A while ago I had some Evangelical friends who referred to themselves as “red-letter Christians.” The term, which seems to be an exclusively Protestant thing, refers to editions of the Bible that print Jesus’ words in red, leaving the rest of the text is in the usual black.
Although I never described myself as a red-letter Christian, I liked the concept of focusing on obedience to Jesus’ teachings rather than on various controversies and doctrinal arguments, which are legion—and impossible to keep track of—in the Protestant world. I was exhausted by all the divisions and by the uncomfortable observation that some of the people who quoted Scripture most fluently were also cold and unloving. (Yes, I judged them as being judgmental. Yes, I have confessed this. More than once.)
Can’t we just focus on the red letters—the things Jesus said—and shut up about all the other stuff, already? (Was that rude? One more bad attitude to confess. *sigh*)
The “red letter” term also carries political connotations, with an emphasis on social-justice issues. This of course has led to ongoing controversy within the Protestant world about the entire concept. A casual Google search will provide thousands of discussion results, with lots of Scripture verses pinging back and forth, about how and if Jesus’ teachings should be applied in law and society. (This argumentation is entirely predictable. When a religious movement derives its name from the word “protest,” conflicts and disagreements are a given.)
My red-letter friends were not particularly political. Instead, they were frustrated with the arguments about faith and practice within and between denominations, and their red-letter designation meant that they were simply trying to follow Jesus without splitting theological hairs.
From an Orthodox perspective, their emphasis on Jesus’ life and words is good. My friends did not have the unchanging teaching of the ancient Church as a part of their Christian lives, but in their reverence for the Gospels, they were on to something.
The Little Entrance and the Primacy of Jesus’ Words
The services of the Church are soaked in Scripture, but the priority of the Gospels is especially on display in the portion of the Divine Liturgy known as the Little Entrance. (The Little Entrance occurs before the Great Entrance, which is the procession through the nave, with the priest and attendants carrying the bread and wine for Communion.)
After the epistle reading, the priest prepares for the Gospel reading by praying for understanding among the hearers and for our lives to be transformed by the words of our Lord. A clergy member then elevates the Gospel book with reverence and faces the people to chant its holy words. If my mind has been wandering (theoretically speaking, of course), the solemn ritual of the Gospel reading helps me to refocus.
In parishes that include pews, the Church’s red-letter priority is especially evident. The congregants remain seated while listening to the day’s epistle reading. But with the elevation of the Gospel book in the Little Entrance, we literally stand at attention, proclaiming with our bodies the power of Jesus’ life and teachings. Before we hear His precious words and deeds, we sing, “Glory to You, O Lord, glory to You!”
The Gospels: Set Apart with Honor
Another clue to the primacy of Jesus’ words in the Church is the Gospel book itself. When the priest opens the embossed, golden book and finds his place in the thick set of pages, many people assume that he is searching through a complete Bible, much like a large family Bible but with extra bling on the outside.
But the Gospel book is named quite literally. The gold covers, featuring an icon of the Crucifixion on the front and the Resurrection on the back, each surrounded by the four Evangelists, do not enclose the Old and New Testaments; the pages include only the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. (An interesting bit of trivia: In Greek practice, the passages are laid out in the order of readings for the ecclesiastical year, with a section in the back containing the readings for Matins and special occasions. In Slavic churches, however, the Gospel texts are printed in their canonical order, with margin annotations and a table of readings in the back.)
Also, the golden covers are not a matter of liturgical excess. You will not find a leather-bound Gospel book in a small, poor parish (although cloth may be used). The use of gold has meaning, as does every part of the Divine Liturgy. As a Wikipedia article explains,
Traditionally, the Orthodox will never cover the Gospel Book in leather—the skin of a dead animal—because the words of Christ are considered to be life-giving. Animal skins are also reminiscent of the Fall of Man, when God fashioned garments of skin for Adam and Eve after their disobedience. The Apostle Paul speaks of Christ being the “New Adam” (1 Cor. 15:22, 47–49), and the Orthodox understand Christ as coming to clothe mankind in the original “garments of light” which Adam and Eve lost in Paradise…. Gold is the earthly element which best symbolizes the glory of Heaven.
Why doesn’t the Church give such honor to the entire Bible? After all, we affirm St. Paul’s words to his disciple, Timothy: “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (1 Tim. 3:16). And why don’t we stand as we listen to selections from the letters of St. Paul or St. Peter? The answer to both questions is simple: The words of the other biblical authors are not the words of the God-Man, Jesus Christ.
To put it bluntly, their words are not as important as His.
Depending on your upbringing, that can be a scandalous statement. In Protestant churches, the 500-year-old doctrine of sola scriptura has tended to democratize the Scriptures, giving each book of the Bible equal weight in the minds of many believers. I personally don’t know anyone who would rather read Leviticus than the Gospel of Luke, but some people can feel threatened by the idea that not all divinely inspired words are equally relevant to the Christian life.
The Orthodox Church, however, does not view each part of the Bible as equally important. As Fr. Evan Armatas explained in his podcast, Orthodoxy Live, Orthodox believers view Scripture “through the lens of the death and Resurrection of Christ, and then through a hierarchy. The gospels are primary, and after that, scriptures cascade from there. Certainly the book of Isaiah is more important in the life of faith than the book of Numbers” (May 6, 2018).
The Home of the Gospels: Within the Church
Regarding a hierarchy of the Scriptures, Orthodox Christianity is truly a red-letter Faith. Even the placement of the Gospel book illustrates Jesus’ centrality to the Church in a very physical way. After a Gospel passage has been chanted, the book is not propped on a shelf or stuffed in a box until the next reading. Its home is on the altar.
In their book Orthodox Worship: A Living Continuity with the Synagogue, the Temple, and the Early Church, authors Benjamin D. Williams and Harold B. Anstall write:
The presence of the Gospel book on the altar throughout the Divine Liturgy is of great significance. During the celebration of the Eucharist, the altar actualizes the Throne of God in the Kingdom; that is, it shows forth the Holy of Holies. And it is here, directly adjacent to the very Body and Blood of Christ, that the written record of the words spoken by the Incarnate God will be revered and exalted…. Only the sacred vessels bearing the gifts and those things essential to the celebration of the Eucharist should be upon the altar, together with the Gospel book. For the Gospel book is a visible and tangible and proclaimed actualization of the Word; it is therefore integral to and inseparable from the Word Himself.
We stand to venerate the Gospel book as an icon of Christ, covered in gold fit for the King, as His words communicate the reality of the Kingdom of heaven to our hearts.
Let us attend.