vespers service is in union with this account from Acts 2:42- those baptized in Christ, after his resurrection “devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the community, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers.” And from whom did this devotion proceed? From Jesus Christ, the very model and ideal of prayer to God. He provided us with the epitome of prayer, the Lord’s Prayer, as well as commanding us throughout His Ministry to “pray, ask and seek.” He taught us that not only is prayer necessary, but that it should be humble, vigilant, persevering, confident, single-minded and in conformity with God’s nature. In so many words, we Christians are called by our Savior to integrate prayer into each and every day’s regular activities, and consecrate our time and actions to the glory of God. This also serves to recognize Christ as both bridge and fulfillment of the Old Covenant with that of the New. The apostle Simon Peter, or Cephas, to whom Jesus entrusted His Church and three times exhorted to “feed my lambs, tend my sheep,” is also documented in Acts as having “went up on the housetop to pray, about the sixth hour.” This practice evolved among the early apostolic Churches with traditional and common practices, including the custom of assigning common prayers to particular times, e.g. the last hour of daylight when lamps were lit and the daystar waned. The testament to this ancient Christian practice was documented by the Roman, Pliny the Younger, at the beginning of the 2nd century, where he speaks of liturgical reunions of the Christians in the morning and in the evening: "coetus antelucani et vespertini" (Ep., x, 97). Vespers is, therefore, together with Vigils, the most ancient Office known in the Church.
Vespers opens with the singing or chanting of the words. “O God, come to my assistance. O Lord, make haste to help me. Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning is now and ever shall be world without end. Amen. Alleluia.” It is interesting to note that along with the ancient Greek, Phos Hilaron, which declares Christ as God’s eternal light, the Trinitarian “Glory be…” is also one of the most ancient hymns of the primitive church. After that a hymn pertinent to the holy feast day, in this case, the birth of Mary, is sung by the congregation. It is important to note that this exaltation of the mother of the Lord has never, nor does constitute worship of her person. It is in concert with the essential creed of belief in the sacred communion between souls awaiting Christ’s Second Coming (in heaven, for example) and those of us alive on earth in this moment. Then two psalms and a New Testament canticle or song are then sung or recited, which then concluded with the doxology (Glory be to the Father….). The psalms are preceded and followed with an antiphon, a common scriptural refrain sung or recited by all as well. After the psalms, there is a reading from the Bible. Then a short responsorial consisting of a verse, a response, the “Glory be…” follows the scripture reading. Then the congregation sings the Magnificat — the canticle from the Gospel of Luke I:46-55. Prayers are then offered, followed by the Our Father, and then the closing prayer.
It is clear to see that the Solemn Vespers, as do all liturgies, have as their source, Holy Scripture from both Testaments. The community of Christian-Catholic believers of Visalia hope to see people of all traditions on September 8th filling the pews of St. Mary’s in Christian solidarity.