Wednesday, May 10, 2023

The Easter Epistles of the Byzantine Rite

At the Divine Liturgy of Easter Sunday, the Byzantine Rite begins a semi-continuous reading of the Acts of the Apostles and the Gospel of St John, which lasts until Pentecost. I describe it as “semi-continuous” because on several occasions, the readings are placed out of order for one reason or another. For example, John 2, 12-22 is read on Bright Friday, between parts of chapter 3 on Thursday and Saturday; after cleansing the temple, Jesus says “ ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ … But He spoke of the temple of His body.” This is of course one week after Good Friday, the day on which the temple of His body was “destroyed.”
In a previous article, I explained why the Byzantine Rite does not read a Gospel of the Resurrection on Easter itself. The liturgy of Easter Sunday is meant to be understood as part of a unit, together with that of Holy Saturday, at which the Gospel is the whole of Matthew 28. This reading tells of the women at the tomb, their meeting with Christ, the bribing of the guards, Christ’s meeting with the disciples in Galilee, and the Great Commission. And thus, the story of the Resurrection has already been told by the first part of the Paschal liturgy.
A 10th century Greek Epistle lectionary; Bibliothèque nationale de France, grec 382, folios 1r and 2v. – As can be seen from the folio number, this is at the very beginning of the manuscript; Byzantine lectionaries are traditionally arranged according to the order of their liturgical use, starting with Easter. The Acts of the Apostles begins with the decorative letter in the margin of the right-hand page. The epistle reading is traditionally called “the Apostle” in the Byzantine Rite, and an epistle lectionary is also known as a “praxapostolos”, compounding “Apostle” with the Greek word “praxeis – acts.”
In a similar vein, the Epistle of Easter is Acts 1, 1-8, which only mentions the Resurrection in passing, and is mostly concerned with Christ’s charge to the Apostles to await the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. This establishes first of all that it is at Pentecost, the other great baptismal feast, that the Church will begin to fulfill the Great Commission, and furthermore, that it can only be fulfilled with and within the Church. And as with the Gospel, the Resurrection is already proclaimed at length in the Epistles (plural) of Holy Saturday. At the end of Matins, 1 Corinthians 5, 6-8 and Galatians 3, 13-14 are read as a single epistle, titled to the former.
“For Christ our pasch is sacrificed. Therefore let us feast … Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law… that the blessing of Abraham might come on the Gentiles through Christ Jesus: that we may receive the promise of the Spirit by faith.”
The first part of this corresponds to the Roman Epistle of Easter Sunday. The second part anticipates one of the principal themes of the Gospels of the Easter season, the passage from the law of Moses to the grace of Christ, as stated at the end of the Gospel of Easter itself, John 1, 1-17. “For the law was given by Moses; grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.”
At the Divine Liturgy of Holy Saturday, a ceremony designed for the administration of baptism, the Epistle is Romans 6, 3-11.
“… (we) who are baptized in Christ Jesus, are baptized in his death. For we are buried together with him by baptism into death; that as Christ is risen from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we also may walk in newness of life. For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection. … Knowing that Christ rising again from the dead, dieth now no more, death shall no more have dominion over him.”
St Thomas and the Risen Christ; illustration in an early 17th century Armenian Gospel book now in the Bodleian Library at Oxford University. (Image from Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 4.0)
Easter Sunday is the only feast day in the Byzantine Rite on which Vespers has its own Gospel, John 20, 19-25, read at the same hour at which the events it narrates occurred, when the Lord came to the Apostles as they were gathered together in fear, but Thomas was not among them. The following Sunday, this Gospel is repeated at the Divine Liturgy, and completed by adding verses 26-31, the meeting of Thomas with the Risen Lord in the presence of the other eleven.
The Epistle of St Thomas Sunday, Acts 5, 12-20, recounts the miracles which the Apostles performed in the first days after Pentecost, the adherence of many to the Church, the Apostles’ arrest, and their liberation by an angel. This reading is pulled forward, so to speak, by several days, to match this Gospel; having been confirmed in their faith by their meeting with the Risen Lord, and by Thomas’ touching of His glorious wounds, and then by the gift of the Holy Spirit, the Apostles are emboldened to preach the faith, with all the fear instilled by the events of Lord’s passion and death permanently removed.
The following Sunday is dedicated to Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, who came to take care of burying Lord’s body, and to the several women who came to the tomb to anoint it (known as the Myrrh-bearers), and thus became the first to learn of His Resurrection. Following the lectio continua, the reading is Acts 6, 1-7, the institution of the diaconate. The women at the tomb are the first witnesses to the Resurrection, and one of the first seven deacons, Stephen, is the first martyr, i.e. witness, to die for the Faith, and for the proclamation of Christ’s Resurrection to the world.
An embroidered cloth icon of the Burial of Christ, known as an “ἐπιτάφιος (epitafios)” in Greek, an adjective meaning “above the tomb”; in Church Slavonic, it is called “плащаница (plashchanitsa) – the shroud.” At Vespers of Good Friday, this is laid on the altar, and at the end of the ceremony, brought down into the nave and set on a special table, which becomes the focal point of much of the liturgy until Easter night, when it is brought back to the altar, and covered with a white cloth, remaining there until the Easter season is over. Around the inner border are written the tropars of the Sunday of the Myrrh-bearing woman. (1682, from the Benaki Museum in Athens. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)
As I described in my previous article, after the Sunday of the Myrrh-bearers, there is a shift in tenor, and the next three Gospels are chosen in reference to the upcoming feast of Pentecost qua baptismal feast.
The first of these is John 5, 1-15, the healing of the paralytic at the pool of Siloam. This is paired, for obvious reasons, with Acts 9, 32-42, St Peter’s healing of another paralytic, a man named Aeneas, and continues with the raising of the deceased woman Tabitha.
The next Sunday is dedicated to the Lord’s meeting with the Samaritan woman at the well of Jacob, John 4, 5-42. The Epistle, Acts 11, 19-30 (omitting verses 27-28) is out of order with that of the previous day, Acts 12, 1-11. In St John’s Gospel, the Samaritan woman, one whom the Jews regard as essentially no different from a gentile, is nevertheless the first person to whom Jesus says that He is the Messiah. In the Epistle, those who were scattered after the persecution that led to the death of Stephen go to Antioch, and preach the Lord Jesus to the gentiles, and it is there, among the gentiles, that “the disciples were first named Christians.” Therefore, the Epistle and Gospel together speak of the Church’s mission to the gentiles, to “make disciples of all nations”, as Christ commanded at the end of Matthew 28.
On the last Sunday before the Ascension, the Gospel is that of the man born blind whom Jesus heals, John 9, 1-38. Although this man is himself a Jew, the Church Fathers agree in taking his blindness as a symbol of the blindness of the gentile nations given over to idolatry.
In the Epistle, Acts 16, 16-34, Paul and Silas are in the city of Philippi, and expel a divining spirit from a young slave girl who was following them around and loudly proclaiming that they were “the servants of the most high God, who preach unto you the way of salvation.” For this they are arrested and imprisoned, on the pretext that they “preach a fashion which it is not lawful for us to receive nor observe, being Romans.” But of course, it is at the preaching of St Paul, the Apostle of the gentiles, that the Romans and the many nations of their empire will embrace the Jewish Messiah.
At midnight, which is to say, in the time of darkness, as they pray, an earthquake breaks the prison open, and the warden, fearing to be punished for losing his charges, thinks to kill himself. These facts, the darkness, the prison, the intended suicide, represent the despair of the nations lost in the sins of idolatry. But Paul stops him, assuring him that his prisoners have not fled, and so he calls for a light and goes to them, and receives the Faith, just as the blind man is made to see by Christ, the light of the world.
(The tapestry shown to the right depicts the liberation of St Paul from the prison in Philippi; the earthquake is represented by the large male figure in the lower section, similar to the giant Atlas of Greek mythology. This is one of a series made from preparatory designs by Raphael for the Sistine Chapel in the reign of Pope Leo X, 1513-21, now in the Vatican Museums. Image from Wikimedia Commons by Fabrizio Garrisi, CC BY-SA 4.0)
In the Byzantine Rite, Eastertide ends with the Wednesday before the Ascension, but the reading of Acts and St John continues until Pentecost inclusive. The Sunday between Ascension and Pentecost is a special commemoration of the Fathers of the First Council of Nicaea, and the reading from Acts 20 (16-18 and 28-36) is very artfully chosen for the day.
“(S)ending from Miletus to Ephesus, (Paul) called the elders of the Church. And when they were come to him, and were together, he said to them: Take heed to yourselves, and to the whole flock, wherein the Holy Ghost hath placed you bishops, to rule the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood. I know that, after my departure, ravening wolves will enter in among you, not sparing the flock. And of your own selves shall arise men speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them.”
An ecumenical council is, of course, an assembly of bishops, to whom Paul, speaking as an Apostle, gives a special charge to take heed for the Church. (The city of Ephesus, mentioned at the beginning of the reading, would later be the site of another ecumenical council, the third.) The “ravening wolves” and “men speaking perverse things” would then be the heresies that rise up in the Church, and the heretics that invent them.
The first formulaic expression of the Arian heresy was a song that Arius himself taught the people in Alexandria, with the words “There was a time when He was not.” The Gospel on this Sunday is John 17, 1-13, anticipated by several days within the order of the lectio continua, which answers this heresy with the words of Christ Himself, speaking to the Father: “I have glorified thee on the earth; I have finished the work which thou gavest me to do. And now glorify thou me, o Father, with thyself, with the glory which I had with thee, before the world was.”
Mosaic in Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, ca. 1261. Public domain image by Eusebius (Guillaume Piolle) from Wikimedia Commons

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