The Genius of the Divine Office

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By Nick Jones

            It goes by many names. You might hear Roman Catholics call it the Liturgy of the Hours, or the canonical hours, or the breviary. Each of these is an alternate name for what is called the Divine Office. For those familiar, no further explanation is necessary. For those of us a little rusty, I’ll offer a brief summary of what I’m talking about. The Divine Office refers to the daily series of prayers recited by all Roman Catholic clergy and religious. These prayers, comprised mostly of various psalms and biblical canticles, are interspersed throughout the day.  They enable the one praying to fulfill, in part, Saint Paul’s directive to pray without ceasing (cf. 1 Thessalonians 5:17). These prayers help form a rhythm for each day, providing a lens of Faith through which we perceive the passage of time. As one prays them more and more, one’s ability to appreciate the truths they contain becomes more intuitive. The structure of the Divine Office has changed frequently, often not without great controversy. These issues are a little above my paygrade. For the purposes of this article, we will examine some aspects of the Divine Office common to its traditional and modern forms. By examining the Invitatory Psalm and the canticles of three of the hours, all of which are recited daily, I hope that we’ll all be more aware of God and His bountiful graces throughout each of our days.

            The first component of the Divine Office that I want to highlight is the Invitatory Psalm, which opens each day’s office, preceding the opening hour of Matins. Traditionally, this psalm has always been Psalm 95(94). It is not particularly long, but packs quite a punch. The first three stanzas remind us of God’s greatness and the need to praise him. God is acknowledged as Creator, Savior, and the only true God. Right off the bat, as we begin to shake off the grogginess of sleep, and the oftentimes strange world of dreams, we are reminded of the greatest realities of our world. The first thing that the office invites us to do each day is to recognize the truth of who we are, and whose we are. The fourth stanza of the psalm challenges us to heed God’s voice and to harden not our hearts. It continues by reminding us of those Israelites who challenged and provoked the Lord at Meribah and Massah. They did not listen to Him, and thus were not able to enter the promised land, as we are told in stanza five. The beginning of our day thus becomes an occasion to rejoice in the Lord’s Majesty and Providence, and to remember that coming to be with Him is no slight task. We embark upon our day full of Hope that our work that day might bring us to God. 

            Following Matins comes the hour of Lauds, which has a character of praise and is prayed at dawn. The highlight of this office is the Benedictus (Luke 1:68-79), the canticle Zechariah sang after the naming of his son, John the Baptist. This canticle begins by extolling the Lord’s blessedness and marveling at the salvation He has wrought for His people. It reminds us that God has come among us, in fulfillment of all His promises and covenants of old. We hear of the mission to be fulfilled by John once he is grown, to be the forerunner of the Lord, reminding His people of their salvation through His forgiveness of their sins. Lastly, Christ is presented as the Dawn, or the Daystar, Who comes into the world to illuminate the darkness of sin and death. This canticle is yet another occasion for joyful hope at the start of each day. Whatever challenges, stressors, or difficulties may lie ahead each day, we are reminded that Christ will help us through them. Just as God never abandoned His people even as they were brought lower than all other nations, so too will He never abandon us. 

            At the end of a hard day’s work, we might be tempted to become self-sufficient. We often all too quickly overemphasize our own abilities while downplaying the effects of God in our lives. The hour of Vespers, recited in the evening, offers a sure remedy for this. The apex of this hour is Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55), which she exclaimed while visiting her cousin Elizabeth, when they were both pregnant. Upon receiving Elizabeth’s veneration, Mary directs the real glory to God. This is, of course, the essence of all saintly veneration. Just as complimenting a child honors her parents, so does venerating Mary honor her Creator. The Magnificat serves as a case study in the virtue of humility. To be humble is not to deny one’s greatness but is rather to recognize that all greatness is a result of God’s work in us. We hear in the canticle of God treating those who would generally be seen as great with contempt and lavishing good things on those who are seen as lowly in the world. This is not to say that He disdains those who are affluent and influential. Instead, it is a reminder for all of us that, again, any good thing we do is because of God’s freely-offered grace. As we reflect each day upon the work we’ve accomplished, the Divine Office challenges us to try to imitate Mary. 

            Finally, at the close of each day, we offer to God the office of Compline, our bedtime prayer. This beautiful office uses the themes of rest and sleep allegorically, to prepare us for our inevitable deaths. There is nothing morbid about this, contrary to modern sensibilities. The Christian should often consider his own mortality, which is always only a breath or heartbeat away from being fully understood. Compline has some of the least variation among all the hours, so its texts stick even more fully with those who recite it habitually. It offers an occasion for an Examination of Conscience and general confession, helping us to see how we need to improve should we live to see the next day. Following the appointed psalms, we recite the responsory featuring the refrain “Into Your hands Lord, I commend my spirit.” We imitate Christ’s total abandonment to the Will of God during His Passion (cf. Luke 23:46); we offer ourselves to Him Who first called us into being. Next comes the canticle of Simeon, the Nunc Dimittis (Luke 2:29-32). Scripture recounts that Simeon was a just man, who was told by God that we wouldn’t die until he had seen the Messiah, Israel’s long-awaited Redeemer. When Mary and Joseph brought baby Jesus into the temple, Simeon took Him into his arms, exclaiming that he could finally die in peace. Simeon saw the salvation of God, and recognized that he did not need anything else. How often do we forget this! The Church reminds us at the close of each day that all we need is God and His grace. If we have this and we die, what is there to fear? Finally, we conclude the office of Compline by singing an antiphon to Mary, which varies by liturgical season. Every day of the Church calendar ends by invoking her perfect intercession to keep us safe both through the night and through death into, hopefully, Eternal Life.

Edited By: Ariel Hobbs

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