Tuesday, May 17, 2022

The Easter Gospels of the Byzantine Rite

At the Divine Liturgy of Easter Sunday, the Byzantine Rite does not read one of the various Gospel accounts of the Resurrection, but rather, the Prologue of the Gospel of St John, 1, 1-17. (This is three verses longer than the Roman version read at the day Mass of Christmas, and at the conclusion of almost every Mass.) There are several reasons for this choice, which may seem at first rather counter-intuitive.

Greek Evangeliary, date unspecified; Bibliothèque nationale de France, Supplément grec 27, folio 1r. - St John the Evangelist is shown dictating his Gospel to his amanuensis St Prochoros, who was one of the first seven deacons. As can be seen from the folio number, this is at the very beginning of the manuscript; Byzantine Gospel books are traditionally arranged according to the order of their liturgical use, starting with Easter.
The most ancient Christian heresies, such as Docetism and Gnosticism, denied that the flesh of man could be saved, raised from corruption and glorified. The major Christological controversies which followed them, and which were very much more present to the East, all center on one fundamental point, namely, that it is God Himself who accomplishes the salvation of man, not a lesser being created by Him for that purpose, as heretics like Arius taught. A commonly used text in the cycle of hymns for Sunday Orthros expresses this very beautifully: “You came forth from a Virgin, not as an ambassador, nor as an Angel, but as the Lord Himself, incarnate, and saved the whole of me, a man.”

The Resurrection is the culmination of the salvation of the whole of our nature, body and soul together, which are both raised from the dead with Christ. In verse 16, St John says “we have all received of His fullness, and grace for grace”; this fullness is the totality of salvation accomplished in the Resurrection, including the flesh which the Word became, as stated earlier in the Prologue. The last verse, “For the law was given by Moses; grace and truth came by Jesus Christ,” echoes St Paul’s teaching that “Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law,” (Galatians 3, 13), a theme which becomes prominent later on in the Easter season in the Byzantine Rite.

On a practical level, so to speak, the Resurrection is also proclaimed at the Easter vigil, and at Vespers on Easter Sunday. The Gospel of the former is the whole of Matthew 28, where the Roman Rite reads only the first 7 verses. This Gospel begins with the words “But on the evening of the Sabbath”, as the vigil itself was originally celebrated on the evening of Holy Saturday. (In practice, it is often anticipated to the morning.) The first part tells of the women at the tomb meeting first the angel, then the risen Christ Himself (1-10), followed by the bribing of the soldiers who guarded the tomb (11-15). The final part, the meeting of Christ with the eleven disciples in Galilee, contains His commission to “teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”, a perfect choice for the baptismal ceremony par excellence.

At Vespers of Easter Sunday, St John 20, 19-25 is read; this is the first part of the Gospel which is read in full (verses 19-31) on the following Sunday, known in the East as the Sunday of St Thomas. There are several occasions on which the Eucharistic liturgy and Vespers are celebrated together in a single ceremony, the Easter vigil among them, and therefore a Gospel is read; Easter is the only feast on which a Gospel is read at Vespers apart from the Divine Liturgy. (We may also note here that the Byzantine Rite has a series of eleven Gospels of the Resurrection; these are read in rotation at Orthros of Sunday, and this rotation is hardly ever interrupted.)

The Gospel on Easter Sunday begins a semi-continuous reading of St John which goes on until Pentecost. I say “semi-continuous” because it is occasionally interrupted; the readings follow the order of the Gospel itself closely, but not exactly, and a few passages which figure prominently elsewhere are omitted. St Thomas Sunday is followed by that of the Myrrh-bearers, on which the Gospel is taken from St Mark, 15, 43 – 16, 8. (Mark 16, 1-7 is the traditional Roman Gospel of Easter Sunday itself; in the post-conciliar lectionary, it is assigned to year B.)

A 16th century Russian icon of the Myrrh-bearers at the Tomb. A well-known hymn from Orthros of Holy Saturday says “The angel stood by the tomb and cried to the myrrh-bearing women, ‘Myrrh is fitting for the dead, but Christ has been shown free from corruption.’ ” On the Sunday dedicated to them, this is expanded with the addition of the words, ‘But cry out, the Lord is risen, offering great mercy to the world.’
The period from the Ascension to Pentecost is not counted as part of the Easter season, as it is in the Roman Rite; there are therefore six Sundays of Easter, not seven. The first three being dedicated explicitly to the Resurrection, the three which follow are named for their Gospels, those of the Paralytic (John 5, 1-15), the Samaritan Woman (John 4, 5-42), and the Blind Man (John 9, 1-38). These three form an interesting trait d’union between the two great baptismal feasts, Easter and Pentecost. All three make prominent references to water: the paralytic is waiting to be healed in the pool of Bethsaida, while Christ speaks to the Samaritan woman of the “living water... springing up into life everlasting”, and sends the blind man to wash in the pool of Siloam.

All three also refer prominently to the Law of Moses, and the transition from it to the Law of Christ. The paralytic is told that he is violating the law of the Sabbath by carrying his bed, to which he replies, “He that made me whole said to me, ‘Take up thy bed, and walk.’ ” From ancient times, the Fathers understood this passage as proof that Christians are not required to observe the Law as the Jews did. The Samaritan woman belongs to a sect with which the Jews would not associate, because of their different interpretation of the Law; nevertheless, they receive the revelation of the prophet foretold by Moses. (In John’s Gospel, the Samaritan woman is the first person to whom Jesus says He is the Messiah, in verses 25-26.) The Pharisees claim that Jesus is “not of God” because He healed the blind man on the Sabbath, again, in violation of the Law of Moses; at the end of the Gospel, when Christ asks the blind man, “Do you believe in the son of God”, he confesses “ ‘I believe, Lord,’ and falling down adored him.” (In the Roman rite, a genuflexion is traditionally made at these words, just as it is made on Epiphany when the gentile Magi “falling down adored him.”)

A Christian sarcophagus of the 3rd century, in the Pio-Christian collection of the Vatican Museums. The healed paralytic is shown in the middle, carrying his bed. 
This transition is underscored by the order in which these Gospels are read, with the story of the paralytic in chapter 5 before that of the Samaritan woman from chapter 4.

The pool of Bethsaida is in Jerusalem, the city made holy by the presence of the temple, the center of the Jewish people’s worship under the Law of Moses. The story of the paralytic begins with Jesus going there for “a festival of the Jews”, which Ss John Chrysostom and Cyril of Alexandria both believed was Pentecost, the feast that commemorates the giving of the Law. In the Synoptic Gospels, Christ foretells the destruction of both the Temple and the city; in St John, after the cleansing of the Temple, He proclaims “ ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ … But He spoke of the temple of His body.” (chapter 2, 12-22. In Easter week, this passage is read out of order, on Bright Friday, between parts of chapter 3 on Thursday and Saturday. This is of course one week after Good Friday, the day on which the temple of His body was “destroyed.”)

In John’s Gospel, Christ’s prediction of the destruction of the temple is made to the Samaritan woman. “The woman saith to him, … ‘Our fathers adored on this mountain, and you (i.e. the Jews) say, that at Jerusalem is the place where men must adore.’ Jesus saith to her, … ‘the hour cometh, when you shall adore the Father neither on this mountain, nor in Jerusalem.’ ” The passage ends by saying that many Samaritans believed in Him, a declaration that, with the destruction of the temple, faith in the Jewish Messiah, and hence the worship of God, will pass to the gentile nations that enter the Church.

The blind man is told to wash in the pool of Siloam, which St John himself explains “is interpreted ‘sent’. ” The Greek word used here for “sent – apestalmenos,” is a participle of the verb whose root also makes the word “apostolos – one who is sent.” Although the blind man himself was a Jew, the Fathers understood his blindness to prefigure the blindness of the gentiles, who are illuminated when the Apostles come to them, fulfilling Christ’s commandment to “…teach all nations; baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” In both East and West, but more prominently in the East, “illuminate” and its cognates are very often used to refer to the Sacrament of Baptism.

Therefore, the three Gospels arranged in this particular sequence demonstrate the passage from the old worship in the Temple under the Law, through the Messiah to the Apostles, and hence to the Church.

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