The chanting of the “Epistle” or “Apostle/Apostolic Reading” is an integral part of each Divine Liturgy. Along with the Gospel lesson, they form the heart of the “Synaxis” (Gathering) of the Eucharistic Liturgy. This reading takes place during the “Liturgy of the Catechumens” also referred to as the “Liturgy of the Word.” The appointed lesson is always from the letters of Saint Paul or Peter, the letter to the Hebrews, letters of Jude or John or the Acts of the Apostles. The only book of the New Testament Canon that is not read publicly is the Book of the Revelation (Apocalypse).
Within the average parish, the Epistle is chanted by the cantor or a (non-ordained) pious layperson. When a tonsured Reader is present, it is proper for the reading of the Epistle to be done by one who is “set aside” for this purpose. A “Tonsured Reader” has been admitted to Minor Orders during a special Rite (ceremony) and therefore subject to the obedience of diocesan hierarch. However, for the purpose of this blog entry, and using a type of liturgical shorthand, I choose to use the term “Lector” for anyone who chants the Epistle. Additionally, my use of the term “Reader” is reserved for a male “set apart” or “tonsured” to the Office. Functionally, both perform the same task.
All Scripture readings are chanted within our time-honored Tradition. Like most Churches of the Christian East and others of apostolic origin, it is the custom of the Rusyn/Ruthenian Churches to chant the Epistle lesson as opposed to being read in a plain voice. Father Casmir Kucharek writes in the “Byzantine-Slav Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom: Its Origin and Evolution” Alleluia Press, 1971, that the Epistle is “always chanted “recto tono”, but with certain cadences or melodic figures to indicate the various punctuation marks. It is can be described as speech-song. The church probably borrowed this method from the culture of antiquity.”
I recommend highly a book entitled: “Roles of the Liturgical Assembly” Pueblo Press, 1981. Contained are a collection of essays and papers delivered at the 23rd Week of Liturgical Studies held at the Saint Serge Orthodox Institute in Paris, France, in 1976. Miguel Arranz’s contribution is “The Functions of the Christian Assembly in the Testament of Our Lord” in which he discusses the historical role of “Reader.”
Since my early teenage years, I have been chanting the Epistle. My late uncle, Paul Bereznak was the cantor at Saint Michael the Archangel Byzantine Catholic Cathedral in Passaic, New Jersey. He took me under his wing and taught me the essentials and principles of chanting. I remember those days fondly, even when he told me politely yet firmly when making a mistake. In 8th Grade (1974-75) the late Father Michael Mondik, assistant at the Cathedral instructed us in Epistle chanting as a group. Each of us received a Doubleday paperback copy of the “Jerusalem New Testament” and given a scripture assignment to practice. My task was to learn 1 Corinthians 11:23-32, the Epistle for the Holy Thursday Vesperal Divine Liturgy and sing it that day. I have relived this experience every Holy and Great Thursday for the past forty-five years.
Every lector needs to be equipped properly with the tools for their unique ministry of proclaiming God’s Word publicly within the Byzantine Tradition.
The first consideration is to differentiate between reading in church (during the Divine Liturgy, Great Vespers, other liturgical services) and other types of public reading. During the Divine Liturgy, the lector is fulfilling a sacred mission to the Gathering. It requires the skills of adequate audibility, proper phrasing, emphasis and pointing, and good physical posture. It means that these skills are used in a context in which God’s Word can speak to His people. The chanting the Epistle should not possess operatic or dramatic effects or be sung like one is typing on a keyboard, but the realization of our Savior’s mission of imparting the Word to His Bride, the Church. Chanting is both music and a “delivery system.”
The lector is a messenger, not the Message. A good lector allows the family of believers to sense the presence of the Risen Lord in their midst without focusing too much attention on the lector. The lector’s goal is to allow the congregation to hear that life-giving message. Jesus told us, “My mother and brothers are those who hear the Word of God and do it” (Luke 18:21). The Word possesses great power and is able to challenge, transform, comfort, build up and unite the Body of Christ.
Reading Within the Liturgy
I have prepared a sample Epistle for the Feast of the Holy Cross sept14 in musical notation. It follows a simple A(a)-B-A(a)-B-C Epistlepattern. Two alternatives are provided for “Brethren.” There exists variants of this model, however, one is presented here as a practicum for you. The same melody is used to chant the Paramia (Old Testament Parable) during Great Vespers and the Lenten Liturgy of the Pre-Sanctifed Gifts.
Some Concrete Techniques for Public Reading
- The appointed readings are part of the sacred rhythm of the liturgical cycle. Besides concrete preparation and the learning of the techniques of chanting the Epistle in the Rusyn/Ruthenian Byzantine tradition, the lector should deepen own’s understanding of Scripture through the daily reading of the Bible as prescribed by the church calendar.
- The rule of moderation is always good to follow: not too fast; not too slow. Its delivery is consistent throughout the whole appointed text. Proper pronunciation and diction shows that you value and possess a deep love for the Scripture. Improper pronunciation indicates our own sinfulness and lack of devotion. Make sure to complete your words.
- You are being given a blessing to assume for a brief moment the liturgical role of “Reader” within the community. Like the deacon who receives the blessing from the priest to read the Gospel, the blessing of the celebrant is given to the lector at the appropriate moment. Follow the direction of your pastor on this matter and whether or not this is observed in your parish. He may ask you to approach the Ambon to receive this blessing or to receive it prior to the Divine Liturgy. If the lector is serving in the altar, he receives the blessing there, exits out of the North Door and will enter the sanctuary again through the South Door of the iconostas prior to the Gospel. If the lector is chanting the Epistle in the choir loft, make sure you receive this blessing before the Liturgy. At the appropriate time, the cantor should step aside and allow you to occupy that middle spot. Ample lighting is also a consideration when chanting in that venue.
- When chanting, hold the Lectionary in a way that does not make your head bow down. Your voice needs to project forward and not toward the floor.
- You should not take too long to get in place. A good rule is to be there by the second or third singing of the “Trisagion” (Holy God). The Lectionary should be held in a manner of reverence and not be like any book. It is held in front of you and not at your side with the title of the Lectionary toward the people while walking to your position. Then face east toward the altar.
- The lector must have the proper “Prokimenon” verse(s) ready to be chanted. When in doubt, check with the cantor or consult the Typikon prior to the Liturgy.
- The introduction of the reading should not be rushed. One of the common faults is to begin before the congregation is seated and attentive. To do this loses not just the beginning of the reading, but the sense that the reader is ministering to the community. The following introduction is my preference for a Pauline epistle: “A reading from the (first, second) Epistle of the holy Apostle Paul to the _____.” The deacon or priest then calls the congregation to “Be attentive!” because they are about to hear the words from the Apostle. There should be a three second pause after the “be attentive” so the congregation is seated and quiet. Then, begin with “Brethren.”
- The public reading of God’s Word is holy and are moments of grace. Reverence for this is signaled by the proclamation of “Wisdom!” by the priest or deacon. Reading Scripture from booklets or loose sheets of paper looses its solemnity and is something to be avoided except maybe in an informal setting. Their continued use should be seen as an imperfect situation.
- If you mispronounce a word, keep on going. Trying to backtrack will bring more attention to the mistake and may cause you to lose your place. Remember, it can happen to the best of us. Nobody is perfect. If you do not know how to pronounce a word, you should never be too shy to ask the pastor or cantor ahead of time about the pronunciation. This is especially true concerning proper names. The Epistle for the Sunday before the Nativity of our Lord is a perfect example which is found on page 217 of “The Epistles and Old Testament Reading for the Liturgical Year” Byzantine Seminary Press, 1979, where you will find the phonetic spelling after each name.
- The singing of the “Alleluia” is not the ending of the Epistle reading but is actually the introduction to the Gospel lesson of the day. Again, make sure that you have the appropriate verses ready.
- If the lesson is read from the middle of the church, the lector should not linger there for too long after the Alleluia with its verses are concluded. Do not leave in a jarring fashion.
- At the conclusion of the Epistle the priest will say: “Peace + be to you. Wisdom! Be attentive!” This bestowal of “peace” at this part in the Liturgy is actually addressed to the lector. Bow slightly to acknowledge this blessing.
Preparation Is Vital
As part of your physical preparation, you should always present yourself well-groomed and of good hygiene. Your clothing should be clean and neat. Arrive to the church before hand. As a courtesy, meet with the cantor who needs to know that you are there and prepared. You may want to confirm the order of the Prokimenon and Alleluia of the day and which Epistle will be read. This is the one of the marks of a conscientious lector. On occasion, you will not be aware that an additional Epistle is chanted in conjunction with the Feast celebrated.
Beforehand, make sure to mark your page with a full-page ribbon. Fumbling around with or dropping paper holy cards or bookmarks is an unnecessary distraction.
Never forget to ask the Lord’s blessing the day you are scheduled to read. Christ reminds us: “Without Me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). A good lector reviews the prescribed text beforehand. Preparation includes reading the passages aloud, and more than once if necessary, even to yourself. There is a need not just to let your mind become familiar with the ideas and words, but also to allow them “get around your tongue” as you practice the rhythm of the phrasing. Even if you think you have prepared the reading, you may find yourself “off-step” in your verbal rhythm in mid-sentence.
If your parish has a monthly lector schedule, please notify the cantor if you cannot attend the Liturgy that day. It is understandable that your plans may change due to travel, work or sickness. The Divine Liturgy often remembers those who are “absent for a cause worthy of a blessing.”
Care of the Lectionary
Since the Lectionary contains the words of the Holy Scripture, a responsible lector takes physical care of the Lectionary whether it is your personal copy or that belonging to the church. Most liturgical books are bound well offering a lifetime or multi-generational time of use. My suggestion for the parish is to possess a cloth-bound sown edition if possible and to avoid a glued bound copy. It may cost a little bit more, but it is worth the price. As a good Christian steward, every care should be taken in handling or transporting the Lectionary so that it is not tossed around like any ordinary book. It should never be placed on the bottom of a stack of books, placed flat on a chair or pew were someone sits, but placed on a shelf or icon corner for storage where it is easily accessible. When picking it up for the first time or putting it back in its place, it is proper to reverently make the sign of the Cross and kiss it. Like other liturgical books, the Lectionary should only be handled with clean hands. Writing notes or adding pointing marks on the pages is not proper. Many churches have an ornate cover on the Lectionary.
Published in 1646, “The Book of Needs” (Trebnik) of the Saint Peter Mohila (+1647) analyzes numerous accidents and pastoral oversights during the Eucharistic Liturgy. Citing Mohila as one of his resources, the Very Reverend Father Arkady Mironko was a presenter at a March 2007 Lenten retreat for the clergy of the Diocese of Washington and New York, Orthodox Church in America, entitled: “The Practical Instructions in Unfortunate and Unexpected Accidents that Can Happen During the Divine Liturgy, and What to Do in These Cases.” This informative paper is based on a compilation of resources and solutions and is a most fascinating read. Mironko mentions events such as a fire in the church building or if the celebrant falls ill or dies while serving.
Absent from these instructions are the unplanned events that may occur specifically when one is chanting the Epistle (or even the Gospel): babies crying, uncontrolled outbursts of a mentally-challenged individual, somebody passing out, loud trucks or motor vehicles passing by, fire and police sirens blazing, liturgical or other objects falling to the ground. The above happenings do not cause the Divine Liturgy to stop abruptly though. However, when an outdoor noise is so loud as to drown out your voice, yet knowing that it will soon diminish, my suggestion is to complete the sentence, pause and continue where you left off. While these circumstances are rare, knowing proper order allows continuity of the liturgical celebration.
After the conclusion of the Divine Liturgy, spend a few moments in quiet prayer to thank God for allowing you to proclaim the Word today. Our Lord blesses those who take the time to thank Him, and will grant you the grace to continue this special ministry which uses your voice for His glory in His holy Church.
“And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”
– Acts 2: 42
HYMN OF LIGHT – SVITILEN
Tone 2 Come, let us extol the apostles Peter and Paul, those divine leader of the apostles and lights of the universe, the preachers of faith and two trumpets of the Word of God, the interpreters of teachings, pillars of the Church, and those who refute error.
We magnify you, O Peter and Paul, Apostles of Christ. By your teachings you have enlightened the whole world and have drawn the ends of the earth near to Christ.