As Christians, we are not “under the law” (Gal 5:18; Rom 6: 15). That means that we do not do something simply because the Law of Moses says that we must. Because we do not belong to the old covenant people, we are not obligated to follow the old covenant law as such. But the old covenant law is not simply useless for Christians. It was given for our instruction as well (II Tm 3:16). We do not go to Jerusalem to offer lambs and bulls in the temple, but we have been “built into a spiritual house [temple], to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (I Pt 2:5). The old covenant law, properly interpreted, was intended to apply to new covenant life.
Some of what the Old Testament teaches we do because God instructed old covenant people how to live in a godly way that was in accordance with the way he made human beings. Having some pattern of prayer is in this category. If human beings are going to be godly, if they are going to give their lives to the Lord, they need some regular pattern of prayer.
Some of what we do, we do because the pattern in the old covenant has been fulfilled in Christ. We can understand how Christians should follow the Old Testament from the New Testament and patristic teaching about how old covenant realities are fulfilled in Christ. Celebrating Sunday as the day of the Resurrection is one example. Christians do not keep the Sabbath (the seventh day or Saturday), unless perhaps they are Jewish Christians who believe that they should fulfill both the old and new covenant approaches to the Sabbath because they belong to both covenants. Rather, Christians observe the Sabbath commandment in a new covenant way by keeping the first day of the week, the day of the resurrection, as the “Lord’s Day” (Rv 1: 10).
We can see the full Christian pattern through Christian tradition, which shows us how the early Christians lived out what was taught in the Old Testament. They “Christianized” what the Jews did, bringing out the significance of the coming of Christ and eliminating elements that were not helpful for new covenant people. The Catechism of the Catholic Church gives us a summary in section 2698 of what the tradition of the Church has discerned to be the core of a pattern of Christian prayer.
The Tradition of the Church proposes to the faithful certain rhythms of praying intended to nourish continual prayer.
Some are daily, such as
– morning and evening prayer,
– grace before and after meals,
– the Liturgy of the Hours.
– Sundays, centered on the Eucharist, are kept holy primarily by prayer.
– The cycle of the liturgical year and its great feasts are also basic rhythms of the Christian’s life of prayer.
The focus is prayer, relationship with God regularly expressed by turning to Him to honor or worship Him and seek His help. Daily prayer is important for maintaining a living relationship with God. The beginning of the day and the end of the day are natural times for godly human beings to expressly honor their Creator and dedicate their day to him. They were the main daily old covenant times of prayer. Meal times are, as well, because meals sustain life and our sustenance comes from God.
As the above section from the Catechism indicates, the “Tradition of the Church” shows that new covenant Christianity follows the same daily pattern as the Jews did. As the above section of the Catechism also indicates, the Liturgy of the Hours gives us a Christian way of prayer that either includes morning and evening prayer or is additional, depending on our approach to using it.
The Liturgy of the Hours
The Liturgy of the Hours, sometimes called the Divine Office, is the term the Catechism of the Catholic Church uses for “the prayer of the Church” and also is the name for the “prayer book” for Catholics of the Latin rite. Other rites have similar prayer books that could also be called “The Liturgy of the Hours”, although they usually go by different names. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says in section 1174:
The mystery of Christ, his Incarnation and Passover, which we celebrate in the Eucharist especially at the Sunday assembly, permeates and transfigures the time of each day, through the celebration of the Liturgy of the Hours, “the divine office” [see SC, ch. IV, 83-101]. This celebration, faithful to the apostolic exhortations to “pray constantly,” is “so devised that the whole course of the day and night is made holy by the praise of God” [SC 84; I Th 5:17; Eph 6:18].
The Liturgy of the Hours is a collection of “prayer times”. The two main daily ones are morning prayer and evening prayer, the same two times of prayer as in the temple service. These are scipturally based services or “offices” of praise, worship, and prayer, with Scripture readings. There are in addition shorter hours of prayer that can be used, as well as an “Office of Readings”. The Office of Readings is a Christian meditation service that centers on reading the Scripture in a way that allows God to speak to us and build us up through a yearly or two-year approach to the main Scripture texts with commentaries that are mostly drawn from the Fathers.
The Liturgy of the Hours is intended to be the main prayer for Catholics. Sometimes we have the impression that Catholics are mainly supposed to pray the Rosary or other devotions for their prayer life. Although many find such devotions helpful, the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the other Catholic instructions since the Vatican Council primarily recommend the Liturgy of the Hours (or at least the main parts of it), not the special devotions. As the Catechism puts it (1175):
The Liturgy of the Hours is intended to become the prayer of the whole People of God. In it Christ himself “continues His priestly work through his Church” [SC 83]. His members participate according to their own place in the Church and the circumstances of their lives: priests devoted to the pastoral ministry, because they are called to remain diligent in prayer and the service of the word; religious, by the charism of their consecrated lives; all the faithful as much as possible.
It is, in other words, intended to be the prayer of the laity as well as clergy and religious, although the circumstances of life for most of the laity mean that they will only be able to pray a limited amount of it.
Sunday – Dies Domini
The main weekly time for communal prayer, the assembly of the whole community for liturgical worship, is Sunday. This is the Lord’s Day, the day that belongs to Him and that should be set aside for His honor as a holy day. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it (1167):
Sunday is the preeminent day for the liturgical assembly, when the faithful gather “to listen to the word of God and take part in the Eucharist, thus calling to mind the Passion, Resurrection, and glory of the Lord Jesus, and giving thanks to God who “has begotten them again, by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead unto a living hope”. (SC 106)
The fact that Sunday is the main time for the Eucharist tells us some important truths about the Eucharist that have not appeared clearly so far.
Many Catholics take what has been called a “devotional approach” to the Eucharist, that is, an approach that is primarily shaped by what they find helpful for personal devotion. They center on Eucharistic devotions or daily Mass to make the Eucharist a personally important part of their life. Although daily Mass and Eucharistic devotions can be helpful, the devotional approach is an incomplete approach to the Eucharist. As the Catechism indicates, the primary way to participate in the Eucharist is to participate in the Sunday liturgical assembly, and that fact helps us to see the Eucharist in a clearer light.
The Eucharist is first of all intended to be corporate. It is the worship of the Body of Christ. As Paul put it, one bread makes one body (see I Cor 10:17). Paul was talking about the bread partaken together, and was teaching that when a group of Christians partake of the one loaf of Eucharistic bread they are strengthened in their life as one body. The instructions he gives for the Eucharist are instructions for the assembly of the local church (I Cor 11:17).
The local Christian assembly is not mainly a service for the more devout to attend. It is a service for all Christians in one locality or at least some sub-section of them that makes up an ordinary local community. It is intended to be the service that unites them and strengthens them as a Body of Christ. While the Catholic Church provides for more frequent Eucharistic services, the emphasis still is, and always has been, on the Sunday liturgy (and secondarily on special feast day liturgies) for the local community assembled together. It is no accident that one of the main traditional words for the Eucharist is synaxis, a Greek word meaning “gathering” or assembly (CCC 1329; see also 1348).
Second, the Eucharist is a celebration, in the sense of a special event to honor the Lord, not in the sense of a party. The Eucharist should be solemn and can be mournful at times, for instance, during a funeral. When in ordinary society we “celebrate” something like a wedding, a graduation, the installation of a president, or the crowning of a king or queen, we do it in such a way that we express the importance and meaning of the event being celebrated. A graduation ceremony may take place in uncomfortably hot weather, be somewhat boring, and overall not be a pleasant event. It is, however, a celebration because it brings to expression the importance of something in human life so that we all together appreciate what has happened and honor it.
In the case of the Eucharist, we are celebrating the death and resurrection of Christ, the event by which we are saved. Every Eucharist does that and, according to Catholic teaching, the Eucharist is the main way to do that. If we are sick, sad, mentally distracted by the difficulties of life, we can still celebrate the death and resurrection of Christ and do so in a fitting way. We should not make the mistake of confusing how well we are celebrating with how positively we have experienced the celebration.
The Eucharist is also intended to strengthen our spiritual life, to nourish us spiritually. Again we do not have to experience its strengthening us in order for it to strengthen us. It is, in this, like regular food. We may have a meal of beans and rice that is relatively unappetizing and that may not be a high point of our day. If, however, it contains the right nutrients, it will strengthen us regardless of how much we appreciate it. We need to be in spiritual health in order to benefit from partaking of the Eucharist, just as we need to be in bodily health to benefit from our meals. But fundamentally, the strengthening we receive from physical or spiritual food is independent of our subjective appreciation.
To be sure, there are other ways of sustaining our life in Christ. Many of them we can do alone, or at least apart from liturgical events. If we look at the early Church and the whole tradition of the Catholic Church, we would have to say that the main ordinary way of strengthening the new covenant life in us has been partaking of the table of the Lord’s Word, the Scripture. While we do so during the Sunday assembly, we can also do so on our own throughout the day. Personal meditation on and study of Scripture has been a central part of Christian prayer life through the centuries.
Sharing with other Christians can also be a source of strengthening. When, for instance, we have discussed how to grow in the Lord at our “review of life” meeting or our group reunion or our Bible study or our men’s or women’s sharing group, we have been strengthened not just by what we have done humanly to encourage and help one another but by the special presence of the Lord “where two or three are gathered in my name” (Mt 18:20). He speaks to us and strengthens us through one another.
Prayer itself, with others or individually, can also be a source of strengthening. When we come into the Lord’s presence, He Himself speaks to us and strengthens us directly, not necessarily using any visible means of grace. In short, there are many ways we can be strengthened in our life in Christ.
The Eucharist as sacrament, however, is not one means among many for strengthening our life in Christ. It is the chief one. We cannot understand such a truth by seeing the Eucharist as one prayer practice among many, just more important or efficacious than the others. It is a special event, the time when a local body of Christians comes together to solemnly celebrate the death and resurrection of Christ, to offer the sacrifice of His death and resurrection, and to have the benefits of that sacrifice renewed in them.
It is therefore more important for the Eucharist to be celebrated worthily than to be celebrated frequently. A “quickie Mass”, so that we might get it in today, is not the kind of celebration that expresses the significance of the Eucharist. The Body and Blood of Christ should be received with interior worship and spiritual readiness, not just with frequency. Participation in the Eucharist that is in accord with the nature and importance of the Eucharist fosters its spiritual effectiveness. It is because the Eucharist should primarily be a solemn, corporate celebration that the tradition of the Church has established the Sunday liturgy as the main way of celebrating the Eucharist (CCC 1167), and that the modern Catholic Church has sought to renew the Sunday celebration.
The Liturgical Year
Finally, “the cycle of the liturgical year and its great feasts are also basic rhythms of the Christian’s life of prayer”. The great feasts are Easter and Pentecost, Christmas and Epiphany. Of these the greatest is Easter, the Christian Passover, which is celebrated for a week and then for a week of weeks ending with Pentecost (the Fifty Days). Easter is the greatest feast because it is the yearly celebration of the death and resurrection of the Lord (CCC 1169). Pentecost is the conclusion of the Easter season, because it celebrates the giving of the Holy Spirit, the blessing that comes to us through the death and resurrection of the Lord. These are old covenant feasts now fulfilled in Christ. We await the new covenant celebration of Tabernacles, which will only be fulfilled when Christ comes again.
Christmas and Epiphany (“the twelve days of Christmas”) come second. They are feasts designed to celebrate the Incarnation of Christ, his manifestation (“epiphany”) in our world to save us. Even though they are now more popular feasts, they should not, in principle, be more important than the yearly celebration of the foundational Christian mystery, the death and resurrection of Christ.
There is, then, a yearly cycle for Christians, observed by Catholics and Orthodox and by many Protestants. Each year in the chief feasts we celebrate the main Christian truths and renew our appreciation of them. The greatest feasts are prepared for by “times of seeking the Lord”, the “fasts” of Lent (the “Forty Days,” which prepare for the Fifty Days of Easter and Pentecost) and Advent (which prepares for Christmas and Epiphany).
Properly kept, the great feasts and the festal seasons connected to them mark our year by focusing us on the most central truths of what God has done for us. Observing them is a means of strengthening our life in the Lord, one based on old covenant customs but reshaped in the new covenant to express the truth that our life is made possible by the death and resurrection of the incarnate Son of God and the gift of the Holy Spirit of God that comes to us as the blessing of the new covenant.
“New Covenant Pattern of Prayer” is a selection from Catholics and the Eucharist (Chapter 8, “Worship the Lord”, p. 212-218), recently published by Servant Publications, Ann Arbor, Michigan, and is reprinted with permission.
Stephen B. Clark is the regional coordinator of The Sword and the Spirit, an international community of Christians, and is the author of many books.