Fishers of Men

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The Liturgy of the Word (2)

Posted by Father Joe on August 28, 2006

The following notes are largely derived from a thorough reading of Rev. Josef A. Jungmann, S.J.’s classic work, The Mass of the Roman Rite.

The Gospel

The final reading has always been the Gospels. The life of Christ took center stage to everything else in the Liturgy of the Word. The Gospel book alone was allowed on the altar with the Blessed Sacrament, a custom still seen in many of our churches and as a rule in the Greek Church.

From the earliest times, the Gospel was enhanced in being proclaimed only by a deacon or priest. The only exception for this in the early Church was that the Roman emperor in full regalia delivered the Gospel on Christmas Eve. The procession of the deacon became more formal and in the first Roman Ordo, it was stated:

. . . the deacon kisses the feet of the pope, who pronounces over him these words: “The Lord be in thy heart and on thy lips.” Then he goes to the altar where the Gospel book has been lying since the beginning of the service (having been placed there ceremoniously by a deacon, accompanied by an acolyte). He kisses it and picks it up. As he betakes himself to the ambo, he is accompanied by two acolytes with torches, and by two subdeacons, one of whom carries a censer. (Jungmann, pp. 284-285).

Subtract the feet kissing business and rename the subdeacons and one has a ceremonial not unlike what is done on occasions of high pomp in our time. The two burning candles are not only a respect to the proclaimed Gospel, but to the book itself. Saint Jerome testifies to this custom. After the proclamation of the Gospel and its final announcement, the people respond, “Glory be to you, Lord.” Another sign of honor would be that from ancient times it has been the tradition to listen to the Gospel while standing. At the end of the Gospel the book is kissed by the deacon or priest. This is a partial restoration, since at one time other attending priests, bishops, and even kings would share the honor. Kissing the book, the celebrant or deacon whispers, “May the words of the gospel wipe away our sins.” (In the former rite this was not open to the deacon.) Such formulations have existed since 1000 AD. “And traces of the original meaning of reverent and grateful greeting are to be seen in a formula from that early period: ‘Hail, words of the Gospel, which fill the whole world'” (Jungmann, p.287).

As for the incensing of the book, this is chronicled as far back as the eleventh century. In the ninth century, we discover the faithful signing themselves with the gesture of the cross upon their foreheads after the greeting.

Then we hear of another custom, the deacon and all those present imprinting the cross on forehead and breast after the words Sequentia sancti evangelii. About the eleventh century mention is made of forehead, mouth and breast, and since that time also of the signing of the book. At the end of the Gospel it was the custom for all those present to sign themselves with the cross once more. The original idea of this signing of oneself is probably indicated in the scriptural text frequently cited in this connection, the quotation about the wicked enemy who is anxious to take the seed of the word of God away from the hearts of the hearers. (Jungmann, pp. 287-288).

It is a form of blessing oneself. It also externalizes our allegiance to the Gospel. We are not ashamed of it.

Probably it was in this sense that the signing of the forehead grew into a triple signing of forehead, lips and breast, and in addition, the signing of the book. The meaning is this: For the word which Christ brought and which is set down in this book we are willing to stand up with a mind that is open; we are ready to confess it with our mouth; and above all we are determined to safeguard it faithfully in our hearts. (Jungmann, p. 288).

Speaking of blessing, before the recitation of the Gospel, the deacon begs the celebrant for his blessing. The celebrant prays that the deacon will have the Lord in his heart and upon his lips. This practice is also many centuries old. Scripturally, it can be traced to the prophet Isaiah, when his lips were touched with glowing coal from an angel’s hand. He was empowered to speak God’s word, a word that first had to live in his heart.

The Homily

The homily is the next constitutive part of the liturgy, despite the argumentation of certain critics that it was merely an “interpolation” in the progress of the liturgy. Its roots are clearly pre-Christian in nature. It could be found in the synagogue service. Indeed, in Acts 13:15, Paul and Barnabas were commanded by the synagogue leaders of Antioch in Pisidia to offer some words: “Brothers, if you have any exhortation to address to the people, please speak up.” From the early Church we have volumes of homilies written by Origen, Hippolytus of Rome, Jerome, and Chrysostom. If the bishop was present, he would offer some words after the readings and then priests who were present might preach. It had been the Eastern custom to allow each of the priests at a liturgy to preach, finishing with the bishop. After the fall of Arius (who devalued Christ’s divinity), preaching was forbidden in places like Alexandria and North Africa. This prohibition remained in effect until the time of Saint Augustine, who himself only preached when preaching had ceased at the liturgy. This did not mean the various bishops did not preach in their towns. However, there was some silence, with the concern that no words might be better than the wrong words. “In fact under Pope Celestine a letter of disapproval was sent out from Rome to the bishops of Provence where a contrary custom was in vogue. Sozomen made it known that in his day, as he thought, no preaching whatsoever was done in Rome” (Jungmann, p. 289). However, the homiletic collections of Leo the Great and of Gregory the Great prove that not all was silence. From the Middle Ages on, there was a widespread return to preaching God’s Word.

Even in recent times, there have been ordained some permanent deacons without permission to preach. Priests, usually those who have fallen into some kind of doctrinal error, have been known to have their faculties for preaching removed by the bishop. Without this, they cannot lawfully preach in the Church. Consequently, it is obvious that bishops have had jurisdiction of this area from the very beginning. In Christian antiquity many priests had neither the ability nor the learning to preach. Of course, there were exceptions made to this general rule. The Council of Vaison in 529 AD ruled that in Gaul the priests could preach, and if prevented to do so by sickness, the deacons could read homilies from the Fathers. The homily was just that, an application of the Word to the congregation’s lives. The fact that the homilist had to have acquired orders tended to re-emphasize the hierarchal reality of the Church. Although the pattern today is that the preacher stands and that the congregation sits, initially it was the other way around. St. Augustine thought that this was a strain upon the listeners and preferred the counter-custom.

Only the clerics were provided quite generally with seats in those early days. The faithful helped themselves with canes on which to lean. Only in modern times did the laity obtain pews, perhaps copying the Protestant churches. (Jungmann, p. 292).

The Profession of Faith

On Sundays and particular feasts, the Creed follows the homily. Although it is recited by the community today using the plural, “we,” the original Latin text is similar to the Apostles’ Creed in that it is in the style of an individual profession. [The new ICEL translation will restore the first-person-singular to the text.] First appearing as the profession of 150 fathers at the Council of Chalcedon (451 AD), it became the symbol of faith, summing up what was additionally taught by the councils of Nicea (325 AD) and Constantinople (381 AD). In the former it countered the heresy of Arius against Christ’s divinity (alluding directly to John 1:3), in the latter it reaffirmed the divinity of the Holy Spirit.

We can track this draft even a little distance back into the fourth century. We discover it, almost complete, about 374 in Ephiphanius, and, in a slightly simpler form, about 350 in Cyril of Jerusalem, who explained it to his candidates for Baptism. We may therefore see in this basic text of the Niceno-Constantinopolitanum the ancient baptismal symbol of Jerusalem. (Jungmann, p. 293).

Its use as a baptismal formula is probably the reason why its most traditional formulations are always in the singular “I” as opposed to our present custom in English translation.

The Creed falls into three sections, our common belief in God the Creator, in our Lord Jesus Christ, and in the fruits of salvation. It tends to follow the Trinitarian formula. With the command to baptize (Matthew 28:19), we are called to a perfect unity in the Lord (Ephesians 4:4). The stress on the “oneness” in baptism and in the Church is representative of this view. With this in mind, it is no wonder that the Creed began to enter the Mass (starting in the East) as early as the sixth century. As a rule it was spoken by the people or by their representative.


One Response to “The Liturgy of the Word (2)”

  1. Save The Children…

    […]The Liturgy of the Word (2) « Fishers of Men[…]…

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