The Daily Offices
by A.G. Hebert
The Prayer-book orders that “all Priests and Deacons are to say daily the Morning and Evening Prayer, either privately or openly,” and that “the Curate that ministereth in every Parish-church or Chapel . . . shall say the same in the Parish-church or Chapel where he ministereth, . . . that the people may come to hear God’s Word, and to pray with him’. According to the old commentator Charles Wheatly, who wrote a treatise on the Prayer Book in 1710 that became very famous and ran through many editions, the word ‘privately’ in this connection meant, not that the clergyman should say the office by himself, but that he should say it in the family where he lived.
Be that as it may, this old-fashioned Anglican had a more vivid sense of the meaning of ‘common prayer’ than some among ourselves. We are liable to take our ideas from the little devotional manuals, which seem to have been designed to train up the individual Christian in the way of a purely personal piety, and contain prayers phrased in terms of ‘I’, ‘me’ and ‘my’. Then it becomes possible to assume that the church service is to be thought of in a similar way, and that the congregation is a collection of individuals met to carry on their private devotions together.
But the Prayer Book does not fit into this scheme. The pronouns in its prayers are ‘we’, ‘us’ and ‘our’. We cannot make sense of the Magnificat by thinking of it as the private and personal thanksgiving made by our Lord’s mother, which can then be taken as a model for other individuals to use. It is plain that she is there praising God for the promised birth of the Saviour of mankind, and speaking in the name of the Israel which had for so long cherished the hope of the Messiah’s coming that was now fulfilled. We, joining in her Magnificat, are taking our part in the Church’s thanksgiving for his birth, in union with the countless millions of Christian voices which have joined in it for fifteen hundred years past, and join in it today throughout the whole world.
Of course, private prayer is infinitely important, because in it each individual makes his own personal approach to God; and so our Lord says, ‘Enter into thy closet, and pray to thy Father which is in secret’. But we are not saved merely as individuals; we are born again as children of Christ’s family, and made members one of another, so that we pray not only for one another but with one another. So our Lord, giving us the model prayer, makes it the prayer of his family; he bids us say ‘Our Father’, ‘Give us this day our daily bread’. He promised that when two or three are gathered together in his Name he will be in the midst of them: who then are the ‘two or three?’ St Cyprian’s comment is that it is not the fewness of the two or three that is here commended, but the fact that they are gathered together, gathered together with the praying Church, to pray the prayer of the Church.
It is in this prayer of the Church that we join at mattins and evensong. The meaning of the office has been well summed up under three headings, the first of which is this: It refreshes and renews in our minds the memory of God’s mighty works in the past.
In the first lessons throughout the year we read the story of God’s saving purpose, worked out through his people Israel: how God called Abraham, constituted Israel as his people in the days of Moses, trained them by the law, taught them by the prophets, and gave the promise of the coming of the Saviour. In the second lessons we read of the fulfilment of God’s purpose for man in Jesus Christ, and how through him the one chosen nation was opened out to be the catholic or universal Church for all nations.
It is the story of our redemption that we are reading; and the episodes of the history have meaning in relation to the whole. We sometimes ask why we need listen to the records of judges and kings; what value is there in them for us? But they all have their place, somewhere, in the long preparation for Christ; thus, at the end of the story of Ruth, when a baby has been born to her, we read: ‘And they called his name Obed; he is the father of Jesse, the father of David’. Now we know where we are.
The story is our own ancestral history; the saints of the Old Testament are our fathers in the faith. We go over the story in some of the psalms; the 78th, on the 15th evening, and 105 and 106, on the 21st day, tell the tale of God’s constant faithfulness, and the people’s short-lived loyalty and their continual unfaithfulness, and how they ‘forgot’ God’s mighty works which he had wrought for them; is it not the same with us?
In the lessons, we read how God called Abraham to go into a far country, not knowing whither he went; if Abraham had not obeyed that call, maybe we should not be here. We, under Moses, were delivered from bondage in Egypt, we wandered in the wilderness, and murmured against God; we have often done so since, and do so today. God brought us into the promised land, and we went astray after false gods. We were warned by God’s prophets of his judgement on our sin, and in the exile the judgement was executed. In exile we learnt the meaning of repentance, and faith was made perfect through suffering; and we heard the voices of Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Second Isaiah promising a future deliverance. And then we read how the Saviour came; we believed in him and followed him; one of us denied him and one betrayed him. But he died for us, and by his resurrection raised us up to new life of faith and joy and peace; and at Pentecost the promise made in the prophets of the outpouring of the Spirit began to be fulfilled, the Spirit in whom the Church’s life consists.
All this we hear in the daily office, to refresh and renew in our minds the memory of God’s works in history, for us men and for our salvation.
When you attend the daily office, have your Bible with you if possible, and follow the lessons in it.In understanding them, all the available historical knowledge about the original occasions of the books is helpful and should be used. It is even a good plan to follow the lessons in some modern translation, such as Moffatt’s; for while the A.V. is primarily a liturgical text (and the same is true of the R.V., as a revision of it), the modern translations are of great value as commentaries upon it, though unfit themselves to be read in church.
It is necessary also to know the general outline of the Bible history, if we are to see the place of the parts of it in relation to the whole; and here again critical study helps us, by enabling to fix, at least approximately, the period in which each book was written. It would be impossible to make sense of the book of Deuteronomy if we felt bound to believe that it was written by Moses, or again of the book of Daniel unless we see it as written in the time of the Maccabean persecution, for the help of those who were called to be confessors and martyrs. We need to have in our minds the three periods to which the books of the Old Testament belong: the writings of the pre-exilic period, while Israel was a nation living in its own land, those of the exile in Babylon, and those which belong to the period after the return to Palestine. An instructed Christian needs this elementary knowledge, if he is to read his Bible intelligently “from within’.
Secondly: the daily offices show us the meaning of our life in the present, as members of the Church. This is obvious in regard to the epistles; what St Paul says to the people who were called to live as Christians at Corinth or Philippi is plainly relevant to those who are called to be Christians in Manchester. If it is not easy now, it was as difficult then. Of course there are differences, and here critical study helps us; nevertheless, because the epistles were written to Christians living in the Church, they speak directly to our conditions.
The same is true also of the gospels. The modern form-criticism has reminded us that the gospels are not like ordinary biographies, since the central figure in them was the Saviour whom the Christians worshipped, and who had promised to be with them always, even to the end of the world. Therefore the stories about him, how he went through the cities and villages proclaming the Kingdom of God, healing the sick, casting out devils, absolving sinners, blessing the children, and sending the apostles to carry on his mission, were all directly illustrative of his present activity in and through his Church.
The Lord whose works and words were read to them in the gospel was the same Lord who came to them in his holy sacrement. When therefore they heard how he came to them in the storm on the lake, walking on the water, they saw the immediate relevance of that story to themselves in times of difficulty and danger, when they were liable to be frightened, as though he were absent; and they took to themselves his word ‘Be of good cheer; it is I; be not afraid’. The gospels have the same meaning for us today.
The same is true even of the Old Testament stories and prophecies. To us, as to the original writer, Abraham stands as a great pattern of the man of faith: Abraham believed God. The story of Elisha and Naaman repeats itself today: why does not the prophet recognize that a really important person has come to him, and make a bit of a scene of it, and come out and wave his hand over the diseased part, and heal the leper? How intolerable to receive a message conveyed by his servant to go and wash in a third-rate river like the Jordan! The prophecies of Isaiah and Jeremiah become startlingly contemporary to us, who live in a civilization which is reeling under the blows of God’s judgements upon it. They said that the worst was going to happen; and it did; and the Israel of God, after much suffering, came out alive. We too must be prepared for the worst to happen, and believe that God is now and always the Lord of history, as the prophets said.
Thirdly: the daily office exercises us in the rhythm of the prayer of the Church which is Christ’s body; and this above all in the psalms. The psalms were written by many authors, under very various circumstances, the precise occasion being in every case unknown to us. They were collected into a psalter, for use in the synagogue and the temple. So collected, they expressed many moods of the members of the believing and worshipping community: believing in God and hoping in him, giving thanks to him for his great glory, rejoicing in his good gifts; calling on him out of darkness and perplexity, calling for help when he seemed to hide his face, imploring for deliverance from enemies who seemed to be irresistible; confessing sin, and giving thanks for his forgiving mercy; praising him for his mighty works.
The Church which is Christ’s body consists of many members who are all engaged in the same conflict as the writers of the psalms. In the office we recite the psalms together, and are thereby made to realize that they belong to others as much as to us. Indeed the range of experience which they cover is far wider than that of any individual; each one therefore as he joins in them is joining in the common prayer, praying with, not merely for, his brothers in Christ. It would indeed be very mischievous if any of us were to recite the 176 verses of psalm 119 applying them all to himself. But it is another matter when this psalm is seen as the prayer of the many members of Christ’s body. It then becomes a wonderful manual of intercession.
The sort of the intercession I am thinking of is based on what Charles Williams used to call ‘co-inherence’, that is, in this connection, the sharing of one spiritual conflict by many people who know themselves to be members one of another. Intercession, so regarded, is the fulfilment of the precept, ‘Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ’. Think of the burdens which are now being borne by a Korean priest whose people are scattered and his church-building destroyed; by a missionary who gave his life to China, and is now compelled to leave his people and his work there and come home; by a man in prison in the depths of despair, seeking to find God and to repent; a man with cancer, who must face the fact that he is going to die. Then see how these needs fit themselves into the words of the psalms. To tell God what he is to be pleased to do for other people is not real intercession; we do not properly know what his will for them is. We do better if we take our place side by side with them, seeking to unite our faith with their faith, our thanksgiving with their thanksgiving, our grief with their grief. This is what is proper to those who are members together of one body: ‘if one member suffer, all the members suffer with it; and if one member is honoured, all the members rejoice with it’. For putting this into effect, there is nothing so good as the recitation of the psalms.
Here we have the meaning of prayer ‘through Jesus Christ our Lord’; it is the prayer of the members of his body. That means that we have got to see the psalms as really Christ’s psalms, so that they find their true meaning as expressions of the prayer which Christ prays and of his purpose for souls. Of course it is true that the psalms are imperfect — at some points very imperfect — as expressions of the mind of Christ. But he accepted them, as he accepted the messianic prophecies, as imperfect forms into which he puts his own fuller meaning.
So, for instance, a psalmist sometimes prays for the wholesale destruction of his enemies; but did he understand who his enemies, and God’s enemies, really were? Perhaps he thought that if certain bad characters, X and Y, were to become degraded and disgraced, all would be well; perhaps he did not see that if these nasty people were put out of the way, there would remain the problem of himself and his own temperament. If so, the answer to his difficulties which that psalmist hoped for would have been no final answer. But all is different when our Lord takes over the psalms. ‘He knew what was in man’; and his purpose with men rests on the truth about them. Therefore, while the psalmist was right in seeking God’s help in his trouble, but erred in not fully understanding what his trouble was, his psalm when prayed as the prayer of Christ escapes from all these limitations. If that psalmist could have seen the full meaning of what he was asking for when he prayed for God’s victory over his enemies, he would have known that he was praying for that divine victory over all sin and evil which was actually accomplished in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Thus the daily offices, being almost wholly composed of scriptural material, can only be rightly understood when we rightly understand Scripture. Or is it not rather the other way round? We do not rightly understand Scripture unless we use it in the way in which the office uses it — to renew in ourselves the memory of God’s mighty works in history, to gain light on our contemporary life in the Church, and to exercise ourselves in the rhythm of the Church’s prayer. The books of the Bible were written within, and for, the Israel of God; they were written within the tradition of the believing and worshipping community; and they are called ‘canonical’ because they are the standard and normative forms of that tradition. When therefore we take part in the daily offices of the church, we are going back to steep ourselves in that tradition of faith and worship and way of life, as it is set forth in the Scriptures.
An address given to the Anglican Fellowship in Manchester University, January 30th, 1951, and first published in the S.S.M. Quarterly, March 1951.
Father A. Gabriel Hebert was a notable English divine of the mid-century, and an important figure in the search for a renewal of Christian culture in Europe.
Associated with the return from the Liberal Catholicism of the 1920’s to the “biblical orthodoxy” of the 1930’s (following the “Biblical Theology” movement of Karl Barth), he translated Bishop Gustaf Aulen’s highly influential, if flawed, little book, “Christus Victor: an historical study of the three main types of the idea of the Atonement”. He also was instrumental in mediating (for good and ill) the influence of the continental, Roman Catholic, “Liturgical movement”.
Two of his works in particular were found in almost every clerical library of the mid-century: “Liturgy and society” (1935), and a symposium he edited, “The Parish Communion” (1937). The latter promoted the practice of making the Eucharist the principal Sunday service. Unlike later Anglican exponents of the Liturgical Movement, Hebert sought to work within the Book of Common Prayer, rather than to replace it.