It All Makes Sense. Hallelujah!
Tradition of the Gospel Reading
It is finally time to discuss the main purpose of this article. My hope is that this research will be used to return to the correct order for the reading of the gospel. I hope that you haven’t lost interest in this topic after reading in detail about the psalms!
The earliest mention of the gospel reading in the Alexandrian tradition comes from the Canons of Athanasius (Canon 106).
We must examine a few things in this canon:
- Morning and evening incense are mentioned as services that are separate than the anaphora itself.
- The archdeacon is the one holding the censer, although the priest is the one who places the incense in it for him! This practice occurs in all other Orthodox Churches and it is mentioned again in our manuscripts later on. There is no mention of who the reader of the gospel is, although it may be assumed to be the bishop or the priest, since the deacon is offering the incense.
- The procession of the gospel book into the inner part of the sanctuary is mentioned. This is important to note because the euaggelion was the book of the gospel which is supposed to be read from.
- Times of incense are times for “hymns of praise,” which explains why we chant during the times when incense is offered.
I would like to thank Fr. Shenouda Maher Ishak for directing me to this passage when I relayed my interest in this subject.
As usual, the first resource we check after the Church Fathers for Coptic rites is Mesbah El Zolma!
A Lamp in the Darkness (Mesbah al Zolma) – Ibn Kabar the priest
The first image is from the chapter on the raising of incense:
“They process around the altar with the gospel, opened and raised on the hands of the deacon, while the people chant with sections of the psalms in the tune of the psalms. The priest descends and offers incense to the gospel and receives it from the deacon. The [other] priests in attendance greet it according to their ranks. The celebrant deacon reads it, or the patriarch if he is present, or if he chooses so [?]. It is then explained/translated in Arabic. After the translation, in matins, a chapter from the Synaxari is read, which is the memorials and their history. The priest receives the gospel and the attending priests greet it again, while the assembly chants verses that are fitting for the readings of that day.”
1. The tawwaf psalm is mentioned during the procession.
2. The celebrant (presiding) priest receives the gospel book and his fellow priests come forward to greet it in order according to their ranks.
3. Generally, the deacon reads the gospel. If the patriarch is present he would read the gospel, unless he allows the priest or deacon to read.
4. The Synaxarium is mentioned here! This was the original place of the synaxarium. Originally, it is part of the veneration service during the weekdays. The veneration occurs after the gospel/conclusion of matins (morning) offering of incense. This also explains why the weekday readings are related to the saints/memorials of the day, while the Sunday readings have a distinct order.
The second image is from the passage regarding the Divine Liturgy:
“The priest descends and offers incense to the gospel. He receives it from him [the deacon] and the priests kiss it and he also kisses it. The gospel is read, either on the pulpit [الانبل] which is more fitting with its majesty or on the gospel podium [المنجلية]. If it is read by the patriarch he faces the west, standing at the door of the altar, and the priest under him with the incense. The same goes for the bishop from his seat [throne]. If it is read by the deacon he faces the east [?] and the priest stands with the censer on the wings of the sanctuary. It is translated in Arabic and at the beginning of the translation the celebrant priest takes the censer from the non-celebrant priest and says, [Pirefwounhyt] ‘O You the long-suffering’. “
1. The greeting of the gospel is mentioned here again. Manuscripts and euchologions will go into more detail about this.
2. Fr. Ibn Kabar speaks about the pulpit from which the gospel is supposed to be read. In the older churches, this pulpit was in the center of the church. Currently, the churches that do have this pulpit have them on the northern side of the nave. It was used for the readings of the church, the sermons, the diptych and the commands of the deacon to the congregation.
3. If the gospel is not read up on the pulpit, the patriarch and the bishop both read the gospel facing the west, towards the assembly. Pope Shenouda III, of blessed memory, was seen doing this many times in years past when reading the gospel in Coptic.
4. The deacon reads the gospel to the east? I believe this may be a mistake or it may have a specific interpretation. No other manuscript or document concurs with this. As a matter of fact, Fr. Ibn Kabar states several times that the place of the deacon during the liturgy is facing the west, towards the people, even from inside the altar. It may either be an error in transcription or to indicate that if the patriarch or bishop is present, the deacon should not stand above them, facing away from them since he is of a lower rank. This might also be why he describes where the priest stands during the gospel reading while offering incense.
5. The Copts didn’t remove the reading of the gospel in Coptic, but added the reading of the Arabic translation. This will lead us to many other points later on. Notice that during the Arabic reading, the priests begin the rest of the prayers. This could be an attempt to conserve time but it also adds to clericalism in the practice of the liturgy.
Youhanna Ibn Siba’ adds more detail in his description of the reading of the gospel and mentions another rite that we as Copts have lost totally at this point. I firmly believe that we should revive it.
The Precious Jewel in the Sciences/Studies of the Church (Al Gawhara al Nafeesa) – Youhanna Ibn aby Zakaria Ibn Siba’
“Then the priest circles the the sanctuary as well as the deacon with the glorious gospel. The servants encompass it with candles and the deacon carries it until the time when they descend from the sanctuary and the congregation chants, “Cause me to hear thy mercy in the morning; for I have hoped in thee.” (Psalm 143:8) The deacon, on his own, says, “Make known to me, O Lord, the way wherein I should walk; for I have lifted up my soul to thee,” (Psalm 143:8) for the gospel traveled to the people and the deacon is carrying it and walking with it. This one procession around the altar symbolizes the procession of the gospel around the whole world; the traveling procession that included the whole world. Then the priest, after the circling of the gospel around the sanctuary symbolizing its procession around the whole world, as we said before, the priest takes the gospel, opens it and places it on the altar indicating that the text comes from Christ who is placed on this altar.”
Regarding the greeting of the priests and their confession of the opened gospel book.
“Then the rest of the priests in attendance come to see the words written in it and to witness and testify that this open book is in fact the gospel. After seeing it and identifying it, they kiss it while it is open. This differentiates the priests from the rest of the congregation, in that they greet the gospel book while it is open, due to their priesthood.
After this, if the presbyter chooses to read the gospel it is his rite, first before all others, because he is a successor to the apostles who preached the gospel. If the priest chooses not to read the gospel, then he gives permission to the deacon to read it. This deacon is named the deacon of the gospel (preaching deacon) meaning that he reads the gospel and this differentiates him from the rest of the deacons who do not read the gospel. This is because the reading of the gospel should be upon an elder who is capable of correcting the text and understands the meaning and explanation of it.
Then the gospel is read and it fills the hearing of the attendees in text and explanation. The reading of the gospel should be upon the pulpit. The explanation of this pulpit is the higher place referring to the words of the master, to whom is glory, ‘What is whispered in your ear, proclaim from the roofs’ (Matthew 10:27). These roofs are the pulpit that the savior alluded to in that it is high up, symbolizing the roof.
Then after the descent of the reader of the gospel and the translator in text and saying, the attending priests come forth and kiss the gospel indicating belief and faith in what was witnessed. It is similar to the first greeting but in faith, in belief, and in truth so that they represent the congregation in its greeting.”
Regarding the subdeacon’s procession with the gospel to the assembly so that they greet it
After this, the subdeacon carries the gospel and covers it in white linen and circuits with it to the assembly that they may kiss it while it is closed; believing what they heard and following the kiss of the priests in faith and truth. The subdeacon going around with the gospel to the assembly is better than the congregants walking to it because at first, the gospel walked to the people and they believed in it. So if the people walked to it, the preachers of the gospel would’ve sat in one placed and the people would come to them. There is also benefit in that there is less busyness and distraction of the mind.”
What is written by Youhanna Ibn Siba’ is interesting for several reasons:
1. He is the only one to mention the placement of the gospel upon the altar or the reason for the greeting of the gospel being to ascertain that it is in fact the word of God. He also provides his understanding of the purpose for which we practice many of these rites. You’ll notice that in some he explains things with biblical verses and with others he provides practical reasoning. These types of symbolisms reflect some personal interpretations and are not necessarily the original purposes that these practices were developed for.
2. He mentions that the reading of the gospel is of the rite of the priest. This coincides with what is written in the Canons of Athanasius. The archdeacon was the one given the censer to offer incense, presuming that the priest (or bishop) himself would read the gospel.
3. The procession of the subdeacon with the book of the gospel to the congregation is only mentioned in this text! This is such an important rite that we have sadly completely foregone in the Coptic Church. We struggle at many times to find current roles for the subdeacon. This may quite well be an important one.
Order of Rites/Liturgical Prayers (Al Tarteeb al Taqsy) – Pope Gabriel 88th Patriarch of the Church of Alexandria
Liturgy of the Word
“When the reading of the Praxis (Acts) in Coptic and Arabic ends, they say the three ‘Agios.’ The priest says the litany of the gospel until the end. Then the liturgy psalm is read ‘yotrah’ and responded to. The priest ascends above the altar and raises one hand of incense as he says, [ Ouwou nem outaio ] ‘Glory and honor’ in its entirety. The order of the incense occurs here, and the psalm and procession of the gospel. The offering of incense, in the beginning and the end, and what the priest says during this, the greeting of the gospel by the priests and all of this was written in the rite of the psalm and gospel in the vespers prayer and is depended on. However, during the translation of the Arabic gospel, the celebrant priest, who is the servant, says [ Pirefwou`nhyt ]. If he has a partner, then it is his until the end.”
“Then he descends from the altar with his left foot, and gives [to the gospel] incense three times. During the first time he says, [ Ouwst `mpieuaggelion “nte Iycouc Pi,rictoc Psyri `mVnou] etonq piwou naf sa eneh ] ‘Worship the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God, to whom is glory forever.’ Then he receives the gospel on his hands and turns to his brothers the priests. Then they place their canes/staffs to the side and take off ‘tayalisahom’ (their crowns), and walk to the place of the gospel and they bow their heads. Then each of them kisses it while saying, [ Ouwst `mpieuaggelion ] ‘Worship the gospel’ until the end. Then he also kisses it after them. Then he hands it to the deacon so that he turns to read it, either on the gospel podium or on the pulpit. Then he offers it incense and turns to the east*, before the door of the altar. When the deacon says, [ Cta;ite ] ‘Stand,’ the priest says, [ Fcmarwout `nje vye;nyou qen `vran `mP[oic ] ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord. Then, when the deacon says, [ Kurie eulogicon `ktou kata Ma;;eon agio ] ‘Bless O Lord the reading according to saint Matthew’ or others, the priest offers incense to the altar while he says, inaudibly, with the deacon, [ `Tar,y `mpieuaggelion e;ouab kata Mat;te kata markon kata loukan kata iwannyn agiou euaggeliou twanagnocma ] ‘The beginning of the holy gospel according to saints Matthew, Mark, Luke, John. The gospel reading…’
And when they say, [ Doxa ci Kurie ] ‘Glory to You, O Lord’, the translator says, ‘Stand in the fear of God and attend to hear the the holy gospel. A chapter from the gospel of (so and so) the evangelist.’ During this, the priest turns towards the the place of the gospel and offers three hands (handfuls) of incense while saying, [ Ouwst `mpieuaggelion ] ‘Worship the holy gospel.’ When the deacon says, [ Pen[oic ouoh pennou] ] ‘Our Lord, our God’ in its entirety the priest turns to the altar and gives incense three times while saying with the deacon [ Pen[oic ouoh pennou] ] ‘Our Lord, our God’ in its entirety. Then he turns to his brothers the priests from where he is and gives them one hand of incense while saying, [ `N;wten de wouniatou `nnetenbal je cenau nem netenmasj je cecwtem. Marenerpempsa `ncwtem ouoh eiri `nnekeuaggelion e;ouab qen nitwbh `nte nye;ouab `ntak. ] ‘As for you, blessed are your eyes for they see and your ears for they hear. May we be worthy to hear and to act according to your holy gospel, through the prayers of your saints.’
Then he turns towards the deacons and, from his place, gives them one hand of incense saying, [ Ouwst `mpieuaggelion ] ‘Worship the holy gospel.’ Then he stands in his place and his face is towards the west while offering incense before the gospel. (And he shows face before the assembly as Moses, the great arch-prophet did. For [Moses’] face was covered because of the glory of the Lord which was shown; so that the people did not die when they saw the glory of the Lord. However, when the law of the Lord was read to them, he uncovered his face. Then the people would bow their heads to hear the law of the Lord, but they could not look to Moses’ face because of the great glory of the Lord. So should the priest of the new law be, when he turns to the assembly during the reading of the new testament, which is the new law, and shows his face to them, the people bow their heads to hear the reading of the life giving gospel, and in reverence to the glory of the Lord which he gives to his servants and priests).
And when the deacon has finished the reading of the holy gospel in Coptic, the priest turns to the location of the gospel and offers three hands of incense while saying, [ Ouoh `n;ok pe etecer`prepi nak `nje ]doxologia qen oucmy `nouwt `nte ouon niben piwou nem pitaio ]metnis] ]prockunycic nem Pekiwt `naga;oc nem Pipneuma e;ouab `nreftanqo `nomooucioc nemak ]nou nem `ncyou niben nem sa eneh amyn. ] ‘and You are He to whom belongs glorication in one voice from everyone, glory and honor, majesty and worship with your Good Father and the Holy Spirit, the giver of life, who is of one essence with you, now and at all times and unto the ages. Amen.’
When the translator says, ‘Our Lord, our God’ the priest turns to the altar and offers three hands of incense while saying, [ Pen[oic ouoh pennou] ouoh pencwtyr ] ‘Our Lord, our God, our Savior’ in its entirety. Then he turns to the priests and the deacons and he gives one hand of incense to each direction and says, [ Ouwst `mpieuaggelion ] ‘Worship the holy gospel’ in its entirety. When the gospel reading is complete, the deacon takes the gospel to the priest and he gives it incense saying, [ Fcmarwout `nje vye;nyou qen `vran `mP[oic ] ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’ There are others who say, [ Ouwst `mpieuaggelion ] ‘Worship the holy gospel.’ Both are acceptable.
Then the priest holds it upon his arms and the other priests come to him, bowing their heads and removing their crowns. They kiss it according to their ranks and then at the end he himself kisses it. Then he gives it to the deacon to place on the gospel podium [ الانجيلية ]. Then the gospel response as is the norm.
As you can see, of the three main ritual resources, Pope Gabriel wrote about this rite in the most detail. Most of what he has written is taken from and/or is similar to the manuscripts which you will see in the coming pages. I’d like to take some time to comment on what he has written and sum up the entirety of the rite according to these three sources.
1. After the priest and deacons circle the altar with the book of the gospel, the priest takes the gospel from the deacon and the priests come to greet it. This is mentioned in Ibn Siba’ as well, but the explanation of the priest affirming that this is the holy gospel, is not written by Pope Gabriel. He also doesn’t mention that the book is placed on the altar first.
2. Pope Gabriel clarifies which responses belong to the deacon and which belong to the priest. The deacon says, “Stand in the fear of God and let us hear the holy gospel.” The priest responds to this command by saying, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” It is then that the deacon responds saying, “Bless O Lord, the reading of the holy gospel according to (…)” while the priest says, inaudibly, “The beginning of the gospel (…).” Recently, the second deacon response has become part of the priest’s prayer. This is most likely due to a lack of clarity in some of the manuscripts. The congregation then responds with “Glory to You, O Lord.”
3. THIS IS IMPORTANT. Pope Gabriel clarifies that, after these commands, the translator says, “Stand in the fear of God…” in Arabic. It isn’t part of the reading itself, it is not said before the psalms and it is not a preface to the reading. It is merely a rough translation of the conclusion of the procession. There are a few crucial things we need to be aware of in this regard.
- In current practice, this translation is said at the beginning of the Arabic gospel. The reader says, “Stand in the fear of God, and let us hear the holy gospel” but continues on to paraphrase the second part of his response, “A chapter from the holy gospel according to saint (…)” and then adds, “May his blessings be with us all Amen.” Both of the additions in this second response are translated incorrectly and are inconsistent. Notice that Pope Gabriel does not mention “may his blessings…” at all.
- Also, because they are chanted in the tune of the deacon response instead of the proper tune of the reading, congregation responses were added into the reading. Notice how NONE of the resources mentioned that the congregation says anything other than “Glory to You, O Lord.” I will allude to this and clarify it in detail later, when I discuss the hymnology of this rite and cite the oldest recordings we have.
- This explains why, when the patriarch or bishop is present, the long deacon response “Stand in the fear of God” is chanted here. I will mention this again later.
4. Pope Gabriel mentions that the priest hands the gospel to the deacon to read it, then turns from the gospel toward the altar to give incense. This means that the deacon is in fact reading the gospel with his face directed towards the west, contrary to what Ibn Kabar wrote. Pope Gabriel is writing as if there is only a priest in attendance, which is further indication, strengthening my interpretation of what Ibn Kabar wrote.
5. The gospel reading itself begins with “Our Lord, our God, our Savior and King us of all, Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God to Whom is glory forever.” This is made clear in that, “Blessed is he” is not repeated in Coptic and is only said by the priest as he concludes the procession of the gospel. It is also made clear by the interpreter/translator starting the gospel by saying, “Our Lord…,” as Pope Gabriel wrote. Therefore, the reader of the gospel should not be saying “Blessed is he” at all.
6. Pope Gabriel calls the gospel podium “al-ingeeleya” instead of “al-mangalia” which explains why we have the podium to begin with. It’s meant to carry the book of the gospel. Up until his time (16th century), the gospel book itself was used for this entire practice.