In the Orthodox Divine Liturgy, after the Trisagion Hymn comes the chanting of the prokeimenon and of the epistle. In many places the prokeimenon now has practically no purpose or significance, and looks like a verbal tag chanted in haste by the reader to introduce the epistle which follows it, for the people either make no congregational response to the chanting of the prokeimenon or a distinctly minimal one.
Originally of course the prokeimenon was chanted precisely in order to facilitate a congregational response, because the prokeimenon was the refrain they were to sing interspersed among the verses of the psalm that the reader chanted. The prokeimenon then did not serve as an introductory tag to the epistle, but as part of a psalm which was inserted between the Old Testament reading and the epistle. This psalm provided an opportunity for the people to rest from listening and to refresh their attention by singing before listening to the next lesson. (We see this same practice of inserting a psalm between numerous readings in the Vespers of Holy Friday, when the faithful listen to substantial readings from Exodus 33, Job 42, Isaiah 52-54, and 1 Corinthians 1. The prokeimenal psalms there are interspersed between these readings and provide a break from listening.) In today’s usage, the Old Testament reading has dropped away from the Liturgy, leaving the interspersed psalm hanging with not much to do, its once-numerous verses now reduced to a single verse. No wonder in some places even this verse is now omitted; its original function has now become superfluous. One could wish for the restoration of the first lesson and the interspersed psalm, not the further reduction of the psalm’s refrain.
But however the prokeimenon is chanted, after it comes the reading of the epistle, usually from the pen of St. Paul. The reader chants it from the midst of the assembly, facing east along with the rest of the people, for it represents the abiding voice of the apostle still sounding in the midst of the Church. It is too easy to under-value this reading, especially if the deacon insists upon doing the pre-Gospel censing of the Gospel book and much else during the time when the epistle is being read. The deacon may regard it is a kind of liturgical multi-tasking, but it actually serves to denigrate the significance of the epistle. St. Paul should not have to compete with the deacon and the bells on his censer for the people’s attention. His words should command the undivided attention of all—including the deacon.
We can miss also the full significance of the epistles. We regard it as “Scripture”, a holy text, and of course it is. But it is also a personal letter addressed and written to people other than ourselves. In listening to the epistle we are in fact reading someone else’s personal mail. Think of how it would look if we read a letter addressed to someone else in a public place—say a personal letter written by the bishop and addressed to the priest. Wouldn’t this be regarded as a bit odd, and perhaps a little inappropriate? But no one regards the reading of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians as odd or inappropriate, despite the fact that we are not Corinthians and the letter was written to people other than ourselves.
This is because the value of the letter resides not in the personal circumstances which Paul addressed, but in the abiding apostolic witness. These epistles reveal how the apostles dealt with problems in their own day, and thus how they would deal with the same problems should they befall us. The Corinthians were told, for example, that the person who was living in open and serious sexual sin (in this case, living with his step-mother) must be excommunicated (1 Corinthians 5:1f), and so through this particular example we know how the apostles would deal with open and serious sexual sin in our own congregations today. We can learn from these epistles what the apostles thought about who Jesus was, what salvation consisted of, and thus how we must therefore conduct our lives. Because the Church is apostolic, their words and views have an abiding and authoritative significance for us. Paul’s words to the Corinthians are not out-dated vestiges of controversies and cases long dead, but living words of contemporary counsel. No wonder we read them every time we meet to celebrate the Lord’s Eucharistic presence among us.
The epistles also reveal the nature of our salvation—that is a corporate reality, not an individual and private one. If Christianity were a philosophy, it might be embraced and followed privately, without much reference to others who decide to adopt that philosophy themselves. But our faith is not a philosophy, but a family. Each one of the epistles was written to a community, a family, a group of believers who met together every week as the body of Christ. The exceptions of the epistles to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon, prove this rule, for they were written to individuals to give them advice for ruling and living in the church community (see 1 Timothy 3:14-15). Salvation consists of being part of the Church, and of finding our identity and healing within it.
It is easy to zone out mentally during the reading of the epistle, or to regard it as a mere add-on. This is especially so if the homily is routinely based not on the epistle, but on the Gospel reading. But we must not let our attention flag and our minds wander, as if St. Paul had nothing important to say to us that day. We should listen up and pay strict attention. After all, before the epistle is read, the deacon cries out, “Wisdom!” and “Let us attend!” If we want to leave the Church assembly with more wisdom than we had when we entered it, we should indeed attend to what Christ’s apostles say to us.