WORSHIP & DIVINE LITURGY: 10
THE READINGS- EPISTLE & GOSPEL
The reading of the Holy Scriptures is the culmination and very heart of the Liturgy of the Word. The reading of Scripture in the context of worship, like many other parts of the liturgy, traces its origins directly to the Synagogue and Temple worship of ancient Israel. The Epistle reading is preceded by the Prokeimenon, the short verse chanted by the reader. In the early Church, an entire Psalm was read or chanted. The Epistle and Gospel readings are selected for each day of the year, including Sundays, according to a highly defined lectionary system based on two major intersecting cycles of the Church year that dates back to the 8th century. The first is the Paschal cycle and it begins with the Prologue of John and the first chapter in the Book of Acts on the Feast of our Lord’s Resurrection. The second cycle is based on the calendar year of fixed commemorations for major feasts and saints’ days. The cycle concludes with the readings in the solemn services of Holy Week.
The system of Epistle Readings, except for Sundays, major feasts and saints’ days, nearly follow the sequence of books in the New Testament, starting with the Book of Acts, which is more accurately titled the “Acts of the Apostles” because it traces the history of the first thirty years of the Church after the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Then it proceeds through the Apostle Paul’s 13 letters starting with Romans and Corinthians and ending with the Book of Hebrews. Paul’s letters were instructive exhortations, and sometimes corrective rebukes, to the early Christian communities of the Mediterranean world. The cycle ends with the General Epistles of Apostles James, Peter and John, who were the closest disciples to our Lord Jesus Christ. They are called ‘general’ because they are not addressed to a specific person or community. Notice that the epistle cycle does not end with Book of Revelation. This is the only book of the Bible that is not read publicly in worship. That is because it is highly symbolic and easily misinterpreted. Thus, the people who try to predict the Second Coming of Christ and the end of the world today are nothing new. That’s been going on for centuries. The Epistles are read by faithful persons, both male and female, who have received training and a blessing from the priest to fulfill this most important duty in the life of the Church. After concluding, the reader receives a blessing from the priest or bishop who says, “Peace be with you the reader.”
Typically, during the Epistle reading, the priest or bishop reads the Prayer of the Gospel. Thus, it is not often heard by the faithful, so I will read it aloud now. Listen carefully to the words.
“Shine within our hearts loving Master, the pure light of Your divine knowledge and open the eyes of our minds that we may comprehend the message of Your Gospel. Instill in us also reverence for You blessed commandments, so that having conquered all sinful desires, we may pursue a spiritual life, thinking and doing all those things that are pleasing to You. For You Christ our God, are the light of our souls and bodies and to You we give glory together with Your Father who is without beginning and Your all holy, good and life-giving Spirit, now and forever and to the ages of ages.”
The prayer reveals and emphasizes and important disposition for us followers of Christ in relationship to Him as God. We are to be open and receptive to His light, which is revealed in His words from the subsequent Gospel reading. His grace will cause us to understand, and the newly gained knowledge and wisdom should motivate us to righteous action seeking holiness following His commandments. In the morning Gospel reading of today’s Orthros (#6 Luke 24:36-53), it says the risen Christ “opened the mind” of the disciples “to comprehend the Scriptures (v.45). This emphasizes that the Word of God is understood, not by our rationale intellect but by God’s action and revelation.
As the acolytes process with their candles to the solea, and the deacon or priest makes ready, the three-fold Alleluia’s are now sung. In other traditions, they are preceded by Psalm verses much like the antiphons and the Epistle. As we said last week, the presence of candles signifies the light of Christ—the Holy Spirit—which illumines the path to God.
The priest says, “Wisdom, let us arise, let us hear the Holy Gospel. Peace be with you all,” This declaration by the priest, who is truly the icon of Christ, is taken from the very words of Christ Himself when he appeared to the disciples after the Resurrection. St. John records that Christ appeared to them and said, “Peace be unto you…” (John 20:21). The peace given is from Jesus Christ, which we should not only desire but in fact require to hear and understand. The people respond by standing to be fully at attention and honor the mystical presence of our Savior in His words that are about to be read.
As stated earlier, the lectionary determines the actual Gospel reading. After Pascha the lectionary takes us through the Gospel of John for eight weeks until Pentecost, the Gospel of Matthew until the Feast of the Holy Cross in September, the Gospel of Luke through Triodion, and the Gospel of Mark through Great and Holy Lent. Thus, four times per year, we walk with Jesus listening to His life-giving instructions and witnessing His miracles. Each time we stop short of the passion and resurrection narrative. Those are read from all four Evangelists during Holy Week.
To emphasize its importance, the Gospel lesson is always read last in a series of readings. Just like the highest-ranking clergy generally walk at the end of any procession. It also demonstrates the general scriptural principle that the first shall be last. We must remember that dignity of office carries with it the dignity of service to others, which in turn bears the requirement of humility. After the Gospel reading is complete, the faithful exclaim, “Glory to You O Lord, glory to You.” It is also exclaimed before the Gospel reading to underline our reverence and respect for it.
From the early times, following the reading of the Gospel, there has been a spoken interpretation of the Epistle or Gospel or both. This also follows from the Jewish synagogue practice. Preaching the Gospel is one of the most fundamental duties of the Christian ministry. Jesus Himself took many opportunities to do this (see Mark 6:2-4; Luke 4:16-30). Similarly, in the middle of the second century, Justin Martyr indicates that immediately after the readings, the celebrant gives a speech exhorting all the people to imitate those things with which the lesson is concerned. Whether the priest or bishop is a great, mediocre or poor homilist, if he has sought to do his best to actualize the saving words of St. Paul and our Lord Jesus, and if the faithful have done their best to receive these words, then the Holy Spirit will help complete what is lacking in both the speaker and the listener to effect synergistic learning, growth and maturation for both and the community as a whole.
In conclusion, we have completed our journey through the Liturgy of the Word. The Church fully understands the power of language, how it can shape and form the minds of people and subsequently their actions. In today’s Gospel reading from the Tenth Sunday of Luke (13:10-17), Jesus healed the woman with a spirit of infirmity, not with medication, not with the touch of His hand, but with His words, “Woman, you are loosed from your infirmity” (v.12). Words have great power and the words of our Lord have the greatest power of all. We who habitually come late and miss the Liturgy of the Word, we who miss or dismiss the Epistle, Gospel and Homily, we are like the ruler of the synagogue whom Jesus called a ‘hypocrite’ (v.15) because we, pronounce ourselves Christian and Orthodox but deny the power of God’s word regardless of who it comes through. The Word of God is equally as powerful, and it is a necessary predicate to receiving, later in the liturgy His Body and Blood. Amen!