How the Night-Office is to be said on Sundays


CHAPTER XI. How the Night-Office is to be said on Sundays
13 Feb. 14 June. 14 Oct.

On Sunday let the brethren rise earlier for the Night-Office, which is to be arranged as follows. When six Psalms and a versicle have been sung (as already prescribed), all being seated in order in their stalls, let four lessons with their responsories be read from the book, as before: and to the last responsory only let the reader add a Gloria, all reverently rising as soon as he begins it. After the lessons let six more Psalms follow in order, with their antiphons and versicle as before; and then let four more lessons, with their responsories, be read in the same way as the former. Next let three canticles from the Prophets be said, as the Abbot shall appoint, which canticles are to be sung with an Alleluia. After the versicle, and the blessing given by the Abbot, let four more lessons from the New Testament be read as before; and at the end of the fourth responsory, let the Abbot begin the hymn, Te Deum laudamus. After the hymn, let the Abbot read the lesson from the Gospel, while all stand in awe and reverence. The Gospel being ended, let all answer Amen. Then let the Abbot go on with the hymn, Te decet laus; and after the blessing hath been given, let them begin Lauds. This order for the Night-Offices is always to be observed on Sunday, alike in summer and in winter, unless perchance (which God forbid) they rise too late, in which case the lessons or responsories must be somewhat shortened. Let all care, however, be taken that this do not happen; but if it should, let him, through whose neglect it hath come to pass, make satisfaction for it in the oratory.

Cassian tells us that there was already a debate among the Egyptian Fathers over the number of psalms to be recited at the Night Office. Finally, in an attempt to arrive at a solution acceptable to all, the Fathers held an assembly at which each one was free to propose what he thought suitable. Some argued for twenty–four psalms, others for fewer psalms, and still others for an even greater number of psalms. One can imagine the growing exasperation among the Fathers, for this was a matter of the greatest importance, and each one thought it right to hold fast to his own opinion. Finally, an angel appeared in the midst of the assembly; this angel of the liturgy recited twelve psalms, intoned a final Alleluia, and then disappeared. Listen to Cassian’s account of the event:

At that time, therefore, when the perfection of the primitive Church remained unbroken, and was still preserved fresh in the memory by their followers and successors, and when the fervent faith of the few had not yet grown lukewarm by being dispersed among the many, the venerable fathers with watchful care made provision for those to come after them, and met together to discuss what plan should be adopted for the daily worship throughout the whole body of the brethren; that they might hand on to those who should succeed them a legacy of piety and peace that was free from all dispute and dissension, for they were afraid that in regard of the daily services some difference or dispute might arise among those who joined together in the same worship, and at some time or other it might send forth a poisonous root of error or jealousy or schism among those who came after. And when each man in proportion to his own fervour— and unmindful of the weakness of others— thought that that should be appointed which he judged was quite easy by considering his own faith and strength, taking too little account of what would be possible for the great mass of the brethren in general (wherein a very large proportion of weak ones is sure to be found); and when in different degrees they strove, each according to his own powers, to fix an enormous number of Psalms, and some were for fifty, others sixty, and some, not content with this number, thought that they actually ought to go beyond it—there was such a holy difference of opinion in their pious discussion on the rule of their religion that the time for their Vesper office came before the sacred question was decided; and, as they were going to celebrate their daily rites and prayers, one rose up in the midst to chant the Psalms to the Lord. And while they were all sitting (as is still the custom in Egypt ), with their minds intently fixed on the words of the chanter, when he had sung eleven Psalms, separated by prayers introduced between them, verse after verse being evenly enunciated, he finished the twelfth with a response of Alleluia, and then, by his sudden disappearance from the eyes of all, put an end at once to their discussion and their service. (Institutes II, Chapter 5)

On Sundays, after the twelve psalms, divided into two nocturns of six psalms each, Saint Benedict provides for a solemn ending, inspired by a long tradition in East and West. It was customary in ancient times, and it is still the practice among the Orthodox of the Byzantine rite today, to sanctify Sunday with a celebration Ad galli cantum (At cockcrow); this the Greeks call ὄρθρος, meaning “early dawn” or “daybreak”. It was the custom at this service to chant the biblical odes transmitted to the Church from the Synagogue. These odes of the Greeks are Saint Benedict’s canticles of the Third Nocturn. Saint Benedict leaves the choice of these odes or canticles to the abbot:

Next let three canticles from the Prophets be said, as the Abbot shall appoint, which canticles are to be sung with an Alleluia.

When Saint Benedict treats of the canticles at Lauds in Chapter XIII, he says that the practice of the Roman Church is to be followed; here, for the Third Nocturn, he allows for an element proper to the monastery, but always as the abbot shall appoint.

After four more lessons from the New Testament and their responsories, the Night Office moves joyfully to its summit, the proclamation of the Holy Gospel. Saint Benedict provides for a chant Ante Evangelium; Blessed Schuster notes that this chant Ante Evangelium is also found in the solemn liturgy of Milan. Saint Benedict chooses from the collection of odes which, together with the Angelic Hymn Gloria in Excelsis Deo, contains the great eucharistic hymn of Nicetas of Remesiana (ca. 335–414), Te Deum Laudamus. The learned Dom Cagin (1847–1923) argued that the Te Deum Laudamus could very well be derived from some ancient anaphora. One thing is certain: the jubilant doxological tone of the Te Deum Laudamus dilates the hearts of all who sing or hear it, and renders them more capable of receiving “the implanted word” (James 1:21) of the Gospel.

Saint Benedict does not indicate which Gospel pericope is to be read at the Night Office on Sundays. At the Church of the Resurrection in Jerusalem it was customary for the bishop to read one of the pericopes of the resurrection. The custom of Jerusalem spread to another places and held sway even in Gaul. The medieval use was to read at Matins the same Gospel that would be read at Mass, but this derogates from the ancient liturgical principle by which one Gospel lesson is not read twice in the same day. This is the practice that prevails today, and it is not without merit, as it orients Matins to the celebration of Holy Mass and harmonises well with the Benedictus and Magnificat antiphons drawn from the Sunday Gospel.

Saint Benedict presents the Gospel at Matins as a kind of παρουσία: it is a solemn entrance of Christ the King, a sacramental enactment of His return in glory. For this reason, Saint Benedict says, Legat abbas lectionem de Evangelia, cum honore et timore stantibus omnibus, “Let the Abbot read the lesson from the Gospel, while all stand in awe and reverence”. At the end of the Gospel all respond Amen. This is the Amen of the last page of the Apocalypse:

Surely I come quickly: Amen. Come, Lord Jesus. (Apocalypse 22:20)

To this solemn Amen after the Gospel, Saint Benedict adds another short hymn of praise: the Te Decet Laus.  In this way, the solemn reading of the Holy Gospel is enshrined between two hymns of praise. Only in a climate of praise can the Gospel be heard rightly. Blessed Schuster points out that this element too, the Post Evangelium, is found in the Ambrosian rite. The Greek text of the Te Decet Laus is found in the Apostolic Constitutions:

We praise You, we sing hymns to You, we bless You for Your great glory, O Lord our King, the Father of Christ the immaculate Lamb, who takes away the sin of the world. Praise becomes You, hymns become You, glory becomes You, the God and Father, through the Son, in the most holy Spirit, for ever and ever. Amen. (Apostolic Constitutions, Book VII, 48)

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