Friday, December 28, 2012

Learning from Mr. Patterson

There are many odd things to be found on the internet, things strange enough to make one’s eyes widen and blink.  But perhaps nothing is more odd (and to my mind, more blood-chilling) that the example and words of Mr. David Patterson.  Mr. Patterson looks like an unlikely candidate to chill anyone’s blood—he appears on the online site of “” walking over to chair with the help of a cane, and then simply sitting and talking in a calm, friendly, and smiling way for a few minutes, looking for all the world like everyone’s grandfather.  He opens his brief talk with the words, “My name is David Patterson.  I don’t believe in the existence of God or heaven.”  This in itself is not unusual, or blood-chilling.  What does chill the blood are his next words:  “I’ve been a Church of England vicar for forty years.”
The Vicar shared his central conviction with the words, “I don’t think that being a Christian has anything to do with thinking that God exists.”   Of course he preached sermons from the Bible during all the time he served as Vicar, and conducted services using the Church of England’s liturgical prayers.  But in his view, “The stories in the Bible were just that—stories, and I was drawing spiritual ideas from them.”  For him, the Church’s task was “to bring all the ideals talked about in the words of the Scriptures and in the prayers of the Church all down to earth.  It doesn’t depend in the least bit on whether some God exists or not.”   If Vicar Patterson has an argument to justify his atheism he does not share it with us.  He simply asserts, “There isn’t some guaranteeing being outside the universe. How could there be?  The universe is all there is; there isn’t anything outside it.”  As arguments go, this is pretty thin.
Believing in the existence of Vicar Patterson, to my mind, involves more problems than believing in the existence of God.  So many hard questions crowd to the front demanding answers:  Didn’t his conscience or sense of intellectual honesty suffer when he stood up to say the Creed every Sunday, with its opening words, “I believe in one God”?  Did he not feel dishonest or foolish leading prayer to an imaginary being?  What consolation did he have to offer his parishioners when they were tragically bereaved?  And, perhaps the hardest question of all, how did he possibly manage to get ordained in the first place?  Did not his ordaining bishop—or anyone in the whole ecclesiastical system--actually know him?  As he himself related, “When I became a vicar I wasn’t actually asked whether I believed in the existence of God, and I don’t think that it occurred to me to bring it up.”
There are many lessons to be learned, however, from the example of Vicar David Patterson, though value of atheism is not among them.  Namely, his practice and assertions throw into high relief the question of just why we go to church at all.  For Vicar Patterson, we go to church so that we can hear “spiritual ideas”, “all the ideals talked about in the words of the Scriptures”.  That is, church attendance gives us the opportunity to immerse ourselves in ideas, hopefully with the goal of letting these ideas influence our behaviour.  If we read often enough about good people in the Bible, we stand a better chance of being good; if we pray to God with words that give us warm fuzzy feelings, hopefully this will make us better people.  There is no evidence that this process of transformation by aesthetic osmosis actually occurs however, and the historical example of the Pharisees might be taken as proof that it is possible to combine religiosity with a cold heart.  The main goal of church going is not exposure to ideas, even if they are fine ones.
Rather, the goal of church going is encountering God, and experiencing the inner healing and transformation that this encounter brings.  God Himself once said, “No one can see Me and live” (Ex. 33:20), and that is exactly what we want.  We want to see God and let our old self die so that our new self can be born.  God has always existed, and long ago He sent His eternal Word to become flesh for us, to die on the cross and to rise again, and to ascend to heaven and send the Holy Spirit into our hearts.  When we drag ourselves from our beds on a Sunday morning (those of us who are not “morning persons”) and assemble as part of the Church to participate in the Divine Liturgy, we do this precisely to encounter the risen and living God.  Christ comes into our midst when we assemble in His Name, as He promised (Mt. 18:20), and as we encounter Him, we are shattered and healed, deconstructed and reconstructed, forgiven, embraced, and given new life.  All of this presupposes, of course, that God exists.  A non-existent God cannot do the necessary and difficult work of changing our hearts and transforming our lives.  By ourselves, we cannot do this either, however many fine ideas and ideals we may be exposed to.  We don’t need an aesthetic experience.  We need a living God.  Praying to an imaginary God cannot help us, anything more than can praying to the Easter Bunny or the Tooth Fairy.  By ourselves we are incapable of “bringing” those fine ideals “down to earth” and into our own life.  We need an incarnate God, the One who Himself came “down to earth”, to forgive and change us here and now, so that He can one day bring us up to heaven.
I appreciate the Vicar’s candour (though I do wonder a bit at his timing in sharing this now that he is safely retired).  His candour allows us to dig deeper into our faith to appreciate again why it is that we go to church and what is the value of the Liturgy served there.  Liturgy is not simply about good ideas.  It is rather about bad people and sinners, and about how those sinners can experience the saving change that comes only from the hand of the living God. 

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Welcome to December 22, 2012

          This day, December 22, 2012, (also known in the Orthodox calendar as “the feast of Great Martyr Anastasia”) is a day many thought would never come.  A number of people were expecting some form of the apocalypse to come with Dec. 21, 2012.  According to one website, “At least 25 million people think that there won't be a Christmas this year because of the Mayan apocalypse.”  That is, they believed that the world would end on December 21, in part because of an ancient Mayan calendar.  According to Wikipedia, this calendar is “an ancient Mayan monument in Tortuguero, Mexico, and is believed to have been left by a Mayan ruler.  The Mayan leader, fresh from defeat on the battlefield, declared that the military setback was but one event in a larger cycle of time that would end in 2012.”  This date has morphed at the hands of certain creative apocalyptic minds into a prediction of Doomsday, on December 21, 2012.  Since the source is Mayan and not Christian, it has a certain degree of credibility in the minds of some, and the date has found resonance with many who are prepared to lay aside cash and to re-arrange their (presumably shortened) lives in accordance with these predictions.  One imagines that they have not bought many Christmas presents for their families or friends, or made any New Year resolutions.  For them, it will all be over December 21.  I believe that the Great Martyr Anastasia may be chuckling a bit in heaven at the thought. 
            This is not of course the first time that predictors of The End have had to eat their share of public “crow”.  Earlier last year (how quickly we forget) Mr. Harold Camping made the news by predicting the end of the world not once but twice during the same year.  He predicted that The End would come on May 21, 2011, whereupon many of his devout followers sold their homes and duly waited for the end to come.  When it did not come and when May 21 was succeeded by May 22, he pronounced himself to be “flabbergasted”, and then announced that he had not been crassly wrong, misled, or stupid, but just a little off in the details, and that now The End would come without any more fanfare on October 21.  Of course nothing much happened apocalyptically on October 21, which was followed by October 22.  Thereupon Mr. Camping had the much-delayed sense to retire from the field of apocalyptic prediction, and give it a rest.
            Such penchant for prediction is not simply a modern mania.  As Yogi Berra once famously said, “It’s deja-vu all over again”,  for in the 19th century we read about the career of Mr. William Miller.   In his day, the big buzz was not over something exotic like the Mayan calendar, but the Biblical books of Daniel and Revelation.  At that time, many people were mucking about with dates drawn from history and prophecy, and Mr. Miller concluded that The End would come on sometime between 1843-1844.   He based this belief on Daniel 8:44, which spoke of 2300 days (actually a reference to the cleansing of the Jewish Temple in the second century B.C.), and making his computations on the principle of a year for a day (see Ezek. 4:5-6).  Taking his starting point in 457 B.C., the date of the decree of Artaxerxes I in Persia to rebuild Jerusalem, Mr. Miller then came up with his end-time dates.  (I swear I am not making this up.)  His followers therefore confidently predicted the Second Coming would come on October 22, 1844.  Many people believed this prediction and joined the movement, some of them purportedly going up to rooftops dressed in white and awaiting for their Lord to return.  The Lord did not return then, and they climbed down from their rooftops October 23, much the sadder.  The event is referred to in their history as “the Great Disappointment”, and many left the Millerite movement at that time.  Some continued to cling to the original chronology, saying that the Lord did indeed return, but returned to the heavenly Temple, not to planet earth.  They became the Seventh Day Adventist Church.  Mr. Miller died on December 20, 1849, still believing that, while he might have been a bit off in his math, the Second Coming was still just around the corner.

            Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chosefast forward to December 2012.  People still look forward to The End, though the Bible has fallen out of fashion in favour of foreign things, such as the Mayan calendar.  I will not elaborate on the immense attraction of these predictions, or the immense amount of cash spent in preparing for the coming End.  Suffice here to say that the attraction is immense, as is the amount of expended funds.  A look at your own desk calendar reveals that it was not money well spent, and at time of writing we have every hope of seeing both Christmas and Theophany.  So, what are we to say about all this?  Why this fascination with knowing in advance when the world (or at least the world as we know it) will come crashing down?

            I suspect that the fascination is rooted in fear.  Not surprisingly then, our Lord, who tells us over and over again not to fear (Mt. 7:25f, Lk. 12:32), also tells us not to worry about when the final End will come.  Indeed, such things are not our concern, and cannot be figured out by any wisdom, whether human or angelic, but are in the Father’s hands alone (Mt. 24:36, Acts 1:6-7).   What God does put in our hands is duty of the present day—blessings to enjoy, good works to perform, prayers to be said, people to care for and love.  We are to relax, knowing the Father is in charge, and leave the driving (that is, the worrying) to Him.  When we withdraw ourselves from His care, either individually or culturally, we naturally fall into fear.  This fear accounts for the use of heavy security and prepared armed response on the part of some survivalists, and for the omnipresent apprehension with which the future is regarded.  It was different with the earliest Christians:  instead of fearing the final end when all would pass away with a loud noise and be dissolved with fire (2 Pt. 3:10), they longed for it, praying “Let grace come and let the world pass away!” (from the Didache, chapter 10).  For the End was not a complete end, but would give way to a new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells (2 Pt. 3:13).  The world, which has not experienced this grace, naturally does not want the world to pass away, but clings desperately to what it has, and lives with a measure of fear.

            It is this fear that drives individuals and cultures to seek for knowledge of when the End will come, for they feel that if they know when the world will end they have at least some control over life—even if it is just the control of not being surprised by the suddenness of the final catastrophe.  So, when the latest prophetic scam artist comes around talking about how Planet Nibiru will collide with Planet Earth, or about how the earth will somehow start rotating backwards on its axis, or about how an ancient Mayan calendar gives us the date for the end of the world, these people will find at least some receptive listeners—“motivated buyers” marketers call them—listeners who are preconditioned to accept what they say.  Culturally we have left the place of sanctity, sanity, and safety, and therefore of course find it hard to relax.  Some of those who have left this safe place of sanity naturally seize upon anything that promises to lessen the fear, even professed secret knowledge drawn from an old Mayan artifact.   But we who await for grace to come with the final end will be less likely to seize upon these fantastic fads.  We are better fitted to relax in this age while we wait for its final end.




Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Christmas in Connecticut

          Christmas is a hard and heartrending season for any who have recently experienced loss and bereavement, but perhaps no Christmas will be harder than for some families in Newtown, Connecticut this year.  I refer of course to the horrifying events there of December 14, when a gunman entered Sandy Hook Elementary School around 9.30 in the morning and began shooting, leaving 26 victims dead, 20 of whom were children between the ages of five and ten.  Look again at the date of this disaster:  it happened just ten short days before Christmas Eve.  No doubt the presents for most the children there had already been bought by their parents, brightly wrapped, and placed under the Christmas tree, awaiting the eager hands of the children for whom they were intended to rip off the wrapping and open them.  For about 20 families in Newtown, that anticipated happy moment will now never come.  Christmas will not be merry in Connecticut this year.  One thinks not so much of the story of the birth of Christ as of a darker part of the Christmas narrative:  “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children.  She refused to be comforted, because they were no more” (Mt. 2:18).  This year the Herodian slaughter of the Bethlehem innocents was seen in Newtown.
            The depth of the tragedy was reflected, I thought, in the pauses of the President, when he spoke to the nation shortly after the events in his role as what one journalist called the country’s “consoler in chief”.  He spoke for just under four minutes, and yet had to pause twice for some time to keep control of his emotions.  Many times in that short address he wiped his eyes.  As he said at the beginning of the speech, when he first heard the news that morning, he reacted “not as a President, but as a parent”.  The horror afflicting Newtown reached out across the miles and seized us all—especially us parents.  Obviously no rhetoric can to do justice to the immensity of the pain felt, and no words can assuage the grief.  But as Christians, what are we to think?
            First of all, we think of our inter-connectedness.  The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews bids his readers “remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them; and those who are ill-treated, since you also are in the body” (Heb. 13:3).  Everyone of us who remains “in the body”, who shares bodily existence in this world, is connected to everyone else, and their sorrows are somehow our sorrows as well.  We are not so many separate islands, living in splendid isolation from each other, impervious to their pain.  The pain of Newtown is our pain as well, and in some sense, the slain are our children too.  At the very least, we need to keep everyone there in our prayers. 
            This human inter-connectedness finds is redemptive fulfillment in the Church as the body of Christ.  Of all the many metaphors used to describe the Church—brotherhood, vine, city—the image of a body holds pride of place in the New Testament.  And that means that we share a deep connection to our fellow Christians—deeper than the bonds of brotherhood, deeper than the link between two branches on the same vine, deeper than the unity of citizens in the same city.  In a word, we share the same life.  Just as the various limbs of a single body share the same life and are therefore hurt by the same pain, so Christians share life and pain with each other.  When a weight falls on one’s foot, it is not the foot alone which suffers—the pain that landed there is diffused throughout the entire body, and all the limbs respond by comforting the afflicted member.  And when one of our fellow Christians suffers, all of us are called to co-suffering.  “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together” (1 Cor. 12:26).  In the world and in the Church, we are all linked.  This Christmas, we all live in Newtown, Connecticut.
            Secondly, we remember that sin—all sin—is senseless.  God made us as rational beings, with the ability to think and reason, striving to understand and make sense out of the varied world around us.  We therefore rebel when we find something that is altogether senseless and which outrages reason.  The question “Why?” pushes itself to the front, and we ask why this happened, how God could have allowed this.  We instinctively seek to make sense of the senseless.  That is, I think, at least partly behind the immediate response of looking for causes of the tragedy, and of finding blame, and ways to fix it.  Is mental illness the cause?  Is the problem rooted in the availability of guns in the U.S.?  Do we need more security at our schools?  These are all valid questions, and the discussions around them should take place.  But these discussions cannot sense out of the senseless.  All sin is essentially senseless, and perverse, and defies reason.  We see this in the primordial defiance of Satan.  Consistent Christian tradition portrays him as originally an angel who fell from grace, a being once perfect like all the other angels, living in eternal bliss, but one who chose to rebel against God’s rule and against love, choosing misery over bliss, and haughty, hopeless defiance over blessed submission.  Why?  Such a choice, once made before the creation of the world, was irrevocable, and made no sense.  Yet all sin partakes something of this senseless defiance, and therefore eludes any attempt to understand it.  We can never hope to truly understand such sin as came into focus Friday morning December 14.   The way forward is not through reason, but through God’s consolation.
            Healing here comes not through trying to use this tragedy to make better laws (though that is in itself a good thing), not by making this a tragedy to end of all tragedies, as the first world war was the war to end all wars.  Healing comes through the embrace of Christ, letting our tears run down our cheeks to rest on His shoulders.  God does not offer us adequate explanation in this age.   He offers us Himself.  In running into His arms, we can find some peace.
            But (as a final point), some kinds of peace and healing can only be found in the age to come.  Some hurts are too deep, some shocks too traumatic, to be dealt with while we live in the body.  Of course we will go on with our lives—there are other children to care for, and jobs to do, and joys to experience, and people to love.  Life does not end, even after something as terrible at December 14 in Newtown, Connecticut.  But, I suspect, some tears remain, and refuse to be dried.  Some pain persists, until the dying breath.  Behind the masks that society and convention rightly bid us wear, the heart’s open wound still bleeds, and nothing in this age can help it.  But healing does come eventually for those who seek their healing in God.
            In the Apocalypse (addressed as it originally was to people who were experiencing persecution, and death, and bereavement), a final healing is promised.  St. John saw in the Kingdom a great multitude which no man could number, standing before the throne of God and the Lamb.  He was told, “He who sits on the throne will shelter them with His Presence, for the Lamb will be their shepherd and He will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Rev. 7:15f)—yes, even the tears shed at Christmas time in Newtown, Connecticut.  We all of us will one day have to pass through the dark door of death, and step into the age to come.  Some of us will step through that door with tear-stained faces, and with wounded and weary hearts.  But there we will healing at last, and hearts will be lightened, and all tears forever wiped away. 
            In thinking of that day, I am reminded of a description of it by C.S. Lewis, found in the closing lines of his Narnian Chronicles.  The great lion, Aslan, greeted the children as they stepped through the door of death.  “He said to them, ‘All of you are—as you used to call it in the Shadowlands—dead.  The term is over:  the holidays have begun.  The dream is ended:  this is the morning.’  And as He spoke He no longer looked to them like a lion, but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them.  And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after.  But for them it was only the beginning of the real story.  All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page:  now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read:  which goes on forever:  in which every chapter is better than the one before.”
            This is the real hope for Rachel, weeping for her children—a new morning, and a reunion, and a new story, and a Kingdom.  That story will go on forever.  And every chapter in it will indeed be better than the one before.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

December 13: Herman and Irma

On December 13, the Orthodox churches rejoice in the life and glorious death of Herman of Alaska, the first saint of Alaska, canonized by the Orthodox Church in America in 1970, for that is the date of St. Herman’s repose and death.  It is also the date of the death of Irma Grese, pictured at left.
Irma Grese also died on December 13, in 1945, at the age of 21, the youngest person ever executed under British law in the 20th century.  She died by hanging after being found guilty of war crimes in 1945.  Irma, according to her court testimony, wanted to be a nurse, but was assigned to be a Senior Supervisor at Ravensbruck Concentration in 1942.  From there she was sent to Auschwitz, where she remained until January 1945, the second in command over 30,000 Jewish female prisoners.  Soon after she was sent to Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp, where she worked as a Work Service Manager until her capture by the British on April 17, 1945.   Along with other SS personnel, she did not flee.  She was tried by the British for crimes against humanity.  As the Wikipedia article reports, “Grese was reported to have habitually worn heavy boots and carried a whip and a pistol. Witnesses testified that she used both physical and emotional methods to torture the camp’s inmates and enjoyed shooting prisoners in cold blood. They also claimed that she beat some women to death and whipped others using a plaited whip.”  Unlike other women executed at the same time, she remained defiant to the end.  Her camp nickname was the Beautiful Beast.  She was blond and young.  Her final languid word was “schnell”—“quickly”—asking the executioners to do their task with all speed.
           Why mention Irma Grese, apart from the accidental coincidence with St. Herman of the date of her death?  Because she vividly illustrates the danger of not knowing Jesus.  She was only sweet sixteen when the Second World War began, and younger still when the Nazis came to power, but her spiritual seduction by the Nazis was not inevitable.   Other people lived through those terrible days, and did not succumb to the temptations of the times—people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  What separated the German Dietrich from the German Irma was knowledge of Jesus.  The Lord Jesus said to His disciples that, though they once belonged to the world, He had chosen them out of the world (Jn. 17:14), and they belonged to the world no longer.  And the world is a dangerous and deceiving place.  Whether or not the world around us raises high the Nazi swastika, or the Communist hammer and sickle, or any other idolatrous standard, is the luck of the draw.  Ultimately, the shape of the world’s standard does not matter.  What matters is that we have fled the world and are rooted in the Kingdom of God, and, as such, are immune to the lies and idolatries of the world. 
           Each generation has its own challenges to face, its own moral compromises to resist, and its own lies which God calls us to recognize and renounce.   In Irma Grese’s generation, the challenge was to recognize and resist the lies of National Socialism, but because she did not know Jesus, she was left at the mercy of her own frail, failing and impotent wisdom, which proved unequal to the task.  Accordingly she succumbed to the temptations of a virulent and violent nationalism, and was swept along by its lying emotionalism that engulfed most of her generation, culminating in catastrophe, both for her nation as a whole and for herself personally.  That was the challenge to be faced in her day and location.  In our generation in North America, the challenge comes from hedonistic consumerism, idolizing not Nation but Mammon. 
           This consumerism also tells its lies, asserting that, contrary to our Lord’s words in Lk. 12:15, a man’s true life does indeed consist in the abundance of his possessions.  Mammon proclaims that acquiring goods is the highest human endeavour and is the true path to happiness, and upon the altar of acquisition the wise man will sacrifice everything, including conscience, integrity, and compassion.  Those of Irma Grese’s generation lived under the sign of the swastika; we in North America live under the sign of the dollar.  Both signs are the standards and ensigns of idols, for neither Nation nor Mammon should be deified, and neither can save us.  Our Faith bids us worship only the true and living God, and to keep ourselves from the idols (1 Jn. 5:21) We fulfil this precept and renounce the idolatrous service to Mammon when we sell our possessions and give alms from them, thereby finding our true treasure in heaven (Lk. 12:33-34), when we use our riches to be rich in good deeds, being liberal and generous to those in need (1 Tim. 6:18).    
          We can only find this wisdom when we know Jesus, and when we attune our ears to His voice, and not to the lies of our generation.   Knowing Him allows us to measure all cultures by the yardstick of His divine wisdom, so that we can distinguish in our culture what is true from what is false.  The German Dietrich Bonhoeffer could distinguish truth from falsehood in his generation, as could the Russian Herman, missionary in far off Alaska.  Irma Grese could not.  The only real question worth answering on December 13 is this:  can we distinguish the truth from the lies?  Do we know Jesus?

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Appreciating Vespers

            The service of Vespers is, I think, dramatically under-appreciated today.  The temptation for us busy people is to reduce our church-going to Sunday mornings only, and let everything else slide.  Since we under-appreciate Vespers, it often tends to slide with other things we deem relatively unimportant.  But Vespers warrants a second look, and a renewed appreciation.
            The word “vespers” comes from the Greek ἑσπέρα (hespera) and the Latin vesper, both meaning “evening”, because it is the evening service of the Church.  Christians are to pray to God not just on Sunday mornings, but constantly, sanctifying time by offering prayer throughout the day.  In the eighth chapter of the Didache (or “teaching”), a church manual dating from about 100 A.D., believers are urged to stop and pray three times throughout the day, at least saying the Lord’s Prayer.  Soon enough a certain pattern would become standard, with believers praying at the third hour, the sixth hour, and the ninth hour (that is, at 9.00 a.m., noon, and 3 p.m. respectively).  Christians were encouraged to pray in the evening also, and the pious were even encouraged to rise at midnight and pray at home for a bit (easier to do then than now, since people then went to bed earlier).
            In those days, the believers would say a prayer of thanksgiving when the evening lamp was brought in.  Back then there was no electric light of course, and unless one lit a lamp for illumination, one sat in the dark.  Accordingly, everybody kept the daily practice of lighting lamps when it began to get dark (that is, when each evening came), and bringing in the lamp to the place where everyone was.  Because the Lord described Himself as “the light of the world” (see Jn. 9: 5), believers inevitably thought of Him when they saw the comforting lights of evening.  Thus, one prayer that became standard when the Christians gave thanks to God for the light of the lamp referred to Jesus.  We know it today as the hymn “Gladsome (or joyful) light”:  “O gladsome light of the holy glory of the immortal Father:  heavenly, holy, blessed Jesus Christ!  Now that we have come to the setting of the sun, and behold the light of evening, we praise God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  At all times You are worthy of praise, O Son of God and Giver of life.  Therefore the world glorifies You!”  Believers would recite this prayer every evening when the lamp was brought in to provide light for the evening until everyone went to bed.
            This practice became the daily experience of Christians.  St. Gregory of Nyssa relates that when his sister Macrina was dying, the evening lamp was brought into her room at dusk as usual.  Seeing it, she tried to utter the customary prayer, but her voice failed before she could finish the prayer.  She lifted her hand to sign herself with the Cross, drew a final breath, and died, praying silently the thanksgiving prayer for the lamp.  (No bad way to die.)
            This domestic rite was preserved when the Christians met together corporately in church at evening time.  When dusk came, the lamps were brought into the church just as they were at home, and the customary prayer sung.  Thus the hymn “Gladsome Light” became an invariable part of the evening Vespers service.  As Gregory and Macrina’s contemporary St. Basil wrote, “Our fathers thought that they should welcome the gift of evening light with something better than silence, so they gave thanks as soon as it appeared.  We cannot say who composed these words of thanksgiving at the lighting of the lamps, but the people use these ancient words [of the hymn ‘Gladsome Light’]…”  In St. Basil’s day, this prayer/hymn was already ancient.   
In the church in Jerusalem, the light was brought in, not from the outside (the usual custom), but from the lamp that burned perpetually before the Lord’s Tomb.  In Constantinople the more usual practice prevailed, and the lamps were brought in from outside and all the candles in the darkening church lit from them.  Today when the hymn is sung, often no lamps are lit, but the hymn remains as a reminder and vestige of the practical lighting of the lamps in church for the purpose of illumination.  Even today at the evening Presanctified Liturgy (which is essentially simply Lenten Vespers with a rite of Communion appended to it), the celebrant still brings forward a light with the words, “The light of Christ illumines all!”  In Constantinople, these words were the signal for all the lamps in the church to be lit.
            Vespers preserves other ancient features as well, including the offering of incense.  The original sung Vespers service included three units each consisting of three psalms.  One of these was Ps. 141, obviously chosen for the line “Let my prayer arise in Your sight as incense, and the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice.”  The reference to “evening” dictated the choice of psalm; the reference to incense made the offering of incense more liturgically relevant.  As such, when this psalm is chanted as part of the remnants of the original three-psalm units (consisting now of Psalms 141, 142, 130 and 117), the deacon censes the church as these psalms are chanted.  The current practice is not simply to chant the psalms, but also to insert brief hymns or stichs into the final verses of the psalms.  This incense reminds us of the acceptability of our worship to God—through Christ, we now have access to the Father, and He accepts our praises since we offer them to Him as disciples of His Son.  The fragrant incense we smell as these psalms and hymns are sung remind us of our exalted status in Christ.
            There are other elements in the service as well, such as the chanting of psalms.  The monks originally lived far from parish churches and did not have the ability to sing complicated musical services, such as those who lived in urban parishes did.  They therefore concentrated more on psalmody than on church-composed hymns, more on the Psalter than on troparia and stichs and hymns.  Their practice was to chant the entire Psalter from beginning to end, as often as possible.  One system of chanting the Psalter involved incorporating all the Psalms into the daily services of Matins (in the morning) and Vespers (in the evening) in such a way as to go through the entire Psalter in one week.  That is, they would incorporate two sizable “chunks” of the Psalter, in series, into each Matins service, and one “chunk” into Vespers.  The Psalter was divided for this purpose into twenty “chunks”, each chunk called a “kathisma” or sitting—so-called because sitting was allowed the monks while the Psalter was read.  On Saturday, the first “kathisma”, consisting of Psalms 1-8, was read at Vespers.  Nowadays, this “chunk” is greatly abbreviated to a few verses, or even simply omitted.  This is perhaps unfortunate, because it means we lack the exposure to the Psalter that the monks deemed essential to spiritual growth.  But in many parishes the chanting of the Psalter is retained, even if only for a few short verses.  The psalms of the first kathisma begin with the words “Blessed is the man”.  Many think this is another hymn, like “Gladsome Light”.  In fact it is the beginning of the first eight psalms, originally intended to be chanted in their entirety. 
            Thus, three main components of the Vespers service are the lamp-lighting prayer “Gladsome Light”, and the offering of incense, the chanting of Psalmody.  The structure of the service has of course changed over the years.  The original service with its three series of three psalm units has given place to our present collection of psalms strung together and chanted as the temple in censed.  Also, Vespers previously began in the center of the temple with the exclamation “Blessed is the Kingdom…”, the clergy entering the altar area at the beginning of the second three-psalm unit.   Also, the catechumens were prayed for at the end of Vespers, just as they are presently during the Divine Liturgy.  Finally, Vespers concluded with processions to the sacristy (or skeuophylakion, the place where the vessels were stored) and to the baptistery, where special prayers were said.
            Why these processions?  They were modelled after processions and prayers of the church in Jerusalem located at the Holy Sepulchre.  In that church, when evening came, the people realized that they were at the very place and at the very time where Christ was taken down from the cross and prepared for burial.  It was natural for them to stop at that place and at that time to offer special prayers.  Jerusalem soon became the pattern for churches everywhere, even though these other churches did not enjoy the same geographical and liturgical advantage of being located at the holy places where Christ suffered, was buried, and rose from the dead.  So, these other churches adapted their worship to Jerusalem’s situation as best they could.  The Jerusalem procession to the places where Christ was buried became processions to the places in their own churches which symbolically portrayed Christ’s death and burial—places such as the skeuophylakion (or “little altar”) and the baptistery, in which the candidates for baptism sacramentally participated in Christ’s death and resurrection (see Rom. 6). 
            So, though the structure of Vespers may have changed, its heart remains the same, and it still provides a good way to end the day.  Vespers now opens with the chanting of Psalm 104.  In this psalm we give thanks to God for creation, confessing that the whole world lies in His loving hands, and therefore we may commit ourselves into His hands as well.  God made all that exists, and sustains it every day through His ceaseless care.  As the Psalmist says, “He made the moon for the seasons; the sun knows its time for setting; You appoint darkness and it is night.  How manifold are Your works, O Lord!  In wisdom have You made them all.”  We may lie down in peace and rest in confidence, knowing that God in His wisdom is in control.
            After Psalm 104 is sung and prayers are said, other psalms are chanted and incense offered, as we sing “Let our prayer arise in Your sight as incense, and let the lifting up of my hands be an evening sacrifice.”  Through the sacrifice of prayer and praise, we seek for and receive the forgiveness we need daily from God.  The world can be a hard place, and we often stumble and fall, sinning against our good Lord.  In these prayers we lift up our hands and hearts to God, asking for pardon for whatever we may have done amiss during the day.  
Then the prayer of the lamplighting is sung (“Gladsome Light”), as well as the hymn “Grant us, O Lord, to keep us this evening without sin…”  Through these hymns, prayers and litanies, we offer ourselves with our multitude of needs into God’s hands.  God who provides food for the young lions which call to Him, and gives to all their food in due season (Ps. 104:21, 27), can be trusted to provide for us also.  It is as St. Paul said:  “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God, and the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, shall guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:6-7).  Having made our evening requests, we may lie down in the peace of God.
            The service of Vespers therefore provides a fit conclusion to the day.  But it also prepares us to greet the coming day, since the day begins not with morning, but with evening.  (We think of the Jewish reckoning of the Sabbath as beginning Friday evening, and of the order of creation:  “There was evening and there was morning, one day” (Gen. 1:5).  Note:  evening comes first.  The restful repose we receive from God is His gift to us to prepare us for the challenges of the coming day.  It is also why the Church serves Saturday evening Vespers as a liturgical preparation for Sunday morning Liturgy.  First comes the preparation, then the fulfillment.  First the repose, then the rising.  First the darkness, then the light.  First the incense of Vesperal penitence, then the festal Eucharistic rejoicing.  This sequence is why the Old Testament lessons are most appropriately read on Saturday evening, following the prokeimenon (which always functions to introduce a lesson)—for the Old Testament serves to prepare us for the New, and the Law gives way to the Gospel. 
            For many of us who do not live close to a church or monastery where Vespers is served every day, ending each day with Vespers is not possible.  But certain of its prayers can still be offered at home privately.  Rather than ending the day by watching the 11.00 news and then falling into bed fretting about all the evil we have seen reported, how much better to end the day by singing to God, by chanting one of the Vesperal psalms or hymns.  Regardless of what the newscaster might suggest, God is still in control of His world:  the sun knows its time for setting; He appoints darkness and it is night.  How manifold are Your works, O Lord!  In wisdom have You made them all.