Te deum laudaumus, te dominum confitemur
The Office of Matins
Several people have enquired of late about the particularities of the order of Matins, most notably its lack of the Lord’s Supper and the confession of sins. The historic development of Matins has been well-documented in the scholarly literature and doesn’t need repeating here. Nonetheless, it is always a good idea to review why our liturgy has the character it does so that it might be prayed, sung, and heard with intentionality.
To understand Matins one must understand the daily offices. The early church, later codified in Benedict’s Rule, took as a prescription Psalm 119: 164, “Seven times a day I praise You for Your righteous laws,” dividing the day—and night—into seven roughly three-hour intervals in which, at least as specified by Benedict, all 150 psalms would be prayed each week. (Due to the complexities of the changing seasons and inexact measuring of time, the seven intervals of division were seldom exact, hence the division of 24 hours by seven.) The offices were characterized by prayer, hymns/chants, and scripture reading. Indeed, such a regulated order of prayer, particularly in the nighttime hours, derives from Jesus’ own practice, as His prayer the night He was betrayed on the Mount of Olives was not unique to that particular night, but was apparently a regular practice (Luke 22: 39) Christian tradition, perhaps because of Christianity’s own reclusive beginnings, seems to favour night gatherings. The daily offices as they eventually developed are Matins (night), Lauds (dawn), Prime (early in the day), Terce (9am), Sext (noon), None (3pm), Vespers (close of day) and Compline (before bed). In practice, Matins (which means “of the morning”) and Lauds were combined so that the psalmist’s prescription of a sevenfold pattern of daily prayer might be preserved. Working backwards, then, Matins would actually have been prayed at midnight, and literally at the beginning of the day as opposed to the rising of the sun, which would have been Lauds or Prime. Again, the vagaries of the seasons work themselves into this discussion—anyone who has visited Northern Europe, say Scandinavia, in the summer, understands that the dawn may break as early as 3am! So the fact that Matins was the first service of the day is the aspect that has still been preserved in our current practice, although we think of the beginning of the day more as characterized by the rising of the sun.
The offices are distinct from the Divine Services in that they do not celebrate communion. They are prayer offices in which the reading and meditation on scripture plays a predominate role. Consider the responses which are taken straight from the psalms: “O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare Your praise.” (Psalm 51: 15) “Make haste, O God, to deliver me; make haste to help me, O Lord.” (Psalm 70: 1) After the entrance hymn (which might properly be omitted so that the first part of the service truly “opens our lips”), the next major element is the Venite, a setting of Psalm 95, having originally been included by Benedict in a Nocturne, an early constituent element of the Matins liturgy. In another indication of the psalm-orientation of this service, the hymnal then instructs us that we may sing “Additional Psalms.” Later, after the Reformation, Matins became largely a daily service prayed and sung by students primarily who could retain the psalm-focused nature of the readings. These days, however, as it has taken on the character of the chief service of the day, the readings are the OT, epistle and gospel lessons appointed for the day. Even the responsory after the readings is taken from Psalm 119: 89. (“Forever, O Lord, Your Word is firmly set in the heavens. . .”) The next major element of Matins is the canticle called the Te Deum, which Luther Reed calls “. . . one of the noblest hymns of the Western church and one of the greatest confessions of faith in song. It combines praise and prayer in exalted strains of rhythmic prose. Its affirmations, almost creedal in form constitute a basis for petitions of universal significance.” The Te Deum, according to legend, was composed by Augustine and/or Ambrose upon the occasion of Augustine’s baptism by Ambrose. No doubt its composition was more nuanced than that—we praise “God to be the Lord,” the “Father everlasting,” but unlike in the creeds, which simply state the objective facts, the Te Deum sings them by following these statements with, “To You all angels cry aloud, the heavens and all the powers therein. To you cherubim and seraphim continually do cry: Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord.” The first article takes on an expressive, emotional, and laudatory character in the Te Deum it lacks in the regular creeds, and for this reason the Te Deum has found expression in music throughout history. The second article of the creed is manifest in the second part of the Te Deum: “When You tookest upon Yourself to deliver man, You humbled Yourself to be born of a virgin. When you had overcome the sharpness of death, You open the kingdom of heaven to all believers.” The third article of the creed may not be quite as easy to determine in the Te Deum, but the final section is devoted to praying for the Church on earth (“We therefore pray You to help Your servants”), the Holy Spirit being the One who “calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian Church on earth.” Too often I look around during the great creedal hymn to see some people unenthusiastic, or simply mouthing the words, perhaps afraid to be heard. This is theology that yearns to be proclaimed through that connection of heart and mind only good church music can conceive!
The rubrics (“rubrics” are liturgical instructions in red, from the Latin word for “red”) then allow for us to sing the Benedictus instead, which was itself a constituent element of Lauds as opposed to Matins. The remainder of the service is given to prayer, which was a hallmark of all the daily offices, particularly those of the nighttime. The responses again are taken from the psalms (Psalm 102: 1, Psalm 103: 1) in addition to some New Testament references. Just as properly one does not begin the service with a hymn, one does not conclude with a hymn either. With Matin’s appropriation into modern use as the chief service of the day, we have made it more like the Divine Service by adding these customary hymns. Nothing is wrong with adding hymns especially at those points, although Matins (and Vespers) lose a bit of their distinctiveness in doing so. Since Matins is an office and not a Divine Service, there is no communion. There is no confession with this service because it is not a Divine Service. Again, since we have now appropriated it into use as the chief service on some Sundays, the absence of a confession is more acute.
We moderns are not accustomed to the daily worship from which the offices proceed. We are accustomed to attending “church” once a week, always on Sunday morning, and the rigorous disciplines of the monastics who developed such a prayer life is largely foreign to us. That is possibly a sad loss. We don’t have to pray in an orderly way because God commands it and we must do it to be saved. But structuring our devotional and worship lives in a way that is orderly and makes sense might be a good idea because it allows our humanity to interact with the sacred in a way that is organized and familiar. We all organize our lives in some way (banking, schedules, family responsibilities.) God, in His infinity, does not need us to organize Him. But because He is infinite and we are not, our interaction with the Holy Trinity will necessarily not be fully realized on earth. These services helped generations of people to comprehend the Infinite, to understand God as He spoke to His people in scripture, and allowed them to approach Him through collective and individual prayer.
 John Pless, “Daily Prayer” in Lutheran Worship: History and Practice, ed. Fred Precht. (St Louis: CPH, 1993), 445.
 AE 53: 13.
 Luther Reed, The Lutheran Liturgy. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1947), 416.