The daily variation from dark to light, looked at from a religious point of view, is the prominent theme which characterises the Liturgy of the Hours. The Lucernarium represents the original and oldest element of Vespers, or evening mass: its origins can be traced back to the Judaic tradition, in which, in the evenings, oil lamps were lit in the temple while incense was burned. This ritual, which probably derived from the practical necessity of lighting the space in which the evening prayer took place, was soon reinterpreted from a theological point of view. The lucernarium refers directly to the figure of Christ, a light that does not fade, around which the hopes and prayers of the Church are born, beyond the darkness of evil and death.
Vespers is one of the pillars of the daily office and is characterised, according to the liturgical tradition of the Church of Milan, by a three-part structure that begins with the candle-lighting, moves on to the psalmody, and ends with the “stational” portion, with its procession to the Baptistery or to the altar of the saint being celebrated.
Within this celebratory structure, the candle lighting ritual has played an important role and to this day signals the start of the evening mass.
Milan’s is the only liturgical tradition in the west to have preserved this custom, once common to all churches, as an integral element of the evening prayer. In fact, the Roman liturgy kept it only for the opening of the great Easter vigil.
After the closing (“The Lord be with you”), while the acclamation of Christ-Light is being sung in reply, the celebrant lights the cantari (candelabras), which the ministers bring to him before setting them near or upon the altar. Then the priest, having received the thurible, incenses the altar as during mass, while the rest of the candles and lights in the church are being lit.
The ritual of the incense highlights the “offertory” nature of the lucernarium which, according to Milanese tradition, is particularly evident when the solemn celebration of Vespers is presided over in the Duomo by the Archbishop. In fact, according to an ancient custom, he wears the same paraments as for mass, almost in an effort to underscore the profound unity of the evening sacrifice with the Eucharist. Lastly, during the song of the Lucernarium the priest that is presiding over the celebration faces east, towards the place that symbolically represents the location of God, creator of light: in fact, it is from the east that the sun rises, alluding to the true Sun, Jesus Christ. The custom of praying towards the east has, therefore, further enhanced the ritual of light with profoundly mystical and symbolic significance.
After the Lucernarium comes the hymn, a celebratory and, at the same time, qualifying element of the Liturgy of the Hours, which highlights the praiseworthy nature of the divine office and, expressing the truth of the Hour, lends a particular intonation to the prayer, framing it within a precise moment of the day and of the progression of the liturgical year.
The candle portion of Vespers ends with the song of the Responsory, reserved only for more solemn occasions and having the function of further conveying a sense of celebration.
In the Duomo’s liturgy, the Lucernarium opens Sunday evening mass, celebrated the evening of the Saturday preceding it (5:30pm), and solemn Vespers on Sundays and on occasion of the main solemnities (4pm), with the presence of the church officials of the Metropolitan Chapter.
Before the start of the celebration, the lights in the Cathedral are dimmed and then turned off entirely. Worshippers and visitors turn their attention to the altar, until the entire Duomo shines once again, illuminated by the light. It is the joy of the Sun without sunset, of Christ victorious over darkness: “We pray and ask that the light come again over us, and we invoke the coming of Christ, who will bring us the grace of eternal light.” (St. Cyprian)