Nocturns (Latin: Nocturni or Nocturna) or the Night Office is the part of the Christian Liturgy of the Hours said during the night after sleeping and before celebrating Lauds at dawn. It was considered part of Matins. A nocturn consists of psalms with antiphons followed by three lessons, which are taken either from scripture or from the writings of the Church Fathers. The office of Matins is composed of one to three nocturns. The term nocturn has been used since Late Antiquity. In 1970, following the Second Vatican Council, a revision of the Roman Breviary discontinued the use of nocturns when the office of Matins was reformed as the Office of Readings.
Tertullian speaks of nocturnal gatherings; St. Cyprian, of the nocturnal hours, "nulla sint horis nocturnis precum damna, nulla orationum pigra et ignava dispendia". In the life of Melania the Younger is found the expression "nocturnæ horæ", "nocturna tempora". In these passages the term signifies night prayer in general and seems synonymous with the word vigiliæ.
Nocturns arose from the custom of primitive Christians holding their assemblies at night. In the ancient church, a vigil, or all-night watch service, preceded every Sunday, consisting of evening, night, and early morning prayers. By the fourth century this Sunday vigil had become a daily observance, though it no longer lasted throughout the night. The Office of the Vigils, and consequently of the Nocturns, was a single Office, recited without interruption at midnight. What had at first been an all-night vigil became a watch service only from cock crow to dawn with a preliminary office at the lighting of the lamps the night before. This last evolved into Vespers.
Matins was originally named Vigils, or in monastic usage, the "Night Office". It was also called "nocturns" in reference to its component parts of three nocturns. It was the longest of the Hours. Some early Christian writers speak of three vigils in the night, as Methodius or St. Jerome; but the first was evening prayer, or prayer at nightfall, corresponding practically to Vespers; the second, midnight prayer, specifically called Vigils; the third, a prayer at dawn, corresponding to the Office of Lauds.
John Cassian in speaking of the solemn Vigils mentions three divisions of this office. This appears to be the origin of the Nocturns; or at least the earliest mention of them. It was probably in the 4th century, that to break the monotony of this long night prayer the custom of dividing it into three parts was introduced. St. Benedict in detail of this division of Vigils into two Nocturns for ordinary days, and three for Sundays and feast-days with six psalms and lessons for the first two Nocturns, three canticles and lessons for the third. The expression "Nocturn", to signify the night Office, is used by him twice. He also uses the term Nocturna laus in speaking of the Office of the Vigils. The division of the Vigils into two or three Nocturns in the Roman Church dates back at least to the 5th century.
On Sundays and feast-days the Benedictine Office had three Nocturns. Each Nocturn comprising three psalms, and the first Nocturn of Sunday had three groups of four psalms each. The ferial days had only one Nocturn consisting of twelve psalms; each Nocturn having, as usual, three lessons.
Lauds is derived from the three last psalms in the office (148, 149, 150), in all of which the word laudate is repeated frequently. Both Cassian and John Chrysostom say that they formed the conclusion of the night vigil in Syria, and originally designated only the end, that is to say, these three psalms at the conclusion. Originally Matins and Lauds formed but a single office, the Night Office terminating only at dawn.
- Carrol, F. "Nocturns." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 11. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. 3 Mar. 2015
- Lallou, William J. "Introduction to the Roman Breviary", Roman Breviary In English, Benziger Brothers, Inc, 1950
- Stravinskas, Peter M. J. and Shaw, Russell B., "Nocturn" Our Sunday Visitor's Catholic Encyclopedia, Our Sunday Visitor Publishing, 1998 ISBN 9780879736699
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- Cabrol, Fernand. "Lauds." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 9. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. 13 Apr. 2015