Having more time in our current situation gives many of us an unprecedented opportunity to experiment with establishing a rhythm of daily prayer through the day. Traditionally this comprises morning and evening prayer, known as ‘the daily offices’, as given in the Book of Common Prayer (BCP). But this has often been supplemented, particularly by night prayer, or compline (pronounced comp-lin).
Morning Prayer centres on the breaking through of God’s light into the world of darkness, the coming of Christ as ‘the day-spring from on high [that] hath visited us.’ Thus each day becomes a sacramental sign of the Incarnation of Jesus, God’s presence with us, and the hope of Christ’s second coming. That is why the ‘Benedictus’ (the prayer that John the Baptist’s father, Zechariah, said over John as the child who would prepare us for Christ’s coming) is said at every morning prayer.
So we give thanks for safe delivery from darkness, and for the gift of this new day, ‘today’, as it says in Psalm 90 (which we say as the ‘Venite’ [pronounced ven-night-ee] in BCP morning prayer) and Hebrews 4. ‘Today’ is always the day of God’s presence: ‘Today, if you hear his voice…’ Morning Prayer is the preparation for living in ‘today’, and God’s invitation to us to live in his presence this day: that is what ‘today’ means.
In contrast, Evening Prayer centres on the coming darkness of death. But this is no longer death with its sting. This is death in the peace of Christ’s presence, in the certainty that he comes to us in the darkness and leads us through it in safety to Resurrection on the other side. Evening Prayer is the home of the gentle Magnificat, Mary’s song after the angel visited her in the silence of the night to whisper the promise of God’s coming, and invite her to bear his Son. Evening Prayer is Mary’s prayer, and so is all our prayer, for she answers God on behalf of us all ‘Let it be to me according to your word.’ Mary is the Church.
And so, at the end of Evening Prayer we are ready to meet our Lord, having lived in his presence ‘today’. We are here to close our eyes and enter the promise of God’s rest. We join with old Simeon in the Temple, who waited his entire life to hold in his arms, and see with his eyes, God’s salvation for the world – the baby Jesus – in the words of the Nunc Dimittis:
Lord, now lettest though thy servant depart in peace
according to thy word.
These two offices are circular. The one grows out of, and completes the former, while at the same time preparing us for the latter. Morning Prayer rejoices in the fulfilment of Evening Prayer’s promise of God’s presence through the night to bring us into the ‘today’ of God’s presence. Evening Prayer gives thanks for God’s faithful presence through the day and prepares us for the coming night.
There is a sense, however, in which the offices are cyclical rather than circular: Evening Prayer to Morning Prayer. Evening Prayer is the more important, or the beginning, not just because it is older, but because, until we know how to die, we cannot know how to live.
This preparation for death is there in our baptism, which itself signifies dying to the old life and rising to the new, but it is in the rhythm of the daily offices, and particularly Evening Prayer, that we learn how to face death daily, and gradually come to see it as a friend. That is why we sing the great evening hymns at funerals, ‘Abide with me’ and ‘The day thou gavest, Lord, has ended.’ It is only when we are comfortable with our own mortality that we experience the freedom to live each new day as ‘today’, in the presence of the Resurrected Christ, without fear: fear has been overcome by love, and that gives us the freedom to love, to neglect ourselves and live for others. Morning Prayer is then the fulfilment of the promised Resurrection, as well as the Incarnation, of ‘God with us’.
Thus Evening and Morning Prayer are, themselves, sacramental participants in our daily walk with God, helping us to gain perspective on our lives in the context of God’s love for us, and our faith in his promises.
Compline, also called Night Prayer, is a short office said just before sleep. Traditionally it ends in silence and no further words are spoken before bed. It is the intimate invitation to sleep in Christ’s arms: ‘keep me as the apple of an eye, hide me under the shadow of thy wings’ (Psalm 17:8), with his angels watching over us. It is the prayer of stillness and rest.
Morning and Evening Prayer in their traditional form can be found in the Book of Common Prayer, or online. There are links to them on the Prayer Resources page, above.