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Canonical hours

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Canonical hours are ancient divisions of time (also called "offices"), developed by the Catholic Church, serving as increments between prayers. The practice grew from the Jewish practice of reciting prayers at set times of the day: for example, in the book of Acts, Peter and John visit the temple for the afternoon prayers. Already well-established by the ninth century, these canonical offices consisted of eight daily prayer events and three (or four) nightly divisions (called "nocturnes", "watches," or "vigils"). Building on the recitation of psalms and canticles from Scripture, the Church has added (and, at times subtracted) hymns, hagiographical readings, and other prayers. The practice of observing canonical hours are maintained by many Churches, such as the Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican communions.

The daily events were:

(at dawn) Matins ("MATT'-inz") called "Orthos" in Eastern Churches

(at dawn) Lauds ("lawds") later separate from Matins; aka "Morning Prayer" or "The Praises."

(at ~6 AM) Prime (the "first hour")

(at ~9 AM) Terce (the "third hour")

(at Noon) Sext (the "sixth hour")

(at ~3 PM) Nones (the "ninth hour")

(at sunset) Vespers (aka "Evensong" or "Evening Prayer")

(at bedtime) Compline ("COMP'-lin", aka "Night Prayer")

The remainder of this article is divided into three sections: the Anglican Usage, the Catholic usage, and the Orthodox usage.

Table of contents

Anglican Usage (the Book of Common Prayer)

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Catholic Usage

Early Church

Middle Ages

Council of Trent

Further reforms before the Second Vatican Council

Catholic Usage in the Roman Rite following the Second Vatican Council

Following the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church's Roman Rite simplified the observance of the canonical hours and sought to make them more accessible to the laity, hoping to restore their character as the prayer of the entire Church. The office of Prime was abolished, and the character of Matins changed so that it could be used at any time of the day as an office of Scriptural and hagiographical readings. Furthermore, the period over which the entire Psalter is recited has been expanded from one week to four.

Formerly referred to popularly as "The Divine Office", and published in four volumes according to the meteorological seasons "Spring", "Summer", "Fall", and "Winter", the Church now publishes the related liturgical books under the title "The Liturgy of the Hours", and issues them in four volumes according to the liturgical season: "Advent and Christmas", "Lent and Easter", "Ordinary Time Vol. I", "Ordinary Time Vol. II".

Current Catholic usage focuses on two major hours and from three to five minor hours:

  • Morning prayer (Lauds)
  • Evening prayer (Vespers)
  • the Office of Readings (formerly Matins)
  • Daytime prayer, which can be one or all of
    • Midmorning prayer (Terce)
    • Midday prayer (Sext)
    • Midafternoon prayer (None)
  • Night Prayer (Compline)

The major hours

The major hours consist of Morning and Evening Prayer (or Vespers). The character of Morning Prayer is that of praise; of Evening Prayer, that of thanksgiving. Both follow the same format:

  • a hymn, composed by the Church
  • two psalms, or one long psalm divided into two parts, and a scriptural canticle
  • a short passage from scripture
  • a responsory, typically a verse of scripture, but sometimes liturgical poetry
  • a canticle taken from the Gospel of Luke: the Canticle of Zechariah (Benedictus) for morning prayer, and the Canticle of Mary (Magnificat) for evening prayer
  • intercessions, composed by the Church
  • the Our Father
  • the concluding prayer, composed by the Church

The minor hours

The daytime hours follow a simpler format:

  • a hymn
  • three short psalms, or, three pieces of longer psalms; in the daytime hours it is usual to begin one part of the longest psalm, psalm 119
  • a very short passage of scripture, followed by a responsorial verse
  • the concluding prayer

The office of readings expands on the format of the daytime hours:

  • a hymn
  • one or two long psalms divided into three parts
  • a long passage from scripture, usually arranged so that in any one week, all the readings come from the same text
  • a long hagiographical passage, such as an account of a saint's martyrdom, or a theological treatise commenting on some aspect of the scriptural reading, or a passage from the documents of the Second Vatican Council
  • on nights preceding Sundays and feast days, the office may be expanded to a vigil by inserting three Old Testament canticles and a reading from the gospels
  • the hymn Te Deum (on Sundays and feast days)
  • the concluding prayer

Night prayer has the character of preparing the soul for its passage to eternal life:

  • a hymn
  • a psalm, or two short psalms, or simply Psalm 91
  • a short reading from scripture
  • the responsory In manus tuas, Domine (Into Your Hands, O Lord)
  • the Canticle of Simeon, Nunc Dimittis, from the Gospel of Luke, framed by the antiphon Protect us, Lord
  • a concluding prayer
  • a hymn to Mary, the mother of Jesus

In each office, the psalms and canticle are framed by antiphons, and each concludes with the traditional Catholic doxology.

Orthodox Usage

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