An Anthropologist’s Field Guide to Catholic Liturgy – Part 2, the Divine Office and the Liturgical Year

The Divine Office

As you may remember from Part 1, the Mass is essentially a ritual re-enactment of the Last Supper, the Crucifixion, and the Resurrection in a (very) condensed period of time.  The Divine Office, or Liturgy of the Hours, and the Liturgical Year also do this, but on slightly larger scales.  The Divine Office aligns this central story with the movement of the sun in one day, the Liturgical Year extends it over the course of (surprise…) a whole year, combined with other significant events such as Christmas and saints’ feast days.  These two cycles are interconnected; though the format of the Divine Office is stable, the content varies depending on the specific day of the Liturgical Year.

First, the Divine Office.

(note: times are approximate and vary between locations and traditions, i.e. Benedictine, Cisternian, Franciscan, etc.)

Night/Midnight/Pre-dawn – Matins

  • Also known as Vigils, Matins developed out of the night services of early Christianity.

6:00 am – Lauds / Morning

  • This Hour, which draws its name from its finishing psalms (148-150, the Laudate psalms), happens just after dawn.  Its timing with the sunrise corresponds with the Resurrection and brings to mind many divine light metaphors.

9:00 am – Terce

  • The first of the daytime hours, Terce is so named because it is the third hour after dawn.  Medieval liturgists connect this Hour with the time of Christ’s condemnation to death.

12:00 noon – Sext

  • The sixth hour after dawn, Sext is highly significant as the midpoint in the day and when the sun is at its highest.  In addition to an abundance of solar-powered metaphors, this Hour is connected to quite a variety of stories and imagery – most notably the time when Adam and Eve ate that forbidden apple and the time at which Jesus was nailed to the cross.

3:00 pm – None

  • The ninth hour after dawn and the third and last of the daytime hours, None corresponds with the death of Christ.  Various medieval liturgists wrote that it was the time at which the soul was most vulnerable to temptation, demons, and such.

6:00 pm – Vespers / Evening

  • Also known as Lucernalis or Lucernaria hora, early and medieval Vespers services included the lighting of many candles – which this anthropologist connects with the preservation of (divine) light as the sun sets.  The Anglican tradition of Evensong parallels this Hour.

9:00 pm – Compline / Night

  • This last Hour draws parallels between sleep, death, and night-time.  It always ends with a devotional to Mary.
Lauds, Vespers, and Compline, considered to be the Major Hours, follow this format:

Convenient chart from an extremely helpful leaflet.

Terce, Sext, and None, the Minor Hours, are far less elaborate, consisting only of an opening versicle, a hymn, three short psalms, a scripture/responsory, and a concluding prayer/verse.


This wonderful circular calendar sums up the Liturgical Year, and I’m not sure I need to expand more upon it here.  The little numbers on the middle ring correspond to Sundays.  If you’d like a more detailed theological explanation, click here.

The Liturgical Year

If you are so inclined, this website has all the different prayers/readings/hymns for every day of the Liturgical Year, complete with podcasts.

And yes, there’s even an app for it.

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