Sometimes, in fact, many times, often times, people ask me, they will say, “Fr. Thomas, what is a good book to read during Lent?” and I like to joke—and not joke, but sometimes say very true things in a little lighter manner—I usually say, “Well I would really recommend the Bible. If you want to read a ‘good book’ during Lent, read the Bible.” And that’s not funny—why is that so important? Because many of us Christians, we are always looking for some kind of good book, some kind of minister with a new ministry, or new saint, or new elder, or the latest publication of this person or that person, or that person or this person, but we neglect the book that God gave us. The book that the Holy Spirit wrote, the book that is written by many human beings, in many different times, in many different places, in many different settings that show to us God. The book that God himself inspired.
Now sometimes when people say, “Yeah but the Bible, you know, is long,” and so on, then I say, “Well, why don’t you try reading the New Testament this Lent? Just read it from beginning to end. Or just read the four gospels. Read the four gospels during lent. In fact, in Orthodox monasteries, the four gospels are read in their entirety during Holy Week. During Holy Week, every word of the four gospels is read in the monastery. When I worked at St. Vladimir’s Seminary, we actually read one of the four gospels all the way through from beginning to end in the first three days of Holy Week in our chapel. We brought the gospel out, the priest opened it, and read it, and we all listened. It was done at the hours prescribed to be done.
But that book that we should read would be the Bible, or the New Testament, or the Gospels. However, we should know also that during Lent the Church, which we believe is inspired by God, chooses certain books of the Bible that the Church reads liturgically. In other words, they read them at services, and these would be five books of the Bible, and I do believe that it would be wise, it would be kind of fitting to say, “Well, if we can’t read more, or a lot, maybe we can read these five books, five of the biblical books.” Three are from the Old Testament and two are from the New Testament. The three Old Testament books are Genesis and Proverbs, which are read in the Orthodox Church during Lent at vespers. If a person does not even want to read all of them, they can get a calendar and just read the daily readings from Genesis and Proverbs.
Genesis is read because it is the genesis, it is the beginning, it is the call of Abraham, it has those prototypical pre-figurative stories that are so important for Christians: like Abraham being saved by faith through grace and reckoned righteousness a believer; Abraham being totally dedicated to God even when he is asked to sacrifice his own son, because God himself is going to sacrifice his own son, and when God sacrifices his own son, no angel comes to save him. The angel came to save Isaac on the mountain but no angel came to save Jesus on the cross. And then when we read about Abraham we read about the visitors of God who visited him that in Orthodox tradition are used as symbols of the Holy Trinity, the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit. We also know that in the Abraham story we have Melchizedek, the king of peace, the prince of peace, the great high priest whose offering was bread and wine. We have in the Genesis the ark of Noah saving us, because we know the Church is the ark of our salvation. We have in Genesis, it ends with of course the twelve sons of Israel, of Jacob, and then we think of the twelve apostles and the new Israel of God, or the Israel of God in the Messiah we should say more accurately, because there is no new Israel of God. We are the Israel of God because Genesis tells us that the Israel of God is by faith, not by blood and flesh. We have the wonderful story of Joseph that is used during Holy Week, betrayed by his brothers, put into a pit, thought to be dead, then he appears again to be alive and he is like a king sitting on a throne, and when his brothers come, he saves them and they do not die, and then they repent of their sin and he forgives them. That story of Joseph is one of the main pre-figurative stories of Jesus in the Genesis book, and it ends there. And so Genesis brings us right up to the Passover exodus, and then during Holy Week we read about the Passover exodus of Moses as we are celebrating the new Pascha and the new exodus of Jesus from death to life, from earth to heaven. So genesis is a really important good book to read during Lent. The church has us hear it.
Then Proverbs. Proverbs of course is because it tells us that the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom; it tells us not to be a fool; it tells us not live for greed, for gain, not to go after prostitutes and carnal pleasure. It tells us to listen to the teachings of our fathers, it tells us to be wise, to seek wisdom more than anything, it is more precious than gold, sweeter than honey. So we read proverbs to know how to behave, to know how to live, how to be virtuous—and very simply virtuous, no great high spirituality and holiness, just basic Christian virtue in keeping the commandments. So Genesis and Proverbs.
Then also the third Old Testament book is Isaiah, and during Lent in the Orthodox Church Isaiah is read at the sixth hour which is the noon service of Church, which commemorates the time when Jesus was nailed to the cross. And Isaiah of course is so, so prophetic of Jesus: of the Virgin conceiving and Immanuel being with us and God being the Divine Bridegroom, and then the Suffering Servant who bears our wounds and transgressions and is rejected and wounded and spit upon and yet he is vindicated by God; and he brings the kingdom of God and the new Jerusalem comes; and how God is faithful and faithful no matter how sinful we are; and how really truly sinful the people are, yet God is with them and never letting them go. And then we learn in Isaiah that a real fast is not ashes and sackcloth. A real fast is to share out bread with others and to bring the homeless into our homes and to do good deeds for the orphan and the widow. So Isaiah is the great prophetic book of Christ, it is the great prophetic book of the gospel, it is even called the gospel before the Gospels, and therefore we read during Lent Isaiah, or at least the selected passages that are prescribed if we want to read less.
And then we have the letter to the Hebrews, where it tells us about Jesus the great high priest who fulfills all the sacrificial sacrifices of the Old Testament; who saves us by his own blood; who is the high priest according to Melchizedek; who takes us into the heavenly sanctuary not made by hands; who offers the sacrifice once and for all; who became like a brethren in every respect except sin; who is made perfect through suffering. And we know that we cannot neglect this great salvation, if we Christians do there is nothing left for us. So it is very good to read carefully the letter to the Hebrews during Great Lent. And if we cannot read the Old Testament books, at least read the letter to the Hebrews. Read it several times, read it carefully.
And then if we cannot read all four gospels, at least read Mark, the shortest, the quickest, the starkest, the most apocalyptic, the “gospel in bare bones,” you know, begins with baptism and ends with the empty tomb and it shows just how Jesus has the authority to forgive, to heal, to cast out demons, and ultimately to die and to raise the dead.
So you want some good book to read during Lent? I would suggest Genesis, Proverbs, Isaiah, the letter to the Hebrews, and the gospel according to St. Mark.