Vespers an Introduction
The Roman Divine Office seems to have achieved a stable structure in the 8th century, though other features of this Office date back much further (4th century or earlier see Dobszay, Critical Reflections on the Bugnini Liturgy: The Divine Office, p. 3). For my purpose, describing the basic structure of the Offices, a look at the Office as it was around the time of Charlemagne suffices. This a convenient point to start, but in no way indicates an ideal age* to which we must return. The liturgical day begins with Vespers following the order of creation in Genesis. Vespers, as Battifol suggests, is one of the three components of the Nocturnal course and is followed by Matins and Lauds. The second group of offices is Terce, Sext and None comprising three diurnal offices. The last group consists of Compline and Prime.
Vespers and Lauds are sister offices. They are placed at the pivots the day where darkness gives way to light and light to darkness. The predominant tone of these offices is praise. They progress from from Old testament Psalms through the Chapter and Hymn to the New Testament Canticle concluded by the Collect (or collects for often there are more than one). The story of fall and salvation is thus contained in the structure of these offices from prophecy to fulfillment. In the words of Prof Dobszay: “from Creation (psalms) through redemption (hymn, canticle) to sanctification (collect)” (Dobszay, Critical Reflections, p. 4). The Office of Vespers begins with Opening Versicles which is invariably followed by five Psalms (well, except in the Office of St. Benedict where there are only four) and each Psalm has an antiphon. A Chapter, Hymn, Versicles, Antiphon, Magnificat, (sometimes Preces) and is finally concluded by the Collect.
*(Archaeologism is – in my view anyway – ill suited in Liturgics. Archeologism has corrupted the understanding of Liturgy as “given” and has rendered Liturgy malleable. Liturgy is now what we create rather than Liturgy is God’s given means to re-create us in His Image and Likeness. This explains such disastrous projects as the Book of Common Prayer in the English Catholic tradition and the Liturgy of the Hours in the Roman Catholic tradition.)
Deus in adiutoriam …
In the Anglican Breviary there are devotions given with which we may prepare ourselves to perform the Divine Office. These are the Prayers before the Office and consist of the Aperi Domine, The Prayer of St. Gertrude, Pater Noster, Ave Maria, and the Credo. These are not constituent parts of the Divine Office but devotions in preparation to the Divine Office (this is not to discourage them from use, but just to clarify what they are and are not).
The Office itself begins with “O God, make speed to save me. * O Lord, make haste to help me.” which is a citation taken from Psalm 70 vs. 1 (see Anglican Breviary, p. B123 & A2 though the translations of the verse vary slightly). The liturgical historian Father Pierre Battifol speculated at this point (see History of the Roman Breviary, p. 70) that the entire Psalm used to be said here not just the first verse. He provides some evidence for his assertion based on Chrodegang Regula 14 where it is said that Psalm 70 is recited out of Choir in the Dormitory preceding the Divine Office. Perhaps Battifol’s suggestion is not unreasonable but it is also not entirely convincing either. Saint Chrodegang did not in fact say that Psalm 70 was recited as the beginning of the Office and Amalrius of Metz a little later also seems to know nothing of such a practice:
Because of the aforementioned wild beasts, our shepherd says: “God, come to my assistance; Lord make haste to help me.” At the beginning of the office he requests that they be unable to succeed to such an extent as to separate someone from our gathering through their cleverness.
Amalarius of Metz, On the Liturgy, Bk 4. 2. 11.
It is, I suppose, possible that Amalarius is referencing the whole Psalm by its first verse but it seems a rather clumsy way to do it (if indeed he intended to indicate the whole Psalm which the text does not say). As it is it seems a more natural way to read Amalarius as confirming our traditional custom of just using the first verse. Be that as it may the custom of simply using the first verse is entirely appropriate to begin the Office with. In fact, when you think about it, reciting the first verse rather than the whole Psalm seems to a better use rather than reciting the whole Psalm. Using only the first verse directs the attention to the specific content of this verse rather than distributing the focus at the beginning of the Office over the whole of Psalm 70. The invocation of God’s help to be able to pray is – it seems to me – better achieved with simple recitation of the first verse rather than the whole Psalm.
Psalm 70 vs 1 is followed by the Doxology which immediately gives the Office a specifically Christian shape. The doxology praises the Holy Trinity, as Father, Son, and Holy Ghost in the way St. Basil the Great had adapted it. The doxology accomplishes several things. On the one hand it makes immediately clear that the God of the Bible (the God invoked for help in Psalm 70) is none other but the Most Holy Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. This is an important point being made here. The God of the Scriptures is not the deity worshipped by Judaism, Islam, and certainly not the deity (or any of the deities) of the various forms of polytheism. The God of the Scriptures, as Christians know Him, is the Trinity. It is the Trinitarian God who is invoked to come to our help and assistance that we may be able to pray and commune with Him.
The Doxology itself also has an interesting history. Up until at least the time of St. Basil the Great (4th Century) the traditional form of the Doxology had been: Glory be to the Father, Through the Son, in the Holy Ghost. Some heretical teachers had used the different prepositions used for Father, Son and Holy Ghost to assert a difference of nature between Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. So that to the Father, through the Son, and in the Holy Ghost were taken as proving this point in a liturgical form. Clearly, it was argued, the Son and the Spirit are oriented toward the Father and thus subject to Him, and therefore different in nature from Him. The Glory, after all, is offered to the Father and not to the Son nor the Holy Ghost. St. Basil immediately recognized this was not the traditional understanding of the this liturgical formula and he countered the heretical assertion by laying down the traditional theology of the Trinity while also adapting the liturgical formula to Glory be to the Father, with the Son, and with the Holy Ghost which in our Western formula is Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost. This formula leaves no room for the assertion of a difference of nature in the Trinity. The basilian formula is unambiguously Trinitarian.