Office of Readings the Evening Before

Author: Father Edward McNamara


Office of Readings the Evening Before

ROME, 23 JAN. 2007 (ZENIT)

Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: Two questions about the Office of Readings: 1) I like to pray it the evening before. How early can I do so? After 5 p.m., or "sundown," or when? 2) When I pray the Office of the Readings the evening before, should I do so before or after I pray Compline? — J.J., San Francisco, California

A: The Office of Readings is the longest of the five offices of the Liturgy of the Hours which all priests and transitional deacons are required to pray daily as an intrinsic part of their ministry of sanctification and intercession. Many permanent deacons and religious also pray it either voluntarily or as part of their rule.

In recent years, following the reforms promoted by the Second Vatican Council, praying the Divine Office, in whole or in part, has become increasingly popular among lay people who desire to unite themselves to the Church's official prayer either as individual or in groups.

By doing so they participate not only in prayer within Christ's body but also in a truly liturgical manner, that is, prayer of Christ's body, and thus, in a certain manner, in the prayer of Christ himself.

In its present form the office consists of the same elements of the other offices: an opening hymn, three relatively short psalms or segments of longer psalms, versicle, responsories and closing prayer. Primarily however, this office is characterized by two substantial readings, one taken from the Old or New Testament (except the Gospel) and the other taken from the writings of the Fathers of the Church, the saints, or from the Church's magisterium.

The second reading is usually related to the Scripture reading either as a commentary or as a reflection on one of the themes contained in the Scripture lesson. On saints days the second reading often highlights one of the saint's characteristic virtues or is taken from his or her own writings.

The purpose of these readings is similar to a "lectio divina," or spiritual reading. They are meant to spur meditation and reflection on God's Word and how to live it guided by the best of spiritual writers and therefore to shape our way of thinking according to a truly Christian standard.

This office, originally called Matins, derived from the monastic custom of rising during the night to pray before dawn. This practice, in turn, probably stemmed from the earlier tradition of Christians holding all-night prayer vigils.

While the Office of Readings retains this character of nocturnal praise, it is permitted to pray it at other times during the day. And, as our reader points out, it is also possible to anticipate it on the evening before. It is also possible to join it with other offices, especially Morning Prayer.

If prayed the evening before, it should follow Evening Prayer (Vespers) of the day. Thus, if I wish to anticipate Tuesday's reading on Monday, I should first pray Monday's Evening Prayer.

If, on some occasion the Office of Readings is united to Vespers, both offices must be of the same day. That is, I may not join Tuesday's reading with Monday's Vespers. It is possible, however, to pray both Offices of Readings on the same day.

This should also answer the second question. The Office of Readings may be prayed either before or after Night Prayer, or Compline. All the same, unless one wishes to celebrate Readings as a nocturnal office, liturgical sense would prefer to pray it before Compline so as not to obscure this office's role as a conclusion of the day and a preparation for the night. ZE07012326

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Follow-up: Office of Readings the Evening Before [2-6-2007]

A surprising number of readers asked for clarifications regarding praying the office of readings (see Jan. 23 column). I hope it is a good sign that many are interesting in exploring this treasure of the Church.

A few people asked about the possibility of a two-year cycle which is mentioned in some official documents but which has not yet seen the light in an official Latin text.

An approved two-year cycle for the Scripture readings is found in the Latin American Spanish-language version of the Liturgy of the Hours (or Divine Office, as it used to be commonly called). In Italy, a Catholic publisher produced an alternative cycle of both scriptural and patristic readings based on the monastic office. Although this latter text is not promulgated by the bishops' conference, it has received ecclesiastic approval and may be used as an alternative text to the usual readings.

As far as I am aware there is no official English version of an alternative cycle. I believe that there is a project in the pipeline to update the version of the office used in many English-speaking countries outside of the United States.

The new version would incorporate the many new saints introduced into the calendar since 1975. Even if this project takes off, it will be have to wait until the completion of the translation of the new Roman Missal, since the office prayers often coincide with the collect for Mass.

Several readers also asked if the invitatory should be recited whenever the office of readings is prayed the evening before. In principle, yes. Norm No. 35 of the Principles and Norms indicates that the invitatory should begin the whole sequence of daily prayer.

This sequence can begin with readings after vespers of the preceding day, as indicated by norm No. 59, because the day in question is the liturgical day and not the solar day.

If, however, lauds is the first office of the sequence, then the invitatory may be omitted (No. 36), even though it is commendable to maintain the invitatory, above all in community recitation.

Another optional element of the Liturgy of the Hours is the psalm prayer. These prayers are found after each psalm in some editions of the breviary, such as that in use in the United States.

Some other writers asked about combining the office of readings with other offices. Regarding this I confirm what I wrote in an earlier column (April 25, 2006), that only the office of readings may be combined with another office to form a single office (No. 99). This may be done with lauds, midday prayer or the vespers of the day. It may not be done with first vespers of a Sunday or solemnity.

In other cases, when one office follows immediately after another (for example, morning prayer and midday prayer), they are not joined. The only difference is that after praying the first closing prayer, one omits the usual conclusion of the first office and the introductory verse and "Glory be" of the second office, and commences with the hymn of the second office, which proceeds as normal.

A Tucson, Arizona, reader asks about the correct procedure for joining Mass with morning or evening prayer. This is covered in the norms 93-98:

"93. In particular cases, if circumstances require, it is possible to link an hour more closely with Mass when there is a celebration of the liturgy of the hours in public or in common, according to the norms that follow, provided the Mass and the hour belong to one and the same office. Care must be taken, however, that this does not result in harm to pastoral work, especially on Sundays.

"94. When morning prayer, celebrated in choir or in common, comes immediately before Mass, the whole celebration may begin either with the introductory verse and hymn of morning prayer, especially on weekdays, or with the entrance song, procession, and celebrant's greeting, especially on Sundays and holydays; one of the introductory rites is thus omitted.

"The psalmody of morning prayer follows as usual, up to, but excluding, the reading. After the psalmody the penitential rite is omitted and, as circumstances suggest, the Kyrie; the Gloria then follows, if required by the rubrics, and the celebrant says the opening prayer of the Mass. The liturgy of the word follows as usual.

"The general intercessions are made in the place and form customary at Mass. But on weekdays, at Mass in the morning, the intercessions of morning prayer may replace the daily form of the general intercessions at Mass.

"After the communion with its communion song the Canticle of Zechariah, Blessed be the Lord, with its antiphon from morning prayer, is sung. Then follow the prayer after communion and the rest as usual.

"95. If public celebration of a daytime hour, whichever corresponds to the time of day, is immediately followed by Mass, the whole celebration may begin in the same way, either with the introductory verse and hymn for the hour, especially on weekdays, or with the entrance song, procession, and celebrant's greeting, especially on Sundays and holydays; one of the introductory rites is thus omitted.

"The psalmody of the hour follows as usual up to, but excluding, the reading. After the psalmody the penitential rite is omitted and, as circumstances suggest, the Kyrie; the Gloria then follows, if required by the rubrics, and the celebrant says the opening prayer of the Mass.

"96. Evening prayer, celebrated immediately before Mass, is joined to it in the same way as morning prayer. Evening prayer I of solemnities, Sundays, or feasts of the Lord falling on Sundays may not be celebrated until after Mass of the preceding day or Saturday.

"97. When a daytime hour or evening prayer follows Mass, the Mass is celebrated in the usual way up to and including the prayer after communion.

"When the prayer after communion has been said, the psalmody of the hour begins without introduction. At the daytime hour, after the psalmody the short reading is omitted and the prayer is said at once and the dismissal takes place as at Mass. At evening prayer, after the psalmody the short reading is omitted and the Canticle of Mary with its antiphon follows at once; the intercessions and the Lord's Prayer are omitted; the concluding prayer follows, then the blessing of the congregation.

"98. Apart from Christmas eve, the combining of Mass with the office of readings is normally excluded, since the Mass already has its own cycle of readings, to be kept distinct from any other. But if by way of exception, it should be necessary to join the two, then immediately after the second reading from the office, with its responsory, the rest is omitted and the Mass begins with the Gloria, if it is called for; otherwise the Mass begins with the opening prayer."

Our reader's question arose because two parishes joined the office to daily Mass in different ways. As norm No. 93 makes clear, joining the office to Mass is not contemplated as a daily practice. This would mean, for example, that the faithful would almost never use the penitential rite.

While praying the daily office in a parish is highly praiseworthy, I suggest that it would be better to habitually pray the office completely, omitting perhaps the office's concluding verse, and then begin Mass as usual.

Finally a correspondent from the state of Uttaranchal, in India, asks: "There are some who say that when there is holy Mass in the evening there is no need to say vespers as the Eucharist is the highest form of worship. Is there any rule that says there is no need to say vespers after the Mass in the evening?"

I believe that the norms we have quoted above are enough to show that this opinion does not correspond to the mind of the Church. Except on rare occasions such as Holy Thursday and Good Friday, vespers are always said.

The Eucharist is certainly the highest form of worship. But the higher does not require the elimination of the lower which prolongs our thanks and praise for the higher. ZE07020629

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