The Scriptures in the Liturgy of the Church
It would be hard to overestimate the importance of the Scriptures in the liturgical life of the Church. Since the Church inherited much of its liturgical praxis from Judaism, the reading of the scriptures has been central to its worship from the earliest period, just as it was central to the worship of the synagogue.
This is clear from the description of Christian worship which St. Justin Martyr offers the Roman public in his second-century Apology. In that work, Justin is concerned to clear the Christians of the often-levelled charges of gross indecency (fueled by rumors of Christians exchanging “the kiss” between “the brothers and the sisters”), and of cannibalism (fueled by rumors of Christians “eating the Body and the Blood” of Christ). He therefore took pains to explain what Christians actually did (and did not do) at their services.
He begins his description of the Sunday service by saying, “On the day called ‘Sunday’ all who live in cities or in the country gather together in one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits. Then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs and exhorts us to imitate these good things.”1 From this, we see that a fixed lectionary had not yet been produced in the mid-second century, and also that the readings from the New Testament (the “memoirs of the apostles”) and the Old Testament (“the writings of the prophets”) took some time. This was followed by the sermon of the bishop (“the president”).
This emphasis on reading scripture as an invariable feature of Christian worship continues in the Orthodox Church to this day. Much of the Divine Liturgy consists entirely of scripture, including the three antiphons (from the Psalms and the Beatitudes in the Slavic tradition), the prokeimenon (which introduces the theme of the feast day or the reading), the Epistle, the Gospel, and the communion hymn. Even its prayers are suffused with scriptural references and contain many allusions and quotes from scripture. The Psalter in particular finds pride of place in all the Church’s services. Psalms are chanted in profusion at Vespers and Matins, and Old Testament lessons are read during Vespers at Great Feasts, such as Palm Sunday or the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul. Many of the Church’s festal hymns are simply elaborations of the scriptural stories themselves, so that the scriptural narrative is constantly placed before the worshipping faithful.
The reading of the Scripture at each celebration of the Eucharist is an essential element. Without the combination of both Word and Sacrament, of the Scripture and the Eucharistic Chalice, the manifested fullness of the Liturgy would be impaired. Separating the Word from the Sacrament so that each becomes a separate “subject” and object of study, is harmful to the life of the Church. As Fr. Alexander Schmemann says, “The Church’s essence as the incarnation of the Word is realized precisely in the unbreakable link between the word and the sacrament. …The word presupposes the sacrament as its fulfillment, for in the sacrament, Christ the Word becomes our life.”2
Thus, the reading of the Scriptures at the liturgical gathering prepares us for and leads us to the Chalice. In both Word and Sacrament, we meet Christ, who works in our hearts to transform us. That is why we speak to him just before we partake of the word of the Gospel and of the Chalice: before the Gospel is chanted by the deacon at the Divine Liturgy, we speak to Christ, crying out, “Glory to You, O Lord, glory to You!” And just before we approach His Chalice, we also speak to him, saying, “I believe, O Lord, I confess, that You are truly the Christ, the Son of the living God. I believe that this is truly Your own most pure Body, and this is truly Your own precious Blood.” In both Word and Sacrament, we encounter Christ Himself who speaks to us and gives Himself as food to the faithful. The scriptural word forms an essential part of this total eucharistic gift.
It is a mistake to read the Old Testament as the story of Israel and the New Testament as the story of the Church, considering the first primarily as a Jewish book and the latter as a Christian book. In reality, both the Old and New Testaments reveal Jesus Christ, but with this difference: the Old Testament looks forward to Christ, whereas the New Testament looks back to him. In the former, Christ is foreshadowed; in the latter, He is remembered. In both, He is the main subject and the key to understanding the entirety of the Scriptures. The Old Testament, viewed apart from the life of Jesus of Nazareth, simply ends, cut off on a note of fervent expectation and hopeful waiting with the promised hope unfulfilled.
The Old Testament story narrates the history of Abraham and his descendants from their sojourn in Egypt, their time in the Promised Land, and their apostasy and subsequent exile. It then describes their return to the Promised Land, where they waited for the glory and restoration they were promised by the prophets. That glory never came. God promised through the prophets that they would not only return to Palestine, but that He would return to his Temple and exalt them to glory in the world so that the entire world would come to worship the God of Israel. He promised that the latter splendor of the Temple would be greater than the former splendor (Hag 2:9), for He promised that He would return to the Temple and would let his glory be seen by all the world. But the promised glorious restoration never came.
The first Christians shared this perplexity, and this fevered waiting. But when God raised Jesus from the dead and glorified him, this put the entirety of the Hebrew Scriptures in a new light. The promises for glory were to be fulfilled not in an exalted nation, but in an exalted Messiah. Jesus explained that the prophetic promises for restoration, glory, divine return to the Temple, and the worldwide turning of the nations to Israel’s God were to be fulfilled in him (Luke 24:44-47). He was the key that unlocked and solved all the puzzles in the Hebrew Scriptures and brought them all together in a single coherent narrative. Christian exegesis was therefore not a matter of taking a verse or two from the Old Testament out of context and applying it to Jesus. It involved seeing how his life, when laid over the Hebrew Scriptures like a grid, made it all finally make sense.
The Fathers were emphatic and unanimous about this. Thus St. Ignatius of Antioch wrote early in the second century, “The beloved prophets had a message pointing to him, but the Gospel is the imperishable fulfillment.”3 St. Epiphanius wrote in the fourth century, “All that God had anywhere ordained by the Law, whether in times, in figures, in revelations of future good things, was clarified when our Lord Jesus Christ came and showed its fulfillment in the Gospel.”4 And thus St. Leo wrote in the fifth century, “Christ is the end of the Law, not by annulling, but by fulfilling what is signified.”5
The Church values the Old Testament Scriptures because in them it finds Christ revealed. It reads the Old Testament using the prophetic tools of allegory and typology; it reads the New Testament as history6 In both cases, the Church’s aim is to recognize the Lord Jesus in the pages of the sacred texts.
St. Justin Martyr, Apology, chapter 67. ↩
Alexander Schmemann, The Eucharist (Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1987), 68. ↩
St. Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Philadelphians, 9.1. ↩
St. Epiphanius, Panarion, 33.9. ↩
St. Leo, Sermon 63.5. ↩
The Gnostics used allegory in reading the New Testament texts also, since they had little or no interest in the historical Jesus. The Church (with very few exceptions) resisted the temptation to read the New Testament with the same tools of allegory with which it read the Old Testament. ↩