TEXTS – ORTHODOXY
Epistle, Gospel and Sermon
Fr. Stephan Anagnostopoulos, Greece
God speaks to us through the Sacred readings. The reading from Holy scripture tell us about Jesus’s life and how to follow His teachings. Gospel means “good news.” Both the Gospel and the Epistle readings are meant to inspire us with the good news about God’s love for all of us.
First the Epistle is read. The Epistle is a letter that was written by Saint Paul and other apostles and deemed by the Church to be Holy Scripture. At the beginning we are called to be attentive, to listen closely as we are about to hear God’s wisdom. Then there is the “prokeimenon.” This is a short verse from the Psalms that reveal God’s wonders to us. The reading symbolizes the revelation of the divine mysteries by the Prophets and anticipation of the Kingdom of God on earth. Originally it was a whole psalm chanted in antiphons.
Why is that the Epistle comes before the Gospel? We have an answer given by Saint Nicholas Cabasilas:
“What is said by the Lord Him self is the most perfect revelation, compared to that which is said by the Apostles. And since we mentioned that way is performed in the Divine Liturgy is revealed gradually, there is an upward, gradual journey that is why as we are moving from lower to higher, we first read the Epistle readings and then the Gospel readings” (Saint Nicholas Cabasilas, P.G. 150, 416C).
At the end of the Epistle reading we sing, Alleluia, which is an exclamation of joy which is sung majestically, slowly and melodically. Its actual meaning is “Glorify the Lord God!” It is the hymn of the Angels. It arouses our souls so our heart can turn towards heaven.
Before the reading of the Holy Gospel the priest will cense the Holy book read the following prayer.
“Shine in our hearts, O Master, Who lovest mankind, the pure light of Thy Divine Knowledge, and open the eyes of our mind to the understanding of Thy Gospel teachings; implant in us also the fear of Thy blessed commandments, that trampling down all desires of the flesh, we may enter upon a spiritual manner of living, both thinking and doing the things which are well-pleasing unto Thee; for Thou art the illumination of our souls and bodies, O Christ our God, and unto Thee we ascribe glory, together with Thine Eternal Father, and Thine All-Holy, Good, and life-giving Spirit, now and for ever, and from all Ages to all Ages. Amen”.
Before the Gospel is read the Priest will proclaim, “Wisdom, Stand upright. Let us all hear the Holy Gospel. Peace be to all”.
From the ancient times the proper way to offer respect was to stand attentively. This is the proper way of prayer as well. We stand in total silence and respect and listen to the Holy reading from the Holy Gospel in peace.
During the time when the Gospel is being read those entering into the church are to remain attentive in the Narthex and not to enter the nave of the church.
Paul tells us in his letter to the Corinthians (4:3-6) that, often, the Gospel lesson is concealed and incomprehensible because satan has blinded those who are unfaithful and unrepentant. This spiritual darkness is overcome with the Light of the truth of the Gospel. As Saint John the Theologian says,
“…light came into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For everyone that doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light , lest his deeds should be reproved. (Jn 3:19-20)”.
Therefore the priest will ask the Lord to “shine in our hearts” with the “pure light of Thy Divine Knowledge.” It is important to read the New Testament on a daily basis. This is how our soul is illumined and our will strengthened to carry out His will. The knowledge of God leads us to salvation in union with Him.
Saint John of Damascus says,
“The Holy Bible with its meditation, elevates our mind and places it on the back of the Divine dove in order to carry us wit its sliver wings to the Son and the Word of God, Who reigns in the Kingdom of Heaven, to the Heir of the Planter of the noetic vineyard!”.
Here is a story from a monk on Mount Athos.
There were guests coming to see the Abbot of the Monastery and one of his spiritual children informed the Abbot:
” Elder, they are asking to see you.”
“Who?,” he replied.
“Three theology teachers from the world.”
“And what do they want?,” he asked.
“They want you to tell them words of wisdom.”
He replied, “Tell them, read the New Testament and the Psalter on a daily basis. They have even forgotten what color these sacred books have! The Gospel says it all. Solves it all. Has all the knowledge, all the wisdom, all the life! You go and tell them that!.”
The monk told them what the Elder had said and they left in disgrace and in deep thought.
Following the Gospel reading a sermon is given by the priest to help us understand the readings for this day (often times the sermon today is given just before the Dismissal.) When Jesus sent His disciples into the world to teach to all nations he told them, “An that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations” (Lk 24:47). Apostle Paul preached, “repent and turn to God” (Acts 26:20). This is the preferred main message of the sermon, repent and return to God. The sermon is a continuation of the lesson from the Holy Scripture. It is to help us be illuminated by their teachings.
In the first part of the Liturgy which we are now completing, the Gospel has the first place on the Holy Table. Upon the completion of the reading of the Gospel, it is set aside and the Holy Antimension is unfolded on which the Precious Gifts will be place at the conclusion of the Great entrance.
From the book: Fr. Stephan Anagnostopoulos, Experiences During the Divine LIturgy