The Divine Praises
Our life of prayer most properly should be based on the traditional, formal order of the Church. Praying without ceasing (please refer to I Thessalonians 5:17) is an ongoing goal of faith, and one way it is attempted is through the formal “office” or Divine Praises of the Church:
Vespers (evening prayer, before supper)
Compline (night prayer, before sleep)
Midnight Office (for those who find comfort praying during the night)
Matins (morning prayer, upon rising)
First and Third Hours (small hours between Matins & Divine Liturgy)
Sixth Hour (mid-day prayer) & Ninth Hour (before Vespers).
The liturgical day begins with the praying of Vespers. Vespers is celebrated in the evening as the calendar day draws to a close. In monasteries it is prayed before supper time. Since darkness existed before light according to God’s creation, the beginning of darkness each evening marks the beginning of a new day. This service suitably gives thanks for the gifts received the previous day, and sings praise to Christ Who enlightens everyone who comes into the world. The central psalmody of Vespers includes Psalms 140, 141, 129, and 116. On feasts we hear at least three scriptural readings, usually from the Old Testament. On greater feasts, we bless bread, wheat, wine, and oil and ask God to sustain us in spiritual vigilance. On some greater feasts, Vespers is followed immediately by Matins and an “all-night vigil” is observed. The bread, wine, and oil are received for sustenance on these occasions.
While proper vigilance for the Second Coming of Christ includes a loving mindfulness of others, this mindfulness cannot be fully Christian without a life of fasting and prayer. Vigilance in prayer is commonly expressed in our tradition by praying during the dark of night. The Liturgical Service of Compline is usually served before retiring to sleep. It is the official night prayer of the Church. Outside of monasteries it is usually a private prayer said at home.
Great Compline, however, is more common in parishes and is served at the Vigils for the Feasts of the Nativity and Theophany, and on weekday nights of the Great Fast. Compline gives us an opportunity to glorify our Creator before we lie down to sleep. We thank Him for his blessings and ask his forgiveness. Night Psalms include 4, 51(50), 70(69), and 143(142).
The Midnight Office:
When it is possible for us to rise in the middle of the night for prayer, or perhaps unable to sleep so that we turn to prayer, we are able to enter into a long tradition. We find this witnessed to both in the Old Testament by the prophet David and in the New Testament, particularly in the jail where Paul and Silas prayed to God at midnight (Acts 16:25). This time of prayer has a particular grace, for while everything is silent and at rest, the soul that loves God rises from sleep and praises God. While fairly common in monasteries, the Midnight Office is rarely prayed in parishes, except for immediately before Paschal Matins, the remnant of which is our singing of “When you descended.”
Matins is the official morning prayer of the Church. It is perhaps the most beautiful service in the Byzantine rite, as well as the most complex. Due to the latter, it is often neglected at the parish level although the bishops of the Church have called for its restoration. Its neglect is unfortunate as this service together with the Vespers serve as the main teaching agent in the truths of our faith. To disassociate them from the Divine Liturgy is to do a disservice to the Divine Liturgy as Vespers and Matins are fitting preparations for Divine Liturgy, and as a day with Divine Liturgy would traditionally not exclude the praying of Vespers and Matins.
The central matins hymn is the Canon. This is made up of a series of eight poetic odes. In the parish usually only a selection of the odes is sung. On Sundays and Holydays when “Festal Matins” is served, a gospel reading is included. After the reading, all the faithful come forward to venerate the gospel book along with the icon that lie on the tetrapod.
Because it is the central service of the liturgical day, many of our other church “paraliturgical” services are a development or adaptation of Matins – Paraklis (office of prayer seeking the consolation of the Theotokos), Moleben, and the Funeral service itself (e.g. Parastas) for example. Matins is a service that customarily begins in the dark of morning. At dawn the believer then approaches God with praises, thanksgiving, and petitions, seeking His blessing for the new day – this new day being the expression of God’s abundant love towards us and all creation. Common morning Psalms are 51(50), 148, 149, 150.
What do we mean by “Hours?” Is this a service that lasts several hours? Is it connected to the “holy hour” we hear about often, especially in the Western Church? “Hours” refers to brief liturgical prayers, usually lasting 15 to 30 minutes, which constitute the formal prayer of the Church during secular “business hours.”
The First Hour is a traditional name for 7:00 am. It is called the “First Hour” as referenced by the amount of time from sunrise. The First Hour is historically one of the last offices to be added to the liturgical day and often is prayed immediately after Matins.
The Third Hour refers to 9:00 am. At this hour, the Church thanks the Heavenly Father for the very rich gift He gave when (at the 3rd hour) the Holy Spirit came upon the Apostles (Acts 2:16). As we share with all the faithful this invaluable gift, we thank God and ask Him never to deprive us of the fruits & graces of the Holy Spirit.
At noon or the Sixth Hour we, more than at other times, should join in prayer with the Church, for every soul, delivered by Jesus, ought to have a sense of awe and gratitude. At this hour the divine drama of our Lord’s crucifixion began.
At the Ninth Hour or around 3 pm civil time, the drama of our Lord’s sacrifice on the Cross ended as He gave up his Spirit. He had promised his Kingdom to the repentant thief and we pray that we receive the same inheritance. While these “small hours” relate to very particular times of the day, they can be scheduled at other times as well. The “Midday Lenten Office” that we pray on occasion replaces the 3rd and 6th Hours.
The Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts is the fulfillment of God's promise of manna during our forty-day wandering through the desert of the Great Fast. As the Holy Apostle and Evangelist John the Theologian wrote (John 6:32), ASo Jesus said to them, "Amen, amen, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave bread from heaven; my Father gives you the true bread from heaven." The strengthening and perfectly nourishing gifts of the Eucharist are offered at the Presanctified Liturgy, one of the most beautiful and unique liturgical expressions of our Byzantine Church.
The Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts is composed of three clearly distinguishable parts: Vespers; Liturgy of the Word; and Holy Communion. As the name suggests, the Eucharistic Gifts are presanctified or consecrated beforehand, usually at the preceding Sunday’s Divine Liturgy. This means that there is no Anaphora (i.e. Great Eucharistic Prayer of Offering), but Holy Communion is distributed in the form of consecrated bread placed in ordinary wine.
The Divine Liturgy is known by many names – sacrifice, sanctification, mysteries, offering, oblation, Eucharist or thanksgiving, and breaking of the bread. As it is a mystical celebration “outside time,” it is properly not considered part of the Divine Praises. The Divine Liturgy contains two parts – one centered on the Word of God and the second on the eucharistic rite of the Body and Blood of Christ. The Divine Liturgy is a commemoration of the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ that took place in a particular time, now present in a mystical way. It is one action that is, at the same time, both symbol and reality. It is a true sacrifice whose mystery has been revealed and is expressible without being fully understood. When the bread and wine are placed on the holy table and consecrated, Christ is truly among us in his Body and Blood. We are forged together as Church in a sanctifying action which frees us from sin and fills us with the Spirit. In partaking of the Eucharist we are made one body and one flesh with Christ. By the working of the Holy Spirit, our offering of praise becomes the one sacrifice pleasing to God.
A Rule of Prayer is a routine of prayer followed by faithful Christians on a daily basis. Ideally our daily routine of prayer should mix both public prayer (at our parish and/or with our family) and private prayer, and should be based on the liturgical tradition of the Byzantine Church.
In the Byzantine Tradition, prayers for each day are based on praying the Psalms, so this book of Sacred Scripture becomes one of the best “prayer books” we can own. We should grow accustomed to praying psalmody each day.
For those who are not monastic, finding one particular time during the day that is set aside to be with God is quite adequate. During this time we can pray the psalms, read scripture, maintain stillness and quiet, and/or offer any other prayers to which we have grown accustomed. Your church narthex (vestibule) information center has booklets for you to take and keep that can be most useful for the time we give to God each day.
Depending on what time of day works best for us, the following guide may help us if we still wish to develop a stronger daily prayer routine:
Begin: 3 signs of the cross saying each time “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”
Customary Beginning Prayers: or simply pray “Heavenly King” & “Our Father.”
Psalmody appropriate to the season, day, or time.
Hymnody: “Rejoice O Virgin” (i.e. the Hail Mary), “O Joyful Light,” or others.
Readings: Choose at least one for the day from your wall calendar.
Petitions: Offer your own or simply pray “Lord, have mercy” 40 times or repeat the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus
Christ, Son of God, have mercy (up)on me, a sinner.”
Prayer: best if taken from official Byzantine sources (a great book for these types of prayers is An Anthology of Patristic Prayers).
Finally: pray the “Saint Ephrem Prayer” in conclusion if a weekday of the Fast.