The Holden Evening Prayer is a lovely contemporary Lutheran vespers liturgy written by Marty Haugen, a Lutheran composer and liturgist who has written widely for ELCA and Catholic publishers.1 He wrote the Holden liturgy during the winter of 1985 and 1986 at Holden Village, an ELCA retreat in Washington state.
Haugen was the musician-in-residence at the time. Remembering in a 2012 interview, he told how he came to write the vespers service because the group was snowed in. Everyone was “all over the map” because they weren’t satisfied with the vespers music in the Lutheran Book of Worship, which was still fairly new and not universally welcomed at the time. And so he began experimenting with an evening prayer liturgy.
“With nine feet of snow,” he said, “you had nothing to do after vespers but to sit around and critique the vespers.”
The key — E-flat minor (six flats!) — was very strange, but Haugen said it worked with the voices on hand at Holden that winter, and it worked with the text he wrote as he composed. His vespers followed the traditional form while using contemporary and inclusive language.
The liturgy is quiet and meditative. With an emphasis on lighting candles and seeking light in the darkness, it fits nicely for an Advent evening service, just as the meditative aspect lends itself to a Lenten service. The music is simple and repetitive, and the melodies are catchy and easy enough for anyone to sing.
Tom Witt, a church musician from the Twin Cities, praised the service as a fan in a 2010 Metrolutheran2 article, saying “the ambience created when Holden Prayer Around the Cross is used is really quite extraordinary. The music, the quiet, the candles, the darkness — they all work together.” The repetitive nature of some of the music has to be “grown into,” he admits. “It can seem boring at first — until you relax and focus. Prayer might emerge out of that.” Witt says you have to “nurture people into” this approach.
“I’m surprised at the age range of people who respond to this [style of worship],” Witt confided. “Teenagers and young adults, for example, don’t just want peppy praise music. They sit in the dark and light candles and are deeply moved.”