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The Divine Office -- Its History and Development

From the earliest days of the Church, there have existed two main forms of liturgical Christian worship: the Holy Eucharist, and the daily round of prayer known as the the Divine Office, the Liturgy of the Hours, or the Daily Office.


Regular daily prayer appears to have both been inherited from the Jewish Church and an outgrowth of the extended apostolic Eucharist.  In accordance with Psalm 119:164 -- "Seven times a day do I praise Thee" -- devout Jews would offer prayers and psalms periodically throughout the day, and such services were a feature of synagogue worship in the days of the Apostles.

In addition, the early Sunday Eucharist had an extended "watch" or "vigil" prior to its actual celebration.  This service of preparation consisted largely of readings and psalms, and may have extended as far back as Saturday evening in accordance with the great respect paid to the Lord's Day and the Jewish custom of reckoning days from sunset to sunset.

Writing in the early second century, St. Justin Martyr records a celebration of the Eucharist with the same Liturgy of the Word, followed by Liturgy of the Gifts, which Christians observe today:

. . . On the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons.

First Apology, Ch. 67.

The Anglican Breviary's General Rubrics provide insight into the origination of the Christian Divine Office:

"It is supposed that the watch of prayer which preceded the post-apostolic Eucharist was eventually organized into four parts, one of which remained as the preparatory part of the Eucharist (the Proanaphora or Mass of the Catechumens); but the other three became respectively, Vespers for the later afternoon, Matins for midnight, and Lauds for the early morning.  This group, nocturnal in origin, constitute the Greater Hours, and the other five, which are named below, the Lesser Hours.  (Matins might be called the parent-Office, and Vespers and Lauds the twins since they are identical in structure.)

Later the diurnal group of Terce, Sext and None was instituted for the sanctification of the middle of the day.  Being shorter than the other five, they are known as the Little Hours.  (They might be called Triplets, for they too are identical in structure.)

Later still the bedside group of Compline and Prime were instituted, to serve as night and morning prayers in the dormitory.  (They still retain more of domestic flavour than the other Hours, and might be called sister and brother, for they are similar but not identical in structure.)"

The chief end of the Divine Office is the sanctification and marking of time.  "Watch ye therefore: for ye know not when the master of the house cometh, at even, or at midnight, or at the cockcrowing, or in the morning: Lest coming suddenly he find you sleeping.  And what I say unto you I say unto all, Watch."  (St. Mark 13:35-37).  As a result, the various Hours of the Office are distributed throughout the day.  Originally, the Hours corresponded to the following times:

-   Matins -- Midnight

-   Lauds -- 3 a.m.

-   Prime -- 6 a.m.

-   Terce -- 9 a.m.

-   Sext -- Noon

-   Vespers -- 6 p.m.

-   Compline -- 9 p.m.



However, for hundreds of years the Office has been recited thus by the vast majority of religious communities and orders that observe it:

-   Matins and Lauds -- 2-3 a.m.

-   Prime -- upon rising

-   Terce -- 9 a.m.

-   Sext -- Noon

-   None -- 3 p.m.

-   Vespers -- at sunset

-   Compline -- before bed

Yet, to the end that more persons may find themselves both moved and able to recite the Office, it is entirely permissible to move the periods of recitation to conform to the realities of modern life.  In such case, Matins and Lauds may be said in the morning, with the Lesser Hours conveniently distributed throughout the day.  In addition, Hours may be "aggregated" within reason; Matins, Lauds and Prime may be recited together before work; Terce, Sext and None at lunch-time; and Vespers and Compline just before bed.  Laity should feel free to recite those Hours that modern life permits, without scrupling over being unable to recite the "full" Office.  Prime said upon rising, Sext during the lunch hour, and Compline before bed is eminently possible and quite laudable.

In addition, the Breviary may profitably be used as an adjunct to the Book of Common Prayer.  Elements of the Breviary Office may be extracted and used to supplement and embellish the Prayer Book's Morning and Evening Prayer.

For instance, the prayers before and after the office may be used.  The daily invitatory verse at Matins may be used with the Prayer Book's Psalm 95 at Morning Prayer.  The Legend, or exposition on the life and death of the Saint of the Day, may be read in place of or along with one of the Prayer Book scriptural lessons.

In addition, the Matins homilies and readings from the Church Fathers may be used at Morning or Evening Prayer, or provide the subject for  private meditation.

The complexity of the Breviary should be a source of devotion, not of discouragement.  Whatever the Christian's use of the Breviary, the rule in such matters should always be that a little said regularly benefits more than much said hastily, or stressfully.

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