The climax of the first part of the Divine Liturgy is the reading of the Gospel. Unlike the reading of the Epistle, we do not simply read the Gospel. When the Epistle is read the reader simply stands in the midst of the people and chants the words of the apostle. But when the Gospel is read at the Liturgy, we make more of a liturgical fuss. Before reading the Gospel, the deacon censes the Gospel on four sides as the book rests upon the altar. (If this censing is part of a larger censing which for some unknown reason includes censing all of the altar area, the icon screen, and the people, the people can miss that the main point is the censing of the Gospel book as a preparation for reading it.) Then the priest prays that the divine Master may illumine the hearts of all who will hear the gospel so that they may understand His divine gospel teachings. Then he solemnly gives the Gospel book to the deacon, who leaves the altar to take his stand in the midst of the people. He is attended by lights, and sometimes by liturgical fans. The people are told to “stand upright!” That is, if they are slouching, sitting, or leaning against a pillar, he asks them to stand at attention as they would when a king comes among them. The priest blesses them with the Lord’s peace, and only after all this does the deacon begin to read the saving words of the Gospel. These words are like no other words in the world. Jesus Himself said that heaven and earth would pass away, but His words would never pass away (Mt. 24:35). No wonder we stand at attention. We are not reading the words of one who is dead, but the words of One who is alive and is life itself. He stands upon us, and when the deacon reads the Gospel, those who have prepared their hearts can hear Jesus Himself speaking to them through those chanted words. In the Gospel reading the Church does not simply listen to ancient literature. It encounters the living Christ. As Francis Schaeffer once said, He is there and He is not silent. The Lord speaks among us still.
What does all this liturgical fuss mean? In the Gospels we do not merely read the words of Christ. We read about His deeds also. Sometimes He doesn’t say much. Even when He does something as momentous as overturning the primordial and invincible power of death and raises Jairus’ daughter, He makes no speeches. We hear no dramatic and timeless pronouncements, no universal or inspiring sermon. There is no word about the tragedy of death or the preciousness of life, no moral or lesson to be learned. He simply asks the hired group of professional mourners, “Why make a commotion and weep? The child is not died, but is asleep.” Then He enters the room where the girl lies dead and utters two little words, “Talitha kum” (“up child”), and the girl awakens from death, sits up, and begins to walk about, presumably looking for something to eat, since Christ suggested then to her parents that they feed her. We hear no inspiring sermon. We simply observe the power of God.
This means that in the Gospels we do not find divine philosophy or “wisdom to live by”. We find a divine Person to live with, a living Lord who continues to do in His Church the sorts of things He did when He walked the shores of Galilee and the dusty paths of Palestine. Christ is not a philosopher but a King, a king who calls us to do battle with Him under His banner. Christian discipleship consists of entering into His divine life, and taking our own little parts in the divine drama that He continues to work in the world. After Luke’s Gospel concluded, we may read in the opening of Luke’s second volume, The Acts of the Apostles, these words: “The first account I composed, Theophilos, about all that Jesus began to do and teach…” That is, in the Luke’s first account, The Gospel of Luke, we read about what Jesus began to do and teach. In The Acts of the Apostles, we read about what Jesus continued to do and to teach. Jesus was not finished doing and teaching after His ascension. He continued to do and to teach through His Church—that is, through us. The works of the saints constitute Jesus’ continued ministry on the earth. And we are called to be saints as well, and to let the Lord continue to do His works through us. Admittedly His works through you and me will be less impressive and make for less interesting reading than His works through Peter and Paul. But we also are members of His Church, just as Peter and Paul were. When we read His words, we receive His call to fulfill them, and to allow ourselves to add our own little chapter to the ongoing works of the Lord.
What does it mean that the works and words of Christ are the Church’s Scripture? Simply this: that Christianity means a relationship with the living Christ, and of allowing our little lives to reflect His transcendent glory. Christianity is not only about hearing what Jesus says but also about seeing what He does—and not only during the days of His flesh, but also now, through His Church, and through us.