On the Middle of the Night
We perform the night office at midnight because we read that at midnight the Lord struck the sleeping Egyptians and set free the watchful Hebrews. It is sung at midnight because that is when the Lord was born in Bethlehem and the angels sang their hymn to him, appearing also to the shepherds who were keeping watch by night. Likewise in the middle of the night, on Sunday, the Lord laid waste to hell and freed those who were keeping watch. Further, on a Sunday at midnight the Lord will come in judgment and will cast out the sleepers from his city, but the watchful he will lead into the place of rejoicing.
CAP. XV. – De media nocte.
Nocturnale autem officium ideo media nocte agimus, quia media nocte Dominus dormientes Aegyptios percussisse et vigilantes Hebraeos liberasse legitur. Ideo enim in media nocte agitur, quia media nocte in Bethlehem Dominus natus legitur, eique mox ab angelis laus concinitur; qui etiam pastoribus cum lumine apparebant, qui vigilias noctis custodiebant. Ideoque, in media nocte, et in Dominica nocte, quia Dominus media nocte, et in Dominica nocte, infernum devastavit, et populum vigilantem in media nocte liberavit. Ideo nihilominus in media nocte, quia Dominus in media nocte, et in Dominica nocte ad iudicium veniet, et dormientes a bonis de civitate sua disperdet; vigilantes vero in bonis in locum exsultationis adducet.
On the Saints’ Authority
When we sing praises to our Creator in the night, we are following the authority of the saints. For David and the prophets “rose at midnight” (Psalm 118:62) “to praise the name of the Lord” (Psalm 121:4), and the Lord himself spent the night in prayer, and Paul and Silas sang psalms all through their night in prison (Acts 16), when a great light shone from heaven. All who imitate these men will share in their reward.
CAP. XVI. – De auctoritate sanctorum
Auctoritatem vero a sanctis habemus, ut in nocte surgentes laudes Creatori nostro cantemus. David namque (Psal. CXVIII) et prophetae media nocte ad confitendum nomini Domini surgebant, et Dominus in oratione pernoctabat, et Paulus atque Sylas in carcere media nocte psallebant (Act. XVI), quando ingens lumen divinitus ibi resplendebat: hos qui imitantur, et praemiis participantur.
Jerome’s Disposition of the Psalms
In Bethlehem, where Our Lord wanted to be born, Jerome first composed the night office and the other hours the Church sings today. Next Pope Damasus ordered it to be celebrated according to the same rite throughout all the churches. “Anti” means “against”; “φωνη” means “sound,” and thus “antiphon” takes its name from the fact that it “concerns the sound,” because the antiphon establishes the mode in which the psalm is sung. In ancient days, Ignatius Bishop of Antioch heard the angelic chorus alternating in heaven, and according to this form he taught his church to sing, and afterwards passed the custom on to all the churches. The responsory comes from “responding” because when the choir has sung, one person responds with a verse, and the choir responds by repeating the beginning. Ambrose of Milan first composed the responsory chant, and the whole Church received this form from him. For he composed hymns that the Church still sings in praise of Christ.
CAP. XVII. – Dispositio Hieronymi.
Hieronymus primum in Bethlehem, ubi Dominus nasci voluit, nocturnale officium vel reliquas horas, ut hodie canit Ecclesia, disposuit. Secundum Damasus papa per omnes Ecclesias eodem ritu celebrari constituit. Anti dicitur contra; φωνη vero dicitur sonus, inde antiphona nomen habet, quod circa sonum sonet, quia cum videlicet antiphona incipitur, secundum tonum eius psalmus canitur. Hunc cantum primitus Ignatius Antiochenus episcopus in coelo angelicum chorum alternare audivit, et secundum hanc formam suam Ecclesiam cantare docuit, unde mos ad omnes Ecclesias pertransiit. Responsorium a respondendo dicitur, quia choro canente versus ab uno respondetur, et huic iterum a choro per incoeptionem respondetur. Hunc cantum in primis Ambrosius Mediolanensis episcopus composuit, et ab eo tota Ecclesia formam accepit. Hic enim hymnos composuit quos adhuc Ecclesia in laude Christi canit.