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Excursus on the Choir Offices of the Early Church.

Nothing is more marked in the lives of the early followers of Christ than the abiding sense which they had of the Divine Presence.  Prayer was not to them an occasional exercise but an unceasing practice.  If then the Psalmist sang in the old dispensation “Seven times a day do I praise thee” (Ps. cxix. 164), we may be quite certain that the Christians would never fall behind the Jewish example.  We know that among the Jews there were the “Hours of Prayer,” and nothing would be, à priori, more likely than that with new and deeper significance these should pass over into the Christian Church.  I need not pause here to remind the reader of the observance of “the hour of prayer” which is mentioned in the New Testament, and shall pass on to my more immediate subject.

Most liturgiologists have been agreed that the “Choir Offices” of the Christian Church, that is to say the recitation of the Psalms of David, with lessons from other parts of Holy Scripture and collects,179179    Vide Tertullian. was an actual continuation of the Jewish worship, the melodies even of the Psalms being carried over and modified through the ages into the plain song of today.  For this view of the Jewish origin of the Canonical Hours there is so much to be said that one hesitates to accept a rival theory, recently set forth with much skill and learning, by a French priest, who had the inestimable happiness of sitting at the feet of De Rossi.  M. Pierre Battifol180180    Histoire du Bréviaire Romain Paris. 1893.  An English translation has since (1898) appeared by the Rev. A. M. Y. Bayley, which is not in principle changed so far as this discussion is concerned. is of opinion that the Canonical Hours in no way come from the Jewish Hours of Prayer but are the outgrowth of the Saturday Vigil service, which was wholly of Christian origin, and which he tells us was divided into three parts, j., the evening service, or lucernarium, which was the service of Vespers; ij., the midnight service, the origin of the Nocturns or Mattins; iij., the service at daybreak, the origin of Lauds.  Soon vigils were kept for all the martyr commemorations; and by the time of Tertullian, if not before, Wednesdays and Fridays had their vigils.  With the growth of monasticism they became daily.  This Mr. Battifol thinks was introduced into Antioch about a.d. 350, and soon spread all over the East.  The “little hours,” that is Terce, Sext, and None, he thinks were monastic in origin and that Prime and Compline were transferred from the dormitory to the church, just as the martyrology was transferred from the refectory.

Such is the new theory, which, even if rejected, at least is valuable in drawing attention to the great importance of the vigil-service in the Early Church, an importance still attaching to it in Russia on the night of Easter Even.

135Of the twilight service we have a most exquisite remains in the hymn to be sung at the lighting of the lamps.  This is one of the few Psalmi idiotici which has survived the condemnation of such compositions by the early councils, in fact the only two others are the Gloria in Excelsis and the Te Deum.  The hymn at the lighting of the lamps is as follows:

“O gladsome light

Of the Father Immortal,

And of the celestial

Sacred and blessed

Jesus, our Saviour!”

“Now to the sunset

Again hast thou brought us;

And seeing the evening

Twilight, we bless thee,

Praise thee, adore thee!”

“Father omnipotent!

Son, the Life-giver!

Spirit, the Comforter!

Worthy at all times

Of worship and wonder!181181    Longfellow.  The Golden Legend II.  Liddon’s remarks upon this hymn are well worth the reader’s attention, Bampton Lectures, Lect. VII., where Keble’s translation will be found.

Dr. Battifol’s new theory was promptly attacked by P. Suibbert Bäumer, a learned German Benedictine who had already written several magazine articles on the subject before Battifol’s book had appeared.

The title of Bäumer’s book is Geschichte des Breviers, Versuch einer quellenmässigen Darstellung der Entwicklung des altkirchen und des römeschen Officiums bis auf unsere Tage. (Freiburg in Briesgau, 1895.)  The following182182    Taken from the Church Quarterly Review, 1898. may be taken as a fair resumé of the position taken in this work and most ably defended, a position which (if I may be allowed to express an opinion) is more likely to prevail as being most in accordance with the previous researches of the learned.

“The early Christians separated from the Synagogues about a.d. 65; that is, about the same time as the first Epistle to Timothy was written, and at this moment of separation from the Synagogue the Apostles had already established, besides the liturgy, at least one, probably two, canonical hours of prayer, Mattins and Evensong.  Besides what we should call sermons, the service of these hours was made up of psalms, readings from Holy Scripture, and extempore prayers.  A few pages on (p. 42) Bäumer allows that even if this service had been daily in Jerusalem the Apostles’ times, yet it had become limited to Sundays in the sub-Apostolic times, when persecution would not allow the Apostolic custom of daily morning and evening public prayer.  Yet the practice of private prayer at the third, sixth, and ninth hours continued, based upon an Apostolic tradition; and thus, when the tyranny of persecution was overpast, the idea of public prayer at these hours was saved and the practice carried on.”

The student should by no means omit to read Dom Prosper Guéranger’s Institutions Liturgiques, which while written in a bitter and most partisan spirit, is yet a work of the most profound learning.  Above all anyone professing any familiarity with the literature on the subject must have mastered Cardinal Bona’s invaluable De Divina Psalmodia, a mine of wisdom and a wonder of research.

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