The Tradition of Choral Evensong

Adapted from the service leaflet for Evensong at the Washington National Cathedral.

It is an ancient tradition for the people of God to offer praise and prayer and praise as the day draws to a close. Choral Evensong is a service of sung evening prayer. The text of the service is drawn almost entirely from the Bible. The main purpose is to proclaim the wonderful works of God in human history, and in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Sung psalms and canticles are interwoven with readings from the Old and New Testaments and the recitation of the Apostles’ Creed and Lord’s Prayer. Other prayers and hymns are drawn from the many centuries of the Christian Church. The congregation is has an opportunity to listen reflectively and prayerfully as the choir offers prayer and praise on their behalf. Many find this frees them to offer to God their own thoughts and prayers.

A Typical Order of Service

The service begins with an organ voluntary, which is sometimes followed by a hymn in procession, during which the choir and clergy enter the nave of the church.

Opening Sentences from Holy Scripture

Preces
Officiant   O Lord, open thou our lips;
Choir         And our mouth shall show forth thy praise.
Officiant   O God, make speed to save us;
Choir         O Lord, make haste to help us.
Officiant   Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit;
Choir         As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be;
                   world without end. Amen.
Officiant   Praise ye the Lord.
Choir         The Lord’s Name be praised.

Then follows the Phos hilaron (or similar hymn), an ancient lamp-lighting hymn. Meaning “gladdening light,” it is among the earliest-known hymn texts recorded outside the Bible.

Phos hilaron

O gracious Light, pure brightness of the everliving Father in heaven, O Jesus Christ, holy and blessed! Now as we come to the setting of the sun, and our eyes behold the vesper light, we sing thy praises, O God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Thou art worthy at all times to be praised by happy voices, O Son of God, O Giver of life, and to be glorified though all the worlds.

Psalm

The people are seated and the choir sings the psalm appointed for the day. 

First and Second Lessons

Two lessons are read by a member of the clergy or a lector. Typically, the first lesson is taken from the Old Testament and the second lesson is from the New Testament. If Holy Eucharist is to follow as part of this service, the second lesson is customarily from one of the Gospels. After each reading, two traditional canticles are sung by the choir.

Magnificat

The Magnificat is the Blessed Virgin Mary’s song of thanksgiving in response to coming to know that she will bear the son of God, fulfilling the promises of the Old Testament. (Luke 1:46-55)

My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior. For he hath regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden. For behold from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed. For he that is mighty hath magnified me, and holy is his Name. And his mercy is on them that fear him throughout all generations. He hath showed strength with his arm; he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble and meek. He hath filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he hath sent empty away. He remembering his mercy hath holpen his servant Israel, as he promised to our forefathers, Abraham and his seed for ever. Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever. Amen.

Nunc dimittis

The Nunc dimittis is the song of the aged Simeon, who had been promised by the Holy Spirit that he would not die until he had seen the Messiah. Upon taking the infant Jesus into his arms, Simeon writes these words of thanksgiving. (Luke 2:29-32)

Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word; For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all people, To be a light to lighten the Gentiles, and to be the glory of thy people Israel. Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever. Amen.

The Apostles’ Creed

The Apostles’ Creed grew from statements of belief made by early Christians at their baptism. The Church continues to confess this same faith in the Holy Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

I believe in God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth; And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord; who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried. He descended into hell. The third day he rose again from the dead. He ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father almighty. From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead. I believe in the Holy Ghost, the holy catholic Church, the  communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.

The Lesser Litany

Officiant   The Lord be with you.
Choir         And with thy spirit.
Officiant   Let us pray.
Choir         Lord, have mercy upon us.
                   Christ, have mercy upon us.
                   Lord, have mercy upon us.

The choir and congregation pray the Lord’s Prayer. Found in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, this is the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples when explaining to them how they should pray.

Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy Name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into  temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen.

Responses
Officiant   O Lord, show thy mercy upon us:
Choir         And grant us this salvation.
Officiant   O Lord, save the State;
Choir         And mercifully hear us when we call upon thee.
Officiant   Endue thy ministers with righteousness;
Choir         And make thy chosen people joyful.
Officiant   O Lord, save thy people;
Choir         And bless thine inheritance.
Officiant   Give peace, in our time, O Lord;
Choir         Because there is none other that fighteth for us,
                    but only thou, O God.
Officiant   O God, make clean our hearts within us;
Choir         And take not thy Holy Spirit from us.

The officiant and choir sing a series of collects appointed for the day, each followed by a choral Amen.”Collect” comes from the Latin meaning “to gather,” a collect gathers into one the prayers of the congregation.

After Responses and Collects, the clergy may offer a homily and the choir will sing an anthem. Then the entire congregation says The General Thanksgiving.

Almighty God, Father of all mercies, we thine unworthy servants do give thee most humble and hearty thanks for all thy goodness and loving kindness to us and to all men. We bless thee for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life; but above all for thine inestimable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ; for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory. And, we beseech thee, give us that due sense of all thy mercies, that our hearts may be unfeignedly thankful; and that we show forth thy praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up our selves to thy service, and by walking before thee in holiness and righteousness all our days; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with thee and the Holy Ghost, be all honor and glory, world without end. Amen.

The service concludes with further prayers, a hymn, and a voluntary.

X