Introduction to Coptic Church Lectionaries
The Coptic Church offers us, through her lectionaries, a fertile program throughout the year. Whether we consider individual daily readings, a month's program, or a season of the year, we find that lectionaries constitute marvelously organized readings, having an exquisite choice of compatible and complementary excerpts from the Holy Bible. Taken as a whole, the program for the entire year is a complete integral unit, whether we consider the Sundays readings, the daily readings, or the feasts and fasts readings. Not only does this integral unit project a clear theological perspective, but it also embodies a spiritual accumulation carrying with it all the wealth and profusion of Orthodox spirituality, for transmission across the millennia to many generations.
The Holy Bible is an essential part of all Orthodox Church liturgical prayers. It is an Orthodox concept that the Bible is the subject of prayer. The word of God accompanied with prayer is the effective power behind all sacraments: "... for it is sanctified by the word of God and prayer." (1 Tim. 4:5) For this reason, all the liturgical prayers of the Church include biblical passages which sanctify us in "the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation." (Eph. 1:13) Through the mystery of the Word, the Holy Spirit comes in all the Church's sacraments. Administering the sacraments, without experiencing the power of the Word, constitutes hollow worship, which stands to impede the sacrament's effectiveness and its work in us: "As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him, ..." (Col. 2:6) Therefore, in order to worship in Spirit and truth, we must walk in the gospel's word of truth. The Holy Bible is a major element in the Divine liturgy; the Church thus offers us Christ's presence: first through His word, then through His body and blood. Put differently, the mystery of Christ's presence is first borne through the word of God which is read in church; Christ is then offered to us as the Redeemer present in body and blood. For this reason, lectionaries in church should be read in the spirit of the collective "liturgical" worship, steeped in appropriate veneration to the presence of Christ. In this regard, Saint Macarius says: "So, if in the visible church the readings and psalms were not fully recited in the Liturgy of the word, in addition to all the relevant rituals, it would be impossible for the celebrant to fulfill the Divine sacrament of the body and blood of Christ. This leads, consequently, to the impossibility of achieving the fellowship, and of having the sacrament sanctified. The resulting worship would then be deficient."(1)
Lectionaries convey the mystery of the gospel, and reveal the spirit of inspiration through which the holy books were written. This is the same inspiring spirit with which these books were assembled, interpreting each book by the Book, in accordance with traditions handed down by our forefathers to successive generations. Therefore, since the Orthodox program does not rely on a single verse for the theological and spiritual study of the Holy Bible, the Church offers each day a number of readings having a specific spiritual and dogmatic theme. fitted in a single all-inclusive fabric. For each day, the Church offers five readings during the rite of Divine liturgy: the Pauline (a section from the epistles of Saint Paul the apostle), the Catholicon (a section from the catholic epistles), the Praxis (a section from the Acts of the Apostles), and the psalm followed by the gospel. Collectively, those five readings, together with the psalms and gospels of the respective day's vespers and matins, convey new and deeper thoughts and insights of the Holy Bible. Organization of the daily readings is such that meanings and understandings are accentuated in a way that would be otherwise imperceptible to us, if each section was read separately. Furthermore, this gives us a patristic perspective of the Book's intent, dating back to the apostles' age, and presents a cumulus of our forefathers' thinking over the intervening generations. In light of those lectionaries, we see that the Holy Bible introduces the Orthodox theological thought in a useful spiritual formulation, suitable and essential for our practical lives. It also offers us the mysteries of the Divine economy, "the mysteries of incarnation and redemption," and their practical application in the Church's sacraments. All this is displayed clearly as an original Biblical thought.
Along with biblical readings, the Church offers us the "Synaxarion", whose reading follows the "Praxis." The acts of our holy forefathers constitute a natural extension to the acts of the apostles, who vanquished the world through the commandments. In this way, the Church presents the Holy Bible, together with its values and teachings, as a living style of life, that triumphed over the world and withstood the test and passage of time. The lives of our fathers who lived the commandments, have illuminated this world's wilderness by Christ's teachings and have sanctified the earth by the proclamation of God's righteousness, working through human weakness.
Furthermore, the Church's ordinance is such that the sermon concludes the readings, by explaining, clarifying and interpreting their inherent spiritual meanings. Sermons, therefore should be stripped of improvisation, and should be in accordance with the church's program throughout the liturgical year. The sermon should be delivered in the appropriate spirit of liturgical worship, thus transitioning the congregation from the Liturgy of the Word to the Liturgy of the Eucharist. This is the reason why a sermon must be delivered in its appointed time after the readings and before sanctification of the oblations, rather than after communion. Put differently, there is no place for a sermon after communion, and after consummation of the sacraments.
Those lectionaries, with their superb organization, are a testimony to the work of the Holy Spirit, both with respect to the instituting forefathers and the preserving Church; their continual presentation thus enriches and stimulates the minds of the Church's successive generations. Furthermore, not only is continuity maintained of a constant flow of spiritual fervor, but also generations receive sound and precise theological thought, as well as an Orthodox faith melding the hearts of fathers and sons. Lectionaries also play an educational and instructional role, since their inherent messages facilitate generations' reception of theological facts, and nurse the mind thus nurturing growth in the knowledge of the truth. Christianity embodies assimilation of a spirit, rather than simply transmission of knowledge.
Lectionaries are administered such that they fulfill this task as well, and their efficacy has been proven in various cultural and social circumstances, in difficult times, and in unstable political environments.
This priceless heritage, handed down to us, is not simply the object of pride or braging; rather, it is a responsibility before God, and before the history of holy salvation. We will all surely appear before the throne of Christ, and give accounts of our gains and losses with respect to the talents we had received: how have we traded them throughout our lives? How much have we deposited on the money-traders' tables? Responsibility for this heritage is a collective one: it is not only the readers' and audiences' responsibility, but also that of the priest, deacon, chanter, preacher, teacher, writer and researcher. This responsibility is more amply characterized in offering the correct word, while faultlessly interpreting the word of truth, to clarify its intrinsic value with no personal input. It is thus better to introduce clear, precise, and understand-able readings without embellishments, than to deliver sermons distorting the intended meaning. The Church traversed many periods of time during which the word was presented without sermons or instruction. The word of God thus offered, was effective in preserving the Christian faith, and in maintaining continuity in handing down Christ's thought and spirit to successive generations. This was a significant contributor - at all times - to the emergence of many saints who witnessed through their perfect knowledge of the holy commandment, despite their having not attained a significant degree of education. This was because lectionaries played a central role in the continuity of Christianity and the Church, even in the darkest ages.
This should not imply in any way that sermons should be discontinued; sermons are necessary - but they must be delivered in the same Orthodox liturgical spirit imparted by the lectionaries. What use are lectionaries, if we were to select a single verse for discussion, and neglect all the teaching which should be presented in accordance with the Church's comprehensive program? Readings lose their value, when we disregard all their spiritual and theological instruction, and when we ignore Christ the Word - offered as a sacrifice of love for our sake - simply to talk about dead behavioral concepts, and to demonstrate our oratorical skills. Sermons are pointless if they fail to transport us into the fellowship of the mystery of Christ in the Eucharist. Indeed, too many sermons are inconsistent with our forefathers' reflections, embodied in the readings; the spirit's fervor is thus lost, along with the soul's joy at its presence before God.
Christ Himself established the sermon's rite; "And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself." A sermon is an interpretation of the Scriptures to proclaim the mystery of Christ; the result is: "... as He sat at the table with them, that He took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they knew Him; and He vanished from their sight. And they said to one another, "Did not our heart burn within us while He talked with us on the road, and while He opened the Scriptures to us?" (Luke 24:27 and 30 - 32)
The manifestation of Christ's presence in the sermon is our hearts' burning within us, propelling us to repentance, thereby preparing our eyes to be opened, to distinguish Christ, at the breaking of the bread.
(to be continued)
"Blessed is he who reads and those who hear ... for the time is near."
(1) Taken from Homily 52, of the second group, of the homilies of Saint Macarius the Great.