Pray Without Ceasing: The Liturgy of the Hours – 5 October 2015

“Private prayer is like straw scattered here and there: If you set it on fire it makes a lot of little flames. But gather these straws into a bundle and light them, and you get a mighty fire, rising like a column into the sky; public prayer is like that.” St.John Vianney

The public prayer of the Church is the “Liturgy of the Hours,” also known as the “Divine Office.” (SC, 90) The Liturgy of the Hours unites the voices of the whole Church into a singular and constant prayer, a mighty fire, offered around the world, day and night. It – in conjunction with the liturgical sacrifice of the Mass – echoes Malachi’s “pure offering,” where “in every place incense is offered to My name” among the gentile nations “from the rising of the sun to its setting.” (Mal.1:11) The two liturgies, the Liturgy of the Eucharist and the Liturgy of the Hours, together form the central components of the Church’s public prayer life. This is the incense offered up to Heaven in God’s name. The Eucharistic sacrifice is obviously the primary liturgical focus, as we are offering Jesus’ body, blood, soul and divinity back to the Father. But, the Church’s offering of praise and worship, in the Liturgy of the Hours, is like an extension of the Mass. (CCC 1178) It is liturgical in nature, and it continues the Church’s public worship throughout the whole day, albeit in a complementary way to the Mass. As the Bishops state, “In the Hours, the royal priesthood of the baptized is exercised, and this sacrifice of praise is thus connected to the sacrifice of the Eucharist, both preparing for and flowing from the Mass.” (USCCB) We, as the Laity, can participate in this liturgy and offer up our sacrifices too, because of our common, baptismal priesthood. The Liturgy of the Hours is part of the Church’s response to Jesus’ exhortation to us to “pray always” (Lk.18:1) and to “pray without ceasing.” (1 Thess. 5:17) We pray always by consecrating and sanctifying our days and hours and minutes, and even our seconds, from moment to moment. Hence, the primary purpose of the Liturgy of the Hours is the sanctification of time. In it, we consecrate to God the phases of the day. (SC, 88) As the “General Instructions of the Liturgy of the Hours” highlights, “it consecrates to God the whole cycle of the day and the night.” The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, says it this way, By tradition going back to early Christian times, the divine office is devised so that the whole course of the day and night is made holy by the praises of God.” (SC, 84) It invokes an anointing of the Holy Spirit upon us, an epiclesis, from morning, to noon, to afternoon, to evening, to night sanctifying all that we do. As the letter to the Hebrews says “Through Him, then, let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God.” (Heb.13:15)

But, what is the Liturgy of the Hours? How is it performed? The Liturgy of the Hours is a set of psalms, antiphons, scripture readings, canticles, hymns, intercessions and other prayers offered at seven canonical hours throughout the day. These seven Hours are: (1) Lauds or morning prayer (about 6am); Daytime prayer: (2) Terce or third Hour (about 9am), (3) Sext or sixth Hour (about 12 noon), and (4) None or ninth Hour (about 3pm); (5) Vespers or evening prayer (about 6pm); (6) Compline or night prayer (about 9pm); (7) Office of the Readings or formerly Matins (traditionally around midnight; but now, anytime in the day). These are the prayers the Church offers up twenty-four hours a day and 365 days a year. Now, envision what is really happening here. As the earth turns on its axis and the hours shift from time zone to time zone, groups of Christians pass the prayer-baton to the next ones continuing the spiritual relay across the globe. Believers together all singing, chanting, and praying, one after another, the same ancient prayers of the Church; lay people along with the ecclesiastical hierarchy, and even with the Pope himself. The Liturgy of the Hours is more than a simple private devotion, such as a particular novena. Rather, it is said as a form of prayer in unity with the broader body of believers; it is no less than the universal Church coming together every day in liturgical, public worship. The Catechism describes the Liturgy of the Hours as “intended to become the prayer of the whole People of God. In it Christ Himself “continues his priestly work through his Church.” (CCC 1175) As a liturgical work, we exercise our priestly function in the Divine Office in unity with the high priest, Christ. The Church, as the bride of Christ, prays to her bridegroom, Christ. And together, the bride and bridegroom sing praise to the Father. (CCC 1174) The Liturgy of the Hours is an unending dialogue of love between God and man. Sacrosanctum Concilium beautifully describes it:

“Christ Jesus, high priest of the new and eternal covenant, taking human nature, introduced into this earthly exile that hymn which is sung throughout all ages in the halls of heaven. He joins the entire community of mankind to Himself, associating it with His own singing of this canticle of divine praise.” (SC, 83)

The Liturgy of the Hours connects us back with our most ancient traditions. Christians inherited the idea of the seven canonical hours in the day from Judaism. As David wrote in Book of Psalms, Seven times a day I praise you for your righteous ordinances.” (Ps.119:164) In the Book of Daniel, Daniel’s shown praying three times a day, presumably morning, afternoon and night. (Dan.6:10) These traditions were then carried forward with the first Christians. In the Book of Acts, the Apostles pray specifically at various canonical hours in the day, such as St. Peter praying at noon and again at three o’clock. (Acts 3:1; 10:3; 10:9; 10:30; 16:25) These are the same prayers Jesus would have known and would have prayed. Now, how can we, today, continue forward this ancient prayer into our modern times? Most of us know with evident certainty that our daily lives are awash in clutter, stress, noise, duties, work and responsibilities. It is not easy to pray the seven canonical Hours of the Divine Office. Not easy, especially with young kids, or with a highly demanding job. So, depending upon circumstances, having that time available can be quite difficult. Nevertheless, the Church encourages us to pray what we can, especially if possible, the three major hours of morning, evening, and night prayers. We need to adapt the Liturgy of the Hours to meet our particular circumstances and the rhythm of our day. It should not be a burden, but rather, a sanctifying joy. Although there’s something nostalgic about owning the physical breviary (the book containing the Liturgy of the Hours), I have found it much easier to use an online App for my phone, such as the ‘Divine Office’ app. In this way you always have it at your fingertips (as long as you have your phone), and you won’t have to carry around a large book. It’s very easy to use.  At this point, the most important thing is to just get started, and do what we can. Let the prayers cultivate our days into a sacramental life. It will help provide a spiritual framework to our hours; blessing us from our waking moments till drifting off to sleep. So, let us stop here, and pray as every Liturgy of the Hours begins, “O God, come to my assistance. Lord, make haste to help me.” (Ps.70:1)

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