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21 June 2020
Today, the Sunday of All Saints, brings us to the end of a journey we began almost five months ago. We set out at the end of January as we heard the story of Christ’s recognition of Zacchaeus’ potential for a reintegration into society, and of the tax collector’s response in repentance and generosity. This led us into the time of the Triodion, the Lenten service book. As we heard of recognition and confession of our fallen, needy state (Sunday of the Tax Collector and the Pharisee), the love and forgiveness of God when we return to him (Sunday of the Prodigal Son) and the challenge to see and serve Christ in the poor and disadvantaged around us (Sunday of the Last Judgement) we were prepared for our own entry into the Great Fast through the doorway of mutual forgiveness. During Lent we were asked to consider the truth of our faith, the message of the Cross, and the ascetic work of those who had gone before us, both men and women, and so to follow the Lord to his life-giving and voluntary passion, death and resurrection.
As we emerged into the light of Easter we had three Sundays (Easter, Thomas’ Sunday and the Sunday of the Myrrhbearers) to contemplate the new life and joy brought to the world, and three more Sundays (of the Paralysed Man, the Samaritan Woman and the Blind Man) where we heard Gospel stories in which water played a prominent symbolic role, reminding us of the cleansing and life-giving work of Baptism and of the Holy Spirit. The celebration of the Ascension, in which Christ, in his union with us, raises our human nature to the heavens was followed by our remembrance of the Holy Fathers of the First Council who affirmed the dogma of the full divinity and full humanity of the embodied Word of God; which led us finally to last week’s feast – the second of the two greatest feasts of the Church – the birth of the Church of God through the coming of the Holy Spirit to the Apostles at Pentecost.
Today, as we close the Pentecostarion, the book which has shaped our worship all through the Easter period, we contemplate the result of the whole story that we have heard on this journey. The Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life, has descended to purify, to renew and to give life to the whole world, by planting within it the seed of the Church. Since the first Pentecost this seed has been growing into a great tree filling the world, in which even the birds find shelter (Matthew 13:32). As we heard at Easter there are those who have been unwilling to receive the light of Christ, but the hundreds of millions who have received him have also received “power to become children of God, …born…of the will of God.” (John 1:12-13). These are the saints, and we know only a fraction of them by name. When St John saw the redeemed in the Apocalypse and counted the symbolic 144,000 he adds, “I looked again, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages.” But, as we are told elsewhere, God’s firm foundation bears the inscription, “The Lord knows those who are his.” (2 Timothy 2:19) Humans may forget, or simply not know, who the holy ones among them are, but God remembers all, and today is their celebration.
But it is also our celebration. Although we cannot gather together this year for the feast, we rejoice in our communion with one another and with all those who have gone before us in the faith. We know that whatever may separate us physically we are all joined together as organs or limbs of the Body of the risen Lord. And we are called to “grow up in every way into…Christ, from whom the whole body…, as each part is working properly, grows in building itself up in love.” This love and care for the Body of Christ is our road to sainthood. When God looks at each one of us, he sees the saint he has created us to be – a saint in the making, it is true, but with God’s help and grace a saint all the same.
So it is no surprise that having shown us the full story of our destiny over the last five months, the Church calls us to set out once more on a fast, this time having as its goal the celebration of the great leaders of the Church: the chief Apostles Peter and Paul. May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, in the love of his Father and through the unity that we all share in the Holy Spirit who is the Lord and giver of life lead us forward through that fast towards the ultimate goal of our calling – our own sharing in the nature of God with all our blessed and holy brothers and sisters. And may we all become the saints that we are in his sight. Amen.
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07 Jun 2020
Christ is risen!
There are three points which I would like to look at more closely in today’s Gospel reading (John 5:1-15). The first is the place at which this healing occurs. The Pool of Bethesda, near the Sheep Gate of Jerusalem, was, we are told, noted as a healing site. Every so often the water would unexpectedly bubble up, and the belief was that this denoted a supernatural intervention, and that the first person to be able to get into the water after this bubbling up would be healed. The remains of the pool were discovered in the 19th century, and although the site is not easy to interpret it can be seen today by anyone who makes the pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
St John’s Gospel tells us that the pool had five porticoes, and this can be seen in the archaeological remains – the complex at the time of Jesus seems to have consisted of two pools surrounded by a colonnade, with a further colonnade dividing them. But as we should remember when reading St John, his interest in numbers is more in their symbolism than in architectural description. We have a man, sick and unable to be healed, lying in this fivefold structure. Our minds should immediately go to the most famous fivefold feature of Jesus’ time: the Torah, the Jewish Law, found in the five books of Moses. Scholars are divided as to whether at this time the Pool of Bethesda was a mikveh, a Jewish bath for ritual cleansing, or part of a pagan healing complex (an asclepion). The detail of the five porches, given St John’s interest in numerical symbols, may incline us to think that he favoured the former understanding, but one way or the other it is clear that this man is in the wrong place.
Then there is the length of time mentioned. The man has been suffering for 38 years – longer, probably, than Jesus’ earthly lifetime. It takes no great effort to realise that he would be fairly well known to the locals – part of the furniture of the pool, almost. The miracle of his healing would be something that would surely attract their attention. But once more we should note the symbolic dimension of the number. “Thirty-eight years” appears only once elsewhere in the whole of the Bible, in Deuteronomy 2:14. There we are told that the wilderness journey of the Israelites in their Exodus from Egypt to the Promised Land took 38 years, the time taken for the old generation (which had refused to exercise trust in God) to pass, and for a new generation to take their place.
Putting these two points together we can see that under the surface of the story St John is inviting us to read a more universal message of healing and salvation. The man who is to be healed is to be freed from the world of the Law and after going through the equivalent time to the Exodus is to enter the Land of Promise. It is telling in this context that the first thing that Jesus tells him to do is to break the Law (“pick up your mattress and carry it away” on the Sabbath day).
But here is the third point. The whole story of healing turns on the man’s response to Jesus’ question: “Do you want to be healed?” In his paralysed, law-bound life he may have become accustomed to the way things were. He might not be exactly comfortable, but he knew how to manage. He might complain that he couldn’t be healed, but illness might be his security. Against this comes the challenge of Jesus: to move out into the new world of the New Commandment (John 13:34; 15:12; 15:17 – a threefold repetition!), to follow the New Joshua/Jesus into the Land of Promise. “Do you want to be healed?” is therefore not simply a question about a change from sick to well. It reaches deep into the soul. “Are you willing to trust yourself to my guidance in opening up before you the new full life which I can give? Are you willing to take the step of faith on that path?”
St John, in his Gospel, doesn’t use the word “miracle”. He gives us instead seven “signs” which, as signs do, point beyond themselves to something greater. These signs are fulfilled in the great Eighth Day of the Resurrection in the light of which they all become clear. As we live this Life, especially in this Easter period, the Church challenges us to understand more clearly what it is these signs point to, and to face for ourselves the same challenge. “Do you really want this life, this love, this grace?”
Christ is risen!
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13 Apr 2020
Today we find ourselves at the threshold of the final journey to the resurrection of the Lord. As I said last week, the forty day fast of Lent has concluded, and we are in the brief respite before the fast of Holy Week begins. The Church marks this respite by giving us a relief from the strict rules of fasting: today, Palm Sunday, fish is once more permitted on the table, alongside wine and oil. And in this pause our attention is drawn to two stories from St John’s Gospel – the raising of Lazarus on the Saturday, and the triumphal entry into Jerusalem on the Sunday.
The two events did not, of course, occur in such swift proximity to each other. If we read St John’s Gospel carefully, we will be aware that there is a significant time lapse between them. But St John ties the two stories together, telling us that many of those who came to meet the Lord at Bethany did so out of curiosity, because they had heard of the miracle performed on St Lazarus, and that the crowd who accompanied Jesus into Jerusalem testified to the miracle and drew more people to them because they heard about this sign. In consequence the authorities decided that Lazarus, too, would have to be put to death alongside Jesus.
Although we may not be aware of it, these passages are crucial to the way St John tells the story of Jesus. We are so used to hearing little snippets of the Gospels in the church services, and have so often created a mental version of the Gospel story which runs elements from all four Gospels into one, that we fail to take account of the differences in both incident and emphasis which distinguish one of the Gospels from the others. Perhaps this Holy Week, shut up at home as we are and unable to participate in the public services of the Church (which themselves have been suspended) we could think about familiarising ourselves with one Gospel, reading it and noting what is in it and what is not, looking at the way in which the author arranged his material to tell his story and what that tells us about the story itself, and therefore about the life of Christ.
If we do this with St John’s Gospel one of the first things we will notice is that he likes to count. The events of Chapters 1 and 2 take place over a period of about a week (four days in Chapter 1, and a wedding “on the third day” after this at the beginning of Chapter 2). And at the beginning of Chapter 2 and the end of Chapter 4 we are told of the first and the second signs (St John does not use the word “miracle”) of Jesus’ ministry. This should give us a hint. If we continue the count of signs we move through the healing of the paralysed man at the Pool of Bethesda (Chapter 5), the feeding of the five thousand, the walking on the water (both in Chapter 6), the healing of the man who had been born blind (Chapter 9) and finally the sign of the raising of Lazarus (Chapter 11). Seven days in Chapters 1 and 2; seven signs in Chapters 2 to 11.
As good readers of the Bible we are aware (or should be) of the importance of the number seven. It is the number of completion and of fullness. God completed the creation of the world in seven days, as the story is told in Genesis, and human beings progress through time in units of seven days. Each week was marked by the Jewish people of Jesus’ time by a weekly celebration (the Sabbath), a day of rest from secular work in honour of God the Creator and the Deliverer of his people. (See Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 for the two reasons given to the Jews for observing the Sabbath as a day of rest.) And so, when we hear of Jesus moving through a week at the start of his story, and when we hear of his seven signs, we should hear these echoes, becoming aware that St John intends us to understand something beyond a simple chronology or catalogue. For those with eyes to see and ears to hear that first week encapsulates the whole of Jesus’ ministry, and the seven signs give a complete picture of God’s dealings with his world.
With the raising of Lazarus we reach the high point of St John’s “Book of Signs” and we move into the second part of his Gospel, the “Book of the Glorification”. The return of someone who had been dead for four days, and whose body was already decomposing, ends the first part of the story on a high note. But as Jesus has already said (in Chapter 1), “You will see greater things than these.” The story that St John now embarks on takes us beyond the sevens of this world’s completeness and into the Eighth Day of the renewal of God’s Kingdom. The return of Lazarus to the life of this world is to be eclipsed by the resurrection of the incarnate Word of God to the unending and immortal life of the world to come. The week that marked the completion of the created world becomes a gateway into eternity. “Look!” says the risen Lord, “I am making all things new.” (Revelation 21:5).
And that includes us, if only we are willing to enter into that new life. In this respite period, as we gather our strength for the journey ahead of us, let us remind ourselves that we are part of the Gospel story that St John tells. We, too, are part of the world of signs, the world of the sevens. But in this coming week we will be moving through the completion of that world into the perfection of the new world of the Resurrection. And although this year we may not be able to share in the services of Easter in the same physical space let us in this week “purify our senses” so that we will “see Christ shining forth in the unapproachable light of the resurrection”; let us prepare to forgive all in that light, to call even those who hate us our brothers and sisters, and not simply to say, but to live the truth that Christ is risen! Amen.
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13 Apr 2020
Christ our God, we sing of your humility beyond our understanding, for though you sat on a throne in heaven, and had the earth for a footstool, you did not think it beneath you to take flesh from a holy virgin, to be made human, and to lie unnoticed as a new-born baby in the manger. Indeed, you sat on a colt, and by your own will endured suffering for us. Before, by inspiration, the heavenly powers sang hymns to you fitting for your Godhead, but now a new hymn is sung to you on earth. You taught the troublesome crowd by perfecting praise from the mouths of infants and children. You taught them how to tell of glory in heaven and peace on earth. With them accept the songs of your unworthy servants, who sing to your victory over death. Bless those who proclaim: “You come in the name of God, yet not entirely abandoning the glory of the Father, for you will come again to judge the whole world in righteousness.” Make us worthy to receive you as you come, arm us for a victorious struggle against passions, and crown us with virtue in return for our palms and branches, so that we may meet you with joy as you come on the clouds in glory, and so that we may become heirs of your Kingdom. For you are the Lover of humankind, and are glorified together with your Father, who is without beginning, and your all-holy, good and life-giving Spirit, now and for ever, and to the ages of ages.
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06 Apr 2020
Five weeks ago, at the Vespers of Forgiveness Sunday, we sang, “Let us set out with joy upon the season of the Fast”, and prayed that “having sailed across the great sea of the Fast we may reach the third-day resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Today we reach the last Sunday of that Fast. Next Friday at Vespers the first hymn sung at “Lord I have cried...” begins, “Having completed the forty days that bring profit to our souls…”. Lent is almost at an end. Today is its last Sunday. Looking forward we see the brief relaxation of Lazarus Saturday and Palm Sunday before the plunge into the renewed fast of Holy Week, and our emergence into the light of the Lord’s resurrection.
When we sang those words, not so long ago, most of us had no idea of what a challenge this Lent would turn out to be. We did not foresee churches closed, the Liturgy suspended and people locked down in their homes. Things moved far faster than we had anticipated, but by now it has become clear that, short of an astounding miracle, we will not be able as a community to celebrate the goal of our voyage across the sea of the Fast – the Lord’s resurrection. “As a community” – this does not mean that the celebration is cancelled, of course. We must remember that we are not tied to dates on a calendar. Nor do we celebrate some kind of cyclical renewal, as if we were pagans. For the Lord’s resurrection is not a return to the status quo, after the unfortunate interruption of death for a couple of days. With the resurrection something completely new has happened, and everything is changed.
This is something that many of the Jews at the time of Christ understood very well, but many Christians have lost sight of. For those who believed in the resurrection, like Martha, Lazarus’ sister, saw it as something that would take place on the last day. (See John 11:24). Resurrection, in the words of the Anglican Bishop, Tom Wright, “was not to do with ‘life after death’, but with life after ‘life after death’”. It was, as we say in the Creed, “the life of the age to come”, the fully coloured picture of which this life here and now was only an outline. But Jesus’ reply to Martha was, “I am the resurrection”. In me the age to come is already present. Those who share in the life I have to give share in that life of the age to come, because in me that age is not to come – it has already come.
At every baptism we hear the words, “Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him” (Romans 6:9). Each one of us is called to live in the light and the reality of that fact, and, even more, to bring that truth and light to all who are in the world around us. We begin every Liturgy with the exclamation, “Blessed is the kingdom of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” because as we come together to worship we are sharers in that life which is the life of the age to come. But that life is not confined to our church worship. Each one of us carries that life, the life into which we were initiated at our baptism and with which we have been fed through Holy Communion, wherever we are. Each one of us is called to be a saint, someone through whom the light shines. “Let your light shine in such a way that seeing it, those around may give glory to your Father in heaven” says Christ to us, filling us with the light that shines in the darkness, and which the darkness cannot grasp.
It is a challenge for us now, in the unprecedented circumstances in which we find ourselves. But it has always been a challenge. In a famous Christian work from the 2nd century, the “Letter to Diognetus”, we find it said, “The Christians… live in their own countries as though they were only passing through. They play their full role as citizens, but labour under all the disabilities of aliens. Any country can be their homeland, but for them their homeland, wherever it may be, is a foreign country…They pass their days upon earth, but they are citizens of heaven.” And yet, says the anonymous author, these Christians who live consciously between and in both worlds, the here and now, and the world to come, “love all, even those who persecute them; enrich many, though they live in poverty and bless those who abuse them.” They bring the light and life of the world to come, of the resurrection, to all those who surround them.
Is it possible for us, too? Today’s celebration poses that question in a different way. We celebrate St Mary of Egypt, a woman whose story sets before us the idea of repentance (metanoia = turning around and heading in the opposite direction) as an ideal. Having spent seventeen years living a life dedicated to sexuality in all its forms, in one moment, when she realises that her sins prevent her from entering the Church of the Holy Cross, she is convinced to turn her life completely around, to set out for the desert and spend almost fifty years there in isolation, seeing no-one, living in the presence of God alone, becoming the saint that God created her to be.
And then on the other hand we have the story in today’s Gospel: Sts James and John, who have lived with Jesus for three years, according to the traditional length of Christ’s ministry, seeing and hearing him daily, still show that they have totally failed to understand anything of what he has said and done. Indeed they don’t even listen – as soon as they hear that he is headed for Jerusalem their thoughts leap ahead to the coming of the kingdom as they imagine it to be, and without hearing any more they set in motion their scheme to sideline St Peter, the third of Jesus’ inner circle, and to claim the top jobs for themselves. Physical proximity to Christ is no guarantee of spiritual likeness, just as St Mary’s physical isolation proves no barrier to her spiritual closeness to the Lord.
Here as we draw near in extraordinary circumstances to the end of the Fast, let us not lose sight of the truth that it is the Risen Lord who calls us to follow him, to live the life of the resurrection that he has given us wherever we may be, and in so doing to enable thousands around us to be saved by his grace. Amen.
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03 Apr 2020
We have reached the point in the Lenten journey we in the normal course of events we would be celebrating the service of the Great Canon of St Andrew of Crete. Strictly speaking the service, which is Matins, belongs to Thursday morning, and I shall celebrate it at home then, but in our community, as in many others, it is usually served on Wednesday evening by anticipation, in order to allow more people to attend.
The Great Canon is a long meditation on the Scriptures, setting before us references to many stories in order that, as St Andrew says, we may “imitate the holy acts of the righteous and flee from the sins of the wicked.” As Fr Nephon Tsimalis reminded those of us who were able to “attend” his video lecture on repentance last night, the Biblical word for “sin” (amartia) means not the breaking of a rule but a failure to hit the target. St Andrew’s work is designed to encourage each of us to read the Biblical narratives through spiritual lenses and to ask ourselves, “How have I, in the things that I have done which I should not have done, and in the things that I have not done which I ought to have done, missed being my true self or fallen away from being the person I was made to be?” In other words, it is a great prayer of repentance.
How can we make the call of this service our own this Lent? Obviously for many people saying the whole service is out of the question. Even in the truncated form in which we usually say it in Church in our community the service lasts well over 2 hours, and it is not realistic to expect families and those who are working from home to put aside that much time to devote to this exercise. But we can still work to foster an image of repentance. One possibility would be to add one section (“Ode”) of the Canon to our morning or evening prayers. Another would be to take one section, or even part of a section, and read and meditate on the Scriptural material to which it refers. (You can find the Great Canon at https://www.ponomar.net/data/lenten_triodion.pdf, starting at page 378 of the book, page 148 of the pdf. The Scripture references in the footnotes refer us to the passages being contemplated.) Another possibility, since the Great Canon includes many references to the story of St Mary of Egypt (whose day it is today, and whose memory will be celebrated on Sunday), would be to read her life and meditate on her example, and what it tells us about repentance. (The [long] text of the life that is read in church is here: https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/basis/maryegypt.asp; but a shorter version can be found here: https://www.goarch.org/sunday-stmaryofegypt [under “Life of the Saint”]). Finally, even if we do not have time for any of these options, we could include within our daily prayers one or two of the Psalms of repentance. The best know of these is Psalm 51 in the Hebrew numbering that is found in most English Bibles: “Have mercy on me, O God…”., but Psalms 6, 130 and 143 are also traditional short prayers of penitence. (In the Greek numbering of the Psalms these will be Psalms 50, 6, 129, and 142.)
However we choose to mark it let us look for the opportunities that God sends us in this season of repentance to set out once more on our journey to become who we are created to be. And let us never lose sight of his love and forgiveness.
With my love to you all,
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03 Apr 2020
Yesterday I suggested that we might read St Mark’s Gospel as part of our Lenten devotions. To read the Gospel is to enter in a special way into the presence of God, for , as St John’s Gospel reminds us, Jesus Christ is the Word of God, God’s own self-expression, and the Gospels are human words designed to bring us to hear and to perceive the Word.
So it is good for us to approach the reading of the Bible, and especially of the Gospels, as an act of prayer. Here, then, are two prayers that we can use in connection with our Gospel reading. The first one may be familiar – it is the prayer that is said by the priest before the Gospel reading at the Liturgy, and if you follow the Liturgy with a book you will certainly have seen it there. The second comes from the ancient Liturgy of St James, and is the prayer appointed for reading after the Gospel. The Liturgy of St James is not very often nor widely served in the Orthodox world today, but it is still part of our Tradition. (The curious can find a modern celebration of it, mainly in English, here: https://youtu.be/ENgVnc5L2Oo
May God enlighten each one of us as we read, and bring us together into the presence of the Light of the world.
With my love to you all,
A PRAYER BEFORE READING THE GOSPEL
Master, Lover of humankind, make the pure light of your divine knowledge shine in our hearts and open the eyes of our mind to understand the message of your Gospel. Implant in us the fear of your blessed commandments, so that, having trampled down all carnal desires, we may pursue a spiritual way of life, thinking and doing all things that are pleasing to you. For you are the illumination of our souls and bodies, Christ God, and to you we give glory, together with your Father who is without beginning, and your all-holy, good and life-giving Spirit, now and for ever, and to the ages of ages. Amen.
A PRAYER AFTER READING THE GOSPEL
You have made your divine and saving words resound for us, O God; enlighten the souls of us sinners to understand the things that have been read, so that we may be seen to be not only hearers of the spiritual songs, but also doers of good deeds, maintaining a faith without pretence, a life without blame, conduct without reproach, in Christ Jesus our Lord, with whom you are blessed and glorified, together with your all-holy, good and life-giving Spirit, now and for ever, and to the ages of ages. Amen.
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03 Apr 2020
For most of the Church’s year the Gospels that we read and hear on Sundays are drawn from the Gospels according to St Matthew and St Luke. In the period between Easter and Pentecost we read from St John’s Gospel. But it is only in Lent that the readings are taken from St Mark’s Gospel.
It struck me recently that this period of lockdown, when many are feeling deprived of Church attendance, could provide us with a very good opportunity to (re)acquaint ourselves with the Gospels, and that St Mark’s Gospel would be an ideal starting point.
Why St Mark? Firstly, because it is short! Looking at the pocket-sized New Testament on my desk it covers 33 pages, compared with 50 or more for the other Gospels. Secondly, because it is the most direct of the Gospels. St Mark is very fond of telling us that things happened “immediately”, one after the other. In telling the story he begins at a rapid pace and doesn’t let up until he gets to the end. Thirdly, because according to the traditional account St Mark wrote down what he had heard St Peter proclaim as he travelled around with him over a number of years. So when we hear the story told by St Mark we are close to hearing the Good News of Jesus Christ as it was originally proclaimed by the leader of the apostles. And finally, because, as I have already said, it is the Gospel from which our Saturday and Sunday readings are taken during Lent.
How can we read it? First, of course, we need to have a text. Some of us have Bibles at home, but some do not. But in this age of the internet that need not be a problem. Bible Gateway, for example, gives us access to many different translations of the Bible in many different languages. (https://www.biblegateway.com/) In English there are a number of versions that can be recommended: if you are reading as a family with young children the Contemporary English Version (CEV) or the Good News Translation (GNT) are good places to start (both of these translations were designed to be read by people whose first language was not English, so the vocabulary and sentence structure are clear and simple.) Other good translations are the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), the English Standard Version (ESV) and the New International Version (NIV). If you want to study the text more closely the New American Bible Revised Edition (NABRE) has many helpful footnotes, but I advise familiarising ourselves with the story first. All of these versions are available via the drop-down menu at Bible Gateway.
Secondly, we need to decide how much time we can give to reading. For all of us the answer will be different. In the early Church, according to St Justin Martyr, the scriptures were read for as long as there was time. We have become used to hearing very small extracts as part of the Liturgy. It might be good if we now have a little more time to try to read more than a few verses at a time. St Mark has 16 chapters. One chapter per day would mean that we had read the whole Gospel by just before Easter. Two chapters per day would enable us to read it twice by then., and so on. (Let it never be said that one reading will exhaust the riches of the text!)
And if we cannot sit down with a book or read a screen we might still be able to find time to listen to someone else reading for us. I was in the audience for this reading by David Suchet at St Paul’s Cathedral 3 years ago (https://youtu.be/JjOgcMQXvSc) and I found that the experience of hearing the whole Gospel in a little less than two hours (the actual reading begins at about 8:30) taught me new things about both the story of Jesus Christ and the message of the Gospel.
May God bless us all, and may he continue to lead us into his truth.