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The Divine Office as the Church's
Prayer of Praise and Intercession

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

One of the most providential developments in the Catholic Church, through the Second Vatican Council, has been the extraordinary emphasis on the Liturgy in the life of the faithful: priests, religious and the laity.

Unfortunately this liturgical renewal has not always been wisely interpreted. Not the least problem affecting the Church today is the misreading of what the Council taught and, in some instances, a positive indifference to, by now, the extensive teaching of the Holy See on how the Sacred Liturgy is to be celebrated and what norms are to be followed if the inspired directives of the Church's latest and most comprehensive ecumenical gathering are to bear the fruit desired by the Holy Spirit.

Among the doctrines of the Second Vatican Council the first in time and (in a way) the first in importance is the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. It is here that we find the basic principles for all the faithful to follow, if they are to be faithful to the mind of Christ.

It is here, therefore, that we find the foundation for our understanding of the meaning of the Divine Office or, as the Church now bids us call it, the Liturgy of the Hours.

Let us first read what the Church says about the Divine Office and how intimately she associates it with the Eucharistic Liturgy.

There are two stages to this teaching of the Church, where each succeeding stage depends on the preceding for its significance.

Stage One: The Song of Heaven brought down to earth by the Incarnation.

Christ Jesus (the Church tells us), the high priest of the new and eternal covenant, taking human nature, introduced into this earthly exile , that hymn which is sung throughout all ages in the halls of heaven. He joins the entire community of mankind to Himself, associating it with His own singing of this canticle of divine praise.

We pause for a moment to reflect on what we are being told. We do not often think of the Incarnation as a transportation of prayerful song from heaven to earth. Yet that is what Christ, who is God, brought to earth when He became man.

As God He had been hearing the angelic choirs from the dawn of their creation. And now as man He came to teach us by word and example to follow the celestial pattern and, in His company, to praise the Holy Trinity in their undivided Unity.

But there is more here still to feast the minds of our souls about the role of Christ, the High Priest of the New Covenant. Until He became man, the only praise that the Divine Majesty ever received was from angelic or human creatures; angelic in heaven and human on earth.

With the Incarnation a new dimension entered the praises of the universe. For Jesus who is man is also Christ who is God. In the Person of the Savior, the heavenly Father would now receive adoration and honor that was of infinite intensity, since His own divine Son now began to praise the eternal Father, with human lips and with a human heart indeed; but lips and heart that were substantially united to the divinity.

If we would understand what the Divine Office means, we must begin with this profound mystery: that the Liturgy of the Hours is no merely human form of prayer. It is nothing less than Jesus Christ praying through us, and we through Him. It is the Son of God praising His natural Father in a way that has been made possible only because God became man to teach us to pray, yes, but also and especially to pray with us and in us every time we open our hearts and our lips in accents of praise.

Stage Two: The Church continues Christ's priestly office through the Eucharist and the Divine Office.

Christ continues His priestly work through the agency of the Church, which is ceaselessly engaged in praising the Lord and interceding for the salvation of the whole world. She does this not only by celebrating the Eucharist, but also in other ways, especially by praying the Divine Office.

What is the Church saying? She is telling us that since Calvary Christ is no longer alone in His priestly work of praising God and pleading for the needs of a sinful world.

By His death on the cross, He brought forth, as the Fathers graphically explain, His Spouse the Church, as the second Eve from the wounded side of the dying Savior.

Since Calvary, then, Christ continues what He began in Palestine, only now His priestly ministry is both that of the Head of the Mystical Body and of its members.

We, therefore, members of His Body, are privileged to unite our prayers with His in a harmony that beggars description but that is awesome in its dignity.

If we ask how we join with Christ the High Priest in His priestly ministry, we are told it is mainly through the Holy Eucharist and the canonical hours of the Liturgy.

This juxtaposition of the Eucharist and the Office should be emphasized. The one complements and supports the other. And all who by their priestly consecration or religious profession are specially identified with the Eucharist are also expected by the Church to be devoted to the chanting or recitation of the hours of the Liturgy.

The very expression Divine Office (Divinium officium) literally means "sacred duty," whose gravity depends on the Church's legislation or, in the case of religious, of their constitutional regulation.

Before we go on, however, a very critical aspect of the Divine Office as Christ's priestly prayer in the Church should be explained.

What kind of prayer is the Divine Office? We might say it includes within its ambit every form of prayer. True enough. But is there some form of prayer on which the Office, so to speak, concentrates to make the Liturgy of the Hours distinctive in the Church's spiritual posture before God?

Yes, the Divine Office is, par excellence, the prayer of divine praise and intercession, and behind these two words, "praise" and "intercession," stands the whole galaxy of all possible relationships of a creature with respect to the Creator.

In the Divine Office we first of all praise God. This may seem like a strange expression, as though God needs our poor words of admiration. No, God does not need our admiration, because He stands in no need of His creatures. But He most certainly wants our acknowledgment of His greatness, and recognition of His goodness, and submission to His power and majesty.

Why does He want it? For His sake? No, that would be needing it, only in different words. He wants it for our sake.

He wants us to adore Him, which is what praise really means, because this is the truth He wants us to practice by telling Him in all the human accents at our disposal that He alone is necessary, that He alone is great, that He alone is mighty – by comparison with us. In a word, that He alone is God, and we are only we – unnecessary creatures who except for Him would not even be.

That is why so much of the Divine Office is composed of the Psalms, those eloquent hymns of praise, inspired by the Holy Spirit before the Incarnation and ever since prayed by the Church in her chants of adoration.

As we reread or re-sing the Psalms of praise, however, notice the stress on God's power that runs through them like a mighty theme. We need this reminder today, as the Jews needed it before Christ and as the apostles needed it when, in their company, He sang the Psalms of the Passover at the Last Supper.

Why be reminded of God's power when we praise Him? Because there are in the world so many powerful idols that men are tempted to worship instead of humbly submitting to the almighty God. Wealth gives power; intellect and education give power; skill and science give power; authority gives power; articulation in speech and persuasive writing confer power; the media give power; shrewdness and cunning and seductive beauty give power.

Hence the terrible need, born of our inveterate tendency to make idols of creatures, to praise God as the all-powerful One, before whose magnitude all earthly beings are as naught. Listen to the Psalmist:

Yahweh is king, robed in majesty,
Yahweh is robed in power,
he wears it like a belt.
You have made the world firm, unshakable;
your throne has stood since then,
you existed from the first, Yahweh.
Yahweh, the rivers raise,
the rivers raise their voices,
the rivers raise their thunders;
greater than the voice of ocean,
transcending the waves of the sea,
Yahweh reigns transcendent in the heights.
Your decrees will never alter;
holiness will distinguish your house,
Yahweh, for ever and ever.

Or, as the last Psalm of the Psalter has us sing, this praise of God has a where and a why and a how and a who.

  • Where God is to be praised,

  • why He should be praised,

  • how we ought to praise Him, and

  • who should give Him praise.

Appropriately the 150th Psalm begins and ends with an Alleluia, and in between are inserted six of the most dramatic verses of all human literature, no doubt because the verses are also divine:

Praise God in His Temple on earth,
Praise Him in His Temple in heaven.

Praise Him for His mighty achievements,
Praise Him for His transcendent greatness!

Praise Him with blasts of the trumpet,
Praise Him with lyre and harp,
Praise Him with drums and dancing,
Praise Him with strings and reeds,
Praise Him with clashing cymbals,
Praise Him with clanging cymbals!

Let everything that breathes praise Yahweh!

So much for the Divine Office as a prayer of praise. But it is also the Church's great prayer of intercession.

This is not as obvious as it may at first seem. When we say that the Liturgy of the Hours is, after the Eucharist, the Church's most effective prayer of intercession, we mean that those who sing or recite the Divine Office literally stand, hence intercede, between God and the human family.

Intercessory prayer is Mediatorial prayer, where the mediators are those priests, religious and laity who plead with the heavenly Father to have mercy and to be generous to the human race.

Behind this simple affirmation stands another mystery of our faith, namely, the value of human intercession in favor of other people who either cannot or will not or do not sufficiently pray for themselves.

Call it unconscious prayer, or altruistic petition, or substitutionary invocations. By whatever name, it stands as the keystone of the arch that supports the Communion of Saints.

What it means in essence is that God is propitiated and His mercy is moved not only when people ask Him for themselves, but also when they beg His favors for others.

When, therefore, we pray the Divine Office, we are praying not only for ourselves but, with emphasis; for all the children of Adam who need the grace of God or, if they are deceased, the staying hand of His loving mercy.

Let me just read one prayer from the Divine Office to bring out the import of this intercessory function of the Liturgy of the Hours:

O God, you have prepared invisible riches for all those who love you. Pour into our hearts the sentiments of your love, so that, loving you in all things and above all things, we may attain to your promises which exceed all our desires. Through Jesus Christ your Son who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever. Amen.

This prayer, and all others like it in the Divine Office, is no private petition or solitary request. It is an act of intercession on behalf of all mankind, made efficacious by the power of Christ, who is praying the Divine Office within us, for all those who are still in exile from the God who made them for Himself, but who wants to be invoked in order to grant the graces that they need.

What lends solemnity to these intercessions in the Divine Office is the fact that they are made in faith and built on the hope that God is never invoked in vain.

On our part, this means that a deeper awareness is called for if we are to become effective pleaders before the throne of God for the millions of children of a fallen human race.

We must become aware of whom we are praying to: it is the mighty God, who is mysteriously also the merciful God.

We must become aware of whom we are praying with: it is Jesus Christ, the eternal High Priest, who sealed the New Covenant with His blood.

We must become aware of who we are that are praying: we are "a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a consecrated nation, a people set apart to sing the praises of God who called us out of darkness into His wonderful light."

We must become aware of whom we are praying for: the multitudes of suffering in body and spirit, the tempted and the fallen, the discouraged and depressed, the hungry and naked and homeless and friendless who need our intercession. Only in heaven shall we know how much our petitions on earth have helped how many souls join us in the eternal Liturgy of the angels and saints who behold the face of God.

Copyright © 2003 by Inter Mirifica

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