Canonical hours

Canonical hours are ancient divisions of time (also called "offices"), developed by the Christian Church, serving as increments between prayers.

The practice grew from the Jewish practice of reciting prayers at set times of the day: for example, in the book of Acts, Peter and John visit the temple for the afternoon prayers. Psalm 119:164 states: "Seven times a day I praise you for your righteous laws."

This practice is believed to have been passed down through the centuries from the Apostles. In 525, St. Benedict wrote the first official manual for praying the Hours, and the Vatican wrote the first official breviary in the 11th century.

Already well-established by the ninth century, these canonical offices consisted of eight daily prayer events and three (or four) nightly divisions (called "nocturnes", "watches," or "vigils"). Building on the recitation of psalms and canticles from Scripture, the Church has added (and, at times subtracted) hymns, hagiographical readings, and other prayers. The practice of observing canonical hours are maintained by many Churches, such as the Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican communions.

The daily events were:

  • (at dawn) Matins ("MATT'-inz") called "Orthros" in Eastern Churches
  • (at dawn) Lauds ("lawds") later separate from Matins in the West; aka "Morning Prayer" or "The Praises."
  • (at ~6 AM) Prime (the "first hour")
  • (at ~9 AM) Terce (the "third hour")
  • (at Noon) Sext (the "sixth hour")
  • (at ~3 PM) Nones (the "ninth hour")
  • (at bedtime) Compline ("COMP'-lin", aka "Night Prayer")

The remainder of this article is divided into three sections: the Catholic usage, the Anglican usage, and the Orthodox usage.


Catholic Usage

Early Church

Middle Ages

Council of Trent

Further reforms before the Second Vatican Council

Catholic usage in the Roman Rite following the Second Vatican Council

Following the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church's Roman Rite simplified the observance of the canonical hours and sought to make them more accessible to the laity, hoping to restore their character as the prayer of the entire Church. The office of Prime was abolished, and the character of Matins changed so that it could be used at any time of the day as an office of Scriptural and hagiographical readings. Furthermore, the period over which the entire Psalter is recited has been expanded from one week to four.

Formerly referred to popularly as "The Divine Office", and published in four volumes according to the meteorological seasons "Spring", "Summer", "Fall", and "Winter", the Church now publishes the related liturgical books under the title "The Liturgy of the Hours", and issues them in four volumes according to the liturgical season: "Advent and Christmas", "Lent and Easter", "Ordinary Time Vol. I", "Ordinary Time Vol. II".

Current Catholic usage focuses on two major hours and from three to five minor hours:

  • Morning prayer (Lauds)
  • Evening prayer (Vespers)
  • the Office of Readings (formerly Matins)
  • Daytime prayer, which can be one or all of
    • Midmorning prayer (Terce)
    • Midday prayer (Sext)
    • Midafternoon prayer (None)
  • Night Prayer (Compline)

The major hours

The major hours consist of Morning and Evening Prayer (or Vespers). The character of Morning Prayer is that of praise; of Evening Prayer, that of thanksgiving. Both follow the same format:

  • a hymn, composed by the Church
  • two psalms, or one long psalm divided into two parts, and a scriptural canticle (taken from the Old Testament in the morning and the New Testament in the evening)
  • a short passage from scripture
  • a responsory, typically a verse of scripture, but sometimes liturgical poetry
  • a canticle taken from the Gospel of Luke: the Canticle of Zechariah (Benedictus) for morning prayer, and the Canticle of Mary (Magnificat) for evening prayer
  • intercessions, composed by the Church
  • the Our Father
  • the concluding prayer, composed by the Church

The minor hours

The daytime hours follow a simpler format:

  • a hymn
  • three short psalms, or, three pieces of longer psalms; in the daytime hours it is usual to begin one part of the longest psalm, psalm 119
  • a very short passage of scripture, followed by a responsorial verse
  • the concluding prayer

The office of readings expands on the format of the daytime hours:

  • a hymn
  • one or two long psalms divided into three parts
  • a long passage from scripture, usually arranged so that in any one week, all the readings come from the same text
  • a long hagiographical passage, such as an account of a saint's martyrdom, or a theological treatise commenting on some aspect of the scriptural reading, or a passage from the documents of the Second Vatican Council
  • on nights preceding Sundays and feast days, the office may be expanded to a vigil by inserting three Old Testament canticles and a reading from the gospels
  • the hymn Te Deum (on Sundays and feast days)
  • the concluding prayer

Night prayer has the character of preparing the soul for its passage to eternal life:

  • a hymn
  • a psalm, or two short psalms, or simply Psalm 91
  • a short reading from scripture
  • the responsory In manus tuas, Domine (Into Your Hands, O Lord)
  • the Canticle of Simeon, Nunc dimittis, from the Gospel of Luke, framed by the antiphon Protect us, Lord
  • a concluding prayer
  • a hymn to Mary, the mother of Jesus

In each office, the psalms and canticle are framed by antiphons, and each concludes with the traditional Catholic doxology.

Liturgical variation

In addition to the basic four-week cycle of prayers for each of the canonical hours, the Church also provides an alternate collection of hymns, readings, psalms, canticles and antiphons, for use in marking specific dates on the Roman Calendar, which sets out the order of celebrations for the liturgical year. These alternate selections are found in the 'Proper of Seasons' (selections for Advent, Christmas, Lent and Easter), and the 'Proper of Saints' (selections for feast days of the Saints). A breviary is generally keyed to help the user navigate these overlays in the liturgy.

Orthodox usage

Orthodox prayer books typically provide prayers to be prayed at these hours:

  • (at dawn) Matins ("MATT'-inz")
  • (at ~6 AM) the "first hour"
  • (at ~9 AM) the "third hour" (remembering the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, which happened at this hour)
  • (at Noon) the "sixth hour" (remembering the death of Christ, which happened at this hour)
  • (at ~3 PM) the "ninth hour"
  • (at sunset) Vespers (aka "Evening Prayer")
  • (at bedtime) Compline ("COMP'-lin", aka "Night Prayer") (preparing for death, our final "falling asleep")
  • (at midnight) Midnight prayers (to be prayed if one happens to wake up in the middle of the night and wants to pray)

In cathedrals and monasteries, it is more common to find someone present at the church praying these prayers at each of these hours. In many churches, it is common on Sunday mornings to read the third and sixth hour prayers prior to the Divine Liturgy. Other churches have an entire matins service which precedes the Divine Liturgy. In either case there is usually little or no pause between the end of one and the beginning of the next.

In "liturgical timekeeping", a new day begins with the Vespers service, specifically at the reading or singing of the Prokeimenon during the Vespers service, rather than beginning at midnight.

In addition to these prayers, there are also canons to be prayed in preparation for receiving the Eucharist, and also akathist prayers regarding specific subjects, and which may be addressed directly to God or to a saint, asking that saint to convey the petitions to God. These canons and akathist prayers are inserted at specific points in the prayers of the hours.

Anglican usage (the Book of Common Prayer)

Needs to be filled in!

The Book of Common Prayer constitutes the basis of the liturgy for Anglicans.

In the United States, the 1979 BCP has four offices:

  • Morning Prayer, corresponding to Matins
  • Noonday, roughly corresponding to the combination of Terce and Sext
  • Evening Prayer, corresponding to Vespers
  • Order of Worship for the Evening, a prelude to or an abbreviated form of Evening Prayer
  • Compline

In addition, there is a section of "Daily Devotions for Individuals and Families".

Noonday and Compline are the result of a gradual liturgical revival in the ECUSA beginning about 1913. They were originally part of a supplemental liturgical book called A Book of Offices, published after 1914. Eventually these services were incorporated into the Book of Common Prayer in 1979.

Muslim prayers

Muslims still use a modified definition of canonical hours when they pray five times a day. Their prayer (salah) times are Salat al-Fajr, Salat al-Zuhr, Salat al-Asr, Salat al-Maghrib and Salat fr:Heures canoniales nl:Getijden sv:Tidegärd

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