Sunday, September 18, 2022

The Sunday Resurrection Gospels of the Byzantine Rite

Strange as this may seem, the Roman Rite is very unusual in having as many propers for the individual Sundays of the year as it does, in both the Mass and the Divine Office. To give just one simple example: in the season after Pentecost, each Sunday Gospel has its own antiphons for the Benedictus and Magnificat which are taken from it. In the same period, the Ambrosian Rite has only four Sunday antiphons for either canticle, which are said in rotation, and whose texts are taken from the canticles themselves. In the Ambrosian Mass, there are six sets of prayers and prefaces for the Sunday Masses after Pentecost, which are also said in rotation. The Mozarabic Rite has only three Offices for all the Sundays of the same period, and only seven Masses.

St John of Damascus and his foster-brother, St Cosmas of Maiuma, from the Menologion of Basil II, ca. 1000 A.D. The Octoechos is traditionally attributed to St John, who was certainly an outstanding composer of liturgical music and poetry, but the book has undergone many evolutions since his time. Many of the attributions of authorship in Byzantine liturgical books are now regarded as historically uncertain. (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)
The Byzantine Rite is therefore more typical than not in having eight Sunday Offices of the Resurrection, which are arranged according to the eight musical tones, and said in a rotation that is very rarely interrupted. (The book in which these are set out is called the Octoechos (Ὀκτώηχος), or “book of eight tones” in Greek; in Church Slavonic, this title is either transliterated as “Октωихъ”, or translated as “Осьмогласникъ.”) [1] On a good number of Sundays (e.g. those of Fore-Lent, Lent, and the two-week Byzantine Advent), proper texts of the season are added to those of the Octoechos, but do not displace them. At the Divine Liturgy, which is in almost every way much less variable than the Roman Mass, each Sunday has its own Scriptural readings, but the chants that precede them also repeat on the eight-week cycle, and the other variable chants of the day (the tropar and the kontak) are borrowed from the Office, also on that cycle.
The first page of the 13th century Vienna Octoechos, alias Codex Hankensteinianus (ÖNB Cod. Slav. 37), copied out in the Kingdom of Galicia-Volhynia, a region which is now part of Ukraine; currently in the National Library of Austria in Vienna. (Image from Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0)
There is, however, a very important exception to this arrangement, one that touches on almost every Sunday of the year. At the longest and most complicated Hour of the Byzantine Office, known as Orthros, a Gospel of the Resurrection is sung almost every Sunday. These are arranged on an eleven- week rotation, which starts on the Sunday after Pentecost, the Byzantine feast of All Saints, and runs in order until the last Sunday of the following Lent inclusive. The eleven Gospels are:
  • 1. Matthew 28, 16-20 (Christ’s meeting with the disciples on the mountain in Galilee, and the Great Commission.)
  • 2. Mark 16, 1-8 (The women at the empty tomb.)
  • 3. Mark 16, 9-20 (The appearances of Christ to Mary Magdalene, to the disciples on the road to Emmaus, and to the eleven disciples; the Ascension, and the preaching of the disciples.)
  • 4. Luke 24, 1-12 (The women and St Peter at the empty tomb.)
  • 5. Luke 24, 12-35 (Peter at the empty tomb, and Luke’s much more detailed account of Christ’s appearance to the disciples on the road to Emmaus.)
  • 6. Luke 24, 36-53 (Christ’s appearance to the disciples; the Ascension)
  • 7. John 20, 1-10 (Mary Magdalene, Peter and John at the empty tomb.)
  • 8. John 20, 11-18 (Christ’s appearance to Mary Magdalene in the garden.)
  • 9. John 20, 19-31 (Christ’s appearance to the disciples on the day of the Resurrection, and to St Thomas eight days later, the Gospel of Low Sunday.)
  • 10. John 21, 1-14 (Christ’s appearance at the sea of Tiberias)
  • 11. John 21, 15-25 (Christ’s words to St Peter, and the epilogue of St John’s Gospel).
This series originated in the ancient Rite of Jerusalem, in which these Gospels were read during Bright Week, as the Eastern churches call the octave of Easter. With some variations in the arrangement, it became part of the Byzantine Rite in the tenth century. It includes all the chapters about the Resurrection from all four Evangelists, except the first 15 verses of Matthew 28, which are reserved for the Easter vigil.
On Palm Sunday, there is a proper Gospel (Matt. 21, 1-11; 15-17), and on Easter, there is none. After Easter, six of them are read in an order unique to the season (1, 4-7, 3), and on Pentecost, the Gospel is just the first five verses of the ninth one, in which Christ imparts the Holy Spirit to the disciples. Many of the greater feasts of Our Lord, Our Lady and other Saints have their own proper Gospel for Orthros. If a feast of the Lord falls on a Sunday, as Christmas does this year on the Gregorian calendar, its Gospel replaces that of the Resurrection.
Each of the Resurrection Gospels carries with it three hymns of Orthros. (In Byzantine terminology, “hymn” is the generic word for compositions which are like the antiphons of the Roman Rite, but tend to be rather longer. They are nothing like the Western hymns arranged in stanzas.) This makes for a total of 33 different texts, so here I give just an example, those which correspond to the fourth Gospel, which is said today, the 15th Sunday after Pentecost on the Gregorian Calendar.
Ss Peter and John at the Empty Tomb; from a Coptic Gospel book of the 12th century.
After the Canon, the longest part of the service, a hymn or set of hymns called exapostilaria are sung. When Orthros is said of a Sunday, the first exapostilarion is taken from the Resurrection Gospel said earlier on, followed by “Glory be”, then repeated and followed by “Both now and forever,” after which a different one is sung in honor of the Virgin Mary.
The Gospel, Luke 24, 1-12: On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, they came to the sepulcher, bringing the spices which they had prepared, and they found the stone rolled back from the sepulcher. And going in, they found not the body of the Lord Jesus. And it came to pass, as they were astonished in their mind at this, behold, two men stood by them, in shining apparel. And as they were afraid, and bowed down their countenance towards the ground, they said unto them, “Why seek you the living with the dead? He is not here, but is risen. Remember how he spoke unto you, when he was in Galilee, saying, ‘The Son of man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and the third day rise again.’ ” And they remembered his words. And going back from the sepulcher, they told all these things to the eleven, and to all the rest. And it was Mary Magdalene, and Joanna, and Mary of James, and the other women that were with them, who told these things to the Apostles. And these words seemed to them as idle tales, and they did not believe them. But Peter rising up, ran to the sepulcher, and stooping down, he saw the linen cloths laid by themselves; and went away wondering in himself at that which was come to pass.
The Exapostilarion: Being radiant with the virtues, let us see as we stand in the life-bearing tomb the men in radiant garments, beside the Myrrh-bearing women who incline their faces towards the earth; let us be taught of the Resurrection of Him who ruleth over heaven, and run towards life in the tomb with Peter, and wondering at what has been done, let us remain to see Christ. (Glory be… Being radiant… Both now and forever…)
An Armenian lectionary dated 1286, with an illustration of the women at the tomb, and St Peter inside it. (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)
The Theotokion: Having spoken “Rejoice!”, Thou didst change the grief of the Forefathers, o Lord, bringing into the world in its place the joy of Thy Resurrection. Therefore, o Giver of Life, through Her who bore Thee, send forth the light that enlighteneth hearts, the light of Thy mercies, that we may cry to Thee, “Thou who lovest mankind, God and Man, glory to Thy Resurrection.”
The Greek imperative form “exaposteilon – send forth” is also a play on the name of this chant, which is called the exapostilarion because originally, two cantors were sent out of the choir into the nave to sing it. Almost all the texts of this genre make references to light, since it was also originally supposed to signal the rising of the sun during Orthros. Those which correspond to the Resurrection Gospels were composed by the Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus (905-59).
The exapostilaria are followed immediately by what the West calls the Laudate Psalms, 148-149-150, and the Greeks call “the praises.” During these, a series of “stikhera” (another kind of hymn) are sung between the verses. After the first part of the doxology, another hymn called a “doxastikon” is sung, which also takes its theme from the Resurrection Gospel. The doxastika of the eleven Gospels were composed by Leo VI, nicknamed “the Wise” (886-912), the father of Constantine VII. [2]
Doxastikon: It was very early in the morning, and the Women came to Thy tomb, o Christ, but the body that they yearned to see was not found; wherefore, as they were at a loss, those who stood there in radiant garments said, “Why do you seek the living one among the dead? He is risen, as He foretold. Why do you not remember His words?” And being persuaded by them, they proclaimed the things they had seen, but the good tidings seemed like foolishness, so dull were the disciples still. But Peter ran, and on seeing, he glorified the wondrous things Thou hadst done for him.
The following video of the All-Night Vigil, a combined service of Vespers and Orthros, was taken this past July 10th at the monastery of St Michael in Kyiv, Ukraine, also known as the Golden-Domed Monastery; the celebrant is His Beatitude Epiphanius I, Metropolitan of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. The Gospel ritual begins at about 1:37:00, the Gospel itself (the one given here above) at 1:41:15. At 2:16:30, a reader does the exapostilaria recto tono, skipping the middle repetition; the doxastikon begins at 2:19:40.  
[1] As with all things Byzantine, exceptions abound, and a little over-simplification saves a lot of explanation. The Greeks now use the term “Octoechos” to mean a book that contains only texts for the liturgies of Sunday, and therefore also call it “Anastasimatarion”, from “anastasis - resurrection.” Another book containing the material for the weekdays is called the “Paraklitiki.” The Slavic churches have retained the older custom by which “octoechos” means all the materials for all eight tones and all seven days of the week.
[2] For more historical information, see Dr Daniel Galadza’s Liturgy and Byzantinization in Jerusalem, chapter 2, pp. 14 sqq.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: