Entering the Mystery of the Incarnation: Matins

book_of_hoursIn my inaugural post yesterday, my goal was to provide a comprehensive surface-level introduction to the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary, to share some thoughts on why I love this unique and venerable form of the Divine Office, and why you might want to consider giving it a try.

Today, I just want to share a reflection on the first of three morning hours of the Office: Matins, or the midnight vigil.

Unlike traditional monastic practice, I don’t get up at midnight or 3 a.m. to pray the vigil. I just pray it as the first hour of the morning. I aim for 5:30 a.m. or so.

Here are some unique things I really appreciate about Matins:

  • It is the only hour that opens with the responsory, “V. O Lord, Thou shalt open my lips. R. And my mouth shall declare thy praise.” (from Psalm 50) This puts the entire Office and the day in the context of God’s sovereign grace. I’m not the one doing any favors here. God is the one who gave me the grace to live another day, to open my mouth, and to praise Him.
  • The Invitatory Psalm, Ps. 94 (“O Come let us exult in the Lord; let us rejoice before God our Savior. Let us come into His presence with thanksgiving, and rejoice before Him with psalms…“) is one of my favorites, and is the exact attitude with which we should start each day. It also reinforces continuity with the full offices of both the Ordinary and the Extraordinary Forms of the Roman Rite, which share the ancient and venerable tradition of the same invitatory psalm (although the reformed rite added a few alternative options as well).
  • Its hymn, Quem terra, pontus, sidera, is my personal favorite of the four hymns of the Little Office. It was originally composed in the 500s by Venantius Fortunatus, Bishop of Poitiers, and changed slightly by Pope Urban VIII in 1632 to better fit classical Latin meter. This is the melody I use to chant it. Its first few lines (translated by J.M. Neale) should give you an idea of the theme for the entire hour:

“The God whom earth, and sea, and sky
adore, and laud, and magnify,
who o’er their threefold fabric reigns,
the Virgin’s spotless womb contains.”

  • Matins is the only hour in the Little Office whose psalms vary from day to day. The other hours’ psalmody does not vary at all—though what they may lack in breadth, they more than make up for in depth. But it is nice to have one hour where the psalms vary based on the weekday. Since it’s the first hour of the morning, it also gives the rest of the day a unique “flavor.”
  • It has three short Scripture readings, which together cover Ecclesiasticus 24:11-13, 15-20, one of the most beautiful and powerful prefigurations of the Blessed Virgin in the Old Testament:

    “. . . and in all these I sought rest, and I shall abide in the inheritance of the Lord. Then the creator of all things commanded, and said to me: and he that made me, rested in my tabernacle, And he said to me: Let thy dwelling be in Jacob, and thy inheritance in Israel, and take root in my elect. . . . 

    “And so was I established in Sion, and in the holy city likewise I rested, and my power was in Jerusalem. And I took root in an honourable people, and in the portion of my God his inheritance, and my abode is in the full assembly of saints. I was exalted like a cedar in Libanus, and as a cypress tree on mount Sion. I was exalted like a palm tree in Cades, and as a rose plant in Jericho: As a fair olive tree in the plains, and as a plane tree by the water in the streets, was I exalted. I gave a sweet smell like cinnamon, and aromatical balm: I yielded a sweet odour like the best myrrh”

    The rest of the hours’ single scripture readings largely repeat portions of the above, so Matins really “sets the stage” for the Scriptural theme of the entire Little Office.

  • On most days (except during Advent and Lent), you get to recite or chant the Te Deum, also known apocryphally as “The Hymn of Ss. Ambrose and Augustine.” You might also know it by its famous English paraphrased hymn, “Holy God, We Praise Thy Name.”

As a final personal point, I have found Matins to be the most intimate time spent with God and His Mother. It’s dark, and the rest of my family is asleep. Except for the (quietly) chanted hymn, I whisper the entire hour—partly to not wake anyone up, partly because I’m usually not awake enough to chant or be too loud anyway, and also just because it feels best suited to the time of day and the character of the hour.

And in the dim near-silence, I join with the Church in entering every day anew into the greatest mystery: the incarnation of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ of His spotless virgin Mother—your Mother and mine.

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