Tuesday, November 18, 2003

Bless the Lord at all times: Liturgy of Hours, Angelus, and the Rosary

again from Walking on the Wings of the Wind [Paulist Press, 1980]

Have you ever watched a priest recite his Office? Perhaps you saw him use all five fingers as markers to keep the place straight, while he murmured words with his lips. There was always something mysterious about that gilt-edged, black leather book and its contents. (At least it used to be black!)

In order to understand the Divine Office, three points should be kept in mind.

First of all, the Breviary is meant to be a compliment to the Mass and extend its thrust throughout the entire day. We must imagine Christ as Eternal High Priest, but attaching to himself the entire human community, continuously offering to the Father his song of praise and interceding for the salvation of the whole world. This scene is "imaged" in each diocese as the clergy and faithful unite with their bishop --- if not bodily, at least in intention --- in offering praise to the Father and petitioning for the needs of the church through Jesus. Bishops and priests are seen primarily as people of continuous prayer in union with Jesus.

Secondly, since to pray incessantly is physically impossible, moments of prayer were introduced to coincide with the changing time cycle of each day, morning and evening prayer becoming the pivotal points. A noonday prayer is also an integral part of the new Breviary. (The older devotion included a prayer break --- note, not a coffee break --- also at 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. The night vigil of prayer was characteristic of the monks.)

Thirdly, the Divine Office also took advantage of the time cycle of the week and the year, in order to celebrate the mysteries of the life and death of Jesus. The cycle of nature became the hinges around which the major events in the life of our Lord pivoted. Easter, with its preparatory period of Lent, and Christmas, with its preparatory period of Advent, were central.

Thus, the Divine Office pressed the important moments of our Lord's life into yearly celebrations that compliment the Mass. It is different from the Mass, however, in having a relationship also to the cycle of each day --- sunrise, sunset --- night, daytime. One stopped working, if only for a short period of time, in order to focus on Jesus and be in his presence at the throne of the Father as the day began, in the middle of work, and as the day closed.

Two very popular forms of prayer developed as a kind of lay person's breviary: the Angelus and the Rosary. Both of these are Marian devotions in keeping with the medieval concept of the Office where the presence of Mary was always accentuated and often explicitly recalled at the end of each hour.

The Angelus is based on the principle of praying at specific moments of the day --- morning, noon, night. It remembers secondarily the mysteries of Jesus' life from birth, to grave, to resurrection.

The Rosary, on the other hand, is based on the meditation of the pivotal events in the life of Jesus and his Mother. It keeps a liturgical base --- sorrowful mysteries for Friday, glorious for Sunday.

The Rosary is a perfect prayer: it repeats, like the pleadings of a child, the same words over and over; but it also relates to the entire mystery of salvation.

Those who find the Rosary old-fashioned or outmoded will change their minds when they are sick or tired or unable to concentrate. It keeps our hands, our heads, our lips occupied --- but so gently and without tension.

Why have the Angelus and the Rosary survived so many centuries?

Because they present a perfect theology of Marian devotion, in that they are always so closely related to the whole picture of salvation through Jesus.


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