Thursdays I am writing posts commenting on the Mass, with a particular emphasis on how the liturgy informs how we are to live our lives – the Mass as a template of Christian discipleship. Two weeks ago we had reached the proclamation of the Gospel, but there is more to say about this peak moment of the liturgy that I couldn’t get to in one post.
Today I want to write about the various symbolisms around the rite of the Gospel in the Mass. These are all deeply meaningful and inform the whole Christian attitude towards the words and deeds of Christ found in our four-fold canon.
First, in a properly executed Sunday liturgy, the Gospel book is solemnly processed in, by the deacon if possible; by the priest if not. Or it may well be on the altar at the beginning of the Mass. Either way, the Gospel book (not the lectionary) is enthroned on the altar which is the very throne of God in the liturgy. In this, we see that the Gospels are a true ‘presence’ of Christ—not in the way the Eucharist is, but nonetheless a real one.
At the time of the Gospel, there may well and rightly be a procession of the book from the altar to the ambo, with candles and (on solemn occasions) incense. The Gospel is the light of the world. The Gospel is a holy thing—we only incense that which is holy, which is significant when we realize that we are all incensed at a later point in the Mass.
The deacon proclaiming the Gospel is blessed by the priest, or if it is the priest proclaiming it prays the same prayer for his own sake, asking to be purified in mind and heart so as to proclaim the Word. The Gospel is an awesome thing, not to be lightly taken up and read. We need to be purified before we can even fittingly read it.
And of course the assembly is singing a joyous alleluia as all this is going on. We are about to hear the actual words, hear of the actual deeds of Jesus Christ our Lord and Saviour. This is joy for us, or should be. We stand at this point, symbol of both respect and a posture of triumph, victory. The Gospel and what is recounted therein is the great victory cry of God in the world over sin, death, and the devil. And our ritual responses to the proclamation – ‘Glory to you, O Lord… Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ’ – are the right and proper response, always and everywhere, to the Gospel whenever and however we encounter it.
So all of this—so familiar to us who are practicing Catholics—gives us a fairly complete catechesis on how we are to receive and respond to the Gospel in our daily lives. I said last time that the Gospel simply is our guide to daily life, that we live our lives under its authority and as disciples of Jesus Christ, freely choosing to live as Christians in the world, we are to be very literal-minded and (frankly) slavishly obedient to what we read therein. If we don’t want to be Christians, nobody is stopping us from leaving, but as long as we stay in the community of faith, this is the way of life we have chosen to follow.
What all the solemn rituals of the liturgy show us is that the Gospel way of life is joy, is light, is something awesome, something precious, something that really delivers us over to a genuine encounter with the living Christ. When we see how the Church surrounds the liturgical proclamation of the Gospel with all these symbolic gestures, elements, words, it should safeguard us against being flippant, or grudging, or rationalizing, or sad in our relationship to the Word of God.
We should enthrone it, not only on the altar, but in our hearts. We should recognize the light of truth in its words. We should incense it, not with clouds of smoke, but with prayers of adoration and supplication, read it on our knees. We should know that it is joy and victory, that even the hardest passages and the most challenging texts are fundamentally a call to share in Christ’s victory by sharing his passion and merciful love.
And above all, the liturgy teaches us to have a deep reverence for the Gospels, to never speak of them lightly or rudely, to be so aware that this is God speaking to us that we never could, never would be arrogant or dismissive of the least precept of the Gospel, never presume that it is a merely human text that we can analyze and reject (Jesus Seminar, take note).
No, it is God’s words to us, delivered by the Word of God who is with the Father before all the ages in the beginning, made flesh in Jesus Christ, now speaking to us through his Church to which he has entrusted his Gospel to be preached to the ends of the earth. Alleluia, alleluia, glory to you, O Lord.