Alternate Psalms in the Liturgy of the Hours

Options, Not Obligations

Prayer - church of Santi Apostoli at Rome

ZENIT - HSM

Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: I have questions about the Divine Office and the interpretation of its instructions. 1) On the daytime prayer psalms: On the feast of Blessed Virgin Mary, for example, in the breviary Volume IV (Ordinary Time weeks 18-34) on page 1646, on “Daytime Prayer,” it says, ” … in place of psalm 122, psalm 129, 1185 may be said, and in place of psalm 127, psalm 131 may be said.” The question: Is it liturgical law that we have to change the two psalms and flip the book back and forth? This confusion regarding the daytime prayer psalms also applies to the feast of the Virgin, the apostles, the dedication of a church, and the Psalter Week III (Monday-Wednesday). 2) On August 29, the memorial of the Beheading of John the Baptist, Martyr: Do we pray Office of Readings psalms from the weekday psalms or the Common of One Martyr? Do we have options for determining which psalms to pray? This type of memorial is confusing since it looks like a feast day. — M.I., California

A: Our reader’s page references are to the U.S. version of the Liturgy of the Hours. I will quote from the three-volume English and Irish edition.

To answer the first question we need to examine the structure of the daytime prayers. There are three sets of prayers traditionally called terce (midmorning), sext (midday) and none (afternoon). These short offices usually consist of three psalms, each one accompanied by an antiphon. The first of the three psalms is almost always a few strophes of Psalm 118, the longest of the psalms. The psalms are followed by a short reading, versicle and final prayer that are proper to the time of day. The office concludes with the acclamation: “Let us praise the Lord: Thanks be to God.”

During the major liturgical seasons of Advent, Christmas, Lent and Easter, as well as on most solemnities, a single antiphon is used for all three psalms and is recited before the first and after the last psalm. The final prayer is the same as that of lauds but uses the short conclusion, “Through Christ our Lord.”

The Divine Office offers all three sets but those who have the obligation to recite the Liturgy of the Hours can pray just one of the three. This is the most common practice outside of situations such as contemplative monasteries. It is up to the individual or the community to choose the time of day, and hence the formula, that they will use.

If, however, an individual or a community decide to pray more than one of the daytime offices, then the breviary offers some complementary psalms so that the same psalms need not be repeated twice or thrice on the same day.

These complementary psalms are psalms 119, 120 and 121 for midmorning; 122, 123 and 124 for noon; and 125, 126 and 127 for the afternoon.

On some days it happens that one of these psalms is already in the breviary for some other office, and so the book offers options so as to avoid repeating the same psalm twice.

Thus, for example, in the common for the dedication of a church Psalm 121 is foreseen as part of vespers, or evening prayer. In this case the rubric for prayer during the day says, “If the complementary psalms are used, psalm 121 may be replaced by psalm 128.” A similar situation arises for the common of the Blessed Virgin Mary, in which Psalm 121 and Psalm 126 are used for vespers.

Again, this case would only arise if a community was celebrating more than one of the daytime prayers. In most cases these coincidences do not happen. In any case, since the expression says that they “may be replaced,” it means that these are options. And if nobody is bothered using the same psalm twice on the same day, it can be done.

Something analogous happens with the invitatory antiphon at the beginning of the office. The usual choice for invitatory is Psalm 94, but Psalms 99, 66 or 23 may also be used. Again, if one of these psalms comes up during the daily recitation, it can be replaced by Psalm 94.

With respect to the second question on the memorial of the Beheading of St. John the Baptist: We must remember that the Divine Office has developed over a long period of time and, as such, perfect logic in its distribution is not to be expected.

There are some celebrations whose offices do not correspond to their liturgical category but are more fully developed then even some feasts. This is the case of this memorial. Other examples are the memorial (recently elevated to feast) of Mary Magdalen (July 22) and the memorial of St. Martin of Tours (November 11). This latter saint was practically the first non-martyr to be celebrated liturgically, and his importance in the Middle Ages as patron of France has left us with a significant liturgical legacy in the Divine Office. He thus has proper antiphons for lauds and vespers, and it is obligatory to use the psalms from the Sunday of Week 1 of the psalter at lauds and the common of pastors at vespers. The same principle would apply to the memorial of the Beheading of St. John.

Apart from these exceptional historical cases the rule of thumb for the celebration of memorials is fairly straightforward. For an obligatory memorial only what is printed under the heading of the day is obligatory. This usually consists of the second reading and responsory of the office of readings. Occasionally, there is a proper antiphon for the Benedictus and Magnificat for lauds and vespers and the proper concluding prayer.

Everything else is usually optional; that is, one can pray the hymn, psalms intercessions and other elements of the day.

If one wishes, one can opt to go to the common offices of the corresponding saint. One can also choose to do so for just one office, for example, the office of readings, and follow the general rule for the others.

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 Readers may send questions to [email protected] Please put the word “Liturgy” in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.

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