Sunday, July 27, 2014

The liturgical use of the Apocalypse

One aspect of the Orthodox Church that testifies to the antiquity of our faith is the fact that we do not read the Book of Revelations, or the Apocalpyse of St. John, in Church.   This owes to it being essentially the final book in the Athanasian canon to finally receive universal approval; the West did manage to make liturgical use of it, but for whatever reason, it was never introduced in the East.   The Syriac churches are even more limited, for they read only the Pauline epistles, excluding his pastoral epistles to Timothy, Titus, et al, and also the Catholic Epistles of Peter, John, James and Jude.  

Within the Byzantine Rite, sacred tradition demands that the lectionary be preserved to the fullest extent possible.  That said, one cannot help but wish that the beauty of the Apocalpyse could be heard in our churches.   There are, however, ways by which this can be accomplished, without altering the existing lectionary cycle.

The first, and least invasive way, would be to use the words of the Apocalypse in the composition of a hymn, most likely a Kontakion, to be served in an Akathist service, or another supplemental service such as a Moleben (or Paraklesis).  Additionally, the liberal quoting of the Apocalypse in homilies, particularly metrical homilies of various forms, would provide an effective and non-disruptive means of its introduction.  These hymns could be used to commemorate the feast of St. John the Beloved Disciple. The instructions of our Lord to the various churches also seem most especially suitable for the celebrations surrounding the Sunday of Orthodoxy.

The second, and slightly more invasive approach, would be to avail ourselves of the fact that not all Matins services have a Matins gospel reading.  The Matins gospels are cyclical; the Resurrection Appearances of Christ are read in a continual loop, as it were.   We could perhaps complement this, by at other times introducing a cycle in which the Apocalypse would be read continually through at Matins, and to round things off, additional cycles of Matins Gospel readings might be introduced for days on which there is normally no Gospel, perhaps covering the Acts of the Apostles, or the Prophecies regarding Christ that are read at the Vesperal Liturgy on Great and Holy Saturday.

Since these do represent the introduction of additional content into the liturgy, the use of these new facilities would have to be approved in each case by the local bishop, and their use would surely be a matter of discretion for the individual parish or monastery.  Those desiring to hear the Apocalypse in this manner could do so, whereas those who most commendably wish to preserve the Byzantine Rite in its most exact form would follow that path.   Ideally, at least half of all parishes would adopt the augmentation, but a viable minority would not, ensuring both the preservation of the unaugmented Matins lectionary and the introduction of the enriched Matins gospel cycles. 

There are of course other questions that would have to be addressed, for example, whether or not these other Matins Gospel cycles would imply a Polyeleos service.   Matins is an extremely complicated service; in fact, it is the longest and most complex service in the Byzantine liturgy, ever changing, and almost always abbreviated, often in different ways according to the custom of individual parishes.  Its celebration therefore is a most splendid example of the exquisite way in which we worship God, and we must avail ourselves of every opportunity to explore it more; those parts of it seldom heard ought to be heard more frequently, and every opportunity of improving comprehension and attendance, and providing enrichment, without violating the existing directives of the Typikon, should be seized.

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