The Daily Office: Sacrifice of Praise

Here’s a section where I’m going into the essence and the spiritual logic behind the Office…


The Sacrifice of Praise and Thanksgiving

When the Church Fathers spoke of the chief morning and evening services of the Daily Office—Lauds and Vespers in the Western Church—they often did so with reference to the Temple sacrifices. A classic example is Isidore of Seville (†636) whose encyclopedic writings formed the basis for most Western treatments of the liturgy for almost a thousand years. In describing Vespers, he writes:

Vespers is the end of the daily office and the setting of another daylight. Its solemn celebration is from the Old Testament. It was the custom of the ancients to offer sacrifices and to have aromatic substances and incense burnt on the altar at that time. [David], that hymn-singing witness, performed a royal and priestly office saying: “Let my prayer be counted as incense before you, and the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice” (Ps 141:2). (De Eccl. Off., 1.20.1)

Isidore asserts a few things that we need to look at more carefully. First, he finds Vespers in the Old Testament. Second, he clarifies this remark by talking about sacrifices, particularly around the offering of incense. Third, he mentions David, citing a psalm in support of his statements. What’s he talking about, and in what sense do we take this?

Looking through the legislation in the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures, we find a double reference to what Isidore was describing. Numbers 28:1-8 gives a summary:

The LORD spoke to Moses, saying: Command the Israelites, and say to them: My offering, the food for my offerings by fire, my pleasing odor, you shall take care to offer to me at its appointed time. And you shall say to them, This is the offering by fire that you shall offer to the LORD: two male lambs a year old without blemish, daily, as a regular offering. One lamb you shall offer in the morning, and the other lamb you shall offer at twilight also one-tenth of an ephah of choice flour for a grain offering, mixed with one-fourth of a hin of beaten oil. It is a regular burnt offering, ordained at Mount Sinai for a pleasing odor, an offering by fire to the LORD. Its drink offering shall be one-fourth of a hin for each lamb; in the sanctuary you shall pour out a drink offering of strong drink to the LORD. The other lamb you shall offer at twilight with a grain offering and a drink offering like the one in the morning; you shall offer it as an offering by fire, a pleasing odor to the LORD. (NRSV)

So—lambs, bread, and wine. This legislation is described again at the end of Exodus 29; Exodus 30 then gives directions for the incense altar right before the Holy of Holies in the inmost part of the temple and states: “Aaron shall offer fragrant incense on it; every morning when he dresses the lamps he shall offer it, and when Aaron sets up the lamps in the evening, he shall offer it, a regular incense offering before the Lord throughout your generations” (Exod 30:7-8). This is where the incense is coming from in Isidore.

Although these twice daily offerings are described separately, we find them joined together in some of the standard summary statements of priestly activity in the Temple. Thus, when King Abijah is trying to persuade the people of Israel to join Judah again he argues, “We have priests ministering to the LORD who are descendants of Aaron, and Levites for their service. They offer to the LORD every morning and every evening burnt offerings and fragrant incense, set out the rows of bread on the table of pure gold, and care for the golden lampstand so that its lamps may burn every evening” (2 Chr 13:10b-11a). When we think about services in the Temple, then, this was a big piece of the daily activity: the twice daily burnt offerings of food and incense. The best description that we have from the time of the Temple is in Ecclesiasticus 50:12-21 where the service is described while praising the Simon, son of Onias, high priest from around 219-196 BC. While interesting in its own right, the only point that we need to observe from this description is that it includes a description of the Levites singing a psalm at the time of the sacrifice. This agrees with the much later—and much more comprehensive—description of this ceremony in the Mishnah (the 3rd century AD written collection of Jewish oral teaching) where set psalms are given for each day.

To recap, then, there were daily temple sacrifices at morning and evening where prayers would be prayed, psalms sung, and sacrifices performed—both food and incense. This is the Old Testament precedent that Isidore is referring to. (Note: I’m not suggesting that there is any direct liturgical link between the sacrifices and the Offices only that the pattern is similar and that common elements are likely due to a Christian appropriation of what they read as Old Testament practice.)

These offerings of food, drink, and incense are the type that anthropologists refer to as “alimentary offerings.” That is, in these sacrifices, the community is feeding the deity; in traditions that include images or statues of the gods, they may be clothed at this time as well. Now—it’s easy to dismiss these as primitive and pointless, but to do so is to miss their deeper meaning. Only the very young or unsophisticated believed that the gods needed these feedings or would perish without them. Indeed, Psalm 50 explicitly mocks this shallow understanding: “If I [, the Lord,] were hungry, I would not tell you, for the whole world is mine and all that is in it. Do you think I eat the flesh of bulls, or drink the blood of goats? Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving and make good your vows to the Most High” (Ps 50:12-4, BCP).  Rather, what’s operative behind these ceremonies is that the community is taking some of its common supplies—food, drink, things that people could use—and is choosing to give them up. The fact that useful (and sometimes even scarce) belongings are being exclusively devoted to the deity is a symbol of the community’s dedication to their god. That’s what’s really behind this: these sacrifices are an act of self-dedication showing through the community’s sacrifice what kind of material loss they are willing to incur for the sake of fidelity to their deity. This kind of sacrifice, then (and there are other kinds that we’ll talk about later…) demonstrates dedication because a limited good is being directed towards the god rather than the community’s (or individual’s) well-being.

Psalm 141 with its spiritualization of the sacrifice is pointing to something important when the psalmist asks that the prayer itself be considered a substitute for or (perhaps more precisely) an act of worship united—though at a distance—with the act of sacrifice: “Let my prayer be set forth in your sight as incense, the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice” (Ps 141:2, BCP). Even though the psalmist isn’t burning any lambs, the act of prayer itself reflects an act of sacrifice. A good that is inherently limited—time itself—is being voluntarily dedicated to God.

Thus, if the morning and evening sacrifices of the Temple are seen as acts of communal self-dedication to God, the morning and evening prayer of the Church mirroring these sacrificial acts are also acts of self-dedication. We are voluntarily giving up twenty to thirty minutes at each time to God—time that could be spent doing a hundred, a thousand, other things—and are choosing to spend this most precious resource in the praise of God.

There are two direct links that the Church has chosen to appropriate from the Old Testament legislation that puts us in connection with the spirit of these sacrifices: the use of psalms and the presence of incense. When we sing the psalms at morning and evening prayer, we are uniting our voices across time not just with the early Anglicans of Archbishop Cranmer’s day, not just with Isidore’s Spanish monks, but with the Levites serving God in the Jerusalem Temple. We are separated by centuries, yet united in song.

Likewise, when we choose to use incense—and this usually occurs either at the most formal expressions of public worship or, on the other end of the spectrum, as the act of an individual worshipper praying alone—we should use it in direct remembrance of the incense offered to God in the Temple ceremonies. We’re not trying to recreate the Temple sacrifices or to put ourselves under Old Testament ceremonial legislation, of course, but—like the psalms—we offer it in spiritual unison with the offerings of God’s people through time. Thus, when incense is used at the Offices, it should be used to cense the altar alone and not the people around it. We’re not at this time using incense as a holy purifier but we are offering it directly to God as a sacrifice in and of itself and as a visual representation of the prayers themselves ascending to God’s throne.

By putting substantial prayer offices at the hinges of the day—morning and evening—therefore, the Church joins its worship spiritually and symbolically with the twice daily sacrifices God commanded the Israelites to perform in Scripture. As with their worship, we are sacrificing something of value—our time—to God as an act of dedication. Praying the psalms, saying the prayers, lifting up our hands with or without incense, we are uniting ourselves with the full people of God across time as we offer our own sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.

1 thought on “The Daily Office: Sacrifice of Praise

  1. David

    Thanks, Derek. I’ve recently renewed a commitment to say matins and vespers daily, and this provides a great visual (incense) and background (prayer as sacrifice) to raise it above periods of drudgery.

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