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A History Of The Mass And Its Ceremonies In The Eastern And Western Church -Rev John O'Brien A.M.

When the priest has arrived at the missal after the prayer “Munda cor meum,” he pronounces in an audible tone the salutation, “Dominus vobiscum,” without, however, turning to the people—for he is partly turned already—and then announces the title of the Gospel he is going to read. Together with doing so be makes the sign of the cross with his thumb on the missal itself at the beginning of the Gospel, and then upon himself in three separate places—viz., on the forehead, mouth, and breast respectively. That made upon the book is intended to teach us that the Holy Gospel contains the words of Him who died upon the cross for our salvation; that made upon the forehead is intended to remind us that we must never be ashamed of the Word of God, for our Lord himself says: “He who is ashamed of me and of my words, of him shall the Son of Man be ashamed when he shall come in his majesty” (Luke 9:26); and the cross upon the breast reminds us of the holy admonition in the Canticle of Canticles: “Put me as a seal upon thy heart” (chap. 8) (For other mystical meanings see Durandus, p. 202.) When the priest has announced the title of the Gospel, the server answers: “Gloria tibi, Domine”—Glory be to thee, O Lord—and the congregation sign themselves after the manner of the priest. The response, “Glory be to thee, O Lord,” is made to thank God for the spiritual blessings contained in the holy Gospel. The Acts of the Apostles, chap. 13:48, tell us how the Gentiles glorified the word of God, and expressed their heartfelt thanks to SS. Paul and Barnabas for having brought them the salutary truths which the Jews rejected.

Standing up at the Gospel.—At the reading of the Holy Gospel all stand up out of respect for the sacred words of our Divine Lord, as well as to testify their readiness to follow out all that the Gospel teaches. This custom is very ancient, as we find the Jews observed it when Esdras the Scribe read them the Law after the return from the Babylonian captivity (2 Esdras, 8:4). When the custom was in vogue of bringing staves to church for the purpose of leaning on them during certain parts of the service, their use was never permitted during the reading of the Holy Gospel. They were at that time to be put aside, and with them all insignia of royalty, such as sceptres, crowns, and things of that sort, in order that all might appear in the humble posture of servants before the Lord (Bona, p. 328; Romsee, p. 114). Certain military knights, and among others the Knights of St. John, were accustomed to unsheath their swords at this place, as evidence of their readiness to defend the interests of the sacred words even unto the shedding of blood (Bona, ibid.)

When the priest has finished reading the Gospel he kisses the sacred text out of reverence for the words of our Lord—for the Gospel is pre-eminently “Christ’s Book,” as it used, to be styled in ancient times—and as he performs this act he says: “In virtue of the evangelical words may our sins be blotted out.” The Carthusians kiss the margin of the missal instead of the text itself. Should some great dignitary be present in the sanctuary, it is the rule to present him the book first, in which case the priest celebrating would not kiss it at all. In ancient times not only did the priest kiss the book at this stage of the Mass, but every member of the congregation did so (Bona, p. 329). In the Sarum Rite a special codex was set apart for this purpose (Church of Our Fathers, iii. 192). The custom of kissing documents of importance is very ancient, and prevails yet in the majority of royal courts, especially in those of the East. Those that come direct from our Holy Father the Pope are always shown this mark of respect; and that the pious practice of kissing not only the book of the Gospels, but almost every utensil in the house of God, even the very door-posts and pillars, was generally observed by the primitive Christians we learn from numerous sources (Riddle, Christian Antiquities, p. 739; Life of Cardinal Ximenes, by Hefele, p. 37).

At the conclusion of the Gospel the server answers, “Laus tibi, Christe”—“Praise be to thee, O Christ!”—but in the Mozarabic Rite the old custom of answering “Amen” at this place is yet kept up (see Liturgia Mozarabica, ed. Migne). Another ancient custom—viz., that of making the sign of the cross here—is still retained by the Carmelites.

At Solemn High Mass.—At Solemn High Mass, where the Gospel is chanted in a loud tone of voice, the ceremonies are imposing and full of deep meaning: As soon as the celebrant has passed from the middle of the altar, after the “Munda cor meum,” to the Gospel side, the deacon receives from the master of ceremonies the book of the Holy Evangels, which he carries to the altar with much reverence, and places in front of the tabernacle in a horizontal position. He does not return immediately, but remains there to assist the celebrant at the blessing of the incense for the forthcoming procession. The incense having been put in the censer and blessed, the deacon descends one step and recites the prayer “Munda cor meum,” at the conclusion of which he rises from his knees, and, having taken the book from the altar, kneels down with it before the celebrant and asks the latter to bless him. Having received the blessing, he kisses the celebrant’s hand, and then descends to the floor, where he awaits the signal for the procession to move to that part of the Gospel side of the sanctuary where the Holy Evangel is chanted. A full corps of acolytes with lighted candles, incense, etc., head the procession, and the deacon, walking immediately behind the subdeacon, moves in a slow and dignified manner, carrying the sacred codex elevated before his face. This is afterwards given to the subdeacon, who holds it resting against his forehead during the entire time of chanting. Having given the usual salutation of “Dominus vobiscum,” and announced the title of the Gospel, the deacon receives the thurible, or censer, and incenses the book in three different places—viz., in the centre, at the right, and at the left. He then chants the text in a loud tone of voice, and, having finished, receives the censer again and incenses the celebrant at the altar, who stood facing the Gospel the whole time that the deacon was chanting it.

Explanation.—The taking of the book of the Gospels from the altar is intended to remind us, according to Pope Innocent III., that the law has come forth from Sion, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem; not so much the law of Moses, but the law of the New Covenant, of which the prophet Jeremias wrote: “Behold the days shall come,” saith the Lord, “and I will make a NEW COVENANT with the house of Israel, and with the house of Juda.… I will give my law in their bowels, and I will write it in their heart, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (chap. 31) The deacon, kneeling at the feet of the priest in the manner of an humble suppliant to receive his blessing, teaches us the necessity of first asking permission to preach the Gospel, and then a blessing for the sacred work in order that it may produce the proper fruit. To take upon ourselves the heavy onus of preaching without having been divinely called to that sacred office would be to incur God’s wrath, and, instead of a blessing, draw down his condemnation. The Apostle St. Paul lays particular stress upon the necessity of receiving a special call to discharge this duty (Romans, chap. 10) Then, again, this taking of the book from the altar and reading it aloud in the hearing of the people forcibly recalls to mind what Moses did of old on Sinai, whence he brought down the tables of the law and read them before the chosen people at the mountain’s edge. The subdeacon goes before the deacon to the place where the Gospel is chanted to remind us that John the Baptist, whose ministry the Epistle, and consequently the subdeacon, typifies, went before our Lord, who is represented by the Gospel (Durandus, p. 199). Incense is used on this occasion to commemorate what St. Paul says (2 Cor. 2), that we are the good odor of Christ unto God in every place. And lighted candles are employed to testify our joy at receiving the glad Gospel tidings, as well as to show our respect for Him who is the “Light of the World” (Innocent III., Sacrif. Miss., p. 141). Finally, the Gospel is chanted at the corner of the sanctuary, with the sacred text facing the north, to show that the preaching of our Lord was specially directed against Lucifer, who said, “I will establish my seat in the north, and will be like the Most High” (Isaias; ibid.) When, according to the ancient discipline, the Gospel was chanted from those elevated pulpits called amboes, it was in remembrance of that sacred admonition of our Lord to his disciples when he charged them regarding the ministry of the word. “That which I tell you in the dark,” said he, “speak ye in the light; and that which you hear in the ear, preach ye on the housetops” (Matthew 10; Durandus, Rationale, p. 200). The last-named author speaks of the custom that prevailed in his day (thirteenth century) of chanting the Gospel from the eagle, referring to the appurtenance in the shape of this bird that used to be employed in the embellishment of the ancient book-stands, and this with a view to the fulfilment of the words, “He flew upon the wings of the wind” (Ps. 17); for the wings of the eagle are aptly compared to the wings of the wind, as that bird can fly highest of all the feathered race, and the Gospel is the highest of all the inspired writings. For many other interesting facts about what we have been speaking the reader is referred to Durandus, chap. 24, Rationale Divinorum.

Respect shown to the Gospels in Ancient Times.—The respect shown to the Gospels in ancient times is evinced from the fact that the sacred codex used to be bound in massive covers of gold, silver, and precious stones, as we learn from many sources. The cases, too, in which the sacred volumes used to be enclosed when not in use, were made of the costliest materials, often of beaten gold, and the most exquisite workmanship was displayed in finishing them (Kozma, p. 105). Dr. Rock (Church of Our Fathers, iii. 31) tells us that sheets of gold, studded with large pearls and precious stones, were not thought too good to be the binding of these books, and that their printing used to be often in letters of gold upon a purple ground. At all great ecclesiastical meetings the holy Gospels were assigned a very conspicuous position. At the General Council of Ephesus, held in the Church of St. Mary in that city A.D. 431, the book of the Gospels was placed upon an elevated throne in view of all the assembled Fathers (Bona, p. 329). At a Solemn High Mass celebrated by the Pope the Epistle and Gospel are first chanted in Latin, then in Greek, to express the union of the two churches (Kozma, p. 183).

The Gospel in the Oriental Church.—The ceremonies attending the reading of the Gospel in the East resemble our own very closely. In the Liturgy of St. Chrysostom the deacon, kneeling down at the feet of the celebrant before the procession moves, asks the customary blessing in these words: “Sir, bless the preacher of the holy Apostle and Evangelist N.” (here the name of the Gospel is mentioned); then the priest, making the sign of the cross upon him, says: “May God, through the preaching of the holy and glorious Apostle and Evangelist N., give the word with much power to thee, who evangelizest to the accomplishment of the Gospel of his beloved Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.” After this the procession moves to the ambo, and everything goes on much in the same way as with ourselves at Solemn High Mass. With the Abyssinians, the deacon makes a circuit of the entire church at this place, saying with a loud voice as he goes along: “Arise! hear the Gospel and the good tidings of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.” This circuit is intended to signify the promulgation of the Gospel by the Apostles throughout the entire globe, in accordance with the sacred text, “Their sound has gone forth into every land, and their words unto the end of the world” (Ps. 18:5).

The Copts, instead of making the circuit of the church in this way, go around the altar in a procession, headed by an immense number of acolytes and other ministers bearing torches and incense. The display is very imposing. After the Gospel has been chanted it is first kissed by the clergy, it is then covered with a silken veil and presented to be kissed by the people (Renaudot, Liturg. Orient., i. 190). It is customary also with the Coptic prelates, should any be present, to put aside their mitres and crosiers at this time, and remain slightly bowed down during the entire chanting.

The Greek bishops, besides rising up to hear the holy Evangel, also put aside their omophorion, testifying thereby, according to St. Simeon of Thessalonica, their total subjection to the Lord (Goar, Euchol. Græc., p. 223).

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