OFFICE FOR THE LITURGICAL CELEBRATIONS
When to Celebrate?/4: The Liturgy of the Hours (CCC, 1174-1178)
The liturgical section of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), in the paragraph dedicated to “When is the liturgy celebrated?”, gives a certain space to the “Divine Office,” today called “Liturgy of the Hours” (LoH). The LoH is an integral part of the divine worship of the Church, not a simple appendage of the sacraments. It is Sacred Liturgy in the true and proper sense. In the LoH, as in the sacramental liturgy (in particular the Eucharistic Liturgy, of which the Office is as the prolongation), two dynamics intersect one another: “from above” and “from below.”
Considered “from above,” the LoH is brought on earth by the Word, when he became incarnate to redeem us. That is why the Divine Office is described as “the hymn that is sung in Heaven for all eternity,” introduced “in the earthly exile” by the Word incarnate (cf. Pius XII, Mediator Dei: EE 6/565; likewise: Vatican Council II, Sacrosanctum Concilium [SC], n. 83). We can sing the praises of God because God himself enables us to do so and teaches us how to do it. In this first meaning, the LoH represents the reproduction, made by the pilgrim and militant Church, of the singing of the heavenly and blessed spirits, who form the glorious Church in Heaven. It is for this reason that the place in which monks, friars and canons gather to recite the Office has assumed the name of “choir”: it is to reproduce visibly the angelic orders and the choir of saints, who incessantly praise God’s majesty (cf. Isaiah 6:1-4; Revelation 5: 6-14). Therefore, the choir is structured in a circular form not to favor looking at one another while the LoH is celebrated, but rather to represent the “appearing of Heaven on earth” (Benedict XVI, Sacramentum Caritatis, n. 35) which takes place when the Divine Worship is celebrated.
In the second place, the LoH mirrors a dynamic that “from below” goes toward the “above”: it is the movement with which the earthly Church praises, adores, thanks her Lord and asks him for favors, throughout the whole span of the day. We receive benefits from the Lord at every moment, that is why it is just that we thank him for them at every hour of the day. It is because of this that Saint Thomas Aquinas says that prayer is an act that, belonging to the virtue of religion, is connected to the virtue of justice (cf. S.Th. II-II, 80, 1; 83,3). With the “Preface” of the Holy Mass, we can say that “it is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation” to praise the Lord at every moment of the day.
Christ was first in giving the example of incessant prayer, day and night (cf. Matthew 14:23; Mark 2:35; Hebrews 5:7). The Lord then recommended that we pray always, without ever getting tired (cf. Luke 18:1). Faithful to the words and the example of her Founder (cf. 1 Thessalonians 5:17; Ephesians 6:18), since the apostolic age the Church has developed her own daily prayer according to an ordered rhythm which covers the entire day, assuming in a new way the liturgical practices of the Temple of Jerusalem. It is certain that the two main canonical hours (Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer) have been drawn also in relation to the two daily sacrifices of the Temple: the morning one and the evening one. Also the prayers of Terce [Midmorning], Sext [Midday] and None [Midafternoon] correspond to as many moments of prayer of the Judaic practice. On the day of Pentecost, the Apostles were gathered in prayer at the Third Hour (cf. Acts 2:15). Saint Peter had the vision of the sheet descending from heaven, while he was at prayer on a terrace towards the Sixth Hour. On another occasion, Peter and John were going up to the Temple to pray at the Ninth Hour (cf. Acts 3:1). And let us not forget that Paul and Silas, locked in prison, prayed singing hymns to God towards midnight (cf. Acts 16:25).
Hence, it is not astonishing that already at the end of the 1st century, Pope Saint Clement was able to remind: “We must do with order all that the Lord commanded us to fulfill in the established times. He prescribes to us that we do the offerings and the liturgies, not carelessly or without order, but in established circumstances and hours” (To the Corinthians, XL, 1-2). The Didache (cf. VIII, 2), recommends reciting the Our Father three times a day, something that the Church does at present at Morning Prayer, at Evening Prayer and in the Holy Mass. Tertullian interprets this ancient tradition thus: “We pray, as a minimum, not less than three times a day, given that we are debtors of the Three: of the Father, of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (De oratione, XXV, 5). In the West, the great regulator of the Divine Office was Saint Benedict of Norcia, who perfected the preceding use of the Church of Rome.
Emerging from what has been said are at least two fundamental considerations. The first is that the LoH, being essentially Christocentric, is profoundly ecclesial. This implies that, in as much as public worship of the Church, the LoH is removed from the will of the individual and is regulated by the ecclesiastical hierarchy. Moreover, it represents an ecclesial reading of Sacred Scripture, because the Psalms and the biblical readings are interpreted by texts of the Fathers, of the Doctors and of the Councils, as well as by the liturgical prayers composed by the Church herself (cf. CCC, 1177). In as much as public worship, the LoH h also has a visible and not just an interior component. It is the union of prayer and gestures. If it is true that “the mind must harmonize with the voice” (cf. CCC, 1176), it is also true that worship is not celebrated only with the mind, but also with the body (cf. S.Th., II-II, 81, 7). That is why the Liturgy provides songs, verbal expressions, gestures, bows, prostrations, genuflections, use of incense, vestments, etc. This is applied also to the Divine Office. Moreover, the ecclesial character of the LoH makes it so that by its very nature “it is destined to become the prayer of the whole people of God” (CCC, 1175). In this connection, if it remains true that the Office belongs above all to the sacred Ministers and to the Religious – and to them the Church entrusts it in particular – it always involves the whole Church: the lay faithful (in as much as it is possible for them to participate in it), the souls in Purgatory, the Blessed and the Angels in their diverse ranks. Singing the praises of God, the earthly Church joins herself to the heavenly and prepares to reach her. Thus, the LoH “is truly the voice of the Bride herself who speaks to her Spouse, in fact it is the prayer of Christ, with his Body, to the Father” (SC, n. 84, quoted in CCC, 1174).