Some history and background
The Liturgy of the Hours is the official public prayer of the Church. Composed of hymns, Psalms, Scripture readings and prayers, it is a prayer of thanksgiving, reparation, and adoration of God and asks for the grace to continue Christ's work on earth. The Divine Office has been a part of our Church tradition since the first century and Vatican II reaffirmed its importance in the prayer life of the Church. Vatican II encouraged the use of the Divine Office in both the public and private prayer life of all the faithful. Yet despite this call by Vatican II, most people are unfamiliar with it today. This little note will hopefully explain what the Liturgy of the Hours is and some of its history so one will be better able to appreciate this public prayer of the Church.
From the earliest centuries the Liturgy of the Hours has been a part of our Church tradition. Originating in the pious Jewish custom of assembling at the temple at certain times of the day, early Christian communities likewise gathered for daily public prayer services. We see numerous traces of these early public prayer services in the New Testament, particularly in St. Paul's Letters. The first mention of a daily prayer cycle outside Scripture comes from an important first century text know as the Didache (The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles). In addition to being a first century catechism, the Didache outlined the norms of conduct and worship in the early Church. It prescribed assembling and praying at certain times of the day and the reciting of the Our Father three times a day by all the faithful.
Public prayer gatherings were an important source of spiritual nourishment for the early Christian communities, especially in the face of persecution. The Apostolic Tradition, written around 215 AD by St. Hippolytus offers significant testimony to these early prayer hours. In it we read: "All the faithful, men as well as women, on waking in the morning and before beginning their work, should wash, and raise their hearts to God in prayer and only then betake themselves to work." For then they will be "...better able to overcome the day's worries and difficulties." St. Hippolytus goes on to mention other hours as well. By 3rd century we see the number of prayer hours had increased to six; morning prayer, three daytime hours, evening prayer, and night prayer.
With the granting of religious freedom to Christians in the fourth century, these public gatherings grew in scope and importance especially in conjunction with the rise in monasticism. During the fourth to sixth centuries names such as St. Basil, St. John Chrysostom, St. Columban, St. Benedict, and St. Gregory the Great (of Gregorian chant fame) all left their mark on its development. In particular St. Benedict, the founder of monasticism in the west, formulated what is today known as the monastic Breviary which has had a great impact on the Breviary of the Roman Rite. After the sixth century, there were numerous editorial changes to the Liturgy of the Hours depending upon the liturgical practices of the time, but the basic structure has remained more or less the same down to today. Vatican II saw the last major revision of the Liturgy of the Hours. Today the Liturgy of the Hours is broken up into seven parts: the Office of the Readings (formerly known as Matins), morning prayer (Lauds), daytime prayer (Terce, Sext, and None), evening prayer (Vespers) and lastly night prayer (Compline),
The division of the day into these groupings is not arbitrary, but rather reflects events recorded in Scripture. Night prayer corresponds to the night Jesus spent in prayer in the garden of Gethsemene before his crucifixion. Terce, the Roman third hour of the day (9:00am) recalls Jesus' death sentence. Sext, the Roman sixth hour (noon) is the hour of the Crucifixion (Luke 23:33-43). Nones, the Roman ninth hour (3:00pm) recalls Jesus last utterance and his death (Matt 27:46).
While much has changed over the twenty centuries of its history, the basic elements comprising the Liturgy of the Hours have remained the same since the second century. Hymns, Psalms, Scripture, and prayers are blended into a prayer of thanksgiving, reparation, and adoration of God. Each day's prayer is tied to the yearly Church Liturgical cycle and is carefully intertwined with the particular feast or liturgical season of the day. During Advent, Lent, and Easter, the prayers and readings are designed to help us contemplate the meanings behind the great mysteries we are experiencing. Texts for the feast days remind us of the struggles of the saints in truly living out Christian lives. Also the individual days themselves have particular significance. Sundays recall the resurrection, Thursdays recall the Last Supper, and Fridays recall Christ's passion and death.
Each hour has a similar basic structure with most of the texts coming from Scripture. An Opening Hymn, Psalms, Canticles, Readings and Concluding Prayer form the backbone of the Hours. The Psalms, distributed over a four week cycle in the post Vatican II format and over one week in the pre-Vatican II format, are some of the most beautiful prayers in the Bible. The Psalms contain 150 prayers, poems, and hymns that give praise and adoration of God. The Psalms were given to us by God through the Holy Spirit and sum up the major aspects of our relationship with Him. By praying the Psalms, God puts into our mouths the words He wishes to hear.
In addition to the Psalms, there are Scriptural and non-Scriptural readings. The daily Scripture readings cover the better part of the Bible during the year. We read the story of our salvation and the unfolding of God's plan for us. The non-Scriptural readings are in the Office of the Readings and contain selections of the greatest writings of the Church from the first century to the twentieth. The net effect is that anyone conscientiously reciting the Liturgy of the Hours will become familiar with a large part of Scripture and Church writings over the course of the year.
The theology behind the Liturgy of the Hours comes from Jesus' command to pray continuously (Luke 18:1, 1 Th. 5:17). The Liturgy of the Hours is the Church's response to Jesus' command. Specific times of the day are set aside by the Church for formal prayer so that our entire day may be sanctified. Morning prayer (Lauds), mid-morning prayer (Terce), noon prayer (Sext), mid-afternoon prayer (Nones), evening prayer (Vespers) and night time prayer (Compline) compose the formal hours. At these times we remember the mysteries of God's creation and Jesus' incarnation, passion, death, resurrection and ascension. From this pattern of daily prayer, we are reminded to fill the entire day with prayer, be it in formal prayer, informal prayer, or through our daily activities carried out in a prayerful attitude.
Originally, and for much of its history, the Liturgy of the Hours was celebrated in common with the entire community, just as the Mass is today. Not only were the formal hours recited by clergy and laity alike, but so were the Little Offices which were mini devotions to God or the Saints. These little offices were especially the favorite of the laity since they were ideally suited to lay lifestyles, namely they were short and repetitive.
Over the last few centuries, as the industrial revolution has placed a greater and greater premium upon peoples work schedules, the participation by the laity decreased, almost to the point where the Liturgy of the Hours has become the exclusive domain of the clergy and religious. While the Liturgy of the Hours has always been recommended to the laity, Vatican II has again placed a renewed emphasis upon participation by the laity in the Liturgy of the Hours, both in community and in personal recitation. All the faithful are encouraged and exhorted to rediscover the richness of this prayer of the Church.
To help foster a greater appreciation for the Liturgy of the Hours, sections of prayers from it are being placed in the Thesaurus Precum Latinarum. Elements from the pre and post SVC Liturgia Horarum will be posted as well as the Little Offices which so nourished the spiritual lives of our ancestors in the faith.
Some useful external websites:
An interesting discussion on the development of the Divine Office this last century can be found at:
Short Breviaries in 20th Century America
Two useful articles on the pre-Vatican II Divine Office can be found in the The Catholic Encyclopedia
Breviary (from the 1907 edition)
Divine Office (1911 edition)