I would like to conclude this commentary series on the Divine Liturgy (or at least the first part of the Liturgy, the so-called “Liturgy of the Catechumens”) with a reflection on the reading of the Gospel. In the Liturgy, after the reader chants the prokeimenon and the epistle, the Gospel lesson is then chanted. But it is not chanted without a somewhat elaborate preparation. Prior to the priest taking the Gospel book from the altar table and giving it to the deacon who will read it, the Gospel is censed from all four sides. The Church recognizes the holiness of objects by censing them, so that it censes the holy icons on the icon-screen before the start of the service, the holy Gifts of bread and wine before they are moved to the altar table, and the holy people of God as they assemble for worship. In the same way the holy Gospel book is also censed before it is picked up because the book represents Christ—we show our reverence for Him by showing reverence to the volume containing His words.
It is easy to miss the significance of this censing, since (for some reason unknown to me) the deacon censes not only the Gospel book but also the interior of the altar, the people within the altar, the icons on the icon-screen, and the people standing in the nave. The rationale for the censing is thus easy to lose sight of, as one might suppose the deacon is censing the altar table along with pretty much everything else in church. But he is not censing the altar table; he is censing the Gospel book, which happens to be resting on top of the altar table. The focus and rationale for this censing is even easier to lose if the comprehensive censing is done during the reading of the epistle, for one might then imagine that the censing has something to do with the epistle. It does not. It has nothing to do with the epistle, and everything to do with the Gospel.
The censing of the Gospel book at this point shows the importance of the reading. The epistle is important too, but we do not cense the epistle-book before reading it. The Gospel book, alone among the books we use, is censed before being read. This reveals the supreme importance of those words—among all the other holy words, these words represent the Holy of Holies, the very words of the Master, the ipsissima vox of Christ Himself, and in them Christ even now stands in our midst to speak to our hearts.
Hearing these words brings with it a tremendous responsibility, for we will no longer be able to claim ignorance of the divine will if we fail to carry it out. The Lord warned us, “To whom much is given, much is required” (Luke 12:48), and once we receive the gift of hearing the words of Christ, we will be required to fulfill them. We need therefore to let these words sink not just into our outer ears, but also into our inner hearts. That is why in every Christian liturgical tradition a prayer precedes the reading of the Gospel, asking that we might be worthy of hearing it. The Gospel prayer in our present Liturgy asks that God might illumine our hearts with the pure light of His divine knowledge and open the eyes of our mind to the understanding of His Gospel teachings so that we might think and do such things as are well-pleasing to Him. The prayer, too often said silently, is clearly meant to be said aloud, for it represents not the private devotional prayer of the priest, but the prayer of the entire congregation about to hear the words of the Gospel. It is only after that prayer is said that the deacon dares to read the Gospel to the people of God.
To do this, he stands among them, not reading the Gospel from the ambo at the front of the Church facing the people, but standing in their very midst. That is because it is not the deacon who speaks so much as Christ Himself, dwelling in the midst of His assembled people, and speaking His words. We honour the Lord who thus manifests Himself in our midst by holding candles before the book containing His words, standing as a kind of honour guard around Him. The psalm sung as a prokeimenon between the epistle and the Gospel always has as its refrain the cry, “Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!”, because the words of the Lord always produce joy in the hearts of those who hear them with faith.
Before reading the Gospel, the deacon asks for a blessing, since he is mindful of the importance of the work he is about to do. The celebrant responds by blessing him as he requested, asking that God, through the prayers of the Evangelist whose book he is about to read, may indeed enable him to proclaim the good news with great power, fulfilling the purpose of the Gospel. It is only after receiving this priestly blessing that the deacon reads the Gospel. And the people also require a blessing to hear the words of Christ fruitfully: the priest therefore blesses them also, saying, “Peace be unto all!” The words of Christ are chanted to the cry, “Glory to You, O Lord, glory to You!”, for these are not the words of someone long dead, but those of One even now alive in their midst.
All this extra ritual emphasizes something fundamental, not only about the Gospel reading, but also about the Liturgy as a whole—that in the Liturgy, Christ Himself comes to meet and transform us. Liturgy is not like a funeral, wherein someone offers a eulogy praising someone no longer among them. It is a banquet given by our divine Host who sits among us as we come to His festal table. Even more than that, Christian Liturgy represents the voice of Christ Himself, praising His Father from the midst of His people. That was the insight of the writer of Hebrews 2:11f: the verse from Psalm 22:22, “In the midst of the church I will sing hymns to You” finds its fulfillment in Christ. In the midst of the Church He sings our hymns to the Father, for we are His Body. He stands among us, in the midst of His lampstands (Revelation 1:13), healing us with His Word, feeding us with His Body and Blood. Every Liturgy is our saving rendezvous with this ever-living and saving Son of God.