What Is the Liturgy of the Hours?

I began praying the Liturgy of the Hours forty-seven years ago. This prayer became a staple of my life of prayer. Some forty years after I began to pray it, however, I returned to a text from the Second Vatican Council to refresh my understanding. The first sentence I read brought me up short. I knew immediately as I read it that I had never fully understood the heart of this prayer, its deep meaning and richness.

I want to share the Council’s words in that sentence and the three that follow.

This text, found in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, paragraph 83, has directed everything since in the Church’s un­derstanding of the Liturgy of the Hours. We will explore it, and then complete it with the corresponding text in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

In the Eyes of the Church, What is the Liturgy of the Hours?

The Council states:

 

Christ Jesus, high priest of the new and eternal covenant, taking human nature, introduced into this earthly exile that hymn which is sung throughout all ages in the halls of heaven. He joins the entire community of mankind to Him­self, associating it with His own singing of this canticle of divine praise. For Christ continues His priestly work through the agency of His Church, which is ceaselessly engaged in praising the Lord and interceding for the salvation of the whole world. The Church does this, not only by celebrating the Eucharist but also in other ways, especially by praying the Divine Office.

Let us examine this text more closely.

Christ Jesus, high priest of the new and eternal covenant: In the Old Testament, the Israelites had priests and one was the high priest. Christ is the High Priest of the new and eternal covenant that He came to inaugurate especially through His Passion, Death, and Resurrection.

. . . taking human nature, introduced into this earthly exile that hymn which is sung throughout all ages in the halls of heaven: These were the words that caused me to stop and reflect. There is, then, a hymn that is sung eternally in the halls of heaven.

What hymn is this? Who sings it? In what does it consist? And in the Incarnation, when Christ took our human nature, this hymn was introduced into this world, this earthly exile.

What Is the Liturgy of the Hours?
This article is from a chapter in A Layman’s Guide to the Liturgy of the Hours. Click image to learn more.

Singing Praises

The Council explains further:

He joins the entire community of mankind to Himself, associating it with His own singing of this canticle of divine praise: So, there is an ongoing hymn of praise from all eternity within the communion of the Trinity, and we are joined to it: a remarkable truth!

In the Trinity, we have the three divine Persons gathered together, living together in the communion of the Trinity, each delighting in the infinite love, goodness, power, and wisdom of the other Persons. Thus arises the eternal hymn of praise sung within the communion of the Trinity.

Let us not move too quickly past this wonderful reality. Stop and think about this joyful truth that lies at the heart of all that is: at the heart of our world, our lives, and of the Liturgy of the Hours. From all ages, eternally, even now, within the communion of the Trinity a glad song of praise, of delight, of love, of joy, is “sung” — that is, it is poured out from the heart of each divine Person in glad sharing with the Others.

I love to think of this. When I do, the Liturgy of the Hours grows in my estimation and becomes newly desirable. I understand, in some measure at least, the heart of its richness.

The Song of Praise Brought to Us

When Jesus became man, when the Word became flesh, that eternal hymn of praise was introduced into our world. For the first time, that heavenly song was sung from a human heart and on human lips. This is a second truth to absorb, again without hurry.

With the Incarnation, the hymn of praise, of delight, of joy, of love, of communion, sung eternally in heaven, is now sung in this world, expressed by a human heart and on human lips. There is something amazing about this, something inexpressibly moving and beautiful. And again, we touch here the heart of the Liturgy of the Hours.

The Liturgy of the Hours is our association with Christ in singing that eternal hymn of praise. I invite you not to hurry, but rather to linger, to ponder this third truth, again an amazing reality: We are invited to join with Christ in singing the eternal hymn of joy and delight within the communion of the Trinity.

This is what occurs when we pray the Liturgy of the Hours. Certainly, distractions and tiredness may be part of the prayer. But we are not left to our limited capaci­ties, because “the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words” (Rom. 8:26). The Spirit takes our sincere but perhaps distracted and tired prayer, comes to the aid of our weakness, raises our prayer, and unites it with Christ, Who is our Mediator with the Father. And Christ associates our prayer of the Liturgy of the Hours with His, enriching it beyond all measure in efficacy, beauty, and power, and so presents it to His Father. This is what happens when we pray the Liturgy of the Hours. Christ, the Council says, “joins the entire community of mankind to Himself, associating it with His own singing of this canticle of divine praise.”

I believe that when we grasp the truths contained in these two sentences, our hearts already begin to say, “I want this! I want to pray this way.”

Praise & Salvation

The Council continues:

For Christ continues His priestly work through the agency of His Church: The Liturgy of the Hours is, therefore, a prayer of the Church, rooted in the Church, given to us by the Church; most deeply, it is a prayer in which, through the agency of the Church, Christ continues His priestly work.

“. . . which is ceaselessly engaged in praising the Lord and interceding for the salvation of the whole world.” Without pause, through the ages and today, the Church is engaged in two things: praising the Lord and interceding for the salvation of the whole world. These are the two fundamental elements of the Liturgy of the Hours. It is first and above all a prayer of praise; then, immediately after that, a prayer of intercession for the salvation of the whole world, for the needs of all the members of the Church and of all the people in the world.

If we look at our prayer, these two elements are always at the heart of it. When we pray, we may easily find ourselves saying, “Lord, thank You. I bless You for the gift of this day. Help me to live it well. Help me to do Your will today.” The two elements are there: thanksgiving, praise, and then asking for help, intercession for our needs and those of others. The Church is ceaselessly engaged in this, the Church who is the Bride of Christ.

The Mass & the Divine Office

“The Church does this, not only by celebrating the Eucharist”: The Eucharist is the primary way the Church does this, that is, raises a prayer of praise and intercession. The Eucharist is the heart of liturgical prayer.

“. . . but also in other ways, especially by praying the Divine Of­fice.” We note here the adverb “especially” with reference to the Divine Office, that is, the Liturgy of the Hours. After the Mass, the Church has other ways of praising God and interceding for the salvation of the world, but among them one stands out in a special way: the Liturgy of the Hours. Evidently, the Church understands the Liturgy of the Hours to hold a special place in Her prayer.

A sentence from the Catechism of the Catholic Church will help us understand more fully the relationship between the Mass and the Liturgy of the Hours:

The mystery of Christ, his Incarnation and Passover, which we celebrate in the Eucharist especially at the Sunday as­sembly, permeates and transfigures the time of each day, through the celebration of the Liturgy of the Hours. (1174)

The mystery of Christ, his Incarnation and Passover: His “Pass­over,” that is, Christ’s Death and Resurrection.

. . . which we celebrate in the Eucharist especially at the Sunday assembly, permeates and transfigures the time of each day, through the celebration of the Liturgy of the Hours: Here the link between the Mass and the Liturgy of the Hours appears. The mystery of Christ that we celebrate at Mass every day, especially on Sunday, “permeates and transfigures the time of each day,” that is, extends to the hours of each day and changes them, filling them with Christ and the power of His Birth, Death, and Res­urrection, through the praying of the Liturgy of the Hours. What we celebrate at one moment of the day at Mass now moves out and fills the rest of the day through the liturgical prayer of the Liturgy of the Hours.

How could we not want this in our lives?

This article is adapted from a chapter in Fr. Gallagher’s book, A Layman’s Guide to the Liturgy of the Hours. It is available at through your local bookstore or online at Sophia Institute Press.

Fr. Timothy M. Gallagher, O.M.V.

By

Timothy M. Gallagher, O.M.V. is an American Roman Catholic priest and the Denver-based author of seven bestselling books on the theology and spirituality of Ignatius of Loyola. He served for ten years as provincial superior of his Catholic religious congregation, the Oblates of the Virgin Mary.

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