As already mentioned, at the time of our Lord, prayer was often attached to determined hours and places in daily life. In the New Testament, then, we find not only the precept “to pray,” but also a doctrine about the way to pray and a theology of prayer, especially when we consider the example and teaching of Jesus and his apostles, as well as the numerous fragments of Christological hymns that found their way into the writings of Saint Paul and other New Testament texts, as for example the famous, “Christ Jesus humbled himself, even to accepting death, death upon a cross,” of Philippians 2: 6-11 (see also Colossians 1:15-20, for example).
Pondering the entire New Testament, as we are encouraged to do in our Lectio Divina and participation in the Church’s liturgy, we find a theology of prayer. The New Testament witnesses understood and spoke of various elements that contributed to what developed into the Church’s Liturgy of the Hours, the Opus Dei. Let us look at six of these elements now.
1. First, the prayer of anamnesis. We have the English word amnesia, to forget. An-amnesia is to not forget, to recount, to call to mind, to remember something. In the present context, what is recounted or remembered are the saving deeds of Jesus Christ, for the life of the world. “Do this in remembrance of me,” Jesus said (Luke 22:19; 1 Corinthians 11:25-26).
This is a clear form of anamnesis, a call to respond with praise and thanksgiving for all God’s mighty deeds. This becomes the thrust of all Christian prayer, that is, to have in mind the Gospel message and to repeat the Lord’s deeds over and again, even daily, for our Christian life revolves around the ongoing recounting of all that God has done to save us. This is anamnesis.
2. The second prayer element to consider is that of unceasing prayer, to pray without ceasing, which has become a New Testament command, found in various passages, such as:
Luke 18:1, “Jesus told them a parable about the need to pray continually.”
Ephesians 6:18, “In all your prayer and entreaty keep praying in the Spirit on every possible occasion.”
Colossians 4:2, “Be persevering in your prayers and be thankful as you stay awake to pray.”
1 Thessalonians 5:17, “Pray constantly.”
3. A third element essential to Christian prayer is the prayer of vigilance. This is exemplified for us in Jesus’ teaching, “stay awake and pray” (Matthew 26:41), and in the words of our Lord, “pray at all times” (Luke 21:36) and “be persevering in your prayers,” from Saint Paul (Colossians 4:2). Luke 6:12 tells us, “Jesus spent the whole night in prayer to God.” Our Lord’s example of a life devoted to frequent prayer is really the model for all who wish to have a “life of prayer.”
4. Prayer at fixed hours is a fourth element of vital Christian prayer. The Hebrew practice of praying at precise hours or times–morning and evening for example–became an important tradition the early followers of Christ and their descendents adhered to. In later cathedral and monastic contexts, the pivotal hours of common prayer were Lauds in the morning and Vespers in the evening, which continue to the present in the Church. Expanding the notion of prayers at fixed hours of the day, the idea of “seven times a day I praise you,” as found in Psalm 118:164, was easily incorporated into the Church’s Liturgy of the Hours, providing for major hours and minors hours each day.
5. Prayer of psalmody is a fifth element or form of Christian prayer. Hebrew common prayer is largely taken from the Book of Psalms, and so too Christian prayer. The four Gospels and the letters of the New Testament are filled with references to the Psalms, so we know this book held pride of place for the early Christians. They interpreted the psalms most often in a Christological sense, as either spoken by Jesus, “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 21) uttered from the cross, or spoken to Christ, as for example in Psalm 90:12, “God’s angels shall bear you upon their hands, lest you strike your foot against a stone” (see Matthew 4:5).
The Book of Psalms is another heritage from our Hebrew ancestors who knew how to pray and praise the God of Israel. The 150 Psalms have always been the principal texts for the Catholic Church’s Liturgy of the Hours, and as essentially songs of praise, they give to the Opus Dei a character of praise as well as of thanksgiving, intercession and adoration.
6. God as light, the sixth form of Christian prayer, derives from an image of God and salvation connected to the sun and light. Both pre-Jewish and Jewish antiquity recognized the powerful image of the sun and daylight. Pagans worshiped the sun, whereas Jews and later on Christians, saw the sun and light as good images for describing God and his mighty deeds. In the New Testament literature, especially the Gospel accounts and the letters of John, as well as the Church’s post-Apostolic literature, that is the patristic tradition, as well as the Church’s liturgy, we find “God is light,” and “Christ is light,” apt terms for expressing realities about the Holy Trinity, source of all being and life.
These notions have been readily incorporated into the Church’s worship at Mass and at the Liturgy of the Hours. Think of the Easter Vigil when the Paschal candle is lit and the chant rings out: “Christ our Light.” Or at the canonical hour of Vigils when we begin in the dark waiting for the dawning of the new day, or at Lauds when we praise our God who is “the rising sun” or the “dawn from on high” who “will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death” (Luke 1:78). Clearly we are to see in light a fitting image of the gift of salvation from God.
At Vespers each day we gather as the sun is setting, and raise our voices in praise “like an evening sacrifice,” to the God who has been our light up to that moment. We often use incense at Vespers as well, to symbolize our prayers ascending as the day is coming to a close. Finally, at Compline, prayed as darkness sets in or it is already dark, we pray for God to guide and guard us as we retire for the night: “May your holy angels dwell here and keep us in peace,” we pray at Compline. The little hours of Terce, Sext and None reflect the ever-changing placement of the sun, which we associate with the saving deeds of Christ: his betrayal, his crucifixion, his death on the cross, associated with mid-morning, midday and mid-afternoon.
The just-described six approaches, elements or forms of prayer that Christians have incorporated into the Opus Dei, all contribute powerfully to the public celebration of our life in Christ. Our Christian existence, our spiritual lives, are built up and sustained by our public worship of God. The Church and each of her members, who comprise the Mystical Body of Christ on earth, are linked to the eternal priestly prayer of Christ her Head. The Church is a true participant in the saving work of Christ.
If our true identity as baptized people, as Church, is to be the Body of Christ, and if Christ, eternally present in his Church, is an eternal hymn of praise before God’s throne in heaven, then our vocation consists in entering into Christ’s saving work and living that same life of praise that Christ lives. This is the vocation of the “praying Church,” to be united to Christ, the Head of the Body.
When considering the Opus Dei it is good to remember that the entire day is the basic structure upon which is built the theology and spirituality of the Divine Office. It is not an individual hour but the entire day, which is the basis of the Liturgy of the Hours. Within the structure of the day we recognize the various hours; namely, pre-dawn, dawn, mid-morning, midday, mid-afternoon, sunset, night. Each of these periods or hours is associated with a specific office: Vigils, Lauds, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, Compline. The day is not a simple adding up of the hours, but the hours are a division or part of the larger entity, the day, dedicated to God. And of course this gets extended to days becoming weeks, and weeks becoming the Liturgical Year.
Day and night, light and darkness compose what might be called a symphony of sanctified time, for it is all given over to God when consecrated in the various liturgical hours of each day. Of course the Holy Eucharist is the source and summit of our daily praise, and completely complements and fills out, so to speak, the offices we gather to pray each day outside the Eucharist.
In the history of the Divine Office, initially the morning and evening praise of God, along with the Holy Eucharist, were the principal means by which the Church celebrated as community her liturgy of remembering (anamnesis), expressed in praise and thanksgiving, in unceasing prayer. The morning and evening times probably initially had no mystical significance, but they were the beginning and the end of the day, so naturally were seen as symbolic moments, associated with beginning and end, birth and death, in the lives of Christians, to help add quality to their day. Later, the hours of morning and evening were seen as sacramentals, of the mystery of Christ, or perhaps better put, time was sanctified by gathering at these two pivotal moments–morning and nightfall–in the lives of believers.
The rhythm of day and night, light and darkness is perceived by the Christian as a structure worthy of being sanctified, made holy, since it is given over to God. Time is even “transfigured” by the ritual action of the praying community, in the course of the day, week and liturgical season being celebrated. Hence, it is only fitting to pray Lauds closer to daybreak than at noon, and having Vespers at nightfall rather than at mid-afternoon.
In the liturgical mystery we celebrate all of creation becoming part of God’s saving work, what Saint Paul refers to as all things being “gathered up in Christ” (Ephesians 1:10). For a Christian, everything, including the times of morning and evening, day and night, the sun rising and setting, can be a means of communion with God. “The heavens proclaim the glory of God and the firmament shows forth the work of his hands. Day unto day takes up the story and night unto night makes known the message,” as Psalm 18:2-3 puts it.
As already stated, a fundamental symbol in the liturgy of the Church is light, both from the sun and from fire. We find this too in Old Testament ritual, and certainly earlier as well, in pre-biblical cultures. Christians easily applied the notion of light to the Lord, Jesus Christ, as light of the world, who offers light “to those who sit in darkness” (Luke 1:79). That is to say, Christ bestows the gift of salvation, which can be called “the light that never fades,” or “the unending day.”
Light is a constant theme, as earlier pointed out, in the New Testament, particularly the Johannine writings. The Gospel of John, the Epistles of John, and the Book of Revelation all take up the theme of light. Early Christian worshipers turned to the east for prayer, and many still do, to face in the direction from whence comes the sun. This practice attests to the importance of seeing Christ as our origin and as the “sun of righteousness, with healing in his wings,” as the Prophet Malachi proclaims. Our risen Lord is the light of the world, and Christian scriptures and Tradition bears witness to this.
The Benedictus, the canticle of Zachariah that we chant each morning at Lauds, states that those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death will be visited by the sun which rises on high, giving light and guiding our feet into the way of peace (see Luke 1:78-79).
At Vespers, when the sun is setting or already set, the hour of lighting lamps, Christians are to think of the lamp and its light–most often for us with the use of candles–as symbols of Christ, light of the world and of the heavenly city where there is no darkness but only light. Candles are carried on the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, with the same symbolism: Christ is our light who leads our way.