In this year’s Advent and Christmas seasons I saw more clearly the coming of Jesus into every part of the new liturgical year than I had before.(1) The divine office helps me appreciate this truth — Jesus is the liturgical year.
As Genesis points to what comes later in the Bible, the first two liturgical seasons (Advent and Christmas) give birth to what follows in the year.
Advent and Christmas are the source of the year’s spiritual power.
The mention of Advent and Christmas’ spiritual power brings to mind the spiritual power of monasteries because the Pope said that monasteries are places of spiritual power (2).
Monasteries sing the divine office and it is not surprising that the daily divine office prayed and sung by monks, nuns, and sisters (and oblates) also contains elements from Advent and Christmas to give each day its structure — and its spiritual power.
A liturgical day in the divine office contains the Benedictus (Luke 1:68-79), the Magnificat (Canticle of Mary) (Luke 1:46-55), and Nunc dimittis (Luke 2:29-32).
These three great canticles (songs) are also known as the Evangelical Canticles because they all come from the Gospel (Evangelium) of St. Luke.
Morning: The Benedictus is part of Lauds (morning prayer).
Evening: The Magnificat is part of Vespers (evening prayer).
Night: The Nunc Dimittis is part of Compline (completion of the day and entry into the great silence).
And the Benedictus, the Magnificat, and Nunc dimittis are also associated with Advent and the traditional Christmas seasons.
The Benedictus (from its first word) is the song of prophesy and thanksgiving by Zechariah (father of John the Baptist).(3) The Benedictus rejoices in the coming of the Messiah. According to a reference in the Catholic Encyclopedia, St. Benedict, author of the famous Rule for monasteries is thought to have been the first to add the Benedictus to the daily divine office.
The Magnificat (from its first word) is the song of Mary and is part of Vespers. The Magnificat contains many phrases from the Old Testament in praise of God’s mercy and, of course, the fulfillment of the promises to Abraham: it is the “last canticle of the Old and first of the New Testament.”(4)
Nunc dimittis (from its first words)(5) is historically the last the three songs — because it was the song by Simeon in the Temple at the Presentation of the Lord ("Now thou dost dismiss thy servant, O Lord") — celebrated on February 2. Traditionally this time is also known as Candlemas because of the blessing of candles associated with the Purification of the Blessed Virgin.(6)
St. Benedict did not create Compline, but St. Benedict is thought to have given Compline its liturgical nature. However, St. Benedict did not include Nunc dimittis in his Compline and it was the Roman Rite that completed the trio of canticles by adding Nunc dimittis to Compline.
The liturgical year is born in Advent and Christmas, but in each day of praying the divine office we receive the present of the first seasons' most beautiful songs.
Simeon (Luke 2:29-32) had been told that he would not see death until he saw the Christ of the Lord. At the end of our day in Compline we may still hope our eternal rest comes with the same gift God granted to Simeon.
(1) I wrote blogs here, here, and here on Advent and Christmas.
(2) Pope Benedict XVI in 2007 at an Austrian abbey:
“And I ask you, dear members of the faithful: see your abbeys and monasteries for what they are and always wish to be: not mere strongholds of culture and tradition, or even simple business enterprises. Structure, organization and finances are necessary in the Church too, but they are not what is essential. A monastery is above all this: a place of spiritual power. Coming to one of your monasteries here in Austria, we have the same impression as when, after a strenuous hike in the Alps, we finally find refreshment at a clear mountain spring… Take advantage of these springs of God’s closeness in your country; treasure the religious communities, the monasteries and abbeys; and make use of the spiritual service that consecrated person are willing to offer you!” Source
(3) Benedictus (Luke 1:68-79)
"Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, for he has visited and brought redemption to his people. He has raised up a horn for our salvation within the house of David his servant, even as he promised through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old: salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us, to show mercy to our fathers and to be mindful of his holy covenant and of the oath he swore to Abraham our father, and to grant us that, rescued from the hand of enemies, without fear we might worship him in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. And you, child, will be called prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give his people knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God by which the daybreak from on high will visit us to shine on those who sit in darkness and death's shadow, to guide our feet into the path of peace."
(4) Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55)
"My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my savior. For he has looked upon his handmaid's lowliness; behold, from now on will all ages call me blessed. The Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is from age to age to those who fear him. He has shown might with his arm, dispersed the arrogant of mind and heart. He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones but lifted up the lowly. The hungry he has filled with good things; the rich he has sent away empty. He has helped Israel his servant, remembering his mercy, according to his promise to our fathers, to Abraham and to his descendants forever."
(5) Nunc Dimittis (Luke 2:29-32)
“Now, Master, you may let your servant go in peace, according to your word, for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you prepared in sight of all the peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and glory for your people Israel."
(6) "Until 1969, the ancient feast of the presentation of Our Lord, which is of Oriental origin, was known in the West as the feast of the Purification of Our Lady, and closed the Christmas season, forty days after the Lord's birth. This feast has for long been associated with many popular devotional exercises." Source Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy — Principles and Guidelines — Vatican City — December 2001
“Forty days after the birth of Christ Mary complied with this precept of the law, she redeemed her first-born from the temple (Numbers 18:15), and was purified by the prayer of Simeon the just, in the presence of Anna the prophetess (Luke 2:22 et seq.)” Source
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