“Let my prayer be set forth in your sight as incense, the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice.” Psalm 141:2
It’s late afternoon on Sunday: the day is drawing to a close, and ahead lies a busy week. Before it begins, Evensong presents us with a time of quiet contemplation and prayer. Words and music come together to enrich each other, to calm and uplift our souls as we pray.
Archbishop Thomas Cranmer (1489 – 1586) created the service of Evensong through the fusion of Vespers and Compline, which were part of the daily cycle of prayer in medieval monasteries. The service is drawn almost entirely from the Bible. Its primary purpose is an act of praise to God, proclaiming the miracle of His presence in history and in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Its secondary purpose is to evoke from the worshipper a response of praise, penitence, prayer and obedience.
The service is in three parts. The first part, through versicles and responses, prepares the worshipper for the story that is to follow. The second part is the narrative of God’s redeeming work, beginning with the psalms. The recitation of the psalter is at the heart of monastic worship, and this is reflected in the composition of Evensong. The story of God’s work continues in readings from the Old and New Testaments. Canticles of praise in response to this story are taken from the gospels. . The Magnificat is the song of Mary, her hymn of praise to God as she became aware that she was to be the mother of Jesus. The Nunc Dimittis is the song of Simeon, a song of thanksgiving by a man who had waited all his life to see the Messiah. This part reaches its climax in the Affirmation of Faith.
The third part is our prayerful response to God who has been revealed in history, in Jesus Christ, and in the Church. We kneel to address God and make our supplications, drawing on the encouragement of the promise that God will hear our prayers when “two or three are gathered together” in his name.
Each service is an act of worship addressed not to us, but to God, an act of thanksgiving and an act of intercession for all. Proponents of Choral Evensong believe singing adds a valuable dimension to the spiritual experience of worship. As St. Augustine said, “Anyone who sings, prays twice.”
Acknowledgements: Text adapted from publications of King’s College, Cambridge, and Coventry Cathedral, as found at Third Presbyterian Church, Rochester (no longer available).