Residents of large cities are almost never able to see the beauty of a starry sky. The light of the street lamps and the bright advertisements blot out the stars from them, and they appear faint and feeble. And only when one gets out to a field or the mountains, amongst nature’s quiet wind, on a calm night, does the boundless starry night open before his eyes in all of its beauty, and then the words of the Psalmist ring out in his soul: "The heavens declare (in Russian: preach) the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork" (Psalm 18:2).
Something similar often happens with man in his relationship to God’s Church. The quiet wind of heavenly life blows within Christ’s Church. Through her is established a connection to the World on High, and mystical contact with eternity. In her is defeated death, which becomes a rest from labors and a portal to "the best and most useful." Nevertheless, the majority of people, blinded by the sorry trumpery of life, does not notice the mystical spiritual life in the Church and cannot draw from her that water of life, about which the Lord said that those who drink of it shall never thirst; that is, they will receive complete spiritual fulfillment.
Modern apostates from the Church, sectarians, accuse Christ’s Church of supposedly forgetting to preach the Gospel and turning her whole life toward outward ritual. This accusation is based on an inattentive or dishonest attitude toward the Church. The life of the Church is an uninterrupted and never-silenced preaching of the Gospel, which is realized in a strict and elaborate order, inspired from above, and is revealed in every avenue capable of influencing human perception.
Church architecture silently preaches the Gospel. The comely external appearance of a church can very strongly influence the human soul. Once, one pious mother brought her 7-year old son Alyosha to Moscow and led him to St. Basil’s Cathedral. Alyosha threw up his hands and cried: "Oh, who could create such beauty!" After this, he would never shrink from preaching the Gospel. This was His Beatitude, Metropolitan Anthony.
Church iconography preaches the Gospel; it is nothing less than preaching in paint. Professor Trubetskoy wrote of this most convincingly in his essay, "Umozrenie v kraskah" ("Speculation in Colors"), which he read at the great Moscow Sobor of 1917-18. Church singing preaches the Gospel; not only in the content of the hymns, but in the motifs of correct church singing themselves. To be convinced of this one must read the biography of the creator of the Church octoechoes (in Greek: eight tones), St. John of Damascus, who reflected in the octoechos the singing of the angels, or the vita of St. Roman the Melodist, whose mouth was miraculously granted to sing the melodious church hymns.
The words of all of the Church prayers preach the Gospel. Church prayers are a portal to the spiritual experience and communication with God of holy people, who dedicated their whole lives to practical implementation of the Gospel. The clerical vestments preach the Gospel. Listen to those prayers that accompany the vesting of the clerics: "My soul shall rejoice in the Lord, for He has clothed me with the garment of salvation and covered me with a tunic of happiness; He has crowned me as a bridegroom and as a bride, adorned me with jewels;" so reads the first prayer. What can be more exalted or wonderful than that mood, which these sacred vestments are called upon to create, both in the clergy and in the faithful who gaze upon them?
The sweet-smelling incense preaches the Gospel; it accompanies prayers for the sending down from heaven of the grace of the Most-Holy Spirit, Which we received through the Gospel. The church bells preach the Gospel, with their toll giving us glad tidings of the good news of the Gospel. In America, there is a small town in which is located a huge university with 21 thousands students. Amidst the marvelous buildings of this university is a massive ten-story tower, in which is arranged a belfry. At an appointed time, the meticulously selected bells will ring out various musical melodies that delight the ear. Here they are an end in themselves, and entertain the people as small bells might entertain children. Our church bells have a different meaning. They are a clarion call to break away from our earthly cares and lift up our soul to the heavenly bridechamber.
All of the readings from the Epistles and the Prophets preach the Gospel; they forerun the Gospel and enjoin it to our lives.
Sectarians, evangelicals, and others who acknowledge the Bible, but reject the Church with her order of life, nonetheless create around themselves a kind of semblance of the Church. And so, the readings at their gatherings, from the Old and New Testaments, which they view as the only source of salvation, are accompanied by music and singing and edifying sermons, often delivered by young women or youths, sharing in their spiritual experience. Such a gathering can more or less gain the attention of its audience, but how barren is it compared to a gathering in church. Can one really compare the millennial experience of the Church, created by the greatest of enlightened minds, the purest of angelic souls, and the adamantine character of those who have devoted themselves to the service of God, with the dull prattle of people who come and go?
Yet all of the outward trappings of our divine church services are a form of vessel, containing within it the preaching of the Gospel, opened unto us through the readings of the Gospel. The goal of the Gospel readings is laid out in the secret "Prayer before the Gospel." In it, the priest prays that the hearts of the faithful might be illumined by the pure light of Divine knowledge, that the eyes of our understanding might be opened to comprehend the Gospel and that in us might be instilled a fear of the blessed commandments, that trampling upon all desires of the flesh, we might pursue a godly life.
In congruity with these goals, the Gospel is read in the Church neither according to the personal choice of the clergy nor according to the desire and mood of the worshipers, but by an order strictly and elaborately established by the Church, a revelation of spiritually nourishing thoughts, organized for the yearly cycle of divine services in such a way that, over the course of one year, we are conveyed everything that relates to our salvation.
During the more festal and triumphal period of Church life, beginning with the first day of Holy Pascha and ending on the feast of Holy Pentecost, the Church reads (with some minor digressions) the Gospel according to St. John the Theologian. This Gospel, more so than the other three, speaks of the divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ, and in church hymns St. John himself is called the "Evangelist of the divinity of Jesus." Through these readings, the Holy Church cultivates within her children an understanding that the Founder of our Church and faith is truly the incarnate God, the Creator of heaven and earth, "by Whom all things were made," the second Person of the Most-Holy Trinity, that He lived among the people, and suffered for their sins, arose from the dead, came into His glory, founded our Church, was seated at the right hand of God in heaven, and whose it is to come again to judge the living and the dead. All of the sacred recollections for this period are organized in such a way as to more brightly and strongly impress upon the people faith in Jesus Christ as God, thereby summoning from within them the determination to live a spiritual life, fulfill God’s commandments in deed, and in order to accomplish this, on the day of Holy Pentecost receive the revitalizing power of the Holy Spirit.
Here it is easy to see that the theoretical reading of the Gospel at home, sitting at your desk, or even the study of the Gospel in some educational institution, can serve as a precious aid, but only as an aid to hearing the Gospel in church, and cannot supplant the Church’s preaching of the Gospel, because the Church gives not only knowledge, but also the strengths to realize this knowledge in our lives. The Church’s evangelizing of the Gospel not only conveys to us the truth of the faith, but creates within us, in the place of sons of the flesh, children of the Spirit, and makes us conscientious partakers of God’s Kingdom. This is given only within the true Church, and nowhere else.
The following week, on Sunday, the Sunday of All Saints, pericope 38 is read. The first half of this reading is tied in with the Paschal period, culminating in the Sunday of All Saints, while the second tells of the nature of the Church. We are told that our Church is the Church Militant: "Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword" (Matthew 10:34). On Monday, we read pericope 19, in which is revealed that law of spiritual life by which those who are concerned with the spiritual life are freed from earthly cares: "Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed?.. But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and His righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you" (Matthew 6:31,33). Here we must note that only those who seek the kingdom of God and His righteous are freed from earthly cares; concern for this must be the principle constituent of the lives of the children of the Church. Read on the further days of that week are pericopes 22, 23, 27, 31, and 20. In them, we read that the children of the Church must sternly work on their soul and make it do not that which the instinct of this life draws it to do, but what is commanded by the will of God: "Strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it" (Matthew 7:14) and once more is confirmed the notion of a true Church: "Beware of false prophets... Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven" (Matthew 7:15,21). Being as it is difficult for earthly man to radically change his life and submit it to totally different, new laws, so in pericope 27 on Thursday we read of the miraculous cessation of the storm. This narrative ends with these remarkable words: "What manner of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him!" (Matthew 8:27). The winds and the sea fulfill the commands of the Lord; truly, will you, a free and reasoning soul, impede the Lord from ceasing your storm – so challenges the Church by this teaching. On Saturday, we read pericope 20, which calls upon the children of the Church to treat the human soul with the utmost care: "Judge not, lest ye be judged… First cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye… Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine…" (Matthew 7:1,5-6). By dogs and swine the Gospel means impious men who have consciously rejected the heavenly kingdom as nonexistent. For them, life is comprised solely of satisfying their physical instincts. There is no need to discuss the mysteries of the Kingdom of God, because they will "turn again and rend you" (Matthew 7:6); that is, they will kill your soul, infecting it with their wickedness.
And so it is, over the course of the whole year, in a manner well-reasoned, coherent, and systematic, the Gospel readings in the Church are arranged thus, to breathe new life into the human soul, that it might believe on Christ the Savior and follow Him.
Wherever the Gospel may be found, its clarion call and words are equally holy, grace-filled, and invariable. So do the stars of the sky shine equally above the bustling city and above the quiet desert. However, in the city, washed out with bright lights, their beauty cannot be beheld. So it is with the Gospel: comprehending its mysteries in the chaos of life is impossible. They can be comprehended only through the Church, which is our Teacher and Guide on the paths of salvation. We must try to understand that the Church is paradise, already realized on the earth, crossing over to eternal bliss in heaven.