Three times a day, in the morning, at noon, and in the evening, most western churches ring a bell which is a signal for prayer. At these times the prayer, ''Angelus Domini'' is recited while kneeling. These bells and sometimes even the time of day have become known by the first word of the prayers, the Angelus. This prayer consists of three versicles and a prayer:
V. The Angel of the Lord declared unto Mary
R. and she conceived of the Holy Spirit
V. Behold the Handmaid of the Lord
R. Be it done unto me according to thy word
V. And the Word was made Flesh
R. And dwelt among us
V. Pray for us, O Holy Mother of God
R. That we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.
Let us pray
Pour forth, we beseech thee, O Lord, Thy Grace into our hearts; that as we have known the incarnation of Christ thy Son by the message of an Angel, so, by His passion and Cross, we may be brought to the glory of His Resurrection; through the same Christ our Lord. Amen.¹
Obviously, this is a remembrance of the mystery of the Incarnation, with the final prayer giving the soteriological reference for the entire devotion.
The history of this devotion is obscure. It apparently developed from three separate occasions for ringing the church bells. In this case, the bells were first, the devotion coming later and giving its name to the bells.
In the eleventh century, Pope Gregory IX ordered that all church bells be rung in the evening to remind the faithful to pray for the success of the Crusades. In 1264, Bonaventure began encouraging his Franciscans to say three ''Hail Marys'' at that bell.² In 1327, John XXII made this universal in the Latin church.³
In the 14th century, it was also a custom among monastics to recite three ''Hail Marys'' at the bell, which summoned them to Prime. It was also a custom around this time, to ring a bell on Fridays at noon, to commemorate the Passion of Christ, (this theme still survives ih the final prayer). A tradition has it that King Louis XI of France in 1472 ordered a noon bell to be rung every day upon which it was the custom to recite, again, three ''Hail Marys."
By the 16th century, these three had become one devotion in the form in which we have it today.
One excellent reference to this devotion from the sixteenth century is found in Fr. Lorenzo Scupoli's work, Spiritual Combat, which was republished on Mt. Athos in a version rewritten by St. Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain, Unseen Warfare. St. Nicodemus chose to alter much of the book to bring it into line with contemporary eastern spirituality, but this reference he left untouched:
Every time you hear church bells, bring to mind the greeting of the Archangel to the Mother of God. ''Hail, thou that art highly favored'' and dwell on the following thoughts and feelings: give thanks to God for sending from heaven to earth these good tidings, by which the work of your salvation began; rejoice with the holy Virgin in the transubstantial greatness to which she was raised for her deep humility; in company with her and the Archangel Gabriel, adore the Divine Fruit which was then forthwith conceived in her most holy womb. You will do well to repeat this glorification often in the course of the day, accompanied by the feelings I have described; make it a strict rule to repeat it at least three times a day: in the morning, at midday, and in the evening. 4
This is a beautiful description and recommendation of the Angelus. St. Nicodemus has captured very well the spirit and themes of the prayer. Certainly there is nothing here which would make the devotion unpracticable for the Orthodox.
During Paschaltide, the Angelus is not said, but is replaced instead by the antiphon "Regina caeli, laetare," which is said standing. The form is the same as that of the Angelus, consisting of several versicles and a prayer:
Queen of Heaven, rejoice,
Alleluia For He whom thou didst deserve to bear,
Hath risen ah He said
Pray for us to God,
V. Rejoice and be glad, O Virgin Mary!
R. Because Our Lord is truly Risen.
Let us pray:
O God, who by the Resurrection of Thy Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, has vouchsafed to make Glad the whole world, Grant, we beseech Thee, that, through the intercession of the Virgin Mary, His Mother, we may attain the joys of eternal life. Through the same Christ our Lord. Amen. 5
This is more suitably Paschal; in fact it sounds much like the 9th ode of the Easter canon. ''The Angel cried..." It is still a meditation on the Incarnation, but here is more directly related to the Resurrection.
The Angelus is a little reminder throughout the day of Christ and His work and gift to us. It helps to prevent the day from becoming entirely secularized with work or business.
It reminds Christians who they are throughout the day when it is easy to forget what we celebrate on Sunday mornings... It is a step towards the sanctification of every day.
1 Lasance, p. 220-1.
2 New Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 1, p. 521; Lambing, p. 183.
3 Lambing, p. 184.
4 Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain, and Theophan the Recluse, Unseen
Warfare, (St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, NY 1978) p. 138.
5 Lasance, p. 221.