I’m starting, appropriately enough, with the Invitatory Psalm. This is not a separate Hour, but an introductory prayer that is usually said before Matins (Office of Readings) or Lauds (Morning Prayer), whichever of the two you say first (if you start later in the day, the Invitatory is not said). This prayer is intended as the start of the entire cycle of prayer for a given day. The General Instruction of the Liturgy of the Hours says: “This invitatory verse and psalm daily invite the faithful to sing the praises of God, hear his voice and look forward to the ‘Rest of the Lord’”. The Psalm we usually say for the Invitatory is Psalm 95 (Psalms 100, 67 or 23 may be used in its place), sung or said as a responsorial. The optional Psalms are all interesting in their own right, but today I’ll focus on Psalm 95, which is the “default” prayer, if I may use that term. It is said with an introductory verse and antiphon as follows:
Introductory Verse: while tracing the Sign of the Cross on your lips, say: Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will proclaim your praise.
Recite and repeat Antiphon
Come, let us sing to the Lord
and shout with joy to the Rock who saves us.
Let us approach Him with praise and thanksgiving
and sing joyful songs to the Lord.
The Lord is God, the mighty God,
the great King over all the gods.
He holds in His hands the depths of the earth
and the highest mountains as well
He made the sea; it belongs to Him,
the dry land, too, for it was formed by His hands.
Come, then, let us bow down and worship,
bending the knee before the Lord, our Maker,
For He is our God and we are His people,
the flock He shepherds.
Today, listen to the voice of the Lord:
Do not grow stubborn, as your fathers did in the wilderness,
when at Meribah and Massah
they challenged Me and provoked Me,
Although they had seen all of My works.
Forty years I endured that generation.
I said, “They are a people whose hearts go astray
and they do not know My ways. So I swore in my anger,
“They shall not enter into My rest.”
Glory 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 introductory verse is always the same (“Lord open my lips . . .”); the antiphon changes according to the day and liturgical season. In the season of Lent, for instance, the antiphon would be either: “Come, let us worship Christ the Lord, Who for our sake endured temptation and suffering”, or “If today you hear the Voice of the Lord, harden not your hearts.” Since today, July 31st, is the feast day of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, who was a priest, we use the antiphon for priest’s feast days: “Come, let us worship Christ, chief shepherd of the flock, alleluia.”
What I find really interesting about this prayer is the way it draws us into the daily liturgy by mirroring the way we are drawn in to a love relationship, both with another person, and with God. The first strophe starts out joyfully, like our excitement at the beginning of a relationship: “sing to the Lord and shout with joy,” etc. But there’s also a little bit of foreshadowing in “the Rock who saves us”. We see God described as a defensive rock, a fortress, in Samuel 22:3 and Psalm 62:2. But there is also a rock in Exodus 17:7 and Numbers 20:7 that St. Paul tells us (1 Corinthians 10:4) is Christ, and, yes, that rock provides water to the Hebrews in the desert, but at the same time their grumbling and lack of faith (these places are called Massah, “testing” and Meribah, “quarreling”, in the scriptural texts) anger God.
In the second strophe we learn more about who God is: He is “great King over all the gods”, creator of all, an “it belongs to Him”. Again, as in a relationship, true love starts to grow as our initial infatuation is informed by a real knowledge of who the other person is and what they are like.
We bring the action of the first two strophes to a conclusion in the third: we “bow down and worship”, acknowledge Him as “the Lord, our Maker”, and that pledge that “he is our God and we are his people.” Here we commit ourselves to a covenant relationship with God, to which the wedding in a human relationship is (roughly) analogous. But those of us who are married know that the wedding is just the beginning . . .
We see things take a perhaps unexpected turn in the fourth strophe. “Listen to the voice of the Lord”: unlike a human relationship, this is not a union of equals. But look at what the Lord has to say: “Do not grow stubborn, as your fathers did in the wilderness,/when at Meribah and Massah they challenged Me and provoked Me . . .” So, it seems that we are talking about both the Rock that protects us, and the Rock to whom we were faithless. Relationships, especially love relationships, carry responsibilities, and here the Lord is reminding us of where our weakness lies.
Finally, God reminds us in the fifth strophe that we have the freedom to reject His love, and that abuse of that freedom has consequences. The generation that He endured “for forty years” is, of, course, Moses’ and Aaron’s generation. Nobody in the Old Testament enjoyed a closer relationship with God than Moses, and yet he was barred entry into the Promised Land because of his faithlessness at Meribah.
At this point, we close the Invitatory with the Doxology and a final repetition of the antiphon. The prayer closes, not at the end, but in the middle of the relationship; we continue to live out, or better yet, to work out that relationship throughout the day in the Divine Office. It is a liturgical prayer, after all, and the word “liturgy” comes from the Greek leitourgia, “work of the people.” It is not simply prayed, but done.
We may be surprised at first by the tone of the final two strophes of the Invitatory. The General Instruction tells us that it invites us to “look forward to the ‘Rest of the Lord’”, but that’s not quite right: it’s really warning us not to lose it. It reminds me of this exchange from John’s Gospel:
After this many of his disciples drew back and no longer went about with him. Jesus said to the twelve, "Do you also wish to go away?" Simon Peter answered him, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life . . .” John 6:66-68
The message here comes from a negative, rather than a positive direction, but it serves a purpose. It is what we call in educational jargon an “open-ended question”, one that requires some initiative on the part of the recipient; as we begin our daily work of prayer, God is asking us, as Jesus does the Apostles: “What choice will you make? What are you going to do?”
To read the whole series go here.
Below are some resources for anyone interested in exploring the Liturgy of the Hours -
Universalis.com – This was the first website I encountered with the text of the LOH. It does have the full text of all the daily prayers, although, at least in the free version available online, many of the translations are not the approved ones. They do say that the translations in the App version are the standard ones.
Ebreviary.com – Full tests of all the prayers, which are designed so that they can be printed as booklets – but you need to buy a subscription.
Divineoffice.org – My favorite LOH website. It contains the full approved translations of most of the canonical hours (there is only one hour for Daytime Prayer). There are also audio versions of each hour which include recorded hymns and recitation of the prayers, either spoken or chanted.
There are various one-volume books entitled Christian Prayer that contain most of the Liturgy of the Hours. The best choice available is this one [here], although it is not complete (particularly the Office of Readings), and hasn’t been updated since 1976. I prefer this one [here] from the Daughters of St. Paul, which contains everything except the long readings from the Office of Readings (which are available from the websites above). It also dates from 1976, however, and, even worse, seems to be out of print.
The Gold Standard is the four-volume Liturgy of the Hours [here]. It’s all there, but it’s gonna cost you.