As you assembled in silence in a church by candlelight or with your family before turning in for the night, you may have prayed the office of Compline. This evening office is reflective and focuses on preparing your soul for the night. Read the following adaptation from the Lutheran Service Book: Companion to the Services to discover the rich history of the office of Compline.
Purpose of Compline
Among the morning and evening offices, Compline (pronounced KOM-plin) stands out as a personal, even intimate, service that assists the individual in preparing to retire at the end of the day. Unlike Vespers, which looks back over the past day with thanksgiving to God, Compline looks ahead, in a spirit of penitence, to the night to come, petitioning God for protection. Darkness, which is the devil’s terrain, is met in Compline with a confident expectation that God will spread His protecting hand over us.
The musical setting in Lutheran Service Book (LSB) is perfectly suited to the message of trust and repose that characterizes Compline. There is no need to avoid this service simply because the music is unfamiliar; the service is equally beneficial when spoken. Compline can be prayed by individuals or families in the home. It can also serve as a fitting conclusion to evening meetings at the church.
In contrast to Vespers and Evening Prayer, which had their origins in the cathedral office, Compline appears to have originated in the monasteries sometime in the fourth century, serving, in effect, as bedtime prayer for the monks. St. Basil, for example, cited Psalm 4:4 (“Be angry, and do not sin; ponder in your own hearts on your beds, and be silent”) as the basis for a time of confession at the close of the day. Eventually, the word “Compline” (from the Latin completorium, meaning “completion,” as in the completion of the work of the day) identified this final moment of prayer in the lives of the monks. The service appears in the early sixth century during St. Benedict’s rule.
Reflecting the time of day, the service is notable for its simplicity, consisting originally of three fixed psalms (4, 91, and 134), a hymn, reading, versicle, Kyrie,
and blessing. Developments in the Middle Ages resulted in moving Compline from the monks’ dormitories into the church, where, not surprisingly, numerous additions were made to the service, such as the opening confession (Confiteor), Psalm 31, the Apostles’ Creed, Lord’s Prayer, Ave Maria, Nunc Dimittis, and concluding prayers. Still, in comparison to the major offices of Matins and Vespers, Compline retained its character of brevity and remained perfectly suited to the time of day.
Elements in Compline
One particular element in Compline that sets it apart from the major offices is the inclusion of confession. Added during the expansion of the service in the Middle Ages, confession and forgiveness were an appropriate way for Christians living in community (such as monks) to bring the day to a close. LSB provides two forms of the Confession. The first (left column), known as the Confiteor,
is drawn from the monastic practice of individuals confessing sins one to the
other. Eventually, this practice was expanded to include a larger group and by the eleventh century was imported into the mass itself.
The form of the Confiteor in LSB Compline is the same that appeared in the Roman Mass (1570), as well as in the Roman breviary of the same year. Not to be confused with the Confession and Absolution at the beginning of the Divine Service, where the pastor speaks in the stead of Christ, here the confession functions more contemplatively as both leader and congregation confess to one another and speak of the assurance we have of “pardon, forgiveness, and remission.” Note that it is from this confession that the Latin phrase mea culpa (“my fault”) entered into our vocabulary. The second form of confession (right column) was prepared specifically for Lutheran Book of Worship; it appeared in a slightly modified form in Lutheran Worship (LW) and appears in that same form here.
The goal of the responsory in its original form was to comment upon the reading that preceded it. With a different responsory for each reading in the monastic practice, the texts that were chosen functioned in much the same way as the ancient synagogue practice of singing a psalm after a reading. Very often, the appointed texts were introspective, inviting personal devotion after having heard the corresponding reading.
The use of a common or seasonal text as provided in LW and LSB gives the
responsory a slightly different purpose than in the historic use. No longer tied
directly to a specific reading, the responsory, repeated over a period of weeks,
serves as a vehicle for embedding key biblical texts in the hearts and minds of the people. Whether it is the fervent acclamation “Lord, I love the habitation of Your house,” as sung in Matins during much of the year, or the plea for rescue from one’s enemies as prayed in Vespers during Lent, the worshiper is gently schooled in the theological focus of the several seasons of the Church Year. The nature of the responsories is such that they exhibit a certain complexity to engage the worshiper while yet retaining a measured simplicity, with the result that one is able to “chew the cud” of Scripture and grab hold of key thoughts.
The capstone to Compline is undoubtedly the Nunc Dimittis. It is mentioned as an evening hymn already in the Apostolic Constitutions (8.48). Benedict, however, did not include it as a part of Compline in his time. It became associated with Compline later in the Middle Ages, when the service was moved into the church and expanded with additional elements. Originally situated before the prayers in the medieval Roman rite, it has appeared more frequently after the prayers in Anglican and Lutheran circles, where it quite naturally follows as a final hymn of the congregation.
With the addition of the Nunc Dimittis in the Middle Ages, a number of variable antiphons also appeared. One of these (“Guide us waking”) is included in LSB because of the intimate way that it applies the words of the canticle to those who sing it. The memorable parallel structure of the antiphon beckons God to be our constant companion:
Guide us waking, O Lord,
and guard us sleeping,
that awake we may watch with Christ,
and asleep we may rest in peace.
It is helpful to note that the Nunc Dimittis also appears in both the Commendation of the Dying and the Funeral Service. Just as this Song of Simeon is on the lips of the faithful as they close their eyes in sleep each night, so do these words ring in the ear one last time as we commend our loved ones to their final rest in God, whose salvation they have seen in this life in Word and Sacrament and in whose nearer presence they are about to enter.
Blog post excerpted from Lutheran Service Book: Companion to the Services, pp. 633–34, 696, 718–721 © 2022 Concordia Publishing House. All rights reserved.
To learn more about the rich history of Compline and other service settings, read Lutheran Service Book: Companion to the Services.