A liturgy is a set form of ceremony or pattern of worship. The Liturgy of the Hours (also known as Divine Office) is the richest single prayer source of the Christian Church. It is composed of prayers, psalms and meditations for every hour of the day. It has existed from the earliest times to fulfill the Lord’s command to pray without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:17). The purpose of the Liturgy of the Hours is to sanctify the day and all human activity. It is the prayer not only of the clergy but of the entire people of God.
The early Christians continued the Jewish practice of reciting prayers at certain hours of the day and night. The Psalms are filled with references to the times of prayer observed by David. (Examples are: “In the morning I offer you my prayer” or “At midnight I will rise and praise you”.) The book of Acts shows how the Apostles observed the Jewish custom of praying during the third, sixth and ninth hours, and at midnight. The prayers initially included the chanting of psalms and a reading from the Old Testament. Then a reading from the Gospel, the book of Acts, the Epistles, and canticles like the Gloria and other prayers, were added over the centuries.
The Liturgy of the Hours evolved into the prayer of the local church offered at regular intervals (morning, daytime, evening and night) and in the appointed places under the presidency of a priest. It was considered as a complement to the fullness of divine worship of the Eucharistic sacrifice that overflows to all the hours of daily life. The celebration of the Liturgy of the Hours gives life to our Lord Jesus Christ’s command to pray unceasingly and shows the true nature of a praying Church. It is the prayer of the whole community which Christ unites to His very own prayer. The prayer of the Church is the prayer of Christ to the Father. As we celebrate this Office, we recognize our voices echoing in Christ and His voice echoing in ours.
If the Divine Office becomes a genuine personal prayer, the relation between the liturgy and the whole Christian life also becomes clearer. The life of the faithful, hour by hour, becomes a leitourgia or public service where the faithful minister in love to God and men. Thus, all faithful are recommended to make the Liturgy of the Hours a way of life, to identify with Christ’s sacrifice on the cross that saved the lives of all mankind.
Lauds (Morning Praise) and Vespers (Evening Praise) mark key moments in the day and are of the highest importance.
Lauds is the Hour of sunrise. The new light of the sun, which dispels the darkness of night, is – for believers – a symbol of the resurrection of Christ, the true Light of the World. Lauds emphasizes joy and praise including praise for creation. The Morning Prayer also consecrates the day to God and sets our hearts and minds on God before we begin our daily tasks.
Vespers on the other hand is celebrated as the sun goes down and as the day draws to a close. At this Hour, we give thanks for the blessings that we received during the day and for all that we accomplished. We turn our eyes to Christ, the Sun that never sets, and see in His self-offering on the cross and in the mystery of the Eucharist the fulfilment of the “evening sacrifice” of the Old Covenant.
The two Hours follow the same pattern. After the opening versicle (a hymn which expresses the theme of the Hour), the season of the feast unites us as a worshipping assembly and draws us into the celebration.
Psalms and canticles follow. During Lauds, the first psalm usually has a morning theme. This is followed by a canticle from the Old Testament and another psalm usually with a theme of praise. During Vespers there are three psalms followed by a canticle from the New Testament. Each psalm and canticle has its own antiphon, a short sentence taken from the psalm itself or elsewhere in Scripture, sung before and after the psalm. The antiphons help to illustrate the character of the psalm; they draw our attention to phrases which we might otherwise miss and they help us approach the psalm more prayerfully.
A short Scripture reading follows the proclamation of the Word of God. We ponder it for a few moments in silence and then respond to it by singing a short responsory.
Next is a canticle from the Gospel. At Lauds this is the Benedictus, the prayer of St. John the Baptist’s father, Zachary, who praised God for the fulfilment of His promise in Christ who “visits us like the dawn from on high.” At Vespers we sing the Magnificat, the song of the Virgin Mary, glorifying and thanking “the Almighty who works marvels” for her, and rejoicing in the mighty acts of God.
This is followed by a time of intercession where we bring the needs of the world to God and we venerate the Virgin Mary with an antiphon in her honor. Then we pray the Lord’s Prayer. St. Benedict told his monks to pay special attention to the words “forgive us as we forgive” because each day there are failures in community life we need to ask forgiveness for.
Finally, we say the concluding prayer which sums up and completes the Hour, the prayer leader pronounces a blessing and the dismissal is sung.
Reference: Cistercian Vocation (http://holyvocations.blogspot.com/)
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