Office of Readings the Evening Before

And More on Explaining the Parts of the Mass

ROME, JAN. 23, 2007 ( Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: Two questions about the Office of Readings: 1) I like to pray it the evening before. How early can I do so? After 5 p.m., or “sundown,” or when? 2) When I pray the Office of the Readings the evening before, should I do so before or after I pray Compline? — J.J., San Francisco, California

A: The Office of Readings is the longest of the five offices of the Liturgy of the Hours which all priests and transitional deacons are required to pray daily as an intrinsic part of their ministry of sanctification and intercession. Many permanent deacons and religious also pray it either voluntarily or as part of their rule.

In recent years, following the reforms promoted by the Second Vatican Council, praying the Divine Office, in whole or in part, has become increasingly popular among lay people who desire to unite themselves to the Church’s official prayer either as individual or in groups.

By doing so they participate not only in prayer within Christ’s body but also in a truly liturgical manner, that is, prayer of Christ’s body, and thus, in a certain manner, in the prayer of Christ himself.

In its present form the office consists of the same elements of the other offices: an opening hymn, three relatively short psalms or segments of longer psalms, versicle, responsories and closing prayer. Primarily however, this office is characterized by two substantial readings, one taken from the Old or New Testament (except the Gospel) and the other taken from the writings of the Fathers of the Church, the saints, or from the Church’s magisterium.

The second reading is usually related to the Scripture reading either as a commentary or as a reflection on one of the themes contained in the Scripture lesson. On saints days the second reading often highlights one of the saint’s characteristic virtues or is taken from his or her own writings.

The purpose of these readings is similar to a “lectio divina,” or spiritual reading. They are meant to spur meditation and reflection on God’s Word and how to live it guided by the best of spiritual writers and therefore to shape our way of thinking according to a truly Christian standard.

This office, originally called Matins, derived from the monastic custom of rising during the night to pray before dawn. This practice, in turn, probably stemmed from the earlier tradition of Christians holding all-night prayer vigils.

While the Office of Readings retains this character of nocturnal praise, it is permitted to pray it at other times during the day. And, as our reader points out, it is also possible to anticipate it on the evening before. It is also possible to join it with other offices, especially Morning Prayer.

If prayed the evening before, it should follow Evening Prayer (Vespers) of the day. Thus, if I wish to anticipate Tuesday’s reading on Monday, I should first pray Monday’s Evening Prayer.

If, on some occasion the Office of Readings is united to Vespers, both offices must be of the same day. That is, I may not join Tuesday’s reading with Monday’s Vespers. It is possible, however, to pray both Offices of Readings on the same day.

This should also answer the second question. The Office of Readings may be prayed either before or after Night Prayer, or Compline. All the same, unless one wishes to celebrate Readings as a nocturnal office, liturgical sense would prefer to pray it before Compline so as not to obscure this office’s role as a conclusion of the day and a preparation for the night.

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Follow-up: Explaining the Mass

After our reflections on explaining the Mass within Mass (Jan. 9) some readers asked if the homily could be used to explain some aspects.

While it is generally recommended that the homily be based on the readings, this is not an absolute rule. The homily may also occasionally focus on one of the liturgical prayers, such as the collect, from the feast or occasion being celebrated. Or it may even be used to explain other elements of doctrine, liturgical theology, and the meaning of the parts of the Mass.

If this can be integrated with the readings of the day, all the better. But this is not always possible. At the same time I would be hesitant to depart from the readings on a regular basis as this could weaken the faithful’s understanding of the importance of God’s Word within the overall structure of the celebration.

I personally prefer using the commentaries for such explanations. They are usually closer to the actual moment in which the rite being explained is to be carried out, and this is generally more effective.

Helping the faithful gain a deeper understanding of the Mass is a pastoral necessity. Decisions as to the best means (commentaries or homilies) to achieve that goal are also pastoral and may differ from place to place.

Several readers asked if there are any recommended resources to help people understand what is going on at Mass and the meaning of the various rites.

Although I do not know any source capable of answering all possible questions — if there were, my task would be a lot easier — I can recommend a couple of fairly recent books that would help both the inquiring layman and the priest in search of concise explanations.

Father Jeremy Driscoll’s “What Happens at Mass” and Scott Hahn’s “The Lamb’s Supper” are both excellent and accessible introductions to the Mass that complement each other very well.

Another interesting, albeit more technical, source is Father Jovian Lang’s “Dictionary of the Liturgy,” which offers concise definitions and illustrations on a wide range of liturgical topics.

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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.

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