It is night. The turmoil of day has died away and everything is still. The Church is at prayer. She remembers the night-time prayer of the Bridegroom; she thinks of the night vigils of the early Christians in the catacombs. Times have changed, but the Church continues to insist that night is not just for sleep; night is a time for prayer. From earliest ages Matins was the Church’s prayer for the Second Coming; she prayed and waited for the return of Christ as Judge of all the world. Night is also a symbol of life on earth. We are like the virgins in the parable, waiting for the Bridegroom with our lamps in hand. Here is how the Christians of 200 A.D. felt about their Matins (text from Hippolytus, Apostolic Tradition, c. 32, 19-27):
“About midnight, get out of your bed and wash and pray. Wash with clean water. If you have a wife, pray the psalms, alternating verses with her. If you have a wife but she is not yet a believer, go apart by yourself and pray alone, and come back to your place with her. Even if you are bound by the bond of marital obligation, do not omit the prayer: for you are not sullied…
“It is very important that we pray at least once every hour; for the ancients have handed this practice down to us and taught us that this is how we are to keep watch. For at that hour all creation is at rest, praising God. Stars, trees, and waters are as if standing still. The whole host of angels keep their service together with the souls of the just. They praise almighty God in that hour; and that is why the faithful on earth must pray at this same time.
“Our Lord in his parable put it this way: About midnight, he said, there came a call: Look! here comes the bridegroom! Go out to meet him! And he said more. Keep watch, then he told them , for ye know not either the day or the hour in which the Son of man cometh.”
Unfortunately, we have to admit that today Matins retains its proper theme only to a very slight degree—Matins is generally very loosely connected with the night hours and thus it can equally well be anticipated, that is, prayed on the day before, without any appreciable loss of devotion. In place of a theme proper to the time of day there is generally some theme from the feast being celebrated that day, a theme which is expressed in the readings (or lessons, as they are called) and the other variable parts. On feast days, Matins is a meditation on the feast, a drama of prayer.
In order to assimilate the full meaning of a feast, it is necessary to examine Matins. Many feast-day Matins are masterpieces of composition, for example, the Tenebræ services on Thursday, Friday and Saturday of Holy Week, the Office of the Dead, the consecration of a church, Corpus Christi. The psalms of week-day Matins are mostly a prayerful meditation on the kingdom of God, a preparation for fitting the coming day into its proper place in the divine plan of redemption.
Matins has a splendid introduction, the invitatory, and on feast days, Sundays outside the penitential seasons, and during Eastertide, a grand conclusion, the Te Deum. The invitatory, or introduction song, combined with the powerfully stirring Psalm 94, is a liturgical masterpiece. But in order to sense the full, dramatic dynamism of the invitatory, one must hear it in its final form of development, sung in choir during the nightwatch of early dawn.
On Christmas, for example, the joyous tidings Christus natus est nobis (Christ is born unto us), resound through the choir like a mighty proclamation, a veritable Gospel of good tidings in the still of night, and perfect overture to the solemnity of the day’s liturgy. The Te Deum is the paean of the whole Church to the triune God, and to Jesus Christ; it ends on a fervent plea for protection. It serves as a beautiful transition to Lauds.
From: The Hours of the Divine Office in English and Latin, The Liturgical Press, 1963.