The practice of observing a divine office has been passed down by the Church throughout the ages. It has been of particular significance to nuns and monks. This is, admittedly, a new take on the concept of a divine office (which simply means God’s work). This Lenten office adopts a style quite different from the traditional Roman Catholic breviary. There is a decided preference for the wisdom scriptures and there are monastic practices, primarily from the middle ages, integrated throughout.
With a dual focus on creation and the life of Jesus this liturgy is designed to take one on a journey of forty days in the long tradition passed down from ancient days. Just as Noah was forty days in the flood, just as Moses was on the mountain forty days and the Israelites in the desert forty years, just as Elijah was forty days before his mountaintop experience, just as Jesus fasted forty days in the desert, so do we commit to forty days of fasting, temptation, and repentance. In the Western tradition Lent is observed over a period of 46 days. The reason for this is that it is considered inappropriate to fast on Sundays. Sundays must always be a feast day celebrating the resurrection. In like manner, Fridays are a day for intensified fasting as we remember the crucifixion. There are six weeks in Lent, and so without those six Sundays, we fast for a total of forty days.
There are within this office practices which are designed to engage the whole human being – mind, body, and spirit. The mind is engaged through reading and writing, the spirit is engaged through contemplative practices, and the body is engaged through cycles of fasting and feasting. However you decide to use this material, I encourage you to ensure you are engaging all three aspects of yourself. They will, of course, intertwine and be indistinguishable from one another if balanced well, and this is the best outcome.
This is designed to be a contemplative liturgy. The word contemplate means to make a temple where you are or to make a temple together. The root word of contemplate is the latin templum, which is virtually the same as our English word temple. So, this contemplative practice is designed to help a person become a temple in which God may dwell and be worshipped. It must not serve any other purpose. Jesus warned us not to let our worship serve any other purpose when He said:
“When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
Humans have a unique place in the cosmos. We are, as the psalmist puts it, almost like angels – yet we are as ephemeral as the seasons. We have knowledge of atoms and galaxies, of genomes and nuclear forces, of music and poetry – yet we are no different from the deer or the salmon. We are, as Jesus was, both God and clay. In the artful masterpiece which is the harmony of Eden, we are given dominion over God’s works. Humanity alone has the capacity to tend the garden of Earth – and the ability to burn it to the ground. We have been given dominion, we have been taught how to rule benevolently, yet we are selfish and tyrannical. Humanity is both the most brilliant pinnacle of creation and the most depraved and regretful of all the creatures. Ours is a difficult yet blessed existence. How well do you live this life you have been given?
This liturgy takes place over the course of six weeks and mirrors the days of creation. There are two distinct cycles – first the wisdom scriptures of the Hebrew Bible, then the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This liturgy is rooted in a theology from the primeval history of Genesis. It is a theology of creation and our place in it, of time and its cycles, of the life Jesus came to teach which prepares one for the life which is to come. It is based on a contemplative apocalyptic vision of our universe. One where the end of time comes with the separation of life from death just like the separation of light from darkness at the beginning of time. On Easter morning we are born anew with Christ and begin to live in the third cycle where we will no longer need the light of the sun.
The days of creation are clearly divided into cycles of three. In each cycle the first day is about the heavens, the second day is about the seas and the sky, the third day is about the land and life. Each cycle, on its third day, has two distinct aspects of creation – the land and the plants which spring from it, and the land animals and the humans which spring up from them. The pattern is clearly marked by the author. The fourth day has the separation of light from darkness just like the first. The fifth day has the creation of birds and fish just like the second separates the seas to create the sky. The sixth day humans are told to be fruitful and multiply just like the plants were on the third day. We still live in the sixth day, and we will until the new age comes.
After the seventh day is described, the text picks up the story in Eden, on the sixth day when humans were created. The rest of the Bible, and indeed all the time since it was written, takes place in the sixth day. You and I are humans living in exile from the garden, waiting for the messiah to usher in the new creation. Adam and Eve represent humanity – humans whose future is inexplicably bound in the life of trees, who were also the end of an age. The culmination of each of the two ages worked together to create the world we live in now. The fate of the humans Eve and Adam were completely entwined with the fruits of the trees of life and knowledge and the story of Eden tells us about our own nature, our gifts and our challenges, and the natural harmony we live at odds with because of our cleverness. Yet, we are told there is a seventh day – it is elusive and mysterious but the author encourages us to see the pattern of the previous cycles and understand a little more about our own destiny..
The seventh day is clearly distinct from the other six. The narrative does not have the same repetitive patterns as the other days. In it, God rests and there is no sense of the material, the temporal, or even the moral (the only day God does not say was good). The seventh day will begin with the separation of life from death, of the sheep from the goats, of children of the light from the children of darkness. Each cycle begins with a new sort of time, one which allows for the next age of creation. God rested on the seventh day because time will be eternal – because the seventh day, the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven, the New Eden described in Revelation and the New Adam as described by Paul is the admission of humanity into eternity. But, the eternal, by its very nature, is not bound by linear time (the kind of time we are still living in) and therefore exists now as much as it does in the future. ‘The contemplative can glimpse this end of days, this New Eden, this timeless resting of Sabbath.
St John the Evangelist described this glimpsing when he said “Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” 1 John 3:2. We are still only children and we will not mature until the appearance of Christ. For when Christ appears to us, we will be like him. Only one who can see above the timeline and into the infinite can see Christ as he is – for only the eternal can see eternity. The New Eden will be where we see Christ as he is, for now we only see as if through a glass dimly.