Friday, June 09, 2017 - Updated: 8:00 am
QUESTION: I have noticed that when the Gospel is read at Mass there is a lot of emphasis placed on the book and the reading of the Gospel. I guess I always thought that all Scripture was equal. Is that really not true? I am also unsure of what the gesture before the Gospel really means.
ANSWER: The reading of the Bible has always played an important part in Christian liturgy. However, in the liturgy, not all parts of the Bible were treated equally. The book of the Gospels was always given a special place. It seems that the early Christians saw all the other scriptural books as either pointing to or commenting upon what was contained in the Gospels. Thus, the proclamation of the Gospel at Mass was to bring our attention to the essential elements of salvation in Christ.
Respect and honor was given to the Gospels in various ways. This was accomplished by the way the Gospel books were adorned. Similar to the way Jewish people give special honor to the five books of Moses, Christians bound the manuscripts of the Gospels in covers of gold, silver and precious stones. The pages of these manuscripts were also specially illuminated with ornate silver and gold lettering.
Another way in which the Gospels were given a special place in the liturgy was by the person who proclaimed them. The liturgy was always careful to distinguish roles, and the celebrant was usually assisted by a sub-deacon or lector who read the readings prior to the Gospel. However, it was a bishop, priest or deacon who proclaimed the Gospel.
In most of the early liturgical texts, the Gospel is brought to the place where it is to be read accompanied by incense and candles. This custom seems to have been influenced by court ceremonials that called for the ruler to be so accompanied when making public appearances.
Various acclamations also introduced the proclamation of the Gospel. The phrases “Glory to you, O Lord,” “Praise to you, O Christ” and the alleluia were found in almost every ancient liturgy and represent a joyful and triumphant expression of the victory Christ won for us. This custom, too, could well have resulted from the acclamations used to greet rulers returning in victory to their cities.
The posture of the listeners during the proclamation of the Gospels was also a form of honor. While during the other readings the people remained seated, during the Gospel they stood.
The custom of making the threefold sign of the cross before the Gospel reading appears to be very ancient. Its meaning is rooted in the need for our minds to be open to receive the Gospel, that we confess it with our lips and that its message be placed in our hearts.
All of these customs may seem to be unnecessary additions. However, they are not only very ancient but very important. In our Roman Catholic tradition we place great emphasis on symbol and sign. This is especially so in those things that surround the Eucharist. Sacred Scripture has always had a significant part in the liturgy, and the Gospels were given special place in the Scriptures.
Father Bober is pastor of St. Kilian Parish in Adams and Cranberry townships.