Fall 1984, Vol. 36, No. 3, pp. 236-242.

Robert Kress:
      Vespering: On Bent Days in Autumn

In autumn especially, when days grow short, the church's evening prayer closing the day echoes the evening of our lives passing into the night bright with God's redeeming love.

Father Kress, an associate professor in the Program of Religious Studies, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is also author of numerous articles and several books.

ON the road to Emmaus, two disciples prevailed upon their as yet unrecognized Lord, their, God and Brother. "Jesus made as though he would have gone further. But they constrained him. They said: Abide with us for it is toward evening, and the day is far spent" (Luke 24:19). The Latin text has two interesting plays on words, which we can capture in an alternate translation. "It is toward evening" is the translation of advesperascit, which obviously contains the English word vespers. We can make this into a verb, to reflect the Latin better. "The day is far spent" can also be translated differently, so that we can come up with the following version: "Do tarry with us, O Lord. The day is already bent over. It is vespering now, and evening is nigh."

Later on, Origen realized that for us human beings it is always vespers. By our very own created human nature, we are evening, always evening. For us the day is always bent over, inclining toward the dusty earth, the genesis and origin of our life's journey. Our vespering begins already at birth; it continues from the first moment to the last. To live is to vesper. Fortunately for all of us, the disciples at Emmaus did prevail upon Jesus to tarry there with them. Their eucharistic evening with Jesus revealed the meaning of all human vespering, theirs and ours.

Without this revelation, Origen's insight would be as melancholy as it is truthful. The liturgical celebration of vespers, moreover, would never allow us to forget this melancholy truth. As the sun, and along with it its day, inclines earthward, we bring our vespering life into prayerful reflection. These vesper prayers are evensong, songs sung in the evening of the inclined and still inclining day. Vespers in autumn are even more vesperal, for autumn is itself the vespers of the inclined and inclining year. Of what does this colorful and glorious evensong, daily and yearly, sing? Is vespers but one more of the many hours of the day, distinguished only because it is the last, before dark night finally falls? Is evensong but the annual autumnal prelude to bleak and gray winter, an overture dismally tolling death's summons to the drab darkness of its nether kingdom? There no colors chorus bright sun's day; only shades and shadows perversely paean death's triumph.


To chant vespers -- everyday but especially in autumn -- is not only to pray. It is to philosophize as well. For vespers in autumn inevitably summon forth the question of Being, which every human being is by its very being. That which was is no more. That which still is will soon be no more. Does the already bent day vesper relentlessly and irretrievably into a night of nothingness, where bewilderment counts as wisdom, where divinely shepherded being is not the home and hearth of our searching hearts, but empty space, the steppes and deserts of our relentless wanderings East of Eden? Some have been tempted to think so. So the melancholy musings of the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, who could wonder whether our vespering human being was not simply death -- toward and for the sake of death. Would not such death be a fitting ending for human existence, which Jean Paul Sartre's skepticism deemed a useless, worthless passion? After he proclaimed the death of God, Friedrich Nietzsche could not avoid wondering: "Do we not stumble constantly, lurching backwards, forwards, sidewards? Do we not wander through an endless nothing? Is not empty space breathing coldly down our necks? Isn't it colder now, colder? Doesn't night come on constantly, bearing down on us relentlessly? Is it not constantly night . . . and night . . . and night?" We too can wonder: Is such cold, empty, sunless space not a suitable sanctuary for the evensong of a race which vespers inexorably into endless, nocturnal nothingness? Are not our daily vespers simply the symbolic anticipation of those deadly last rites which will finally terminate all our bent days?

Even the two Emmaus disciples do not seem to have escaped this pessimism entirely, down of cast and closed of eye as they were, so sad and so slow to believe (Luke 24:17)! Perhaps the Greeks were correct to think that the best and greatest born was never to have been born at all, the worst and vilest bane a long life. The second best one could hope for was a quick end to the briefest of all possible interludes between the first dawning and the final vespering of that perplexed and perplexing puzzle known as the human being. Vespering truth would be obscuring darkness, then, not envisioning light. The dull stare of the blind, not the love's delightful contemplation of the beloved, would be the true visage of vespering humanity.

Exactly how close the vesper darkness of Emmaus came to confirming the dread-full darkness of the sixth hour of Golgotha for the two disciples we do not know. Could these Emmaus vespers not have been one more celebration of darkness as the time of treachery and treason? Could they not have been death's knell, tolling the dark hour of this world, doom's day? Some people have despaired and thought so.

But the Emmaus pilgrims should have known better, these disciples of the resurrected suffering servant of Yahweh, themselves the dear sons of this same Yahweh, creator of sun and moon, day and night, light and dark. For others, dark night may well have been the time when evil spirits roamed and wreaked hate's havoc. But the tradition of Adam and Eve, of Abraham and Jacob, of Jesus and Paul knows that God's mysteries also become cosmic reality and revelation in darkness, whether in the deep sleep of visions within or under the nightly canopy of the heavens without. For them, vespers do not intone a night of horrors, resounding with weeping and gnashing of teeth. For them, night is no longer the domain of demons, to be fled by even bravest heroes. In proclaiming that "a true and loyal person can gaze into the night and enjoy it, for the night makes us strong," the German poet Hölderlin was true to both Old and New Testaments. For powerful Yahweh, God of Abraham, is able to dispel not only the darkness of temporal enemies. He is even strong enough "to reconcile day with night." In the strong arm of Yahweh is our nightly strength. As the Psalmist (139:11-12) knew so well, for God, and Godly creatures too, "the night shineth as the day: the darkness and the light are both alike to thee." Not only is night no longer the time of demons to be fled. It is henceforth the time of delights to be embraced, for as older translations of the same psalm have it, "Night shall be my light in my pleasures."


How really delightful the pleasures of dark night can be is revealed by Jesus, the Christ of Yahweh God. The birth of the enlightening divine Logos, Son of Yahweh God, into human history is a nightly event. The midnight of Christmas "truly glows and shines with luminous truth." How pale, though, is even this nightly light compared to the vigil night of Easter, in which the demons of darkness are dispelled, finally, once and for all. Not only bright as day, the night of the resurrection of the Son is truly brighter than a thousand suns. It is the brightness of these nights that the evening in Emmaus recalls. In so recalling, it recalls still another evening, the eucharistic evening of Holy Thursday when Jesus prepared not only the evening of Emmaus, but the evening of eternity. The evening of Emmaus celebrates all three of these holy nights, reminding us that the night into which we inevitably vesper is not the darkness outside, but the blessed night of Christmas and the glorious night of Easter.

These holy and sacred nights of the Christians continue and consummate the holy and sacred nights of the Hebrews: the creation of humanity in the deep sleep of Eden's Adam, the liberation of humanity in Egypt's exodus. The darkness of these two events is not deadly but lively, not "not-ing" but be-ing. The darkness of these nights is not bewildering blindness and alienating exile which escape human comprehension. It is the vesture of the all-comprehending incomprehensible Mystery. Night, which had seemed to be the time of treachery and betrayal, is revealed to be the hour of divine creation and re-creation, in which God's friendship with humanity is sealed. Even the deathly darkness of sin cannot conquer the creative darkness of God. The mystery of nurturing divinity far surpasses the mystery of annihilating inquity. Deathly darkness, far from overcoming the light, has been encompassed and overcome by the Light of the world in the noonday darkness of the Cross. In the crucial overshadowing of the sixth to ninth hours, all demonic presumptions to the darkness have been undone. Dreadful darkness does indeed surround the cross's innocent victim, but it cannot engulf him. The final word spoken in the evening of Jesus' personal history is not the innocent victim's cry of despair, but the beloved son's confident commitment to Abba, Father. This Father -- neither the lowering skies above nor the yawning maws below -- is the true Beyond into which we finite and failing human beings inevitably vesper. Darkness there may indeed be at the end of our life's vespering voyage. It is not, however, the shadows of Sheol. It is the delight-full darkness of blessed Bethlehem, the exquisite evening of Emmaus, the paschal darkness of resurrection that is brighter than the thousand days of a thousand suns.


To our pilgrim eyes this Beyond may seem dark indeed. But that is only because the Beloved into which we ultimately vesper, the evenings of our own lives having been consummated, is the incomprehensible but all-comprehending, blessed, and forgiving Mystery whom we call God and who divinizes us. At the end of our lifelong vespering we are neither engulfed by nothingness nor swallowed by the bottomless pit. Evensong, the songs of life's and liturgy's vespers, is the overture to the endless embrace of that divine Beyond who was revealed, even and especially, in the evening darkness of the cross of Jesus, to be precisely Abba, our very dear Father (Mark 14:36). From this dark cross we also learn that the last words which will be spoken in the evening of the world's history will not be words of rejection but invitation: "This day thou shalt be with me in paradise" (Luke 23:43).

This paradise is the destiny and destination of all our vespering. To this destination we journey, Emmaus-like, through all the vespers of all the days of all the years of our lives. That this Christly paradise is our destiny is confirmed by the evening Eucharist in Emmaus. Not downcast and heavy hearted, therefore, like those two disciples still on their way toward Emmaus, do we vesper through life. Rather, like and because of them and the eucharistic revelation which they have handed on to us, we are believers, eager of heart and bright of visage. We no longer journey to a terrestrial city, but to the celestial Jerusalem, already abuilding even in our vespering world. The broken and blessed bread of that evening in Emmaus has revealed to us that even when our dim eyes see only darkly, Jesus remains the way, the truth, the life, and the light which guides our journey to a goal which Jesus, God among us, already is. Not only is it true that we are always evening. It is also true that evening is always Emmaus. Life is not only the itinerary of the mind into God, as St. Bonaventure reminded us; it is also an itinerary with God, as the Holy One and Holy Eucharist of Emmaus revealed to us. This journey of ours is not to a distant and alien beyond into which we reluctantly regress. Rather, in the shining night of Bethlehem, in the noonday darkness of Golgotha and the nocturnal glory of Jerusalem's environs, in the evening dusk of Emmaus is revealed to us that the true Beyond is already and irreversibly in our midst (Matt. 18:20; 28:20). Nightly terrors have been banished. Vespers is henceforth prelude to the nuptial night.

It remains true, of course -- Origen's insight that we are always evening. Indeed, our lives as well as our liturgies are always vesperal. Evening does not cease to come on, relentlessly, the night in its train. Our lives are even more vesperal in this season of autumn when light lessens, shadows spread. But the waning day of Emmaus insists that the vespers of life have always been encompassed and comprehended by that incomprehensible Mystery whose own incarnate vespering began not with the two disciples in Emmaus in the evening, but with the shepherds in Bethlehem at midnight, indeed with the humble maid of Nazareth in the Spirit's holy overshadowing. (Of course, the really first beginning was the walking of God and Adam in the cool evening breezes of paradise. But that is for another time).


The fiery and exultant night of Easter, the silent and holy night of Christmas (in German it is simply the "blessed night": Weihnacht) have rescued and redeemed darkness from bedevilment and bewilderment. No longer is night the torture chamber for the torment of fiends. From now on it is the festal chamber for the delights of friends and lovers. And vespers are truly evensong. In these evening songs we blend our voices with that Song of Songs which celebrates the marriage of God and humanity. Like the lovers of that Song, we too hasten and hurry over the hills and through the dales of all our bent and inclining days. For these evenings, which comprise our lives, meld into that mystical nuptial night in which heaven is wed to earth, indissolubly, in each one of us. It is into this night of delights that we vesper, inevitably, to be sure, but also confidently. Bethlehem and Emmaus have created a new virtue for us, which Meister Eckhart christened Gelassenheit. It means that we need not greedily grasp and cling to the evenings of life; we would only lose them anyhow (Matt. 16:25). Now we know that we can relax and let go, with Christly assurance that we shall not fall into a bottomless abyss, but into the limitless loving embrace of Abba, Father. Of course, because we are thus relaxed we may also run and hurry on our way. For Christly people the vespers of life are the simultaneous celebration of relaxed detachment and urgent energy. We know this because midnight Bethlehem and evening Emmaus have revealed that darkness no longer signals the deprival of light. Rather, darkness is the contrast which enables us to see how really bright is the true light which dawned in the divine philanthropy of Jesus at Bethlehem (Titus 2:11; 3:4).

Therefore we hurry, shepherdlike, not only to Bethlehem to see the wondrous birth of the Light of the world; we also pilgrimage, disciplelike, to Emmaus to eat the wondrous bread of the Life of the world. Both earthly villages remind us that, although we are always evening, our days vesper not into the empty darkness of Sheol below, but through autumnal plenitude into the celestial Jerusalem above, where light and dark, day and night no longer succeed one another, but coincide in the eternal now of the divine mystery. The final bending of all the bent days of our autumnal being is not into earthly dust and death. All our days, bent as they may be, vesper into an eternal day where shadows have faded forever, where darkness is splendor and luminous as light, for there God is all in all (1 Cor. 15:28).

These are the vespers which Christians live and chant.