The new Roman Missal, with its careful translation of the underlying Latin text, provides an opportunity for us to rediscover the prayers of the Mass. There is an added benefit: By focusing our attention on the riches contained in the Church’s liturgical tradition, the missal can also help us to unearth other treasures. One of these is Vespers (Evening Prayer) from the Office of the Dead, which can be used for the Vigil of the deceased (Order of Christian Funerals, Nos. 386–395). (There is also an option of using Lauds [Morning Prayer] when the funeral takes place the evening before the burial [Nos. 348, 367].) 

By way of background, the funeral rites, based on the practice of Christian Rome, mimic the soul’s passage from one life to the next: “The funeral liturgy mirrored the journey of human life, the Christian pilgrimage to the heavenly Jerusalem” (No. 42). Along the funeral pilgrimage, there are, ideally, three “stations” or stops: (1) the Vigil (more commonly known as the “wake”); (2) the Funeral Mass or, if this is not possible, the Funeral Liturgy Outside of Mass; and (3) the Rite of Committal (Nos. 42, 44). Each of these rites emphasizes a particular dimension of the Church’s prayer for the deceased (see Nos. 56, 154, 206). 

Along the funeral pilgrimage, there are three “stations,” or stops: (1) the vigil (wake); (2) the Funeral Mass, or Funeral Liturgy Outside of Mass; and (3) Rite of Committal. The Crosiers photo

We read that “The vigil for the deceased is the principal rite celebrated by the Christian community following death and before the funeral liturgy, or if there is no funeral liturgy, before the rite of committal” (No. 54). (Thus, while devotions such as praying the Rosary are commendable, they do not possess the same value or efficacy as the Vigil, which is the official prayer of the Church.) 

Two options are provided for the Vigil: (1) a Liturgy of the Word, or (2) some form of the Office of the Dead from the Liturgy of the Hours (No. 54). In practice, the Vigil usually takes the form of a Liturgy of the Word. While this is certainly legitimate, it can blur the distinction between the wake and the Funeral Mass. Mourners might not understand why they have done the same thing twice — listen to a series of biblical readings — even though the two settings (the Vigil and the Funeral Mass) are different. 

By contrast, Vespers complements the Funeral Mass in various ways. First, this prayer is clearly distinct from the Mass. Second, it introduces Catholics — and non-Catholics who may be in attendance — to another part of the Church’s worship. Third, it allows the minister (a priest, or in his absence a deacon, or in their absence a layperson [see Nos. 14, 371]) to preach on biblical texts — especially the Psalms — that are usually not the subject of homilies. These readings beautifully express the Church’s hope amid death, and thereby bring comfort to those who mourn. 

‘Stretches’ the Grace of Mass

Vespers, as a key element of the Liturgy of the Hours, belongs to the divine worship of the Church; therefore, it is closely tied to the Eucharist. As the name “Liturgy of the Hours” implies, this prayer “stretches” the grace of the Mass throughout time. “To the different hours of the day the liturgy of the hours extends the praise and thanksgiving, the memorial of salvation, the petitions and the foretaste of heavenly glory that are present in the eucharistic mystery. . .” (General Instruction of the Liturgy of the Hours, No. 12). 

Psalmody (the recitation of the Psalms) lies at the heart of the Liturgy of the Hours (No. 100), Vespers included. Christ himself prayed the Psalms while on earth (Order of Christian Funerals, Nos. 25, 355). From the cross, for example, he cries out to the Father in the words of Psalm 22: “‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?’ which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’” (Mt 27:46; cf. Mk 15:34). Moreover, the Psalms come to fulfillment in Christ’s death and resurrection, which is the essential proclamation of the funeral rites and the whole liturgy of the Church. As the risen Lord tells the disciples en route to Emmaus, “Everything written about me in the law of Moses and in the prophets and Psalms must be fulfilled” (Lk 24:44) (General Instruction of the Liturgy of the Hours, No. 109). 

In his Apostolic Constitution Laudis Canticum (1970), by which he promulgated the revised Liturgy of the Hours, Pope Paul VI explained that Psalmody “continually ponders and proclaims the action of God in the history of salvation” (No. 8). Thus, the Psalms set the Church’s “rhythm” of prayer. Nowhere does this prayerful cadence resonate more clearly than in the Vigil for the deceased. For as the name “vigil” or “wake” suggests, the Church “keeps watch” over the body of the deceased. Using the Psalms as her voice, the Church prays for the soul to reach heaven, and for the family and friends to be comforted: “At the vigil the Christian community keeps watch with the family in prayer to the God of mercy and finds strength in Christ’s presence” (Order of Christian Funerals, No. 56). 

(This notion of the Church’s “keeping watch” — praying on behalf of the deceased — is particular to the Vigil; by contrast, the focus of the Funeral Mass is on the deceased’s sharing in the Paschal Mystery, which is “Christ’s Passover from death to life” [No. 154; see also No. 5]. For its part, the Rite of Committal emphasizes the future resurrection of the body, and points to “the communion that exists between the Church on earth and the Church in heaven” [No. 206].) 

The Church’s duty to “keep watch,” and the hope that inspires this, finds a lovely expression in Psalm 130, which is the second Psalm prayed in Vespers from the Office of the Dead (No. 358). Psalm 130 is classified as one of the seven Penitential Psalms, which express the sinner’s lament and trust in God’s mercy. 

The message of Psalm 130, filled with hope, is stupendous: 

My soul is waiting for the Lord, 
I count on his word. 
My soul is longing for the Lord 
more than watchman for daybreak. 
Let the watchman count on daybreak 
and Israel on the Lord. 
Because with the Lord there is mercy 
and fullness of redemption, 
Israel indeed he will redeem 
from all its iniquity. 

Just as the sentinel can be sure that the sun will rise — he will be relieved of his duty and find rest — so Israel, and the Church, can be sure that God will be faithful to his promises. The certainty of sunrise gives the watchman strength to keep going; the Church’s sure faith in the resurrection of Christ dispels the doubt and anxiety that surround death. This message will help the relatives and friends of the deceased to realize that they are not alone in their suffering, for the Church accompanies them. 

As the sentinel keeps watch during the night, so the Church “keeps watch” over the body of the deceased. In the evening of life, with death approaching, the “evening” Sacrifice of Christ (cf. Ps 141:2), begun at the Last Supper (cf. Mt 26:20; Mk 14:17; Lk 22:14; Jn 13:1), shines as a beacon (see General Instruction of the Liturgy of the Hours, No. 39). Thus, “Through evening prayer from the office of the dead, the community gives thanks to God for the gift of life received by the deceased and praises the Father for the redemption brought about by the sacrifice of his Son, who is the joy-giving light and the true source of hope” (Order of Christian Funerals, No. 351). 

It is worth noting that the term “vespers” is derived from the Latin word vespera, which means, “evening.” Indeed, the Church prays Evening Prayer through the “night” of death, which eventually gives way to the rising “sun” of Christ’s resurrection (cf. Mt 28:1; Mk 16:2; Lk 24:1), celebrated at the Funeral Mass the following day (see Nos. 154, 350). (Significantly, the liturgy applies the title of “Radiant Dawn” [cf. Is 9:1] to Christ, especially in the “O” antiphons used during Advent.) 

Practical Suggestions

We will now consider some practical suggestions for praying Vespers at the Vigil of the deceased. It should be noted that the Order of Christian Funerals states that Evening Prayer can be adapted according to various circumstances (No. 370). Thus, while Vespers is suitably prayed at the conclusion of the visitation that often takes place in the funeral home, it can also be prayed in the home of the deceased, or in the church (No. 369). It can include the Reception of the Body (No. 353), and can even be combined with the main funeral rite (the Funeral Mass or the Funeral Liturgy Outside of Mass), in which case the entire celebration should not be too lengthy (No. 369). 

Because of its value for the whole Church, the Liturgy of the Hours, including Vespers, should be prayed in common when possible (Nos. 20, 33), and with the participation of lay people (Nos. 21, 32). In this way, the public recitation of the Liturgy of the Hours embodies the nature of the Church: a community that gathers to worship God, and whose members care for one another, particularly those who are mourning (No. 9). 

Liturgical tradition allows the Psalms to be prayed in various ways, with a preference that they be sung (No. 356; General Instruction of the Liturgy of the Hours, No. 268). However, since it can be difficult to arrange for cantors and / or musical accompaniment at a wake, the Psalms may also be recited. Here, as a practical matter, it works best to divide the Psalmody between the minister and the people. This is permitted (see Order of Christian Funerals, No. 356), and tends to be more straightforward than other approaches. 

Prepare a Program

The Order of Christian Funerals recommends that a program be prepared to facilitate the people’s participation (No. 372). In this respect, it is helpful to create a simple worship aid that follows a basic rule: all of the people’s parts (sung or recited) should in boldface type; thus, it will be clear that all other texts will be read by the minister (or, in the case of the reading, responsory, and petitions, by a lector). It is useful, before Vespers begins, for the minister to briefly introduce the Liturgy of the Hours, and to review the mechanics of its recitation (see No. 368). The key point is to tell the people that they need only say or sing what is in boldface type. 

Three possible adaptations of Vespers at a Vigil are noteworthy. First, the reading provided in the Office of the Dead may be replaced by a longer reading found in Part III of the Order of Christian Funerals, entitled “Texts of Sacred Scripture.” (The same texts are found under the heading of “Masses for the Dead” in the volume four of the Lectionary for Mass.) Second, a nonbiblical reading, such as that used in the Office of Readings, may be added (although it should not replace the biblical reading) (No. 360). Third, if Vespers is celebrated in a more solemn manner in a church — for example, when the Psalms are sung (No. 372) — then the altar, the minister, and the people may be incensed during the Canticle of Mary (Magnificat) (No. 363). 

Regarding vesture, the Order of Christian Funerals notes that, especially when Vespers is celebrated in a church, a priest or deacon is to wear either an alb with stole, or a cassock and surplice with a stole; a cope may also be used (No. 371). As with the all of the funeral rites, one of three liturgical colors is permitted: white, violet (purple), or black (No.39). Since, as we have noted, Vespers can serve as a Vigil for the deceased, which has a different focus than the Funeral Mass, it may be helpful to wear a different color than that which will be worn the following day. Thus, violet may be most appropriate, since it evokes the themes of the Vigil: penance and intercession (as during Lent), combined with hopeful expectation (as during Advent). 

The celebration of Vespers, which sustains the spiritual life of priests, also sustains those who mourn. According to the dramatic image of Psalm 130, the Church “keeps watch” over the deceased and his or her family. This is a witness to the hope found in Christ, whose resurrection is the “daybreak” that overcomes death.

FATHER MARQUES is a priest of the Diocese of Richmond and is pastor of Sacred Heart Parish in Danville, Va.