BOOK OF CANONICAL HOURS
A book containing the offices for the seven canonical hours. It includes all the prayers, Psalms, Gospel readings, and petitions to be said at the various hours by day and night, appointed in accordance with analogous points in the life and Passion of Jesus Christ. Canonical hours were appointed in conformity with Psalm 119:164 (“Seven times a day do I praise Thee because of Thy righteous judgments”) and in fulfillment of Christ’s commandment that prayers be offered at all times and with unflagging energy (Lk. 18:1).
Both the DIDASCALIA and Ibn al-‘Assal’s Book of Canon Law (chap. 14) set the following times for the reading of these seven prayers: early morning, before sunrise; at the third hour; at the sixth hour; at the ninth hour; at the eleventh hour; at the twelfth hour; and at midnight. It should be borne in mind here that, following the practice common at the time of Christ (Jn. 11:9), the day is computed from sunrise to sunset; thus, the third hour corresponds to nine in the morning, the sixth hour to noon, and so on.
This practice had been followed by the Old Testament prophets (Ps. 5:3; 55:17; 63:1, 6; 119:62, 164; Is. 26:9) and was later maintained by the apostles (Acts 2:15; 10:3; 16:25). In adopting this approach of distributing prayer times throughout the day, stress is laid on certain analogous points in the life and Passion of Jesus Christ.
The Prayer of the First Hour, also called morning or dawn prayer, is designed to be read just before the beginning of daylight and is a reference to the coming of the True Light, which is Jesus Christ. Besides being the hour at which Jesus was arrested at Gethsemane following His betrayal by Judas Iscariot, dawn is mainly associated with the time when Christ rose from the dead.
This office is intended to offer thanks to the Almighty for having brought one safely to the morning. The tone of earnest request characterizes the opening of the Prayer of the First Hour, increasing gradually in fervor and intensity: “O come, let us worship! O come, let us request Christ our God! O come, let us worship! O come, let us beg Christ our King! O come, let us worship! O come, let us entreat Christ our Savior!”
Spiritual guidance and a Christian plan of action for the day are supplied by the words of St. Paul: “I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all lowliness and meekness, with patience, forbearing one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call” (Eph. 4:1-5).
The Prayer of the Third Hour is a reminder of three significant events: the trial of Jesus Christ by Pilate; Christ’s Ascension; and the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples. Here one prays that the grace of the Holy Spirit be renewed within one, that the heart will be cleansed, and that true peace be given through the Holy Spirit, the Comforter.
The absolution prayer for this hour conveys a deep sense of gratitude to God, who has called the devout to pray at this holy hour, which is that wherein He poured forth the grace of His Holy Spirit in abundance upon His blessed disciples and apostles.
The sixth hour commemorates the crucifixion and the Passion of Christ. Here one prays that the fetters of sin be torn asunder, that suffering be brought to an end by His redeeming and life-giving Passion, that through the nails by which He was nailed on the cross the mind be delivered from the recklessness of insubstantial works and worldly lusts, by the remembrance of His heavenly judgments, according to His tender mercies.
The ninth hour, at which the darkness that had pervaded the earth since the sixth hour was lifted, serves to commemorate the redemptive death of Christ in the flesh on the cross and His acceptance of the repentance shown by the thief on His right hand.
In this hour one prays that the Redeemer, who suffered death for sinners, may mortify one’s carnal senses and make one a partaker of the grace of His life-giving sacraments so that, having tasted of His benefactions, one may offer Him unceasing praise.
The devout also pray that just as He received the confession of the repentant thief, He may also receive them unto Himself, when they confess His Divinity and cry out, “Remember us, O Lord, when You come into your Kingdom!”
The eleventh hour is to commemorate the act of removing Christ’s body from the cross and its preparation for burial by Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus. It is also associated with the parable of the vineyard (Mt. 20), and so the faithful pray that they be considered worthy to be counted among the laborers who were called at the eleventh hour. They also give thanks for God’s protection through the day and confess, with the Prodigal Son, that they have sinned against heaven and are not worthy to be called God’s children.
The twelfth hour commemorates the entombment of Christ and is a reminder of the evanescence of human life. Mindful of their imminent standing before God and following the example of the contrite publican, the devout beat their breasts and beg forgiveness and protection through the night.
The midnight office consists of three watches, also called “nocturns,” corresponding to the three stages of Christ’s prayer in the garden of Gethsemane (Mt. 26:36-46). The first watch is a reminder of the necessity of being prepared for Christ’s Second Coming and of having to meet Him like the Wise Virgins (Mt. 25:1-13).
The second watch points to the urgency of repentance in anticipation of God’s judgment. In the third watch, where stress is laid on Christ’s words, “Watch and pray” (Mt. 36:41), the devout pray that when the Son of Man comes He shall find them on the alert (cf. Lk. 12:36- 38).
In addition to these hours there is another prayer called the Office of the Veil. According to the Ajbiyah, it is for the use of monks, but the Didascalia directs that it be read by bishops and priests as a means of examination before sleep.
In all these canonical hours the reading chosen from the Psalms, the Gospels, and the Epistles, together with the accompanying petitions and absolution prayers, are all closely related to the main theme of the relevant hour. There are, however, certain common sections that are recited at the beginning and end of each hour. The following are those which are read at the beginning:
- In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
- KYRIE ELEISON, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, Lord bless us.
- Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, both now and ever unto the ages of ages. Amen.
- the Lord’s Prayer
- the Prayer of Thanksgiving
- Psalm 50
Each hour concludes with the following:
- Kyrie eleison (forty-one times), representing the thirty-nine scourges, the spear, and the crown of thorns
- Holy, Holy, Holy, O Lord of Sabaoth,
- the Lord’s Prayer
- the Absolution
- the Petition: Have mercy on us, O God, and have mercy on us. Thou who, at all times, and at every hour, in Heaven and on earth art worshiped and glorified,
The principal element in the structure of the canonical hours is a selection of Psalms specially arranged to harmonize with the basic theme of the hour in question. Needless to say, the Psalms possess and impart unique spiritual dynamism and cover all the aspects of the relationship between man and God, from the depth of misery to the height of mercy, from the depth of sin to the height of grace.
“In the seven Penitential Psalms we have the seven weapons wherewith to oppose the seven deadly sins; the seven prayers inspired by the sevenfold Spirit to the repenting sinner; the seven guardians for the seven days of the week; the seven companions for the seven Canonical Hours of the day” (Neal and Littledale, 1867, p. 7).
It is a sublime tribute to the efficacy of the Psalms that Christ Himself frequently quoted from them—in the synod, during His temptation by the devil, at the Last Supper, and on the cross—and to note that His last words, “Into thy hands I commit my spirit,” came from the Psalms.
The apostles, too, drew heavily on the Psalms in their teachings and their prayers. Saint Paul strongly urged the use of Psalms in worship (1 Cor. 14:26; Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16).
The incorporation of such a rich heritage into Christian worship was adopted first by the church of Alexandria. The contemplative Theraputae, the Jewish Egyptian ascetics who lived in seclusion near Lake Mareotis, many of whom embraced Christianity, must have influenced, to a certain degree, the mode of worship in the emerging church.
It must also be remembered that in earlier times the Psalms that were included in the canonical hours were sung, and not just read, despite the fact that some of these hours, particularly the sixth and ninth, are associated with sorrowful events such as the Crucifixion and the death of Christ on the cross, respectively.
Hence the use of the term “hymn” in the introduction preceding these hours, “the hymn of the . . . hour of the blessed day, I now offer to Christ my King and God, beseeching Him to forgive me my sins.” David sang his Psalms as hymns of praise to the Almighty and the apostles were always cheerful, despite their tribulations (Acts 16:25).
Among the writings of the early fathers who described the form of worship prevalent in the Church of Alexandria is the testimony of EUSEBIUS OF CAESAREA, who quoted Philo (c. 20 B.C.-c. A.D. 55): “While one sings [the Psalms] regularly in time, the others listen in silence, and join in chanting only the close of the hymns” (Eusebius 2.17.22). Likewise, ATHANASIUS of Alexandria (c. 296-373) likened the singing of Psalms to a “balm which heals the spirit.”
The same point is underlined by John CASSIAN (Bk. 2, chap. 11) in his description of the practice of Psalm-singing by the Egyptians: “They do not even attempt to finish the Psalms, which they sing in the service, by an unbroken and continuous recitation. But they repeat them separately and bit by bit, divided into two or three sections, according to the number of verses, with prayers in between. And so they consider it better for ten verses to be sung with understanding and thought, than for a whole Psalm to be poured forth with a bewildered mind.”
With regard to the number of Psalms used in the canonical hours, the church now specifies seventy-four (i.e., one half of the total number of Psalms) to be read daily. Apparently no fixed portion was prescribed in former times, and the choice was left to the discretion of the various fathers, so long as the appointed times were adhered to.
Thanks to the relative peace that it enjoyed during the first and second centuries, the Egyptian church, long before any other church, was able to establish the pattern of these canonical hours. Each contained twelve Psalms together with a chapter from the Old Testament and another from the New.
The life story of Saint Antony the Great (251-336) bears ample evidence of this custom. When he broke his fast at sunset, he would say a Psalm before his meal and then offer twelve prayers, followed by twelve Psalms, before he retreated for a few hours of rest. At midnight he would rise to sing Psalms until dawn.
This Egyptian tradition later found its way to other corners of Christendom: it was carried to Palestine by Saint Hilarion (c. 291- 371), to Mesopotamia by Saint Basil (c. 330-379), to France and Italy by Saint Athanasius the Apostolic (c. 296-373) and John Cassian. The last wrote to his disciples: “I think it best to set forth the most ancient system of the fathers which is still observed by the servants of God throughout the whole of Egypt, so that your new monastery in its untrained infancy in Christ may be instructed in the most ancient institutions of the earliest fathers.”
The canonical hours of the Egyptian church were eventually incorporated into the official canons of the Second Council of Tours in 567.
- Neale, J. M. History of the Holy Eastern Church, Vol. 1, p. 12. London, 1847.
- Neale, J. M., and R. F. Littledale. “A Help to the Spiritual Interpretation of the Penitential Psalms.” In Essays on Liturgiology and Church History, 2nd ed., p. 7. London, 1867.