|The Triumph of St. Augustine by Claudio Coello|
In today’s post on the Liturgy of the Hours we are taking a look at The Office of Readings. This office was traditionally called Matins, and took place in the middle of the night, where it was considered to be the first office of the day. In the reformed Liturgy the Church has untethered it, so to speak, from any fixed time so that it can be said at any time of day.
We should take this independence from an appointed time as a sign of how important the Church considers this office to be; she wants us to have every opportunity to pray it, regardless of the hour. And it is, in certain respects, different from the other offices, in that it contains fewer prayers and much longer scripture readings; not only that, it includes non-scriptural readings from the Saints and from magisterial Church documents. The result is an office whose rewards are not only spiritual but educational, and the whole of which is greater than the sum of the parts.
Let’s first take a look at the structure of the Office of Readings. When it is not preceded by the Invitatory [link], it begins as do the other offices:
God, come to my assistance.
` Lord, make haste to help me.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son,
And to the Holy Spirit:
As it was in the beginning, is now,
And will be forever. Amen.
The Psalmody comes next, consisting of three psalm readings, each either a complete psalm or several stanzas from a longer one, preceded and followed by brief antiphons. After the psalmody and a very brief verse and response we find the first reading, a scriptural reading normally in the range of 500-600 words long; these are normally arranged so that very large portions of the various books of the Bible are covered over a period of a week or two. After a short responsory there is a non-Biblical reading, often from the Fathers of the Church, sometimes written by the Saint whose feast falls on that day. After another short responsory there is a closing prayer; on important feast days the closing prayer is preceded by the ancient hymn of praise Te Deum (see below).
These long readings are one of the treasures of the reformed office. I’m not sure I would have found the time or occasion otherwise to read so much of books such as Esther or Revelation. But there’s more to it than that. This isn’t simply reading: it’s very much like the practice of Lectio Divina in which we are simultaneously taking in the words of Holy Scripture, and also offering up them up to God. One function of the liturgical prayers and the psalms in the first part of the office (in addition to their their own intrinsic value) is that they put us into a sort of “prayer state” in which we are receptive to the words in a way that is simply not possible when we are reading in an ordinary way.
The non-Scriptural readings also deserve a special mention. There is an impressive variety of authors to teach and inspire us. To take a random sample, on the ten days from March 19th through March 28th of this year there are readings from: St. Bernadine of Siena, St. Hilary of Poitiers, St. Irenaeus, St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, St. Basil the Great, St. Leo the Great, St. Theophilus of Antioch, Tertullian, and St. Gregory the Great. It is very unlikely indeed that I would have assembled this list of writers on my own, impossible that I could have chosen such consistent quality of selections, which although they are not inspired in the way Holy Scripture is, all have the approval of the Church to which Christ granted authority to act in His Name on Earth. None of the authors above is infallible, after all, and Tertullian, for one, actually ended his life a heretic. We know that the passages we find in the Office of Readings, however, are free from doctrinal error; more than that, they are not only endorsed by the Magisterium of the Catholic Church, they are offered to us as part of her daily liturgy as nourishment for both our mind and spirit.
I myself have found the Office of Readings to be an unexpected source of enrichment over the dozen or so years I have been praying the Liturgy of the Hours. With the internet resources that are available today it is easier than ever to do.
You are God: we praise you;
You are the Lord: we acclaim you;
You are the eternal Father:
To you all angels, all the powers of heaven,
Cherubim and Seraphim, sing in endless praise:
Holy, holy, holy, Lord, God of power and might,
heaven and earth are full of your glory.
The glorious company of apostles praise you.
The noble fellowship of prophets praise you.
The white-robed army of martyrs praise you.
Throughout the world the holy Church acclaims you:
Father, of majesty unbounded,
your true and only Son, worthy of all worship,
and the Holy Spirit, advocate and guide.
You, Christ, are the King of glory,
the eternal Son of the Father.
When you became man to set us free
you did not spurn the Virgin’s womb.
You overcame the sting of death,
and opened the kingdom of heaven to all believers.
You are seated at God’s right hand in glory.
We believe that you will come, and be our judge.
Come then, Lord, and help your people,
bought with the price of your own blood,
and bring us with your saints
to glory everlasting.