The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

The Divisions of the Day

Rev. John Chandler, ed., The Hymns of the Primitive Church
(London: John W. Parker, 1837).

Christmas Hymns of the Primitive Church


In the arrangement of these Hymns for the different periods of daily worship, I have preserved, as far as possible, the original order in which I found them. I will add a few words in explanation of the manner in which each day was parcelled out, in the primitive times, into seasons for devotion. It appears there was a service at the end of every three hours, or eight services in the course of the twenty-four. To wit, first, Nocturn, 12 at night; second, Matins, 3 in the morning; third, Ad Primam, 6 A. M. ; fourth, Ad Tertiam, 9 A.m.; fifth, Ad Sextam, 12 in the day; sixth, Ad Nonam, 3 in the afternoon; seventh, Vespers, or Evensong, 6 P.m.; eighth, Completorium, or Conclusion, 9 P.m.

This would give seven out of the eight divisions to the day, and only one to the night, and thus agree with Psalm cxix. 164, "Seven times a day" do I praise Thee;" and Psalm cxix. 62, " At midnight will I rise to give thanks unto Thee;" or by counting the "Completorium" and the Matins - with the night, it would make three Nocturns, which is the most usual division. These divisions were evidently made originally in a country where the len h of days is more uniform than in ours; and, I may add, at a time when men's minds reverted with more uniform frequency to their religious exercises than appears to be the case at present.

The Nocturn, or night service, was intended, not merely for the secret meditation of the individual Christian, "if in the night he sleepless lay," but for the benefit of all those who might be disposed to meet together, even at that unseasonable hour, for the purpose of worshipping God.

"Matins," and "Lauds," seem to be convertible terms; they began at the cock-crowing, or as I may also call it, the " bird-singing," at that time when, in summer, it is broad daylight, but before the sun has risen, and which is the time of all others when the birds seem most earnestly engaged in their lauds or song of praise to their great Creator.

Ad Primam, or by 6 A.m., the sun is supposed to have risen, and the labours of the day to be regularly commencing; the hymn accordingly contains petitions for assistance, guidance, and protection, through the course of it.

Ad Tertiam, or 9 A. M., is invariably a hymn to the Holy Spirit, as being the hour in which, on the day of Pentecost, He came down on the Apostles. This seems to have been observed from the very earliest times; most likely the " Veni Creator," of St. Ambrose, was merely a new hymn written by him on a subject already familiar to the Church, from the Apostles downwards.

Ad Sextam, was 12 o'clock, or mid-day; allusion is made to the Sun of Righteousness, to whose beams all true worshippers desire to lay open their hearts.

Ad Nonam was 3 P.m.; allusion is made to its being the time when our Lord expired on the cross. Our word noon is derived from hence; it seems the three hours of which each division of the day consisted, received their name from the service they preceded. Thus the three hours before "Ad Nonam," were called the " Ad Nonam" time, or noon-tide. Thus the beginning of noon-tide was immediately after the "Ad Sextam" was over, or just over 12 o'clock. Hence 12 o'clock came to be called noon, or the beginning of " noon-tide," the Ad Nonam service was not till 3 p. M.

Vespers, or Evensong, was about the going down of the sun, and the close of the day; which circumstances are noted in the hymn.

The Completorium, or Conclusion, as I have called it, for want of a better name, was at 9 P. M., and seems to have been intended for a wind-up, as it were, to the services of the day, and a last committal of self into the hands of God, before retiring to rest for the night.

In the present days, these systematic subdivisions may stand a chance of being objected to, as formal and old-fashioned, or be condemned as tending to cramp the energies of the awakened soul with unwarrantable shackles. When we consider, however, how the naturally wayward heart needs every appliance and means that can be devised, to keep it to a right frame, there seems to be much wisdom in them. They tend to sanctify the whole day to the service of God, by constantly providing the mind with some holy employment to fall back upon. They are seasons of spiritual refreshment multiplied to the wearied soul; opportunities for the child of God to be ever drawing near to his heavenly Father : channels, as it were, opened at equal distances, for the streams of divine grace to flow equally over the whole space.

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