by V. Rev. Fr. Barouyr Shernezian
At this moment of the Divine Liturgy, the deacon receives the Gospel from the celebrant and processes around the Holy Altar with the candle holders and censer. The choir sings “Soorp Asdvadz.” The Scripture reader waits at the bottom of the Holy Altar to kiss the Gospel in veneration. After a litany of prayers, the Scripture reader reads from the prophecies and the Epistles. After the reading, the choir recites a psalm and the deacon chants the Holy Gospel from the right side of the Holy Altar.
This part of the liturgy focuses on the word of God. It was originally added to the liturgy for the benefit of the catechumen, who are not yet baptized. Even so, it plays an important role for the faithful.
The Gospel procession can only be performed by an ordained deacon. It harkens to a scene from the book of Isaiah. Let us first compare the two readings from the Tas (Դաս - priest’s seating area) with the reading from the Holy Altar.
God called the prophet Isaiah by a vision. Isaiah did not believe that he was capable of being a prophet of God. He said to God, “Woe is me, for I am undone! Because I am a man of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.” (Isaiah 6:5) A seraphim flew to him, holding a live coal in its hand taken from the altar, and touched Isaiah's mouth. That divine fire cleansed him of iniquity and sin. It gave him the grace to carry the Word of God on his lips and deliver it to his people. That is why the deacon receives the Holy Gospel from the celebrant, processes around the altar to be kissed by the acolyte or the deacon who will read the Scriptures.
This scene helps us contemplate two important things:
a) The Lord commanded that we “shall not take the name of the Lord our God in vain.” (Exodus 20:7) He cleansed us with His “fire” in order for us to carry His name on our lips, praise Him, and use His name as a spiritual shield. We should not take God’s name for granted. God has graced us with His name. However, if only the reader kisses the Gospel, does that mean only his lips are cleansed to utter God’s name? No. At the sacrament of Holy baptism, the holy water cleanses us and the holy Myron (Chrism, “the fire”) anoints our lips with the sign of the Holy Cross. We are given the grace to utter God’s name and words. This point in the Liturgy gives us an opportunity to reflect on how God has sanctified us with His Holy Spirit. Because our lips are sanctified, we must be aware of what comes out of our mouths. Our mouths, after all, were created to praise God. Our words, along with our deeds, reflect if we behave in God’s image and likeness. (Genesis 1:26)
b) God gives us a voice to express ourselves. When Jesus started His ministry on earth, the voices of many were silenced due to the highly discriminatory society. They were neglected and excluded from the society. However, Jesus gave them grace, inviting them not only back into society, but the Kingdom of Heaven. These people included lepers, tax collectors, adulterers, Samaritans, and many others. People living today remain voiceless. This liturgical movement reminds us again that having a voice is a gift to humanity that should be respected and used to glorify God. Sometimes, we feel like Isaiah, unable to talk or express ourselves. Sometimes, we think, “who am I to talk about God?” God graces us with the power to open our mouths freely. At the beginning of the first Hour of Prayer, the presiding priest recites, “O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth shall show forth Your praise.” (Psalm 51:15) We should repeat this every morning when we open our eyes. We should feel the power of our tongue when we praise God. God wants to hear our voices, no matter what we have to say.
The church calendar defines the prophetic and Epistle readings for each Sunday. The Scripture reader reads from the chancel to the people, not from the Holy Altar. These two Scripture readings trace the lines of God’s salvific plan, as communicated by the prophets before Christ and the Apostles after Christ. It also shows a distinction between the prophecies and teachings, and the Gospel. Prophecies and teachings were spread to the people through prophets and apostles. The words of the Gospel, by contrast, are the words of Christ. Accordingly, the Gospel is read from the Altar. When reading the Gospel, the deacon covers his face with the Gospel book while reading, to show that God is the one speaking. The faithful stand on their feet during the Gospel reading as an expression of veneration and honor. Our Lord Jesus Christ said: “The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life.” (John 6:63) His words are more than just teachings. They are life.
The deacon’s Gospel reading from the Holy Altar ties us to some of the events from Jesus’ life:
a) Jesus delivered His essential sermons and teaching from the mountain. (Matthew 5-7) Throughout the Bible, humans meet and hear the voice of God from a mountain. “I will lift my eyes to the hills, from whence comes my help?” (Psalm 121:1) Further, many verses in the Bible presents God living above the heavens. (Psalm 57:5) When Jesus was baptized, the Father spoke out from above. (Matthew 3:17) When we listen to the Gospel, we should imagine ourselves on the top of a mountain, listening to Jesus’ teaching. This will lift our spirits as we receive God’s word.
b) Our Lord Jesus Christ prepared His Apostles for the crucifixion by talking to them at the Last Supper. The Gospel of John includes four chapters dedicated to the Last Supper. (John 13-17) He taught them before bodily leaving them. Listening to the deacon read the Gospel reminds us that we will witness the sacrifice of His body and blood; that the faithful, in effect, participate in the Last Supper and listen to Christ’s words. This ties us in yet another way to Jesus’ words and His sacrifice on the Holy Cross.
The Divine Liturgy gives us many opportunities to feel God’s presence and the power of His words. The evil one always tempts us to stop expressing the truth. During troubled times, we sometimes hesitate to call upon God. But the evil one cannot stand before the power of God’s name. The Scriptures and the Gospel empower us to carry the Lord’s name on our lips. Acknowledging this power moves us a step closer to winning the battle against evil.