Home > how-come? > On Commemorations in the Evening

On Commemorations in the Evening

A couple of people who use the breviary have asked what seems to a simple and straight-forward question:

Q: Why are there commemorations in the evening?

I’ve got a fairly simple answer, but I’m not going to give it yet. The reason is because there a lot more to this question than meets the eye. So—the first order of business is actually to explain the question, then I can get on to explaining the answer.

What’s a Commemoration?

The first step is to explain what the heck a “commemoration” is.

If a feast day falls on a Sunday or on another more important feast day, there are three basic strategies for dealing with it: suppression, transference or commemoration. That is, you can either keep the more important and ignore the less important, keep the more important and move the less important out to a more convenient (empty) day, or keep the more important but add in some selected elements from the less important.

Some kalendars—particularly those with quite a lot of saints—put some saints into a category of “memorial” or perpetual commemoration, meaning that even if they fall on an otherwise empty day, they’ll still only receive a commemoration rather than a proper office of their own. In the current St Bede’s Breviary, the kalendars from the Anglican Missal and the English/Knox Missal have occasions like these.

The way that we construct a commemoration for the Office is by taking three propers and bundling them together: the antiphon from the gospel canticle, the verse and response after the hymn, and the appointed collect. This prayer-packet is then inserted after the collect of the day.  For instance, this is the morning commemoration for St Swithun (Rite I), appointed by the English Missal for July 15th:

Commemoration of Swithun, Bishop of Winchester, c.862

Well done, good and faithful servant, * because thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things, saith the Lord.

V. The Lord guided the righteous in right paths.
R. And showed him the kingdom of God.

O God, our heavenly Father, who didst raise up thy faithful servant Swithun to be a bishop and pastor in thy Church and to feed thy flock: Give abundantly to all pastors the gifts of thy Holy Spirit, that they may minister in thy household as true servants of Christ and stewards of thy divine mysteries; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

So, the spacing helps you see the antiphon from the gospel canticle, the verse and response from the hymn, and then the collect. In this particular case, both the antiphon and the versicle are from the common of confessor bishops who weren’t martyrs; the collect is from the BCP’s common of priests.

So, in the Office, that’s a commemoration: a prayer-packet acknowledging a feast that doesn’t get a full celebration that is placed after the collect of the day.

What About the “Evening”?

Now, if you look in a number of Roman Catholic or Anglo-Catholic devotional materials, you note that commemorations are the kind of thing that tend to happen in the morning. For instance, the current (11th) edition of Ritual Notes states that for ordinary commemorations (which is what we’re dealing with here):

All other commemorations whatever are described as “ordinary,” and are made at Matins [Morning Prayer] and low Mass (and conventual solemn Masses) only; not, therefore, at parochial high or sung Mass, nor ever at Evensong, whether first or second (p. 269)

So—that seems pretty clear, doesn’t it?

Now we’re in a position to properly appreciate the question: Why are there commemorations in the evening?

It would seem that in doing so, I’m using an Anglo-Catholic custom, but then turning around and flying in the face of Anglo-Catholic custom…which does seem rather contradictory.

My Answer

There are, of course, two answers—the short answer and the long answer—and I’ll present them both in turn.

The short answer: The St Bede’s Breviary begins with the assumptions of the 1979 American Book of Common Prayer and then adds elements from catholic tradition to it.  In my application of catholic tradition, I have weighed historical use in relation to the underlying liturgical and theological logics that have driven and determined that use. In cases where the underlying logic is contrary to or nonsensical in relation to the ’79 BCP, I have either searched for a reasonable Anglican alternative or have followed my own best judgment. (My wife can give her own commentary on how successfully the latter course of action normally turns out…)

The long answer is an explanation of how the short answer works. To do that, we’ll have to begin with a quick introduction to medieval methods for structuring liturgical time…

Medieval Methods for Structuring Liturgical Time

The Western Church has tended to sort days into one of two categories: feasts days and regular days (aka ferial days or simply ferias [Yes, that’s not a correct Latin plural—deal with it.]). A feria is reckoned the same way a secular day is; it starts and ends at midnight. Speaking litgurically according to the old canonical hours, therefore,  ferias begin with Matins at 3:30 AM or so and end with the conclusion of Compline at around 8:30 PM. Feast days work on a slightly different axis.

Following Jewish tradition and therefore the practice of the first generations of Christians, feast days begin at sundown on the day prior to the feast and end at sundown on the day of the feast. However, sundown is easier said than scheduled. As a result, there’s a de facto “liturgical sundown.” On regular feasts—Simple feasts to use the technical term—the feast began at the Little Chapter during Vespers then would run through the end of the None Office the next day. Thus, a Simple feast is actually a little bit shorter than a full day; if back-to-back Simple feasts show up in the kalendar, it actually creates a little gap.

Example: on Monday, February 13th, in 1486, the Feast of St Valentine started at Vespers with the Little Chapter. February 14th continued the feast as it  ran through Compline on the night of the 13th, Matins in the wee hours of the morning on the 14th, Lauds, and the Little Hours up through None and therefore to the late afternoon. At that point, the feast of St Valentine ended. Vespers began as the Vespers for Tuesday, following the psalms appointed for Tuesday. After the opening and the psalms, though, the feast of Sts. Faustinus and Jovita starts and continues through the rest of the 14th and the 15th as far as None.

This looks confusing, but makes perfect sense if you recall one basic principle: the psalms for Lauds and the Little Hours were mostly static; to cover all of the psalms in a week (RB 18.22-25), 1-108 were covered at Matins and 109-147 were covered at Vespers (roughly). If proper psalms kept being appointed for feasts there’s no way they’d make it through the last third of the psalter!

Not all feasts are equal, though; not all feasts are Simple. The more important feasts were referred to as Doubles, presumably because at some point in the Early Church a regular Office of the day was said, then an additional Office was said for the saint or feast. By the time we have extant manuscripts and descriptions of Offices, though, this was not the case. Instead, Doubles were lengthened according to their importance. A Double began at the beginning of Vespers on the Day before, continued through Compline into the feast day proper and did not end after None but continued on through a second Vespers and a second Compline. Thus, a Double had two Vespers, one on the evening before the feast and one on the feast itself. (It had two Complines as well, but Vespers is a much larger, more involved, and more variable Office than Compline, so a second Compline has little practical effect on the liturgy’s celebration.

In theory, you might expect that most feasts would be Simples and that the more important feasts would be Doubles. And perhaps that how it was at one point. By the modern period, however, it was not the case. Looking at the kalendar of Pius Xth from 1920, we see that of the 296 fixed festal days of the year, 256 were Doubles of some sort; only 27 were Simples. (And it may be alleged that the psalm issue had something to do with it—the festal psalm sequence used for Vespers on Doubles tended to be a bit shorter than the ferial sequences; messing with the psalms was sometimes the intention!)

So to recap, in the West through the reforms of Pius X three kinds of days were reckoned differently in the church:

  • ferial days ran from midnight to midnight, starting at Matins and running to the end of Compline
  • Simple feasts ran from evening to evening in a shorter sense, starting from the Little Chapter at Vespers and running until the end of the  None Office
  • Double feasts ran from evening to the next night, starting at the beginning of Vespers the evening before and running through Compline on the day of the feast
  • (I’m skipping semidoubles because they don’t even begin to touch on what we’re talking about!)

Now—if there were a case of occurrence, two feasts happening on the same day, between a Double and a Simple, then the Double would get all of its regular offices and the Simple would get a commemoration after the Double’s Collect of the Day for its evening-before Vespers and its Lauds.

Then the 1950’s happened…

The Twentieth Century really was the great age of liturgical tumult for the breviary. First, Pius Xth started fussing with things in the ‘Teens and ‘Twenties, then we had the ‘Fifties and the run-up to the seismic shift that would occur with the Second Vatican Council in the ‘Sixties. In March of 1955, the Roman Catholic Congregation for Sacred Rites put out a document that radically changed how time was reckoned. It did so by stripping all feasts except for Doubles of the First and Second Class (Christmas, Easter, Feasts of Apostles, etc.) of their First Vespers. This meant that a Simple feast no longer went from its First Vesper to the following None, instead it went only from Matins to None.

Example: on  February 13th in 1956, the Feast of St Valentine didn’t start until the next day. February 14th began the feast with Matins in the wee hours of the morning, Lauds, and the Little Hours up through None and therefore to the late afternoon. At that point, the feast of St Valentine ended.

But what happened if the 14th were a Sunday? (No, I didn’t look it up…) St Valentine would only receive a commemoration at Lauds.  Since the feast only extended from Matins to None, it wasn’t celebrated at any Vespers whatsoever! As a result, it wouldn’t properly be commemorated at any Vespers whatsoever either.

Ritual Notes, 11th edition, quoted above was printed in 1964. Hence, following the new (Roman Catholic) rules that went into effect in 1956, it is correct. However, any time before 1956, a commemoration would have occurred at the Vespers on the evening-before when the First (and only) Vespers of the Simple was to be celebrated. (See the rubrics regarding commemorations in the Anglican Breviary and Monastic Diurnal for this practice.)

In light of all of this, my contention is that the commemorations-are-only-for-the-morning logic is based on a particular means of simplifying a historical method for reckoning the length of feast days.

When we come to the ’79 BCP, it knows nothing of Simple feasts that extend from the previous evening to the day’s afternoon. It does recognize the First Vespers of Principal Feasts, Sundays and Holy Days as it provides Eves for Calendar categories 1 and 3 and gives this note on the introduction to the Collects: “The Collect appointed for any Sunday or other Feast may be used at the evening service of the day before” (p. 158). However, there is no sign that the Days of Optional Observance are celebrated outside the boundaries of the natural day (i.e., midnight to midnight as we Americans normally tend to reckon them).

As a result, a Day of Optional Observance—which would be our version of a Simple—would be celebrated at both Morning and Evening Prayer. Therefore, if it were to be impeded through occurrence, it would likewise make sense to commemorate it at both Morning and Evening Prayer.

Thus, I agree wholeheartedly with the practice of commemorations and include them in the St Bede’s Breviary. However, I think the “traditional” practice of only using them in the morning is based in a logic that is at odds with both our prayer book and the way that we keep time.


Categories: how-come?
  1. (Rev) Wm D. Loring
    July 15, 2011 at 12:23 am

    I follow your reasoning, and with one exception, have long used it in my own recitation of the Office. The exception is for the Optional Observances that, although referred to as “Commemorations” in the BCP, are given the full propers of a Simple Feast in HWHM, where they are also referred to as “Lesser Feasts”. Since, when it does not actually conflict with the BCP, I tend to follow the Sarum rules, which nearly always gave a I Vespers to Simples, I continue to do so, with a commemoration (in the traditional sense) when it is impeded. What I do not understand is why you provide commemorations of ferias (except in Lent and perhaps Easter), though when I choose to only commemorate a lesser feast it is hand to have the ferial collect there. (BTW feria is an English word with a slightly different meaning from its Latin forebear so by all means use the English plural.)
    An unrelated note: the Tridentine Breviary is Post- (not Pre-) Reformation, though much of its content is older.
    Finally, I am really glad to see both the repairs and the tweaks you have made in the Breviary

  2. MAG
    July 15, 2011 at 1:28 pm

    I continue to learn so much from these explicatory posts — keep them coming!

  3. July 15, 2011 at 5:57 pm

    Thanks, MAG–I shall!

    Fr. Loring,

    You write: What I do not understand is why you provide commemorations of ferias…

    I’ll admit that this is one of the idiosyncrasies of the breviary. I believe strongly that the week-long use of collects is an important part of how the Offices form Anglicans in our fundamental beliefs. Ideally, over time, we memorize them and internalize them. Then, in random church discussions around, say, atonement theories gems like the collect for Proper 15 will pop into our heads (“…a sacrifice for sin and also an example of godly life…”). Especially when more and more sanctoral occasions are being added into the kalendar (i.e., Holy Women Holy Men aka No Feria Left Behind) the weekly collects can be drowned out. As a result, I retain them. Furthermore, the inclusion of the proper Gospel antiphon builds an important and useful bridge between the weekly Office and the Sunday Mass, helping us to see them as complementary rather than exclusive of one another.

  4. MAG
    July 15, 2011 at 8:23 pm

    “No Feria Left Behind” — HA!

  5. William Loring
    July 16, 2011 at 4:57 am

    It is idiosyncratic as you say, but then so is Anglicanism! And even if I don’t necessarily use them in the Office, it is nice to be able to just read them.

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