On Good Friday and Holy Saturday every year the Cathedral here offers the Office of Readings and Morning Prayer from the Liturgy of the Hours, presided over by the bishop. It has become a tradition for me to attend on Holy Saturday with my four sons, while my wife and daughter stay home and enjoy some Female Bonding. I have been writing a series of posts recently about the Liturgy of the Hours as a private devotion for laypeople, [starting here] with an emphasis on how we can structure our daily routine around prayer and so make Christ the center of our day. Praying the Divine Office as a congregational prayer is an even more powerful experience. This morning about thirty people, mostly lay, gathered with our bishop, two of his priests and two cantors in the sanctuary of the Cathedral; the cantors sang the antiphons in Latin, and we all chanted the Psalms together. It was a beautiful and moving experience.
The Liturgy of the Hours is just one of many means that Christ has given, through his Church, to conform ourselves to Him, as he has called us to do (see Rom 12:2, Eph 5:1-2. 1Peter 2:21, and many other places in scripture). In fact, if we fail in this, all else is worthless (See 1 Cor 13). Not only are there many means, there are also any number of ways in which to conform ourselves to Christ. Many people see this as a largely spiritual, and therefore an internal matter; to some degree this is true, but it's only part of the story. The moral quality of our life and conduct, for instance, is also important. As Catholics we further understand that we often come to realize spiritual realities through God’s creation, an understanding often referred to as the “Sacramental Imagination” or the “Sacramental Principle.” That’s why we place so much importance on the Sacraments and sacramentals; that’s why at the end of every Mass the priest used to read the beginning of John’s Gospel, the Beloved Disciple’s great hymn to the Eternal Word who Became Flesh and dwelt among us”(John 1:14). That is also why the Liturgical Calendar is so important, so that we might live out the story of Salvation in our lives over the course of each year, rather than just read or hear about it. Through the Liturgical Calendar we sanctify time over the course of an entire year, just as the Liturgy of the Hours consecrates each day.
We have an especially rich experience of this Sacramental Reality during the Triduum and Easter, when the Liturgical Year reaches its peak. Just as the Sacrifice and Resurrection of Jesus is not simply reenacted at every Mass but is actually present outside the confines of time, so it is during the Holy Week and Easter liturgies: we are present as Christ washes the Apostles feet at the last supper; we are in the crowd calling for Jesus’ crucifixion on Good Friday; we stand in front of the Empty Tomb on Easter Sunday.
Which brings us back to today's Office of Readings. The non-Scriptural reading from today’s office was, as the prayer book says, “From an ancient homily for Holy Saturday.” It begins:
Something strange is happening – there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. God has died in the flesh and hell trembles with fear. . .
But now night is falling, and the whole world is awaiting a new dawn . . .