So now we come to the first of the two climaxes of the Divine Liturgy, the high point of the Liturgy of the Catechumens; namely, the readings from Holy Scripture.
While the Trisagion is being completed, the reader, or someone capable of assuming this task, if there be no tonsured reader in the parish, approaches the solea, receives the Apostle (Epistle Book) from the priest and prepares to intone the lesson, a reading appointed for the day.
In the early church, there were more readings than offered nowadays. For example, in the Liturgy of St James there is a provision for a prophetical reading from the Old Testament. This points to the original way in which the Holy Scriptures came down to us. All of the canonically approved texts to be read in the Liturgy (apostle and Gospel) were eventually assembled into one place, and bound together. This is what we call the New Testament. Liturgically, the New Testament is made up of the two liturgical books (Apostle and Gospel), along with the non-liturgical book, Revelation.
New-comers to an Orthodox service of worship notice right away that the manner of speaking in the church differs from that which one finds in our everyday world. Ours is a special kind of language, elevated, classical (“thees and thous”), a kind of “sing-song,” either in what the ancients called recto tono, “straight-chant,” or according to ancient, well-established melodies. Even our churchly way of reading differs from that of secular society: the reader intones, or reads out in a melodic fashion, plainly but piously, confidently yet compunctionately. St John of San Francisco said that chanting and reading in a proper church fashion delivers the message contained much deeper into the souls of those listening than mere recitation, as when one reads out a newspaper article, or delivers an academic paper. Because readers require specialized training, the Church includes them among the minor clerical orders.
The choir (or reader) intones the prokeimenon, “a text before (another) text,” a “pre-text,” if you will. It consists of a refrain along with a verse, both drawn from the Psalter. These are properly sung according to one of the eight liturgical tones, but sometimes are merely read out. The prokeimenon prepares us for the lesson from the Apostle. Once again, an important liturgical moment (the reading of the Apostle) is anticipated by a special action (the intonation of the prokeimenon), so that our hearing is adjusted spiritually to take in the profound message. In parishes where the prokeimenon is properly intoned, the laity can learn to sing these along with the choirs.
Now we are ready to hear the Apostle: a lesson either from the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, or from one of the apostolic epistles. We do not read from the Book of Revelation. There is always a specific lesson appointed for the specific day of the week in a given order of weeks after the previous Pascha, and frequently another one for the saint or commemoration of the calendar date. We select one of those to be read out, according to specific rules. Everything is done in the Church “decently and in order,” with no one, not even the priest, exercising his own willfulness apart from the common and holy tradition. We may listen to the apostolic reading seated and with attentiveness. Notice that the deacon said, “Let us attend!” Try not to look at other persons and ignore the usual distractions for this moment.
Now, as the choir begins to sing the alleluiarion, the triple “Alleluia,” and the priest is censing about the altar, we are ascending even higher. Everyone stands. The smoke of the incense honors the Lord and indicates the climax of this section of the Liturgy. The Apostle warmed our heart for Christ. Now Christ our God will directly speak His life-bestowing Word through the Holy Gospel. No layman ever reads the Gospel liturgically. That role is designated for deacon or priest. It is always chanted and accompanied by lights. Even before the Gospel is read, we engage in the first substantive liturgical dialogue with the presiding celebrant. He encourages spiritual readiness, “Wisdom! Let us attend…” and grants the dominical blessing, “Peace be to all.” This is what Jesus said when He appeared to His disciples and apostles after the Resurrection. They were locked up in their chamber “for fear.” Now Christ gives us the peace, as we are locked up in the chamber of our heart and beset with many fears. How often did Our Lord say, “Do not fear”!
The Gospel-book lies front and center on the Holy Table, always the prominent position. The book itself is usually very ornate and costly, its binding and covers made of fine metal, enameled or set with stones. When this majestic Book is opened, we stand attuned as described above for the Apostle. Before and after the Gospel reading, we sign ourselves with the cross while saying, “Glory to Thee, O Lord, glory to Thee.” The sign of the cross is the most profound act of prayer which the limbs of our body are capable of. At important liturgical moments like this, but also in or out of the church temple, by day or by night, during any endeavor, and facing any temptation, we can make the sign of the cross and immediately be refreshed with a vibrant spiritual realization of Christ’s holy presence.