The following post is a bit of a repeat of something I wrote in July, except now better in prose, because it was prepared as a homily of sorts (which I didn’t end up getting to share in person, but oh well).
the place of the Daily Office in Christian worship
What do you think of when you hear the term “daily office?” Is it something just the clergy do, or perhaps it’s a discipline with which you’re very familiar? Is it an old-fashioned or historical concept? It’s actually more ancient than you might think! By Jesus’ day, Jewish worship had developed something rather similar in their synagogues. Every morning and evening they’d meet and pray, following a pattern of worship. At other set times of the day they would also pray certain set prayers individually, too. Early Christians adopted these practices, too, hosting morning & evening prayer in homes, or basilicas, or wherever they were able to meet. Perhaps the most famous example of the daily office in history is from St. Benedict and other monastic institutions, where they met for worship seven times a day and in the middle of the night! As beautiful a devotional habit as that is, it’s not very accessible or practical for ordinary folk like us, so when the English Reformation took place, and Thomas Cranmer wrote the first Book of Common Prayer, he reduced those offices back down to two: morning and evening prayer.
As early as the fourth century, Christians were recognizing a standard pattern of worship that included three elements: sacramental worship, the daily office, and private devotions. Sacramental worship, primarily celebrating the Eucharist together, is the unchanging identity-forging celebrations of all God’s people; the Church across the whole world would be celebrating this together in spiritual unity. The Daily Office is a collection of culturally-appropriate daily prayers, which, when prayed together, helps bind people together in community; as individuals pray the same prayers and read the same scriptures, they are spiritually formed together, as if from the same mentor. And Personal Devotions are personally-appropriate spiritual disciplines wherein one is “practicing the presence of God” individually. Let’s take a closer at each of these in turn.
the three-fold rule of Christian worship
I already stated that Sacramental worship is an “unchanging identity-forging celebration.” What I mean by this is that it defines our communal relationship with God. In the Old Testament, celebrating the various Hebrew feasts, especially the Passover (which was this Sunday’s OT reading in many churches), filled this spot. They were God-ordained celebrations which drew the community as a whole towards God. Today in the New Covenant, the Eucharist is what does that – it brings us as the Church toward God made flesh.
Personal devotions are all about our private relationship with God. Sometimes they include set prayers, like how the Jews would stop what they were doing at noon and say certain prayers before continuing with their day. But just as often, personal devotions are strictly personal – it is a place where “my relationship with Jesus” is specifically nurtured. Private Bible study, fasting, prayers, and any other spiritual discipline you can think of may be employed. This is where we strive to fulfill Paul’s command to “pray without ceasing” (I Thess. 5:17).
The Daily Office, then, is what helps “bind people together in community.” It can be taken as a personal devotion, if your spiritual disposition is in favor of that sort of worship, but it’s primarily not about our individuality but our unity. That’s why it’s got a set order of worship, a limited number of prayers to choose from, and so on – it’s giving us a common ground on which to come together to pray and worship. And it points us to the mysterious transcendent aspect of God, because we’re not just forging unity with the people praying the Office with us, but with everyone who prays it, no matter where they are. We strengthen an invisible (or spiritual) unity by praying this “together,” much like how God is always everywhere for everyone!
These three types of worship are like chain links connecting three dots: God, the Church, and the self. Sacramental worship primarily binds the Church and God together, the Daily Office primarily binds the self and the Church together, and Personal Devotions primarily bind the self and God together. If you’re a visual sort of person, this picture may help show what I mean:
Of course, we shouldn’t reduce these three things simply to these levels only, what I’ve described are just notable emphases to show how they’re different from one another. They certainly still do have a lot of overlap!
focusing upon the Daily Office
How does the Office accomplish the unity it’s supposed to foster? I already hinted at this; the fact that different people are praying the same prayers and reading the same Scriptures allow them to pray with one voice, one heart, and one mind. It gives us a common ground, a language of prayer that we can share. One might point out at this juncture that the Eucharist service also has an awful lot of prayers and readings that we all pray and hear together as one. Although that’s true, there’s a significant difference: the Office has more focus on individual participation – anyone can lead it, you don’t need a priest to preside over a sacrament. Furthermore, the content and structure of the Office is carefully designed for our spiritual formation!
What, then is the essential content of the Office that is spiritually forming for us? There are four major features of the Office in our Anglican tradition:
1. The first is psalmody. All 150 psalms are prayed through every month. The Book of Common Prayer has a full Psalter towards the back with little headers telling you where each day of the month (and morning or evening) begins. There are also other ways of going through the Psalter – monastic communities go through all the Psalms in just one week!
2. The second major feature of the Office is Bible-reading. For this, too, the Book of Common Prayer has a lectionary (a reading plan) in the back, giving a nice suggested plan of what to read with each day. In general, it takes you through whole books of the Bible, or at least the highlights in certain cases. Over its two-year span, you cover almost the entire Bible.
3. Thirdly, there are the canticles (pages 85-96). A canticle is a song, either from Scripture or from the Early Church, and is always read after a Scripture reading. The idea is that we respond to God’s Word with praise and song. Although there are several canticles offered in the Book of Common Prayer, there are three major ones from the Gospel of Luke. The Song of Zechariah is always read in the morning, the Song of Mary is always read in the evening, and the Song of Simeon is always read at night (or in the evening, in the Anglican tradition).
4. Finally, the Office features what I like to call a balanced diet of prayer. Prayer comes in different forms and there are different types of prayer which we all need to make use of as we grow and mature in faith. The Office is carefully structured to preserve all of these.
What, then is the structure of the Daily Office? There are different ways of breaking this down, but here’s how I would explain it:
1. Oblation (Call to Worship): There is an opening sentence from Scripture which calls us into God’s presence, telling us it’s time to offer ourselves to Him in worship.
2. Confession: We offer prayers of penitence, and seek God’s forgiveness and our growth in holiness and righteousness.
3. Adoration: The Invitatory is the beginning of Psalm 95, which is focused on being in God’s presence and worshiping Him simply for who He is. We also then move into the Psalms, which vary greatly in the sort of prayers they offer.
4. Meditation: We read Scripture and respond with Canticles, as explained above, and we also proclaim our faith together by saying the Apostles’ Creed. This is a time to exercise our minds more specifically, since faith is more than just the attitude of the heart.
5. Intercession: We then pray for others, starting with the Lord’s Prayer. There are suffrages (call-and-response style prayers), as well as collects, all of which point us to various needs and concerns of all Christians.
6. Thanksgiving: We also give thanks to God together, usually praying the “General Thanksgiving,” which is a very thorough prayer, bringing to mind a broad scope of God’s actions for which we ought to thank Him. Even if we’re having a bad day, there’s still cause to thank God!
7. Commission: A closing sentence from Scripture sends us out with a blessing.
what I can do about this
At this point you may be asking, ‘should I do the Office too?’ I’d answer with a hearty ‘yes!’ It is a great discipline not only for the building up of our unity, but for the strengthening of our spiritual lives individually as well. But I must also emphasize that those who don’t do the Office are not second-class Christians. It’s a longstanding well-respected tradition especially among Anglicans, but it’s not imposed upon anyone (except clergy are usually required to do it). That being said, there are ways that the Office can help your spiritual life, even if you don’t follow it to the letter.
Look at your private devotions, assess your strengths and weaknesses. Some people are great at reading the Bible every day and letting God speak to them through that, but then have difficulty in praying for others. Or some may be great at praying for others, but have difficulty baring their souls before God in confession. In my case, I’m pretty good at reading the Bible and praying Psalms every day, and if I’m in a ‘spiritual mood,’ I’ll converse with God to work out my own personal petitions and thanksgivings, but without prompting I am very prone to forget to intercede for others and confess my sins. So for me, the Office is especially helpful in how it makes me to confess before I go too far into worship, and gives me help in how to pray for others. If you’re in a similar situation – good at some prayers but challenged at others – start with parts of the Office you most lack, and work your way from there.
It is my prayer that, through these great resources of prayer left to us by the Church from countless centuries of practice, we can all grow more deeply together in Christ!