The Divine Liturgy:

The Readings

The readings in the Divine Liturgy follow the entrance rites of the Enarxis, and include two readings from the New Testament: one from the "apostolic writings" (epistles or the Acts of the Apostles) and one from the Gospel. Each reading is preceded by responsorial singing, and the readings are followed by a homily or sermon, and one or more litanies.

This article describes the readings in the Divine Liturgy of the Byzantine Rite, and their liturgical context. For more about the readings used in the course of the liturgical year, see Reading in Church and The Books of Sacred Scripture. For more about the singing of this part of the the service, see Singing the Divine Liturgy: The Readings.

The prokeimenon

There is no reading from the Old Testament in the Divine Liturgy, though at one point a psalm was chanted, titled "A reading from the Psalms of David." Today, the prokeimenon that is sung at this point in the service is all that is left of this psalm reading.

A prokeimenon (the Greek word means, "that which is set before [to be read]") is a set of verses, usually from a single psalm, with one of the verses being used as a congregational refrain. The psalm and verses are chosen to be suitable for the particular service at which the prokeimenon is used; prokeimena are sung at Vespers, Matins, and the Divine Liturgy, and may precede readings in other services as well (such as the wedding and funeral services). Each prokeimenon is assigned to one of the eight tones.

An ordinary prokeimenon consists of a refrain, and one additional verse that is chanted by a soloist, after which the refrain is repeated. A great prokeimenon consists of a refrain and several verses, and is used at Vespers on Saturday evenings and at the Vespers service that ends a feast of the Lord.

The exact fashion in which the prokeimenon is sung differs from one church in the Byzantine tradition to another. In some, the prokeimenon is first announced in a normal speaking voice, along with the tone to be used, and then the choir sings the words to that melody; in others, a cantor and congregation immediately sing the prokeimenon. There are also varying traditions as to how many times the prokeimenon is sung, and whether it is broken up into half verses.

Here is the Sunday prokeimenon in Tone 1, as sung in the Byzantine Catholic Church:

Congregation: May your mercy, O Lord, be upon us who have placed our hope in you.

Reader: Rejoice in the Lord, you righteous ones; praise from the upright is fitting.

Congregation: May your mercy, O Lord, be upon us who have placed our hope in you.

When two feasts are combined, or a feast falls on a Sunday, two prokeimena may be appointed in the liturgical books; when this happens, the refrain of the first prokeimenon is replaced by the refrain of the second prokeimenon, and the verse(s) of the second prokeimenon are omitted.

The apostolic reading ("epistle")

When the prokeimenon is finished, the reader chants or sings the apostolic reading (sometimes called the "epistle," since it most often comes from the letters of one of the apostles, but it can also be taken from the Acts of the Apostles). The reader, who normally stands in the middle of the nave facing the sanctuary, announces the book or letter from which a passage is being read, chants the text for the congregation to hear, and receives a blessing from the priest at the end.

The apostolic readings are collected (along with the prokeimenon and Alleluia verses) in the liturgical book called the Apostol; the English edition used in the Byzantine Catholic Metropolitan Church of Pittsburgh is The Epistles and Old Testament Readings for the Liturgical Year (Pittsburgh: Byzantine Seminary Press, 1979, 2011). This translation uses the New American Bible translation of the readings, but does not include the prokeimena and Alleluia verses.

The liturgical books appoint an epistle reading for each day of the year on which the Divine Liturgy can be celebrated. As with prokeimena, there may be two apostolic readings assigned to a particular day; when this happens, one reading may be chosen, or both readings may be chanted. However, only the title of the first reading is announced. The titles used in announcing each of the books of Scripture can be found here.

By reading the apostolic writings, the Church passes on the apostolic vision, explains the Church's teachings, provides us with the earliest witness to Christ and his ministry, and gives a framework in which the reading of the Gospel is interpreted.

The Alleluia

At the beginning of Divine Liturgy, the gifts of bread and wine, the congregation and clergy, and the entire church were blessed and purified with incense. At this point in the service, the Gospel book containing the Good News of Jesus Christ is honored, as the deacon or priest incenses the holy table (on which the Gospel book was placed at the Small Entrance); then the people who will hear the Gospel are incensed as well.

During this incensation, a prokeimenon with the refrain, "Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!" and several psalm verses is sung, in the same fashion as the prokeimenon before the apostolic reading. Like that prokeimenon, the verses of the Gospel prokeimenon (called "the Alleluia") are chosen for their suitability to the day or feast on which the Alleluia is sung. An Alleluia is always sung before a Gospel reading, except at Vespers on the first three days of Holy Week. Each Alleluia is assigned to one of the eight tones.

As with the prokeimenon, there are different ways to sing the Alleluia. In the Byzantine Catholic Church, the cantor and congregation sing the Alleluia, then repeat it after each of the psalm verses is chanted by the reader. Here is the Sunday Alleluia in Tone 3:

Congregation: Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

Reader: In you, O Lord, I have placed my trust; let me never be put to shame.

Congregation: Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

Reader: Be a protector for me, O God, and a house of refuge for my salvation.

Congregation: Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

When two different Alleluias are appointed for a particular day, the last refrain of the first Alleluia is replaced with the entire second Alleluia, so that both are sung.

The Gospel reading

The reading of the Gospel is the climax of the readings in the Divine Liturgy. The Gospel book is brought from the sanctuary, and read from the solea by the deacon. This book, often richly ornamented, contains the Gospel readings used at the Divine Liturgy and other services throughout the liturgical year. Before and after the words of the Gospel, the people sing, "Glory to you, O Lord, glory to you!", honoring both the Lord Jesus Christ and his proclamation of the good news (gospel) of the Kingdom of God.

As with the apostolic reading, when two Gospel readings are appointed, one may be chosen by the celebrant, or both readings may be chanted; only the first one is announced ("A reading from the holy Gospel according to...").

Although the congregation may sit for the prokeimenon and apostolic reading, they stand for the Alleluia and Gospel reading – another sign of the importance of the Gospel in the Church and in the Divine Liturgy.

The homily or sermon

After the Gospel reading, the priest or deacon normally gives a homily (an explanation and application of the Word of God to the needs of the congregation) or a sermon. The Scriptures are not self-interpreting; rather, one of the tasks of the clergy is to explain the Scriptures, show how their teaching can be applied, and encourage the congregation in their daily life in Christ.

The litanies

Between the end of the readings and the celebration of the Eucharistic sacrifice, the deacon leads the people in the Litany of Fervent Supplication – called "fervent" because "Lord, have mercy" is sung three times after each petition rather than just once. Where the Litany of Peace included prayers for the the practical needs of this life (good weather and so on), the Litany of Fervent Supplication focuses on the spiritual needs of the Church, civil leaders, and the congregation, as well as "for those who show us mercy and for all Christians of the true faith."

The Litany of Fervent Supplication may be followed by:

After the litanies have been prayed, the Divine Liturgy continues with the Great Entrance, a procession taking the gifts of bread and wine from the table of preparation to the holy table where the Eucharistic sacrifice will be celebrated.

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