Festal readings

Outside Lent, readings from the Old Testament are used at Vespers on major feasts. The regular pattern is for there to be three readings, except for the three great feasts of the Lord, Nativity, Theophany and Pascha, which have retained their ancient vigils, consisting of Vespers followed by the Liturgy of St Basil. All three are provided with a rich selection of readings from the Old Testament, followed by readings from the books of the Apostle and the Gospel. The first reading is always the opening of Genesis (1:1-12). For the Nativity there follow seven further Old Testament readings, for Theophany twelve and for Pascha fourteen.6

A study of the choice of readings throws valuable light on the meaning of the feasts and the typological use of the Old Testament. One of the most striking things about the readings from the Old Testament is the freedom with which the Church takes the text. Readings from the wisdom literature are frequently, to use the modern idiom, 'cut and paste jobs', and it is sometimes impossible to give a more precise reference than 'selection'.

The Nativity

The readings for the Nativity include the well-known passages from Isaiah 7, 9 and ii and Micah (Michaias) 4 on Bethlehem. In the Septuagint the first title of the Child is 'Angel of Great Counsel' (Is 9:6), which is not in the Hebrew. The other passages are taken from the prophecy of Balaam in Numbers 24, Daniel 2 andBaruch 3.7 In Numbers 24:i7 the Septuagint has an important difference from the Hebrew. Where the Hebrew has 'A star shall come out of Jacob, and a sceptre shall rise out of Israel', the Greek has 'A star shall come out of Jacob, and a man shall rise out of Israel', a clear reference to an individual. This passage lies behind the story of the magi, who came from the East, the land of Balaam, and the Star in Matthew i . The passage from Daniel describes the 'stone not cut by human hand', which destroys the great statue in Nabuchodonosor's dream, and which is understood as prophesying the Incarnation. Moreover, the image of the mountain from which the stone was cut is frequently applied to the Mother of God, as in this Sunday hymn in Tone 4: 'A Stone not cut by human hand [Dan 2:34] was cut from you, O Virgin, unhewn mountain: Christ, the head of the corner [Is 28:i6, Ps ii7 (ii8):22, Mt 2i:42, Acts 4:ii, i Pet 2:7], who joined together the natures that were parted; and so with joy, Mother of God, we magnify you'.

The passage from Baruch contains the sentence 'He appeared on earth and went about among men.' In the original the reference is to Wisdom, but in the patristic tradition it is one of the key texts on the Incarnation, and occurs frequently in the Fathers and the liturgical texts.8


The readings for Theophany fall into two groups, in each of which, to use the Hebrew classification, the passages are taken from Torah (Genesis and Exodus), Former Prophets (Jesus son of Navi, Judges and i and 2 Kings (3 and 4 Reigns)) and Latter Prophets (Isaiah). Naturally there are a number of passages about the Jordan. Others contain references to miracles involving water: Moses' rescue by Pharaoh's daughter from the Nile, the crossing of the Red Sea, the waters of Mara, the fleece in the story of Gideon, Elijah (Elias) and the prophets of Baal. Of the passages from Isaiah, the first speaks of washing as a sign of repentance and forgiveness and the second speaks of God 'comforting his people' - with an echo of Isaiah 40, which itself is taken as prophetic of John the Baptist - and 'leading them through springs of water'.


An early eleventh-century Euchologion from Constantinople includes a description of the paschal baptismal rite of the Great Church. From this it is clear that most of the fifteen readings would have been read in the Church while the patriarch was performing the baptisms in the baptistery. A rubric states that, after the Entrance at Vespers when the second reader begins 'Be enlightened, be enlightened' - that is Isaiah 60, the second of the present fifteen readings - 'the patriarch enters the vestry of the great baptistery'. After the baptisms, as the singers chant, 'As many of you as have been baptised into Christ have put on Christ', he anoints the newly baptised with the holy myron and then 'makes the entrance with them and begins the Liturgy'. The other readings include the story of the Passover (Ex 12), the crossing of the Red Sea and the song of Moses (Ex 13-15), and the last Passover before entering the promised land (Josh (Jesus son of Navi) 5). There are stories of only sons saved, or brought back from death, in Genesis 22 and 1 and 2 Kings. The whole book of Jonah, who is taken by Jesus himself as a type of his resurrection, is read, together with two passages taken as prophetic of the resurrection, Zephaniah (Sophonias) 3:8, 'Wait upon me for the day of my resurrection' (LXX), and Isaiah 63:11, 'Where is he who brought the shepherd of the sheep out of the earth?'9 Translations dependent on the Hebrew, including the Vulgate, have 'sea' here rather than 'earth'. Other prophecies are relevant to baptism: the 'garment of salvation', the gift of 'the Spirit of the Lord' in Isaiah 61, and the promise of the New Covenant in Jeremiah 38. The final reading is the story of the three youths from Daniel 3, together with their song, which, as well as being a type of baptism, forms a triumphant conclusion to the readings just before the return of the patriarch to the church with the newly baptised for the paschal Liturgy. In the pagan world of the early Church, the story of the three youths who refuse the idolatrous worship of Nabuchodonosor's golden idol would have been particularly apposite.

The 'Ascension'

For the feast of the 'Ascension'10 two passages from Isaiah and one from Zachariah are chosen. Isaiah 2 speaks of the 'mountain of the Lord', that from Zacharias 14 of the Lord 'standing on the mount of

Olives' (cf. Acts 1:12). Isaiah 63:1 contains the passage beginning 'Who is this who comes from Edom, the scarlet of his garments from Bosor?', a text that is quoted in a hymn at Vespers, which gives 'from the flesh' as the etymology of 'from Bosor'. This is wrong, but may be why the passage was chosen for this feast, one of whose main themes is that the Lord was taken up 'in the flesh', 'in his humanity'. The principal hymn for the feast cites i Timothy 3:16, with allusions to Luke 24:49, 50, 52: 'You were taken up in glory, Christ our God, giving joy to your disciples by the promise of the Holy Spirit, when through the blessing they had been assured that you are the Son of God, the Redeemer of the world.'


The readings for Pentecost are concerned with the gift of the Spirit. The first, from Numbers ii, tells how the Lord puts on the seventy elders some of Moses' spirit, and ends: 'and who would not give that all the Lord's people were prophets, whenever the Lord should put his Spirit upon them?' The second, from Joel 3, which St Peter quotes in his Pentecost sermon in Acts 2, contains the words, 'After this I shall pour out my spirit on all flesh.' The third, from Ezekiel 36, contains God's promise: 'And I will give you a new heart, and will put a new spirit in you' (Ezek 36:26).

The Transfiguration

'Why Moses and Elijah?' is a question people sometimes ask about the story of the Transfiguration. The Old Testament readings for the feast supply the explanation. Both Moses and Elijah were recipients of personal theophanies. In Exodus 24 Moses is called by God to ascend Mt Sinai. God's glory comes down upon the mount and Moses enters the cloud where he remains for forty days and forty nights. In Exodus 33 and 34 Moses asks to see God, but is told that no one can see the 'face of God' and live. God does though allow him to see his 'back': 'The Lord passed before his face, and proclaimed, "The Lord, the Lord, God compassionate and merciful, slow to anger, and full of mercy and true". And Moses quickly bowed to the earth, and worshipped the Lord.' In the story of Elijah at Horeb in i Kings 19 it is not said that Elijah saw anything, but the clause 'And behold, the Lord will pass by' evidently recalls the words in Exodus 34: 'And while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock.' Elijah's reaction to the 'sound of the light breeze' is similar to that of Moses in Exodus: 'he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood by the cave'.

The universal exaltation of the precious Cross

The first two readings contain Old Testament prefigurings of the Cross. The first, from Exodus 15, recounts how Moses made the bitter waters at Mara sweet, and therefore drinkable, by throwing into them a piece of wood, shown to him by God. At baptism the priest plunges the Cross into the font so that it may become water of salvation. In the second, from Isaiah 60, the prophet says to Jerusalem, 'The glory of Lebanon shall come to you, with cypress, pine, and cedar, to glorify my holy place, and I will make the place of my feet glorious.' Traditionally the Cross was made from these three woods. The Cross is also seen as God's footstool, and other texts about the Cross quote or refer to Psalm 98 (99):5: 'Exalt the Lord our God, and bow down before his footstool,for he is holy.' The third reading, from Proverbs 3, is a praise of Wisdom, chosen because the closing verse identifies Wisdom with the 'Tree of Life' - that is, the Cross: 'She is a tree of life to all who lay hold of her, and for those who lean hard upon her, as upon the Lord, she is safety.' If Adam lost Paradise and with it the Tree of Life, the Good Thief by means of a Tree is the first to re-enter it (Lk 23:43). The hymns for the feast assemble a remarkable collection of Old Testament passages that are taken as types of the Cross. Jacob forms a cross with his hands when he blesses Joseph's sons (Gen 48:17-19). Moses makes a cross over the Red Sea as he divides it to let the Israelites pass over and completes the cross by closing the waters over Pharaoh's army (Ex 14). He forms a cross as he stretches out his arms as Israel battles against Amalek (Ex 17:8-16). Even the piece of wood by which the prophet Elisha (Elissaios) makes the lost axe head float (2 Kings 6:4-7) is taken as a type of the Cross.

The saints

The readings for the feasts of saints follow a fairly clear pattern. Where possible they have specific relevance to the saint, where there is none, readings appropriate to the category of saint are chosen.

On feasts of the Mother of God the first two readings, from Genesis 28 and Ezekiel, present two of the most frequent types applied to her in the liturgical texts, that of the Ladder seen by Jacob at Bethel that unites heaven and earth and on which11 the Lord was standing, and that of the Shut Gate of the new temple in Ezekiel 44, through which only the Prince may pass. A hymn from Matins in Tone 1 combines a number of these images of the Mother of God: 'Hail source of grace, hail ladder and gate of heaven, hail lampstand and golden jar, and unhewn mountain, who bore for the world Christ the Giver of life.'

Another, from the feast of the Dormition, sees Mary as the Ark of the Covenant and its furnishings: 'Your Offspring, O Virgin, has truly made you dwell in the Holy of Holies as shining Lampstand of the immaterial Fire, golden Censer of the divine Coal, Jar and Rod and Tablet written by God, holy Ark and Table of the Bread of Life."2

Mary is the Ark of the Covenant because the Ark contained the Tables of the Law, on which were inscribed by God the Ten Words, and, in both Greek and Hebrew, which use the letters of the alphabet as numbers, 'ten' is represented by the letter 'I', which is the first letter of the name 'Jesus'. The other images underline Mary's role in the Incarnation as the one who carried God in her womb.

One of the most frequently met types of the Mother of God is the Burning Bush (Ex 3:i-6). God is in the bush, but the bush does not burn; God is in Mary's womb, but she is not consumed by the fire of the godhead. St John of Damascus puts it thus in the first Ode of his poetic canon for Christmas:

Clearly prefigured by the bush unburned A hallowed womb has borne in it the Word, God mingled with a mortal form, who now Frees Eve's unhappy womb from bitter curse Of old. Him now we mortals glorify.

Mary is the mountain of God because, as the psalm says, it is 'the mountain on which God was pleased to dwell'. In Exodus the 'glory of the Lord' appears in the cloud which covers Mt Sinai and the Tent of Witness, just as the incarnate Lord dwells in Mary the Mother of God. She is 'Paradise' and 'Eve's deliverance' because the Tree of Life made his dwelling in her, and her obedience (Lk i :38) reversed Eve's disobedience (Gen 3:i3). The phrase 'great treasured vessel of the inhabited world', which again recalls Mary's role as Mother of God, is not from scripture, but is a quotation from St Cyril of Alexandria.

The third reading, from Proverbs 9, about Wisdom building her house, may not, at first sight, appear to have any clear reference to the Mother of God. However, the Fathers frequently identify Wisdom with the Logos and so Wisdom's house is the body of the Mother of God. Thus St Athanasius links this passage with Proverbs 8:22 and John i:i4. He writes, 'It is clear that Wisdom's house is our body, which he assumed when he became man.' In the fifth book of the Apostolic Constitutions, Proverbs 9:i is listed between Proverbs 8:22 and Isaiah ii:i as a prophecy of the Incarnation.

The feast of the Angels on 8 November has readings from Joshua, Judges and Daniel, which recount Old Testament 'angelophanies'. Four of the six feasts of St John the Baptist have readings. Those for his Nativity include the stories of the births of Isaac and Samson to previously barren women. Samson also would, like John, be a Nazirite.13 The third reading is from Isaiah 40, which is taken in the Gospels as prophetic of John: 'A voice of one crying out in the desert: "Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths"' (Mk 1:3). This reading is also used for his other feasts, but the first two are replaced by Malachi 3 - 'See, I am sending out my messenger, and he will prepare a road before me' - and a text made up of selected verses from Wisdom 4 and 5, which is suitable for a martyr: 'A just man who dies will condemn the ungodly who are alive . . . We reckoned his life folly and his end dishonour. How has he been numbered among the children of God and his lot with the Saints?' It is therefore also used on the feast of St George. None of these three readings is taken unaltered from scripture, but all include other verses suitable to the feast.

The readings for the feasts of the Fathers of the seven councils of the undivided Church include Genesis 14, because the number of Abraham's servants, 318, corresponds to the traditional number of Fathers at the first council of Nicaea (ad 325), though not to the 630 at Chalcedon. The number is also symbolic, since in Greek it would be written TIH;that is, the Cross (T) and the first two letters of the name Jesus (IH). The liturgical celebration of the councils seems to be peculiar to Orthodoxy.

The readings for the feast of St Constantine from 1 Kings, Solomon's prayer at the dedication of the temple, and Isaiah 60 and 61 are clearly chosen in order to present him as the new Solomon and founder of Constantinople, the New Jerusalem. In Russian use, the same readings are used for St Vladimir of Kiev.

Modern offices

Some more recent offices are less traditional in their choice of readings. The readings from Joel in the Russian office for St John of Kronstadt seem to be a call to repentance following the events of 1917. In the new service which the late Fr Gerasimos composed for the feast of the Protecting Veil of the Mother of God, when the Church of Greece moved it to 28 October as a celebration of national deliverance in the 1940s, he replaced the readings from Genesis and Proverbs with ones from Numbers 9 and Exodus 40, which describe the protecting cloud over the Tabernacle. In his office for the Environment on 1 September, he had no precedents to follow and felt free to make his own choice of suitable passages from the Prophets. He retained the reading from Leviticus in the traditional office for the new church year on i September, but replaced the other two with passages from Isaiah 63-4 - a prayer that God will have mercy on humanity, fashioned in his image from clay, but which has turned from the right path - and Jeremiah 2: 'And I led you to Carmel to eat its fruits and its good things, and you went in and you defiled my land and made my inheritance an abomination.'

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