Skip to main contentAccessibility feedback


Article on the meaning, symbolism, and origin of the hour of Sext

Click to enlarge

Sext.—I. Meaning, Symbolism, and Origin.—The hora sexta of the Romans corresponded closely with our noon. Among the Jews it was already regarded, together with Terce and None, as an hour most favorable to prayer. In the Acts of the Apostles we read that St. Peter went up to the higher parts of the house to pray (x, 9). It was the middle of the day, also the usual hour of rest, and in consequence for devout men, an occasion to pray to God, as were the morning and evening hours. The Fathers of the Church dwell constantly on the symbolism of this hour; their teaching is merely summarized here: it is treated at length in Cardinal Bona’s work on psalmody (ch. viii). Noon is the hour when the sun is at its full, it is the image of Divine splendor, the plenitude of God, the time of grace; at the sixth hour Abraham received the three angels, the image of the Trinity; at the sixth hour Adam and Eve ate the fatal apple. We should pray at noon, says St. Ambrose, because that is the time when the Divine light is in its fulness (In Ps. cxviii, vers. 62). Origen, St. Augustine, and several others regard this hour as favorable to prayer. Lastly and above all, it was the hour when Christ was nailed to the Cross; this memory excelling all the others left a still visible trace in most of the liturgy of this hour.

All these mystic reasons and traditions, which indicate the sixth hour as a culminating point in the day, a sort of pause in the life of affairs, the hour of repast, could not but exercise an influence on Christians, inducing them to choose it as an hour of prayer. As early as the third century the hour of Sext was considered as important as Terce and None as an hour of prayer. Clement of Alexandria speaks of these three hours of prayer (“Strom.”, VIII, vii, P.G., IX, 455), as does Tertullian (“De orat.” x) dii-xv, P.L., I, 1191-93). Long previous the “Didache” had spoken of the sixth hour in the same manner (Funk, “Doctrina XII Apostolorum”, V, XIV, XV). Origen, the “Canons of Hippolytus”, and St. Cyprian express the same tradition (cf. Baumer, “Hist. du breviaire”, I, 68, 69, 73, 75, 186, etc.). It is therefore evident that the custom of prayer at the sixth hour was well-established in the third century and even in the second century or at the end of the first. But probably most of these texts refer to private prayer. In the fourth century the hour of Sext was widely established as a canonical hour. The following are very explicit examples. In his rule St. Basil made the sixth hour an hour of prayer for the monks (“Regulae fusius tractatae”, P.G., XXXI, 1013, sq., 1180), Cassian treats it as an hour of prayer generally recognized in his monasteries (Instit. Coenob., III, iii, iv). The “De virginitate” wrongly attributed to St. Athanasius, but in any case dating from the fourth century, speaks of the prayer of Sext as do also the “Apostolic Constitutions“, St. Ephrem, St. Chrysostom (for the texts see Baumer, op. cit., I, 131, 145, 152, etc., and Leclercq, in “Dict. d’arch. chret.” s.v. Breviaire). But this does not prove that the observance of Sext, any more than Prime, Terce, None, or even the other hours, was universal. Discipline on this point varied widely according to the regions and Churches. And in fact some countries may be mentioned where the custom was introduced only later. That the same variety prevailed in the formulae of prayer is shown in the following paragraph.

Variety of Prayers and Formulae.—Despite its antiquity the hour of Sext never had the importance of those of Vigils, Matins, and Vespers. It must have been of short duration. The oldest testimonies mentioned seem to refer to a short prayer of a private nature. In the fourth and the following centuries the texts which speak of the compositions of this Office are far from uniform. Cassian tells us that in Palestine three psalms were recited for Sext, as also for Terce and None (Instit. III, ii). This number was adopted by the Rules of St. Benedict, Columbanus, St. Isidore, St. Fructuosus, and to a certain extent by the Roman Church. However, Cassian says that in some provinces three psalms were said at Terce, six at Sext, and nine at None. Others recited six psalms at each hour and this custom became general among the Gauls (cf. Hefele-Leclercq, “Hist. des conciles”, III, 189; Leclercq, loc. cit., 1296, 1300; Martene, “De antiq. eccl. ritibus”, III, 20; IV, 27). In Martene will be found the proof of variations in different Churches and monasteries. With regard to ancient times the “Peregrinatio Sylviae”, tells us that at the hour of Sext all assembled in the Anastasis where psalms and anthems were recited after which the bishop came and blessed the people (cf. Cabrol, “Etude sur la Peregrinatio”, Paris, 1895, 45-46). The number of psalms is not stated. In the sixth century the Rule of St. Benedict gives the detailed composition of this Office. We quote it here because it is almost the same as the Roman Liturgy; either the latter borrowed from St. Benedict, or St. Benedict was inspired by the Roman usage. Sext, like Terce and None, was composed at most of three psalms, of which the choice was fixed, the Deus in adjutorium, a hymn, a lesson (capitulum), a versicle, the Kyrie Eleison, and the customary concluding prayer and dismissal (xvii, of. xviii).

In the Roman liturgy Sext is also composed of the Deus in adjutorium, a hymn, three portions of Ps. cxviii, the lesson, the short response, the versicle, and the prayer. In the Greek Church Sext is composed like the other lesser hours of two parts; the first includes Pss. liii, liv, xc, with invitatory, tropes, and conclusion. The second, of Mesarion which is very similar to the first, consists of Pss. lv, lvi, and lxix. In the modern Mozarabic Office Sext consists only of Ps. liii, three “octonaries” of Ps. cxviii, two lessons, the hymn, the supplication, the capitulum, the Pater Noster, and the benediction.


Did you like this content? Please help keep us ad-free
Enjoying this content?  Please support our mission!