I’ve had some thoughts on breviary hymns running around in my head the past few days. I’m teaching a class on the Church Year right now, so these issues are towards the front of my brain…
Anciently, hymns were something that appeared in the Daily Office—not in the Mass. Therefore they had a different dynamic than how we currently experience them. In our current church practice we would be shocked if a hymn that we had sung earlier in the season reappeared in that same season unless, perhaps, a hymn paraphrase were being used to replace a standard part of the liturgy like the Gloria. So—repetition is not a big part of our current understanding of hymns. Classically, however, repetition was the name of the game. The Little Hours of the Office—Prime, Terce, Sext, None, and Compline—use the same hymns every day. (The exception is Compline—in some Benedictine systems there was a different Compline hymn for the Winter and Summer halves of the year.) The hymns of the major hours—Vigils, Lauds, and Vespers—changed to fit the season or the observance.
At Lauds and Vespers in particular, the hymn was the largest primary element that changed with the season. Overall, the structure of the Office doesn’t change with the change of seasons as the Mass does; we don’t drop out elements of the Office in the way that the Mass drops the Gloria or formerly moved to a Tract instead of a Gradual. Thus, the hymn became the central element in the Office that gave depth and character to the season. In fact, it’s a discursive transitional point that moves us into the depth of the season. Remember, the traditional Roman patterns for Lauds and Vespers begin with the same essential structure:
- opening versicles,
- psalmody—typically five psalms although that can get calculated in a variety of ways,
- the little chapter—a verse or two usually from Scripture that also changes with the season,
- the hymn with an attendant versicle and response, and
- the gospel canticle—the Benedictus (Song of Zechariah) at Lauds and the Magnificat (Song of Mary) at Vespers.
In terms of flow, these hours begin with the Old Testament prophecy (as the Church understands the Psalms) that repeats weekly through the year. Then, the little chapter gives you a passage to focus on that relates integrally to the season. Then the hymn clarifies what the little chapter has only hinted at. The text of the hymn lays out a tapestry of biblical citations, allusions, images, and doctrinal understandings to give you a big-picture view of the themes and concepts of the season. As you sing through it, the hymn invites you to discover the presence of these themes and concepts in the psalms that you’ve just completed. As the hymn draws to a close, you now have a body of prophecy experienced through a particular hermeneutical lens that has highlighted certain theological facets that lay latent in the psalms until they were brought to your attention by the direction of the hymn. Now moving into the Gospel Canticle—the hour’s major turn into the New Testament—the newly highlighted prophecies from the Old Testament give a depth and context for the canticles’ discussion of God’s faithful fulfillment of his promises.
Thus, the hymns operated as the hermeneutical lenses par excellence for the season. They taught the themes and concepts, identified key doctrines and more than that helped these images, themes, and doctrines become apparent in Holy Scripture. Because of their daily repetition, the whole Psalter was scanned with these liturgical lenses multiple times, enabling the praise of God to lead into contemplation of the mysteries of redemption hidden in the Scriptures.
One of the praiseworthy features of the ’82 Hymnal is that it has retained many of these classical breviary hymns. Many, in fact, appear twice using the same translation set to two different melodies: a plainchant tune and a later musical form. In our recovery of the Daily Office, these hymns are an invaluable asset to growing deeper into the meaning of the seasons.
The placement of the hymn in the Office has changed—following the rubrics of the ’79 BCP, the hymn now goes at the end of the Office. The prayers separate it from the psalmody and from the two lessons. As a result, using the hymn as a hermeneutical lens for finding the seasonally-connected mysteries of redemption in the Scriptures has to be a more self-conscious process—not impossible, of course, but just not as natural as in the past. It is, however, a process that we would do well to cultivate. As we head towards a new liturgical year and its seasons, I’d encourage you to look into the breviary hymns for the upcoming seasons and, even if you don’t use them daily, at least keep them within your Office rotation to keep contact with the classical meanings of our seasons.
A simplified listing of the breviary hymns from the post-Tridentine era can be found on the second page of this document (Anglo-Catholic Style Daily Office), including numbers for hymns that appear in the ’82 Hymnal. A tenth-century English Benedictine list appears here. At some point in the future I may consolidate these for ease of reference (perhaps in connection with scanning the Office Hymns used by the Order of Julian of Norwich) but time currently does not permit.