Question: Why does the liturgical day begin at sundown, given that liturgical tradition has generally favored mornings (e.g. mass only celebrated in the morning)? When vespers is prayed, is it vespers of the day just ending, or the day just beginning? And if it’s the day just beginning, does Ash Wednesday have vespers the day before?
Frank answers: The first chapter of Genesis establishes the pattern of the liturgical day. After each of the six days of creation, the priestly author writes: “And there was evening and there was morning, the first/second/third etc. day.” God was apparently working through the night. “He who watches over Israel slumbers not nor sleeps.” If the day is reckoned to begin with sunrise and end with sunset, the night falls out of the picture entirely. In the biblical reckoning of time, night is accounted for.
From this reckoning of time in Genesis (perhaps reflecting already the Jewish reckoning of time) the day begins in the evening. So the Sabbath begins on the Sabbath eve. All the Jewish holy days and festivals begin on the eve of the day. The Christian Church continued this practice. The liturgical day begins with sundown. Since the prayer office of Vespers (Evening Prayer) is prayed at sundown, Vespers is the hinge between the day that has ended and the next liturgical day that is beginning. The light and blessing of the evening lamps (lucernarium) and the Phos hilaron hymn (Joyous light of glory may be sung at the beginning of Vespers (which may originally have had a practice purpose since the sun was going down)
Another thing we modern people who use electricity are not sensitive to is that in the ancient world (and actually not so long ago), during the time when the nights could be longer than the daylight (like between the autumnal and vernal equinoxes in the northern hemisphere ) people probably went to sleep not long after sundown; otherwise they would be burning lots of candles. But they tended to have two sleeps. They woke up in the middle of the night to do various things—use the privy, stoke the fires, have a midnight snack, greet neighbors who might also be awake, have sex. Then they went back to sleep until sunrise. The early Christian household had a prayer vigil during the night, like the bridesmaids in Jesus’s parable who waited for the bridegroom who arrived at midnight. These nocturnal vigils became the basis of the nocturnal office of Matins in the monasteries. The nocturnal vigil is the longest of the daily round of eight prayer offices that form the liturgy of the hours. It was usually celebrated between midnight and 3 a.m. The ancient Church had vigils for the Sunday Eucharist and for the great festivals. Midnight liturgies are still observed on Christmas Eve and Easter Eve throughout the Christian world. Thus, the biggest services occur in the middle of the night, the time of darkness. They are celebrated in candlelight.
Paschal (Easter) Vigil in an Orthodox Church
You ask about Vespers on the Eve of Ash Wednesday. Shrove Tuesday presents a complicated liturgical situation. The name “Shrove” comes from the old English “shriven,” meaning to be absolved of one’s sins. Yes, Mardi Graz is going on—“Fat Tuesday.” But consider that Fat Tuesday is the end of the carnival season, not the entire time of festivity. It was the day on which all the fat left over from the cooking of meat (which was eaten during festivals in older times, not every day like we do) was consumed before Lent began. Lent is a forty day season of fasting—i.e. no meat. (“Carnival” means “farewell to meat”.) So people made their pancakes and sausages to use up the fat and then went to be shriven. They confessed their sins, received their absolution, and had their penances assigned. For most Christians the penances would be the fasting, almsgiving, and extra prayers during lent. So, yes, there would be a Vespers on Shrove Tuesday which liturgically was for Ash Wednesday.
The question asks also about Mass (the Eucharist) only being celebrated in the morning. Originally, the Eucharist was celebrated in the evening, probably in the form of a Greco-Roman symposium meal. It was called the Lord’s Supper, implying an evening meal. In German the Eucharist is still called Abendmal, even though it may be celebrated in the morning.
The Emperor Trajan issued an empire-wide ban on supper clubs at the beginning of the second century. He apparently had reason to believe that subversive talk went on in these symposium meals. So Christians also, whose supper gatherings in private homes or rented taverns probably looked like supper clubs, disbanded their evening gatherings and began meeting in the morning. At this point the sacramental elements of bread and wine were extracted from the full meal since these were the essential elements of the Eucharist. Once the ban was removed, Christians continued meeting at daybreak on Sundays for the Eucharist (Sunday was still a work day in the Roman world). An agape meal was instituted at evening gatherings that is separate from the Eucharist in the ancient church orders.
Roman Catholic liturgical law legislated morning as the time for the Eucharist except for the evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Maundy Thursday. But this does not apply to non-Roman Catholic traditions. In the Byzantine Rite, for example, the Liturgy of the Pre-Sanctified (communion from the reserved consecrated elements) is observed on Wednesdays and Fridays during Lent at the end of Vespers. Thus, In the Eastern Rites Holy Communion is an evening meal. Roman Catholics celebrate the Mass of the Pre-Sanctified only on Good Friday. Protestants celebrate services of Holy Communion in the evening as well as in the morning.
Pastor Frank Senn