Daily Office: Psalms and Readings

Ok–having written the Calendar section in part as an extended apology for the Collect of the Day, we’re back to the Daily Office. I’m not including here my section on the Fore-Office and instead we’ll start with the Psalms and Readings. At this point it’s only right to give a shout out to Scott Knitter and Chris Yoder for their work in putting the psalms and readings respectively into some great spreadsheets. That material gives the overview essential for seeing the patterns described below.

————————————————

The Invitatory and Psalter

These are the elements of the Invitatory and Psalter:

Element

Required?

Variation (if any)

Opening Versicles Yes A little
Invitatory Antiphon No Seasonal
Invitatory Morning: Yes, Evening: Optional Morning: Seasonal
Appointed Psalms Yes Choice of Pattern

 

This section gives us a great big block of musical material, chiefly psalms, after a short dialog that gets things going. Most of this material is not optional as it forms one of the great theological centers of the Office. If the Office is a “sacrifice of praise,” then this is a big part of where that offering actually happens!

As mentioned above, the Opening Versicles of Morning Prayer (“O Lord, open our lips…”) come from Psalm 51 and were literally true in a monastic environment; most orders observed a Great Silence from the end of Compline to the beginning of Matins where no talking was allowed. These words would be the first words spoken in the morning. The Opening Versicles of Evening Prayer (“O God, make speed to save us…”) are from Ps 70:1 and reflect the breath prayer taught by John Cassian and the Desert Fathers. These are the normal opening versicles of the Offices from before the Reformation. In the English prayer books, they were included at Morning Prayer as well right after the morning versicles.

The only variation here is that the “Alleluia” gets dropped in Lent and Holy Week.

The invitatory antiphons are sentences used with the invitatory to communicate a sense of the season or occasion. Morning Prayer has them, Evening does not. Options are given for seasons and for Holy Days. (Lesser Feasts do not receive their own antiphon and would use the appropriate seasonal option.) The first part of the antiphon establishes a sense of the season or event; the second is an invariable call to praise, “O come, let us adore him” from Ps 95:6 (although our present prayer book rendering of this phrase is: “O come, let us worship/bow down”…). And, yes, the Christmas hymn “O Come All Ye Faithful” is a deliberate riff on the structure of the invitatory antiphon.

We’re not given any clear direction as to exactly how the antiphon is to be used with the Venite or other Invitatory Psalm (it’s not used with the Christ our Passover as it has its own internal Alleluia antiphon). There are two common ways to use it. The easiest is simply to use it before and after the psalm. The other, and more traditional, method is to include it several times within the psalm; the musical settings in the hymnal confirm that this should be done at each section break.

The invitatory is an opening song or psalm that literally invites the worship of God. The prayer book contains five different options for Morning Prayer and a single for Evening Prayer. Three of the morning options are all shades of the same text, Psalm 95. It’s customary to refer to the psalms by the first couple of words in Latin. The monks didn’t memorize the numbers, so they simply referred to the opening bits. This custom was continued by Cranmer at the Reformation and has stuck. In our case it’s particularly useful because our Venite, the first word of Psalm 95 is actually not identical with the psalm.   The Rite I Venite contains the first 7 verses of Psalm 95, then substitutes Ps 96:9, 13 in place of the condemnatory verses at the end of Ps 95. The Rite II Venite simply omits these verses. However, at points (particularly Fridays in Lent and Friday and Saturday in Holy Week) all of Psalm 95 is appointed. Psalm 100, the Jubilate, is also an option and was historically used when Ps 95 appeared amongst the Morning Prayer psalms. For Easter, the Christ our Passover (Pascha Nostrum) is provided. It must be used during Easter Week and may be used for the rest of the Easter season. I prefer to use it throughout the season, as it’s a good daily reminder that Easter is 50 days long. The Evening Prayer invitatory is an ancient hymn from the Greek Church, O Gracious Light. It doesn’t need antiphons nor are any provided.

At the heart of the concept of the invitatory is an invitation. The appointed texts urge those praying them to worship. Psalm 95 holds such a privileged place because it does it three times in rapid succession. It opens with a repeated call to worship in verses 1 and 2: “Come let us sing…let us shout for joy…Let us come…and raise a loud shout to him with psalms.” The call repeats in verse 6:  “Come, let us bow down.” The other element of Psalm 95 that made is so attractive is found at the end of verse 7: “Oh, that today you would hearken to his voice!” Although this passage logically goes with the next section of the psalm which gives the rebellion of the people under Moses as an example of what not to do, the Rite II Venite ends here. In addition to the call to come and worship, we are reminded to also listen and take heed of what God is telling us. The Rite I Venite preferred not to include any of the condemnatory section, but swaps in additional encouragement to praise from Psalm 96 and retains the notion that God is also coming to meet us in our worship.

The Jubilate contains these elements as well. It opens with an exhortation to worship: “come before his presence with a song” (Ps. 100:1), and repeats it “Enter his gates with praise; go into his courts with praise; give thanks to him and call upon his Name” (Ps 100:3).

The Easter time Christ our Passover is Cranmer’s compilation of Sarum antiphons drawn from the writings of Paul. The repeated “Alleluia” is its own internal antiphon, so it doesn’t need an invitatory antiphon to accompany it. As appropriate for the resurrection season, this text focuses on the passage from death to life and Christ’s victory over the grave. The repetition at the beginning of the second and third sections, “Christ . . . raised from the dead,” and the conclusion with its triumphant “all shall be made alive” is one of my favorite pieces of the Easter experience.

The Evening Prayer invitatory, O Gracious Light, served as the Eastern lamp-lighting hymn for centuries. In an electric-lit culture we usually miss the symbolic moment when the day moves from light to dark; this hymn helps remind us. At its heart, this is a simple hymn of praise to Christ as the Light of the world that praises the Trinity at the hinge of the day.

The appointed psalms come next. As I have said, this is the historical and theological center of gravity of the Office, and the next chapter is devoted to exploring the psalms within their Office context. The main decision at this point is which psalm scheme to adopt. The book gives a choice of two; the first appears in the Daily Office lectionary while the second is found in the section of the prayer book containing the psalms.

The first option is the lectionary cycle. This cycle spreads out the 150 psalms across seven weeks. The cycle begins on the first week of Advent, the first week after Epiphany, the eighth week after Epiphany (if there should be one…), the second week of Easter, with Trinity Sunday and Proper 2, Proper 9, Proper 16, and Proper 23. The earlier iterations of the cycle often are not complete because of a number of proper psalms around Christmas, the length of the Epiphany season, proper psalms for Holy Week and Easter, and on what Proper the season after Pentecost begins. The last three cycles, though, are only interrupted by occasional Holy Days.

If you look at the layout of this particular lectionary, a pattern emerges. Psalms were specifically picked for Saturday evening, Sunday morning, and Sunday evening. Next, the many parts of the lengthy Psalm 119 were assigned to Wednesdays, alternating between evening and morning. Then, the remaining psalms were distributed to each week, trying to balance out the number of verses and placing some penitential/passion psalms on Fridays (i.e., Pss. 22, 51, 69, and 88). Psalm 95 falls in the evening—thus you need not worry about it appearing right after you’ve used it as the invitatory at Morning Prayer! (Psalm 100, though, falls on Tuesday morning of week 6.) The pattern shows that the emphasis was upon having appropriate psalms for public worship on Saturday nights and Sundays. In addition to this, provisions are also made for dropping verses of psalms or whole psalms that might be deemed offensive or problematic to congregations. On the balance, each Office prays just under 30 verses of psalms.

The second option is the monthly cycle found within the psalter itself. On turning to page 585—the first page of the Psalter proper—you’ll see a note in italics right above the title of Psalm 1: “First Day: Morning Prayer.” On page 589 before the start of Psalm 6 is another note: “First Day: Evening Prayer.” These notes are given for thirty days, morning and evening. If a month has a 31st day, the psalms given for the 30th are repeated. On the average, this cycle provides about 45 verses of psalms for each Office. (The longest is the evening of the 15th with 73 verses; the shortest is the evening of the 2nd with 24—most counts fall between the high thirties or low fifties, though.)

The monthly cycle foregrounds the catechetical role of the Office. That is, it emphasizes the continuous repetition of the psalms for the purpose of learning them. It presents a less flexible cycle that is not particularly responsive to seasonal awareness. Most of the people I know who use this cycle (myself among them) only deviate from it for the Principal Feasts. This can lead to unusual combinations when a particular angry psalm might show up on a happy festival or a joyous one occur where it doesn’t seem to fit. Often it’s in these moments that I learn something important—either about the psalm or the occasion—that had always been present; I just hadn’t noticed it before. The odd combination cast it in relief and made it stand out.

In contrast, the eight-week lectionary covers the psalms, but over a longer period. Its strength is that it lends itself to occasional use. That is, the monthly cycle is used best and works best when it is prayed daily. The eight-week cycle is specifically set up so that the days when newcomers might appear—as on a Saturday or Sunday service of Evensong or Morning Prayer or even a mid-week Wednesday—it neither assumes nor requires a previous discipline. Similarly, using proper psalms for Holy Days is the better option if a parish that doesn’t normally pray the Office together decides to hold an Evensong.

The Lessons

These are the elements of the Lessons:

Element

Required?

Variation (if any)

Old Testament Lesson Morning: Yes, Evening: Optional Daily
Canticle Yes, if reading Variable
New Testament Lesson Yes Daily
Canticle Yes Variable
Apostles’ Creed Yes None

 

This section contains the biblical readings and the sung canticles. It concludes with the Creed which reminds us of the Church’s interpretive lens for the Scriptures.

The Daily Office lectionary provides for three readings per day over a two-year cycle: an Old Testament reading, an epistle reading, and a gospel reading.  Both Morning and Evening Prayer can accommodate—and have traditionally had—two biblical readings each for a total of four per day. As a result you’ve got a choice—you can use the three readings as appointed and distribute them through the Offices (usually two at Morning Prayer and the third at Evening Prayer), or you can find another reading. The normal way to do this is to use the Old Testament reading from the off-year and place it as the first reading for Evening Prayer.

In terms of completeness, the lectionary does a good job with the New Testament. Of the Gospels, all of Matthew and Mark are read each year. Luke is missing about 50 verses (4% of its length) but these are the genealogy and the iconic birth story and his appearance in the Temple at age 12 which get play in the Eucharistic lectionary. John is missing about 80 verses (9% of its length) and these are all sections from the passion and resurrection narratives which, again, are well represented in the Eucharist.

Of the New Testament apart from the Gospels, the large stand-alone books of Acts, Hebrews, and Revelation are read in their entirety each year. We read 97% of both the Pauline Epistles and the General Epistles. Missing from the General Epistles is one section from 1 Peter 3 dealing with wives being submissive to their husbands; most of the material missing from the Pauline Letters, mostly from 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy, similarly deals with the social roles of women and slaves.

When we come to the Old Testament the percentage drops. Overall, across both years—or in one year if you read two readings—we read just under half of the Old Testament. When you look at it by category, we read more percentage-wise of the Minor Prophets than any other grouping (72% as opposed to the others in the 40%’s) due mostly to the brief length of these books. By year, Year One reads through about 22% of the Old Testament and contains more of the Histories and the Major Prophets. Year Two reads about 25% and contains more of the Minor Prophets, the Law, and the Wisdom literature. There is some overlap where certain passages are read in both years (apart from the Holy Day readings) and this occurs mostly in Isaiah, the Histories, and Genesis and Exodus, but it accounts for under 10% of what is read each year.

Why so little of the Old Testament by percentage? It’s pretty simple: math. The gospel readings and other New Testament readings average to be about eight verses and seven verses long respectively. If you want to keep the length of the three readings balanced, than this is the problem you’re going to have to face. The Old Testament readings currently average a little under ten verses in length. If you were going to get through the entire Old Testament, you’d have to more than double that amount!

To put it another way, the original Daily Office lectionary scheme that Cranmer came up with when he compiled the first Book of Common Prayer, went through most (but not all) of the Old Testament each year. Readings were typically assigned by chapter not verse; thus, on January 4th, for example, you’d read Genesis 5 in the morning with Genesis 6 in the evening. The corresponding New Testament and Gospel readings which were of an equal length went through the full cycle three times in a year! That’s a lot more reading than what we have now. In fact, looking over the almost 500 years from then to now, we’ve seen the length of the readings steadily drop over time. The goal is to get people to pray the Office and read their Scriptures. The trend has been to reduce the time it takes by reducing the amount of Scripture required.

Just as in the eight-week psalm cycle, the Daily Office lectionary has two different things going on for the sake of occasional use. For the most parts, biblical books are read through continuously. That is, a reading will generally stick with a book and read straight through it or, when it does skip material, it usually does so sequentially. However, this sequence is interrupted for Sundays. A different cycle of readings appear on Sunday for the benefit of those who only experience the Offices once a week—or less—and who may have occasion to experience a Sunday reading and not any of the others.  Thus, the Daily Office lectionary will jump on Sundays to a different place and pick up a different story than what has been read through the rest of the week.

7 Replies to “Daily Office: Psalms and Readings”

  1. Derek:

    While you are considering readings, why not give a thought to a non-biblical fourth reading (probably at Evening Prayer)—as per the old breviaries? We don’t do it at OJN, but I know some who do, and there are now some four or five published books with just such daily readings from the saints, etc. I like the idea since it reinforces the sanctoral commemoration of the day.

    Also, if two readings are done at Evening Prayer, presumably, the Nunc Dimittis is used as a second Canticle—but that presents a duplication for those who recite Compline and use the Nunc Dimittis there. How about authorizing one or more of the (too many) morning Canticles for use after a second Evening Prayer Reading?

  2. In terms of the seven-week lectionary schema, are all verses of all Psalms excluded, or are there omissions?

    In terms of the Biblical readings, one of the greatest resources ever produced for the Episcopalian daily office is the four-volume set of lessons. The books are a good size, both in terms of font and overall manufacture. I believe that they’re still available.

  3. The Apostles’ Creed may be omitted at one of the offices on weekdays. So it is somewhat variable.

  4. I’m somewhat familiar with the breviary Matins readings in the anglican Breviary and the Monastic one. and I have a copy of this: Readings for the daily office from the early church, by J. Robert Wright, which I use some times, but what others are there?

  5. James:
    The one I have in hand is “Drinking from the Hidden Fountain” by Thomas Spidlik. Others that I know of but haven’t seen: “Celebrating the Saints” by Robert Atwell; “Speaking to the Soul” by Vicki Black; “Wisdom of the Cloister” by John Skinner; and “Witness of the Saints” by Milton Walsh. I obviously cannot recommend or suggest since I don’t know them. There is another (and best of all) by the English Franciscans, but I spent an hour searching our library and couldn’t find it and can’t remember the name.

  6. The 1662 BCP has another area of variability with regard to the Apostles’ Creed. It dictates, “Upon these Feasts; Christmas Day, the Epiphany, Saint Matthias, Easter Day, Ascension Day, Whitsunday, Saint John Baptist, Saint James, Saint Bartholomew, Saint Matthew, Saint Simon and Saint Jude, Saint Andrew, and upon Trinity Sunday, shall be sung or said at Morning Prayer, instead of the Apostles’ Creed, this Confession of our Christian Faith, commonly called the Creed of Athanasius.”

Comments are closed.