Prayer, in its purest form, is essentially the first set of tin cans utilized by mankind to communicate with the creator. Although answers may not always appear in tangible form, they frequently unfold in mysterious ways! That in itself has motivated the faithful to seek and utilize prayer as an outlet to create more intimate and occasionally complex methods of entering into dialogue with Yahweh.
With this in mind, I will introduce through comparison and contrast, an examination of the development of ‘The Liturgy of the Hours.’ I will begin with its link to Judaic custom, lead into its evolution as a form of communal prayer, and finally close with its present distinction as the “Divine Office” of Christian liturgical worship.
The Liturgy of the Hours – Early beginnings
The Liturgy of the Hours is an ancient prayer form with origins traceable to the Old Covenant of Moses. Written within this contract was the command to offer a morning and evening sacrifice (Ex. 29:38-29). During the Babylonian exile (587-521 BC), when no Temple was available for worship, a series of readings and psalms substituted for the animal sacrifices of the temple; creating in essence – a sacrifice of praise.
After the people returned to Judea and the Temple was re-built, the prayer services developed in Babylon for the local assemblies (synagogues) were brought into use for Temple worship. In addition to Morning and Evening Prayer to accompany the sacrifices, prayer at the Third, Sixth and Ninth hours of the day were added. The Acts of the Apostles notes that early converts to Christianity continued to pray at these hours (Third: Acts 2:15; Sixth: Acts 10:9; 10: 3, 13) as a means of staying connected to their Jewish roots.
As Monastic and eremitical (hermit) prayer developed in the early Christian Church, the Psalms were recognized as the cornerstone of the ‘new’ Liturgy of the Hours. The Book of Psalms is a compilation of 150 poems and songs which convey the profound and powerful experiences of the Jewish people. They are filled with the heart-felt emotion of a people whose relationship with the Divine was tested at every turn. Each Psalm is unique – some are prayers crying out for help and guidance in time of need or sadness; others praise God’s faithfulness; while yet others offer thanksgiving.
At the heart of the Psalms, lies the familial story of a Father and his unruly children. Their family travels take us on a journey from darkness to light, dust to flesh, and finally from subservience to dominion over all creation. What is implied in this story is that God no longer wished to live in isolation, but desired to form a partnership with his children. Man, to acknowledge this relationship,communicates by responding through the depth and beauty of prayer. It is from this familial (Communal) structure that the early Christian Church developed the theology of “The Liturgy of the Hours”.
Jewish Prayer – An Overview
Exactly when or where fixed hour prayer entered Judaism is unclear; however, by the time of King David the psalmist was singing, “Seven times a day do I pray to you.” (Ps. 119:164) And, while the specific times when these prayers were situated within the ancient Jewish day are uncertain, we are aware that the setting of the number of ‘offices’ at seven per day has remained fairly constant. This paper will focus on the three primary hours in Judaism and address how they enfold into the Liturgy of the Hours.
The Jewish day begins with the setting of the sun and concludes with sunrise of the next new day. This sense of order for the Hebrew people is a natural way of life. Hence, the Jewish book of Prayer is known as the Siddur, meaning “order”. Siddur derives from the same root as the word ‘Seder’, which refers to the Jewish feast of Passover.
During Old Testament times, the hours of prayer were referred to as the hours of “oblation” or sacrifice (Daniel 9:21, II Kings 16:15). Records show that the prophet Daniel prayed three times a day (Daniel 6:10). Prayer is a means by which man joins himself to God. It is a way to uncover the Divine in both man and creation. It is designed to lift us from the chaos of worldliness – from an aimless and confusing wilderness – to a life of meaning and purpose. Prayer has the power to move us from where we are to where we are destined to be. It is an elevator of sorts used to ascend and soar ever higher – from the darkness of matter to the very source of light. It is the link between lower and higher, between heaven and earth, and between body and soul.
These prayers were instilled as part of Judaic Law and significantly played into Daniel’s daily prayer routine. Within this obligatory prayer structure falls the hours of Shacharit (Morning), practiced at the third hour of the day, Minchah (Midday) said at the sixth hour and Ma’ariv (Evening), recited at Sunset. Each hour is said to have been inspired by one of the great Prophets; Shacharit by Abraham, Minchah by Isaac and Ma’ariv to Jacob. Let us now examine these three primary hours of Jewish Prayer.
Three Primary Hours of Prayer – Judaism
Ma’ariv – A Prayer of Perseverance and Truth.
As day wanes, we wrap up our activities and wearily sit back to reflect. Though the day has been successful, we realize there is yet so much to achieve. We yearn to complete so many tasks but darkness has encroached. The night grows bleak. We sense the mortality of the human condition as we realize that daylight and warmth will not last much longer. The morning’s enthusiasm and the afternoon’s momentum have subsided, as the night envelopes us in a dark and brooding sense of despair. Can we overcome the chill of night and draw into it the warmth of God?
The answer is a resounding yes. Jacob responded by authoring a prayer for it. Why Jacob? Jacob personified the steadfast commitment of divine truth that never wavers despite the conditions. His life was a string of dark moments, difficult trials and overwhelming challenges. Yet through it all he never despaired. When he dipped into valleys of hopelessness, his eyes sought only the distant mountain peaks. When the horizon looked bleak, his heart and mind were filled with forward momentum. Night did fall; but Jacob was gripped by inspiration and joy rather than chilling melancholy. He recognized these moments as the perfect time to craft a prayer of gratitude to God for having given to him, and through him to us, the gift called night.
Thus, prayer is the ladder that appeared in Jacob’s dream: “A ladder set in the earth, with its top reaching into heaven, Lo, behold the messengers of God ascend and descend upon it.” (Genesis 28:12) Jacob’s ladder becomes the tool by which Judaism has for centuries reflected on its relationship with Yahweh (Covenant) and how this same God of history came to introduce us to the Messiah of the new covenant (Salvation).
Shacharit – A Prayer of Optimism and Hope.
The first stage of the day occurs as dawn breaks. This moment is filled with promise. The excitement of potential is in the air. The divine energy that corresponds with this time of day is optimism. Abraham, a man of positive spirit and infinite optimism, accordingly coined the Shacharit prayer. Shacharit comes from the Hebrew word ‘shachar’ which means dawn or morning. Stories of Abraham speak of his reverence and devotion to beginning the day in a spirit of thanksgiving. He was an early riser. He spoke at length with God in the early morning hours. To Abraham, prayer was the perfect beginning to the day. It provided focus for one’s thoughts as well as offered the spiritual strength to face the mundane and often vexing problems of everyday existence.
Minchah – A Prayer of Contemplation and Resolve
Minchah is placed at midday and is the one prayer that forces us to stop our busyness and meet God halfway. It stops us in the middle of work, shopping and the base tasks performed daily. It is an oasis of spiritual time in the midst of a busy day – a moment to contemplate, calm and focus priorities. As such, it is perhaps one of the most important and meaningful prayers in the Jewish Day. It takes courage to inform the world you will stop to chat with its Maker. This is what makes it so powerful. The Rabbis of the Talmud deduced the role of Isaac in creating Minchah from the verse in the Talmud that tells us that “he went into the fields to converse with God.” It is said that the Prophet Elijah was only answered in his Minchah prayer—because it’s the prayer for which the biggest sacrifice is required.
Divergence or Convergence
Christians and Jews alike have followed a similar formula or structure of prayer for thousands of years. From the Old Testament tribes of Moses to the monasteries of K’umran, each found a method for utilizing prayer to bring them closer to the divine; and as we have seen, create thought-provoking prose to reflect on and remind them of Gods place in life’s journey.
Books of prayer in both traditions have become the cornerstone of each respective faith. The Hebrew people have the Talmud & Pentateuch (Books which contain the Laws and ethical codes for Jewish living). For the early Christian church, the letters of Paul written to various communities he founded along the Mediterranean coast and the Breviary which housed the first liturgical prayers of this newly formed faith provide the foundation.
The Breviary – “The Divine Office”
The first Breviary appeared in the 11th century at the Benedictine Abbey of Monte Cassini in the Tuscan hills near what is today Assisi, Italy. The heart and soul of the Benedictine Breviary is the Psalter – a book containing the Psalms andother Liturgical texts of the Roman Church. What has become known as ‘The Divine Office’ or ‘The Liturgy of the Hours,’ is rooted in prayers of the Benedictine Breviary.
Much like the Jewish Prophets, the Benedictine’s recognized the movement of time and its importance in the bigger scheme of daily living. The prayers, however, were structured not so much out of reverence for time as God created it, but as a reminder of specific events in the life of Christ.
Primary Hours of prayer – Christianity
Lauds – A Prayer of New Life
Lauds or Morning Prayer has as its intended focus the Resurrection of Christ. In this event, Christians reflect on the light that came forth as the stone was rolled away, revealing an empty tomb. The transcendent light of God manifest in Jesus was so bright that Mary of Magdala initially did not recognize Jesus. In Lauds, the people of the Christian faith find new hope in both the dawning of a new era and in the everlasting life forged for all through Christ’s journey from death to life manifest in the living spirit. As stated in the General Instruction for the Liturgy of Hours, “We are called to remember the Light of the World as we see the first light of day and prepare for our day’s work in the same spirit as the one who gave his life so we could truly live!”
In comparing Shacharit to Lauds, we see similarities in not only the timing, but in the theology which surrounds both. While Abraham prayed to God to begin his day, Christians offer thanks for the new beginning afforded them by God’s human entrance into this world, providing the way, the truth and the righteous lifestyle required to follow him into the Kingdom of heaven.
Sext – A time of Rest and Devotion
Sext is the hour when the sun is at its fullest. It is seen as a time of quiet reflection and grace. According to St. Ambrose, we should pray at the noon hour because that is the time when the Divine light is at its fullness. Origen, St. Augustine and several other church fathers regard this hour as favorable to prayer since it was at this hour Christ called out to God from the Garden of Gethsemane. It was at the sixth hour that Abraham was visited by three angels, and again at the sixth hour when Adam and Eve ate that intriguing apple which changed the course of history. Lastly, and above all, it was the time when Christ was nailed to the Cross. This memory overshadows all others, leaving its fingerprints on the prayers specific to this hour. All these mystic events suggest the sixth hour as a focal point in the day – a sort of pause in the affairs of life –which have had a profound influence on the development of prayer in Christianity. Though Sext is not one of the primary hours of the Church, it is important in the life of the faithful and is analogous to that of Minchah – a time of contemplation and resolve. It functions as a constant reminder that like Christ, each Christian needs to persevere and be courageous in moving through and confronting the world in the face of life’s many challenges.
Vespers – A Time of Thanksgiving and Repentance
Just as lauds takes place in the early morning, so vespers takes place at sundown – at the hour in which the ritual sacrifice was offered with incense in the Temple of Jerusalem. At that hour, Jesus after his death on the Cross was lying in the sepulcher, having offered himself to the Father for the salvation of the world. The powerful symbols of light and dark and the rising and setting of the sun came to be an integral part of this prayer service.
The two most important ritual gestures associated with vespers are the lighting of the lamps (lucernare in Latin) and the offering of incense. The lighting of the lamps is a reminder that the end of the day is near (as was the rising sun at matins). This simple gesture is also associated with the risen Christ. Incense is the vessel by which prayers reach the Divine. Vespers derives its name from the Star in the sky the night Jesus and his disciples entered Jerusalem to celebrate the Last Supper.
Vespers, like Ma’ariv, is like a kiss born of love. It’s that special moment where the gentle lips of dusk touch softly the coming shudder of night. As the varied emotions of the day flutter through us like a current, there is a gradual movement toward embracing this last vestige of influence we hold over daylight. A chill permeates our connection with time like frost on a windowpane, creating a sort of cloudiness that takes us by surprise.
As we allow the tender touch of night to take hold, a realization overcomes us – we are not alone in this world. At the source of our angst is a memory of our last encounter with the darkness which holds us in its arms like a mother cradling an infant. It is this recollection of comfort and peace that brings a sense of heartfelt joy to the praying of Vespers.
Though theologically Vespers is the hour of Christ’s beckoning on the cross, “My God, My God, why have thou forsaken me,” it is also the hour he surrendered his spirit. It is with this mindset that praying vespers encourages us to let go of events that drag us down and inspires us to rest awhile -releasing to Yahweh the stresses of the human condition. In doing so, we might be able to reconnect to the light and roll away the ‘stone’ that blocks our path to freedom.
The gift of the Vespers lies in its ability to reveal the spirit once freed within us and encourages that spirit to remain. Like Jacob, using the ladder to climb out of the abyss of hopelessness, vespers provides the means to see that God will be there to catch the Christian faithful if they falter. The outcome is a bit of a karmic schizophrenia which results in the ability to live in the world while simultaneously rejecting it for the peace and tranquility of a modern day Valhalla.
Given my original intent – to provide an examination of The Liturgy of the Hours through comparison and contrast – this paper would not be complete without a closing that offers a simple recap of the technical differences – yet fundamental similarities – that provide the foundation for worship and prayer in the Jewish and Christian faiths.
Judaism is a God-centered faith (Yahweh) while Christianity is human-focused (Jesus). By this, I mean Judaism adheres to the principle that man has a direct relationship with God with the primary purpose of serving God through a defined Law. Christianity, on the other hand, believes that God provides freedom from the law through salvation. For the Jewish people, this places prayer as a literal obligation of the law given them by Yahweh himself. The Christian people, however live prayer by mirroring the life and story of Jesus day-to-day.
Judaism provides man direct access to God through prayer and repentance. Any form of mediator interferes with man’s relationship to God. Christianity believes that man cannot receive access to God in any way other than through the person of Jesus.
Ultimately, Jewish prayer is about man transforming the world to reveal God by bringing the ‘experience’ of Heaven to earth. The Christian view is that man leaves life behind to seek things not of the world but of a Utopian Kingdom beyond this world.
The Hours of prayer mimic this revelation for both Christians and Jews alike. For to be at peace with oneself there is the implication that one must let go of the things of this world. The more we communicate this release, the more clearly its message will resonate with the soul. That is why the prophets call all to pray unceasingly…..
בוקר, צהרים ולילה שאנחנו היינו נקרא להלל את השם של יאהוואה מעל לכל דברים. ברך שם שלו!
Morning, Noon and Night we are called to praise the name of Yahweh above all things.
Blessed be his Holy name!
(Close of Ma’ariv)
From the rising of the sun to its setting,
may the Lord’s name be praised!
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Related articles and Videos:
- Gregorian Chant (liv2write2day.wordpress.com)
- The Sun that Bids Us Rest is Waking, Our Brethren ‘neath the Western Sky: A Meditation on the Movement and Mystery of Time (adw.org)