St. Mary Orthodox Church

Cambridge, MA

Growing Spiritually Through Liturgy: The Liturgy of the Word

Presentation given by David Vermette on Sunday, January 6, 2008

The public portion of Liturgy is divided into two main parts: The Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist.  As the invocation of the Holy Spirit upon the gifts is the highlight of the Liturgy of the Eucharist, the highlight of the Liturgy of the Word is the reading of the Gospel of the Incarnate Word of God, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  In the Gospel reading we receive Christ Himself through the sense of hearing as in the Holy Communion we receive Him through the sense of taste.  The readings from Holy Scripture and the Eucharist are both means by which we become partakers of the Divine Nature.

Now, if Jesus were to come visibly every Sunday and stand behind me in the Royal Doors and speak to us I have a feeling that we would pay rapt attention to every word that came from His mouth perhaps with equal parts love and fear.  But in the reading of the Gospel He does come to teach us every Sunday at about 10:45 A.M. 

St. Maximos the Confessor teaches that the Gospel reading and the liturgical actions that immediately follow it represent the end times.  That is to say that they are a Second Coming of Christ to this Earth in Glory.  We prepare for this glorious coming in the Little Entrance where the altar servers and the Deacon and Priest come from behind the iconostasis with candles and sacred objects and the Deacon holds up the book of the Gospel.  This book contains only the Gospels and not the whole New Testament and it is arranged not in the order in which our Bibles are at home but according to the readings of the Liturgy.  This sacred book is often bound in gold; our church has a very special version of that book in the Holy Place where it is encrusted with precious stones and it is placed on a throne like a king in his glory.  We glorify these words of Eternal Life by binding them with what is most precious among worldly things, in recognition that they are pearls of great price far richer than anything we possess on earth.

The reading of the Gospel and the Epistle is not the only use of the Holy Scripture in the Divine Liturgy, but in fact the entire service is Scriptural.  It contains numerous citations, allusions or paraphrases of Scriptural passages.  I'll cite just three examples.  At the beginning of the Anaphora or Eucharistic Prayer the priest says: "The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God the Father, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, be with all of you."  This is a quotation from St. Paul's 2nd Letter to the Corinthians 13:14.  In the commemorations later on in the Anaphora the priest remembers the Bishops who "Rightly divide the word of thy truth."  This is a reference to Second Timothy 2:15.  Right before the dismissal toward the end of the liturgy the priest acknowledges that, "Every good and perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from thee, the Father of lights."  This is a quotation from the Epistle of St. James 1:17.  An Orthodox scholar analyzed all of these Scriptural references and found that of 237 verses in the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, 124 have their basis in the Old Testament and 113 in the New.  The entire Divine Liturgy is like a cloth dipped into the dye of Scripture.  And this same shade also colors our other services and sacraments, our hymnography, our iconography, and the all of the surgical instruments of Divine Grace by which the Church affects our healing.  All of these Holy things confirm what we read in Scripture and are confirmed by it. 

That may look like a circular argument to some of our logicians but the reason that the liturgical and biblical texts confirm one another is because Scripture, Liturgy and Holy Tradition form a system - a dynamic whole.    To isolate any one of those elements apart from its original context is like pulling a string on a piece of woven cloth, the whole garment begins to unravel.  The Scripture is a book of the Church and is unintelligible apart from Her.  It was written for the Church through the inspiration of the Spirit dwelling within the Church.  Many of the authors to whom the books of the New Testament are attributed, such as Saints Peter, John and James, were Bishops of the Church.  They didn't stand outside the church; they were teachers and leaders of it.  Further it was the Church in the Holy Spirit that decided which books of our present-day Bible were or were not to be included among the Holy Scriptures and this process took as long as 400 years before the same canon of Scripture was accepted everywhere.  And one of the criteria used to determine whether a book was or was not "biblical" was its use in church; part of the reason a given book came to be considered biblical was because it was liturgical.   The Scripture was never intended to be used as a stick to beat the church over the head into submission to a private interpretation.  Rather, our God-bearing Fathers having reached the safe harbor of dispassionate love and having been granted participation in the Uncreated Energies of the Holy Trinity, passed on to the Church not only the Scriptures themselves but a Grace-filled understanding of the Scripture.

Finally today I'd like to look at the Prayer the priest says right before the reading of the Gospel, because this prayer contains a great deal of theology about the correct understanding of the Gospel and its place in the Liturgy.  This prayer is comprised of exactly three sentences.  The first sentence says: "Illumine our hearts, O Master who loves mankind, with the pure light of thy divine knowledge and open the eyes of our minds to the understanding of thy Gospel teachings."  This prayer, then, is a petition for illumination.  Holy Fathers teach that illumination is a stage of spiritual life where one perceives the created world as it really is, free from the filters, prejudices, and presuppositions of our ordinary perceptions.  And the prayer says that it is our hearts which must be illumined by divine knowledge.   The heart in Patristic teaching has a specific meaning; it includes not only our emotions and affections but it is said to be the spiritual center of the human person.  The heart is our deepest identity; it contains within itself our memories, predispositions, aptitudes, values and desires.   This prayer suggests then that the Gospel has the power to illumine and glorify the deepest part of the human Person.  The medieval alchemists tried to transform lead into gold, a baser substance into a finer one.  In this sense the Gospel is alchemical; it is like the mythical philosopher's stone that can transform the baser substance of the heart into gleaming gold reflecting the pure light of God's knowledge.

And since the church does not pray for what is unnecessary, the prayer also suggests that without the illumination of Divine Grace it is impossible to understand the Gospel completely.  The most diligent research, the deepest scholarship, however valuable, will remain inadequate to penetrate the veil without Divine help.

The second sentence of the prayer reads: "Implant in us, also, the fear of thy blessed commandments, that trampling down all carnal desires, we may enter into a spiritual manner of living, both thinking and doing such things as are well-pleasing unto thee."  The prayer suggests that it is only through keeping of the Commandments of Christ that it is possible to transform the desires of the heart, turning it from a carnal focus to a spiritual one.  The prayer teaches that the commandments reign over both our thinking and our doing - that our lives have both an inner and an outer aspect and that both must enter upon a spiritual manner of living; the Word of God enthroned within the heart is Lord of both the visible and the invisible.

The pray ends "For You, Christ our God, are the illumination of our souls and bodies, and to You we give glory, together with thy Father who is from everlasting and thine all holy, good, and life giving Spirit, now and forever and to the ages of ages. Amen."  This final sentence of the prayer teaches us that Christ Himself is the Illumination of the Heart, that the Scripture and the Liturgy point to something beyond themselves; they are revealed to be like trail maps leading up the mountain to the Transfiguration where Christ is revealed in direct experience.  Not satisfied that we should be passive hearers of the Gospel, the Prayer invites us to experience Christ the Light of the World, who, at the Transfiguration showed Himself to be Uncreated Light - illumining the created, material world, the world in which dwell our souls and bodies with the radiance He had with the Father before all worlds.  May Christ our God accept a prayer from unworthy lips that all of us may be granted the illumination of His Gospel teaching through the prayers of our Holy Fathers.  Amen.