Festschrift on the Feast of St Benedict, 21 March 2011.
What's a Divine Office -- where God goes to work?
The divine office and the divine service are the public worship of the church. Oh man, hey, just give me Jesus, we're free aren't we, why bother with all this set prayer stuff? One hears that a lot about liturgy these days. Well, here's why and how all this set prayer stuff is part of giving you Jesus, or rather, part of Jesus giving himself to you.
How the Divine Office came to be.
Pre Messiah, there were no particular set times for prayer for hundreds of years. Not that prayer wasn't prayed at set times in various places, but there was nothing normative about it. That came at the end of the Babylonian Captivity (the one that happened to the Jews, not the Church!) with the return of the Jews to the Holy Land and the reconstruction of the Temple, ie the Second Temple. As part of that restoration, Ezra and the 120 Men established set times for prayer in essentially the form they are still used in the synagogue, which was adapted and continued by the church.
Established, not originated. These were not new, but were codified into three times of prayer during the day. These times were set to correspond to the three times of sacrifice in the Temple: morning (shaharit), afternoon (minha) and evening (arvit or maariv). On top of that, in Jewish tradition they trace themselves to the times of prayer Scripture records for each of the three great Patriarchs: Abraham in the morning (Gen19:27), Isaac at dusk (Gen24:63) and Jacob in the evening (Gen28:10).
How the Church Adapted These Prayers.
This pattern was adapted by the Church in light of the Christ having come, and is the basis of the three major times of prayer in the Divine Office we know as Matins, Vespers and Compline. Just as in the Divine Service, or mass, we have essentially a Christian synagogue service followed by a Christian seder, a service of the word followed by the sacrament of the altar, so in the Divine Office we have a series of daily Christian synagogue services whose main ones are:
1. Matins, a Christian shaharit going back through the history of the New Israel the church to the pre-Messianic morning synagogue service which Jesus and the Apostles knew, and aligned with morning sacrifice in the Temple and on back to the morning prayer time of Abraham;
2. Vespers, a Christian minha going back through the church to the afternoon synagogue service known to Jesus and the Apostles, and aligned with the afternoon sacrifice in the Temple and on back to the afternoon prayer time of Isaac;
3. Compline, a Christian arvit or maariv going back through the church to the evening synagogue service Jesus and the Apostles knew, and aligned with the evening sacrifice in the Temple and on back to the evening prayer time of Jacob.
What's a Canticle and How Do Canticles Fit Into This?
The Te Deum is the only canticle that is not directly from Scripture. Traditionally it is said to have been spontaneously composed as St Ambrose baptised St Augustine in 387. It proclaims the Creed in the context of a heavenly liturgy and concludes with verses from the Psalms. You want some praise music -- this is it!
The Magnificat quotes Mary's words to Elizabeth at the Visitation, Luke 1:46-55, which in turn reflects and fulfills the Song of Hannah, 1 Samuel 2:1-10, considered in Judaism the example of how to pray and as such the haftorah for Rosh Hoshannah or New Years, not to mention Mary's mother's name was Ana, or Anne, a variant of, guess what, Hannah! Want some more praise music -- this is it!
The Nunc dimittis quotes Simeon's words to Mary when Jesus was presented in the Temple to fulfill the Law, Luke 2:29-32. Our Common Service -- would that it were our common service -- also uses it as a thanksgiving after Communion. Want still more praise music -- this it it!
Also worth mentioning is the Benedictus, which quotes the words of Zacharias, a Temple priest and husband of Elizabeth and father of St John the Baptist, said in praise of the coming Messiah, Luke 1:68-79, which with the Magnificat and the Nunc dimittis are the three evangelical, because they come from Luke, canticles said every day. The Benedictus is associated with the office Lauds, meaning praise, which fits here because originally Lauds was Matins, but as the night vigil came to be said right before Lauds, the name Matins passed to the Vigil (hence the oddity of a morning name for a night service) and the original Matins became Lauds. In the Eastern Church Lauds is still at the end of Matins, which they call Orthros.
The history of this development is beyond our scope here. What is important here is three main points:
1) community gathering for prayer, preaching and Scripture reading throughout the day continued in the church from the synagogue from Apostolic times, for example Acts chapter 20;
2) amid the great variation in details over time and place a consistent pattern is clear, a morning prayer from Abraham to Shaharit to Matins, an afternoon prayer from Isaac to Minhah to Vespers, and an evening prayer from Jacob to Maariv to Compline;
3) the three major times of prayer came to feature canticles, hymns setting parts of Scripture, usually known from their first words in Latin, the Te Deum for Matins, the Magnificat for Vespers, and the Nunc dimittis for Compline.
How Do I Find This Praise Music?
Where can you find this stuff? There's been all kinds of versions over time in both the Eastern and Western church.
More praise. Looks like we don't have to go hunting for praise stuff, the church has had it all along in the Divine Office! And you hardly have to undertake some sort of monastic regimen. All this stuff started with parishes, not monasteries! Any of the hymnals in use by our beloved synod contains material for use, sometimes combining Vespers and Compline into one. Some of our parishes hold such services, but unfortunately many don't.
Since the Divine Office, like the Divine Service, is public communal prayer, one no more really participates in the Divine Office by praying it at home than one really participates in the Divine Service by staying home and praying an order of service. But for centuries parish pastors were supposed to do just that, pray the Office apart from the community, and pious laity sometimes did too, and to this day there are books to do that.
So what is one to do, on the one hand there being this magnificent prayer of praise and on the other most of us not being monks or nuns or in parishes where it is prayed? Not to mention that, as Luther notes in the Large Catechism, we are relieved of the private "burdensome babbling of the canonical hours"? One can study the Divine Office in our hymnals -- service book being a better term, since there is so much more to them than hymns -- to appreciate and gain from them, but at home or individually one can just follow what is set out for personal or home Morning and Evening Prayer in the Little Catechism!
From current resources, may I suggest the "whatever your devotion may suggest" part be the daily reading in Portals of Prayer and from Walther in God Grant It, both from Concordia Publishing House. One's devotion may also suggest the Canticle associated with each time of prayer, or a section from the Explanation to the Small Catechism. Keep it simple, no burdensome babbling!
Absolutely, not commanded by Scripture. But we Lutherans aren't an "If it ain't in Scripture we ain't doing it" crowd. Our Confessions are explicit -- though unfortunately sometimes our parishes aren't -- that we happily accept the observances and ceremonies that those who came before us in faith brought about and hand on to us, rejecting not what isn't in Scripture but only what contradicts it that crept in here and there over time.
Why Is This Posted on 21 March?
In 2010, this discussion of the Divine Office joined my "Blogoral Calendar", a series of posts aligned with the Church Year. My original post on the Office was part of something for the O Antiphons of Advent, then posted separately, and later more fully treated re the Office itself. Revised and expanded for 2011, it now will be published on the traditional feast day of the man who more than anyone else allowed this continuous song of praise of the church to survive the fall of the Roman Empire and its wake of destruction and pass to us. That is the holy father in faith St Benedict of Nursia (now Norcia, Italy), whose feast is celebrated, as is the custom with feasts, on the date of his death, or rather birth unto eternity, which is 21 March.
Benedict was from a Roman noble family, but disgusted at the degenerate lifestyle around him, left town in search of a way to not live like that. He came to establish a celibate community, rather than just being a hermit, and based his routine for the community's daily prayer on the practice of the parishes in Rome. It was because of his conviction that prayer is not to be a retreat from work or separated from active life that the community prayer was called the office, the English word from the Latin officium, which means work or task or duty or business, and itself derives from the Latin words opus (work) and facere (to do).
St Benedict said "Orare est laborare laborare est orare", which is "To pray is to work (and) to work is to pray". In fact the motto of the whole damn Order of St Benedict is ora et labora, pray and work.
But, just as with St Gregory who was key wrt to the Divine Service, because St Benedict's feast will fall in Lent, it was moved to 11 July, the day his remains were moved, or translated, as they say, to Fleury Abbey, aka Floriacum, in France, since known as Fleury-Saint-Benoit-sur-Loire, by the ecclesiastical vandals in their 1960s Sack of Rome called Vatican II that left its own wake of destruction.
Vatican II abolished Matins too btw, for an "Office of Readings" that can be said whenever! For them. And unfortunately for some of us too, as many non Roman churches have been taken in by the liturgical vandalism of Vatican II and modified their observances accordingly. But it is hardly our path, as our Confessions state, maintaining the ceremonies previously in use, rejecting only the accretions that contradict Scripture.
Luckily, the catholic church ain't the Catholic Church.
What a great gift has been handed to us! Whether simplified for home or in full in our parishes, in the Divine Office, as in the Divine Service we not only have a magnificent gift from those who came before us, but we take our place with them in the forward motion toward the final fulfillment of the promises of God, and do so in a vehicle that is itself an expression and product of the unfolding through all its points so far of the coming of salvation and leading on to that great and final Coming of the Omega drawing all Creation to its convergence in God in Jesus his Christ!!
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