We began Holy Monday at St. Stephens with morning prayers and Gospel readings at 7am. In the Orthodox Church, it is actually recommended that the entire Gospel (yep, all of it, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John!) be read during the first three days of Holy Week. This is not surprising, really, as the Gospel is very much front and center in the Orthodox Church. It literally occupies the focal point, on the altar of the temple, but beyond that, it breathes through everything we do – the prayers, the church year, the iconography – it really is all about Jesus – and it is in the Gospel account – the record of events by those who were with Him in His earthly ministry that we read and study with most diligence and reverence.
The Gospels are read, usually, as a part of the morning prayers (called the Hours) of Holy Monday-Wednesday. In monasteries and I’m sure some parishes, the entirety of the Gospel is broken up into sections and read completely during these services. At St. Stephens we probably won’t get through all of it by Wednesday, although we are all encouraged to read at home what has not been read at Church. There is some discretion given in what parts are read when – so, for us at St. Stephens, we read through a decent portion of Matthew today – focusing on Our Lord’s early ministry, including His temptation in the desert, the sermon on the mount, the calling of the disciples, and some of His healings. It is good to sit at the feet of the Evangelists and just listen. Of course, as Holy Week goes on, the focus will come on Our Lord’s betrayal and crucifixion – on Thursday we will read the 12 Passion Gospels. For the first three days, though, we remember the rest of His life on earth – we consider His words to us, which, as we heard this morning, if we hear and do, we are like a house built on solid rock — if we hear and do not do, we are like a house built on sand.
A part of the Hours services of Holy Monday-Wednesday are readings from the Prophet Ezekiel. Today we heard Ezekiel 1:1-20 (follow along in your Bibles at home!) – which is Ezekiel’s awesome “visions of God”. The Prophet, describing things that were surely indescribable, summons images of living beasts, of large wheels with faces, of dazzling colors and lightning. We hear these prophecies, alongside the Gospel readings, to help us realize the magnitude of what is happening with the coming of Christ in the flesh. While Christ ministers to the poor, heals the sick, and teaches the way of the kingdom is humility and love in the Gospel, we know that events of a cosmic proportion are happening – the natural order has been turned upside down by God becoming man. And the ultimate overthrow of things is about to happen – the defeat of death and the empty tomb.