Red-Letter Christians and the Gospel Book

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.)

[Photo by Susan Holt Simpson on Unsplash]

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.)

[Photo by Ben White on Unsplash]

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.

[Photo of Fr. Jimi Foreso of blessed memory by Rob Horner]

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.

[Photo of Fr. Theodore Dorrance by Rob Horner]

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.

[Photo of altar table by Rob Horner. The Gospel book is in the corner, behind the chalice, with folded cloths on top.]

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.

5 comments:

  1. This argumentation is entirely predictable. When a religious movement derives its name from the word “protest,” conflicts and disagreements are a given.)

    The label, Protestant, was not invented by Protestants, and originally had nothing to do with the
    the theological movement itself.

    To put it bluntly, their words are not as important as His.

    I don’t think this is quite right. The Gospel is something to be proclaimed, it is the announcement that the King has returned, has conquered the enemies, has set up new governance, and sets the new code/Way of living required to be under it’s care and protection. This is what the genre gospel is. Even the fact that the Gospels are gospels shows the mind of the Church because, a gospel, is what was issued when a king had taken over a city/people and laid out the new terms of living in light of the new government.

    So, the difference is not about quality, but about primacy. The Gospels, and this is why in our
    Church, any portion of a Gospel is the Gospel – because all of the contents of a Gospel – tell the
    true story of how God became King (I borrowed that from NT Wright). This is also why, in a Protestant Church, you couldn’t read Matthew’s genealogy for instance, and say that the Gospel
    was proclaimed.

    Sitting during an epistle, is just the proper receptivity mode for instruction/for teaching. The Liturgy of the Word includes the Epistle, and is preparatory, climaxing in the Gospel reading. In many parishes (maybe all, not sure), to be absent from the Gospel, is to miss the Eucharist – because you should never have Sacrament without Word. This is actually a very sensitive Confessional Protestant concern that we have always upheld. In Orthodox Churches, at least the one’s I’m familiar with, it’s very sad that the connection between the liturgy of the Word and the liturgy of the Eucharist are weighed so drastically differently in the laity. You should never have the Eucharist without the Word, but the Word is optional for so many. And you should never have the liturgy without a homily either I would think except in circumstances where it is prevented for extraneous circumstances – or Lenten Wednesday liturgies. Word and Sacrament go together, again that’s why you should abstain if you miss the Gospel – and I would bet that’s a modern concession…

    Last, our view of anthropology, of Ancestral Sin versus Original sin, sets up an entirely different
    Gospel than the usual Protestant’s. So, our standing for the Gospel – and in some Reformed Churches they still stand for all Scripture readings, is reflective of the proper mode of receptivity for what Christ has accomplished for us – but because Protestants typically see the Gospel as a fix for Original Sin and Guilt, the “takeback” of the King, the Victor, is not appreciated.

    I could go on, but the reason the Priest says the ending to the Lord’s Prayer, shows that it is through the ministry of the clergy/Church that the Kingdom is announced and proclaimed – not that we don’t have our part…

    God bless you,
    Matthew Lyon

    1. Hi, Matthew,
      Thank you for writing. Regarding the term “Protestant,” I was speaking of my own observations, gleaned from personal experience and theological study at a Christian University and an Evangelical seminary. The protest lives on in multiple forms between various doctrines and interpretations. Perhaps I should have said that Protestants historically have lived up to their name, regardless of the word’s origin, given the thousands of denominations out there.

      I have also read/heard several priests talk about standing in honor of the words of Jesus because they are preeminent. As Fr. Lawrence Farley has written, by reading the Gospel after the epistle, the Church is “saving the best for the last, the good wine until the end” (Let Us Attend, p.39).

      However, I will admit that by trying to keep my blog at a manageable length for busy readers (between 1,200 and 1,500 words), I have to choose where to drill down deeply and where to skim. I don’t always make the right choices. My failure to state ideas in a more nuanced, detailed fashion occurs frequently––about every two weeks. LOL And I agree that it’s sad when parishioners duck in and out of the service for the Eucharist without hearing the Gospel or participating in the rest of the Liturgy. They are missing so much.

      May God bless you too!

  2. Hi Lynnette,
    I’ve been reading your posts but this is the first time I’ve commented. You write well and clearly, and I’m gaining new insights about the topics you choose. As a Protestant myself (never knew that word derives from “protest”) who is interested in Orthodoxy, your perspective as a woman and convert to Orthodoxy is very helpful. I also closely follow Angela Doll Carlson’s work which has been important to me in the past several years as I learn more about this beautiful church. Thank you for your work!

    1. Hi, Kathy,
      I often say that I’m writing the blog that I wish existed when I was inquiring into the Orthodox Church, so you are definitely part of my target audience! 🙂 And I am honored to be mentioned in the same paragraph as Angela. She writes so thoughtfully and beautifully. Thank you for your kind words.

  3. I read this yesterday, and the comments that followed it. Last night at the first Canon, I was thinking about God the Word…the priest holds aloft the “Icon” of God the Word, the Gospels. I think we stand because God the Word is made manifest before us, in the reading, in the Host, and throughout the Liturgy.

    I do not tread as lightly as I should–I am in the presence of the King of Kings.

    The reading of the Apostles’ Epistles (I literally like alliteration!) SHOULD open our eyes and prepare our hearts for the reading of the Gospel, like John the Baptist coming before Christ.

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