Canonical Liturgical Readings from the Fathers

The time of Great Lent has begun, imparting the atmosphere of religious worship a more repentant and instructive spirit. Many parishes try to follow the Typicon as fully as possible, especially during the first week of Lent. It is hardly possible however to fulfil the letter of the church rules in conditions of a modern parish, since Lenten worship is very long and many of its elements, although are historically included in our rite, in reality are omitted even in monasteries. The readings from the Holy Fathers, read during our Lenten pilgrimage constitute one of these elements. What are these readings when they are read, and how can church instructions be applied in modern life?

Readings During Worship Service

Patristic readings are part of divine services since apostolic times. In addition to the Old Testament, the Gospels and the Canonical Epistles, it was also common to read the letters of church primates (for example, Pope Clement’s Epistle to the Corinthians, letters of St Ignatius of Antioch etc.). In fact, some of these epistles were so authoritative that they were locally included in the canon of Scripture, being considered divinely inspired. 

Acts of martyrdom were also read, in memory of the martyrs. These readings formed the basis of the lives of saints, which were also read in church. Readings were not regulated; each church had its own cycle, dedicated to its saints. Over time, a system of liturgical readings developed, tied to different circles of worship, such as the weekly, the Menaion and the Triodion cycles. There are 3 types of readings: the lives of saints, the interpretation of Scripture and catechesis, and finally, the ascetic teachings. 

The Byzantine rite that our church follows, historically developed a series of readings (with varying numbers depending on the degree of solemnity of each holiday), spread throughout the daily cycle of worship. Unfortunately, these readings are omitted  due to the lack of time and other modern realities. According to it, the Sunday all-night vigil is supposed to include 7 readings, and 6 on holidays. The 1st reading takes place at Vespers, after Psalm 34. The 2nd and 3rd readings are attached after the 1st and 2nd kathisma of Matins. The following readings take place after the polyeleos, and on the 3rd and 6th canon canticles. The last one is read before the first hour. The first reading was originally called the Great Reading, because it is taken from the New Testament. The next four are taken from the exegetical writings of the Holy Fathers based on Scripture. The 6th reading is dedicated to the life of the celebrated saint, and the 7th has an ascetical character. The readings of the Synaxarium, the life of St Mary of Egypt (in the 5th week of Great Lent) and the Easter Catechetical Homily of St John Chrysostom present in modern divine services can be viewed somewhat as rudiments of this tradition.  

The Great Reading

The Great Reading was originally the reading of the New Testament, spread over the year. Later it became more and more commonly replaced by the interpretations of saints. The book of Acts, originally read from St Thomas Sunday to Pentecost, is also read on Easter eve. We can observe the remnants of this tradition in our churches just before the Easter midnight office. After Pentecost, the reading of the Apostolic Epistles began. It is also worth noting that the Great Reading is the only part of worship when the Apocalypse of St John the Theologian is read, contrary to popular belief that the Book of Revelation is not read in Orthodox churches at all. The canonical readings not only defined the length of the all-night vigil, but also allowed the singers to rest and created breaks in the prayer tension of the faithful. Additionally, Canon 17 of the Laodicean Council commands to alternate between prayer and readings: “Psalms should not be brought together in one row during services, but intervals should be made with readings for each psalm.”

Readings of the First Week of Lent

So, what are the readings of the first week of Great Lent according to the Typicon? 

1) The creations of the great “father of repentance” St Ephraim the Syrian should be read daily at Matins, after the Kathisma, starting on Monday of the 1st week, until Friday of the 6th week of Lent. . A separate collection of St Andrew’s writings, called Paraenesis, and including about 110 of his works was once commonly used in Russia during these days. 

2) Another special Lenten feature is the reading of the Lausiac History by St Palladius of Galatia after the 3rd kathisma. This reading contains various instructions and miracles of the ancient hermit fathers. 

3)  The Great Laudation of St Theodore the Studite is read at the 1st hour until the end of Lent.

4) The Ladder of Divine Ascent by St John Climacus is read at the 3rd and 6th hours throughout Lent. 

5) The martyrdom of St Theodore Tyrone is read on the Saturday of the first week. 

6) The reading from the Hexameron attributed to St John Chrysostom is held at Matins, after the Kathisma, as early as on Forgiveness Sunday, according to the Typicon. This reading is then continued on the following Sundays of Lent.  

It is indeed impossible to fulfil all the ecclesiastical instructions about patristic readings in modern parish and monastic realities. However, in many parishes and monasteries, the number of kathisma and hymns is under the rector’s jurisdiction, making it is quite permissible to insert any patristic reading into the service, omitting kathisma, which may enrich the service considerably. As to private prayer of a Christian, there is no reason why we shouldn’t choose one of the specified books and make it our rule, reading it at least in small parts during our Lenten journey. The benefits of this will be very tangible. 

About the author

Reader John Nichiporuk,
Master of Theology specializing in Biblical Studies; a member of The Catalog of Good Deeds team

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