Terce, or Third Hour, is a fixed time of prayer of the Divine Office of almost all the Christian liturgies. It consists mainly of psalms and is said at 9 a.m. Its name comes from Latin and refers to the third hour of the day after dawn.
Much of this article is adapted from the Catholic Encyclopedia of 1917. Note that it describes the office before the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. The psalm numbers are given first according to the Septuagint (followed by the Masoretic or "King James" numbering in parentheses).
The origin of Terce, like that of Sext and None, to which it bears a close relationship, dates back to Apostolic times. As has already been stated (see None) according to an ancient custom of the Romans and Greeks, the day and night respectively were divided into four parts of about three hours each. The second division of the day contained the hours from about the modern nine o'clock until about midday; using the Roman numbering the hour just preceding this division was called hora tertia (the third hour) from which the word terce is derived. Since the Roman day was divided into twelve hours from sunrise to sunset regardless of day length, the timing for hora tertia depended on the latitude and day of year. At Rome's latitude hora tertia was in modern terms 09:02 to 09:46 solar time at the winter solstice, but at the summer solstice it was 06:58 to 08:13.
These divisions of the day were also in vogue among the Jews at the time of Christ. In the New Testament we find mention of the sixth hour in Matthew 20:5; Matthew 27:45; Mark 15:33; John 19:14; of the ninth hour, in Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:25; the Holy Ghost descends upon the Apostles on the day of Pentecost at the third hour, Acts 2:15. Some of these texts prove that these three hours were, in preference to others, chosen for prayer by the Christians, and probably also by the Jews, from whom the Christians appear to have borrowed the custom.
We find frequent mention in the Fathers of the Church and the ecclesiastical writers of the third century of Terce, Sext, and None as hours for daily prayers. For example, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, and the Canons of Hippolytus. Tertullian says expressly that we should always pray, and that there is no prescribed time for prayer, but adds: "As regards the time, there should be no lax observation of certain hours—I mean, of those common hours which have long marked the divisions of the day, the third, the sixth, and the ninth—and which we may observe in Scripture to be more solemn than the rest"
Clement and Tertullian in these passages refer only to private prayer at these three hours. The Canons of Hippolytus also speak of these three hours as suitable for private prayer. However, on the days called "days of station", that is to say Wednesday and Friday, which were set apart as especially consecrated to prayer, and Sunday, these hours were recited in public St. Cyprian remarked that these three hours had been observed in the Old Testament, and that Christians should also observe them In the fourth century the custom of praying at these hours became more frequent, and even obligatory, at least for monks. Our texts say nothing as to what were the elements of the prayer of Terce, Sext, or None before the fourth century. Doubtless, like all prayers at that time, they were composed of psalms, canticles, hymns, and litanies. It is from the fourth century onwards that we can gather a more precise idea as to the composition of the hour of Terce. In the fourth century, as we have said, the custom of prayer at Terce spread, and tended to become obligatory, at least for monks. There is no mention in the "Peregrinatio ad Loca Sancta" of an office of Terce on ordinary days. Some authors have misunderstood the text here, but there is no mention of a meeting at this hour, except on Sunday and during Lent. The hour of Terce is also mentioned in St. Jerome, "Ep. ad Lætam."; "Ep. ad Eustoch."; in the Life of St. Melania the Younger, "Analecta Bollandiana", VIII; in Cassian, "De institut. coenob.", etc.
At this period it is composed of the same elements as the hours of Sext and None; the distribution is the same, and it is clear that the three "Little Hours" were composed at the same time and that they have the same origin. The psalms of Terce are different from those of the other two hours. There were also certain varieties of composition. Thus, in certain countries, three psalms were assigned to Terce, six to Sext, nine to None, in virtue of the symbolism.
The Fathers of the Church and the liturgists of the Middle Ages considered the hour of Terce as corresponding to the hour of Christ's condemnation to death. They also often point out on this occasion the mysteries of the number three, which in ecclesiastical symbolism is a sacred number. What gives it its especial dignity, however, is its association with the descent of the Holy Ghost upon the Apostles on the day of Pentecost at this very hour ("seeing it is but the third hour of the day" (Acts 2:15). In several liturgies, and particularly in the Roman, this connection is brought to mind by one or other of the formulæ. Again, this is the reason why, from the earliest times, the hour of Terce was chosen as that of the Eucharist on feast days. Sometimes, also, this hour is called in liturgical language hora aurea or hora sacra (the "golden hour" or "holy hour")
Comparison to other Rites
The composition varies also in the various liturgies. (See Neale and Littledale, "Commentary on the Psalms", I, p. 34.) In the Benedictine Rite, Terce comprises, on week days, the Gradual Psalms, 119 (120), 120 (121), and 121 (122), with a capitulum, verse, Kyrie, Pater, and prayer.
On Sundays and Mondays the Gradual Psalms are replaced by three octonaries (i.e. three sections of eight verses each) of Psalm 118 (119). In the Mozarabic Rite, three octonaries of Ps. 118 (119) are also recited, the composition otherwise differing very little. In the main, the recitation of three psalms at Terce, as at the other two "Little Hours" of the day, is founded on a universal and very ancient tradition. Divergencies on this point are only exceptional. The practice of the Roman Liturgy, which at first sight appears to be somewhat different, may be traced to this tradition also. In this rite a part of Ps. 118 (119) is recited at Terce as well as at the other "little hours", the psalm being divided into three double octonaries. In the Psalter arrangement of 1911-12, the psalms are: on Sunday, Psalm 118 (119) (three divisions); on Monday, Psalm 26 (27) (two divisions); on Tuesday, Psalm 39 (40) (three divisions); on Wednesday, Psalm 53 (54) (two divisions); on Thursday, Psalm 72 (73) (three divisions); on Friday, Psalm 39 (40) (two divisions); on Saturday, Psalm 101 (102) (three divisions). The number three is therefore preserved in each case.
The hymn Nunc Sancte nobis Spiritus recalls the descent of the Holy Ghost upon the Apostles. The other elements are the same as for Sext and None.
Eastern Christian Office
In the Eastern Orthodox and Greek Catholic Churches the office of the Third Hour is normally read by a single Reader and has very little variation in it. Three fixed psalms are read at the Third Hour: Psalms 16, 24, and 50 (LXX). The only variable portions for most of the year are the Troparia (either one or two) and Kontakion of the Day.
During Great Lent a number of changes in the office take place. On Monday through Friday, after the three fixed psalms, the Reader says a kathisma from the Psalter. The Troparion of the Day is replaced by special Lenten hymns that are chanted with prostrations. Then a portion of the Ladder of Divine Ascent may be read. The Kontakion of the Day is replaced by special Lenten troparia. Near the end of the Hour, the Prayer of St. Ephraim is said, with prostrations.
During Holy Week, on Great Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, the services are similar to those during Great Lent (including the reading of a kathisma), but instead of the normal Lenten hymns which replace the Kontakion, the Kontakion of the day (i.e., that day of Holy Week) is chanted. On Great Thursday and Saturday, the Little Hours are more like normal. On Great Friday, the Royal Hours are chanted.
During the Lesser Lenten seasons (Nativity Fast, Apostles' Fast and Dormition Fast) the Little Hours undergo changes similar to those during Great Lent, except the Lenten hymns are usually read instead of chanted, and there are no kathismata. In addition, on weekdays of the Lesser Fasts, an Inter-Hour (Greek: Mesorion) may be read immediately after each Hour (at least on the first day of the Fast). The Inter-Hours follow the same general outline as the Little Hours, except they are shorter.
- "Terce". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 1913.
- Jérôme Carcopino (1968). "The days and hours of the Roman calendar". Daily Life in Ancient Rome: The People and the City at the Height of the Empire. Yale University Press. ISBN 0-300-00031-6.
- Clement of Alexandria, Stromateis, VII, vii.
- Tertullian, De Orat., XXXIII, xxv.
- Hippolytus, Canon, xx, xxvi.
- Cyprian, De Oratione, XXXIV.
- See the texts of the Apostolic Constitutions, of St. Ephrem, of St. Basil, of the author of De Virginitate quoted in Bäumer-Biron, Histoire du bréviaire, 116, 121, 129, 186.
- See Durandus, "De rit. eccles.", c. viii.
- The Inter-Hours may also be read during Great Lent if there is to be no reading from the Ladder of Divine Ascent at the Little Hours.
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