Enthronement of Gospel

Author: Father Edward McNamara


Enthronement of Gospel

ROME, 23 MAY 2006 (ZENIT)

Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: Our new priest has made many, many changes. One is the "enthronement of the Gospel" where after the Gospel reading, the Book of the Gospels is placed open on a podium in front of the lectern, which has been draped with material and a sash of liturgical color. The book remains there through the conclusion of the Mass and seems to have more honor than the Lord present in the tabernacle after Communion. Why is the Gospel to be enthroned? — R.J., College Station, Texas

A: The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) describes the following honors toward the Book of the Gospels:

"172. [At the entrance procession] Carrying the Book of the Gospels slightly elevated, the deacon precedes the priest as he approaches the altar or else walks at the priest's side.

"173. When he reaches the altar, if he is carrying the Book of the Gospels, he omits the sign of reverence and goes up to the altar. It is particularly appropriate that he should place the Book of the Gospels on the altar, after which, together with the priest, he venerates the altar with a kiss.

"175. [At the Liturgy of the Word] If incense is used, the deacon assists the priest when he puts incense in the thurible during the singing of the Alleluia or other chant. ... Having bowed to the altar, he then takes up the Book of the Gospels which was placed upon it. He proceeds to the ambo, carrying the book slightly elevated. He is preceded by a thurifer, carrying a thurible with smoking incense, and by servers with lighted candles. There the deacon, with hands joined, greets the people, saying, 'Dominus vobiscum' (The Lord be with you). Then, at the words 'Lectio sancti Evangelii' (A reading from the holy gospel), he signs the book with his thumb and, afterwards, himself on his forehead, mouth, and breast. He incenses the book and proclaims the Gospel reading. When the reading is concluded, he says the acclamation 'Verbum Domini' (The gospel of the Lord), and all respond, 'Laus tibi, Christe' (Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ). He then venerates the book with a kiss, saying privately, 'Per evangelica dicta' (May the words of the gospel), and returns to the priest's side.

"When the deacon is assisting the Bishop, he carries the book to him to be kissed, or else kisses it himself, saying quietly, 'Per evangelica dicta' (May the words of the gospel). In more solemn celebrations, as the occasion suggests, a Bishop may impart a blessing to the people with the Book of the Gospels.

"Lastly, the deacon may carry the Book of the Gospels to the credence table or to another appropriate and dignified place."

Later, in describing norms for all Masses, the document adds:

"273. According to traditional practice, the altar and the Book of the Gospels are venerated by means of a kiss. Where, however, a sign of this kind is not in harmony with the traditions or the culture of some region, it is for the Conference of Bishops to establish some other sign in its place, with the consent of the Apostolic See."

Thus, while the Gospel is often enthroned at ecumenical meetings, during special celebrations of the Word, and during the great Church Councils such as Trent and Vatican II, this rite is not foreseen during Mass.

While the indication of GIRM No. 175 — that the Book of the Gospels be carried to "the credence table or to another appropriate and dignified place" — could be generously interpreted as allowing the practice described, the fact that the credence table is mentioned suggests that the mind of the legislator does not foresee any solemn enthronement but merely that the book be treated with due respect after use.

The Book of the Gospels is treated with great honor during the Liturgy of the Word with rites and gestures analogous to those offered toward the altar and the Blessed Sacrament.

By doing so the Church shows its veneration toward God's Word and its belief that Christ is present and speaking in a special way during the liturgical proclamation of the sacred texts. However, as Pope Paul VI taught, while Christ's presence in the Word is real, it ceases when the readings are concluded. The Eucharistic presence alone is substantial and real "in the fullest sense."

It is therefore quite logical that all liturgical honors paid toward the Book of the Gospels cease once the Liturgy of the Eucharist begins.

A different case is the permanent or habitual setting up of a Book of the Gospels in the sanctuary or some other suitable place. The primary aim of setting up the book in this way is to foment respect and devotion toward sacred Scripture. For this reason the role of the permanent display of Scripture is analogous to that of a statue or icon and does not immediately affect the liturgical action.

Indeed, during the mission for Rome ordered by Pope John Paul II in preparation for the Jubilee Year 2000, every parish in Rome was ordered to set up the Book of the Gospels for public veneration during the two years or so that the mission lasted.

Likewise, this practice is recommended, outside the liturgy, in the guidelines for church construction published by the U.S. bishops:

"§ 62 Our reverence for the word of God is expressed not only in an attentive listening to and reflection upon the Scripture, but also by the way we handle and treat the Book of the Gospels. The ambo can be designed not only for reading and preaching, but also for displaying the open Book of the Gospels or a copy of the Scriptures before and after the liturgical celebration." ZE06052315

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Follow-up: Enthronement of Gospel [6-6-2006]

Our column on enthronement of the Gospel (May 23) brings to mind a Nigerian reader who inquired about a practice that is anything but enthronement.

"At weekday Masses in the village I come from, the Readings and the Gospel are taken from pamphlets and leaflets of all shades and sizes that had been used as Sunday bulletins or for some liturgical celebration or the other. At the conclusion of the Gospel reading the officiating priest would normally raise this pamphlet/leaflet with one hand and declare 'The Gospel of the Lord,' and kiss it. I do not think this is right, i.e. the Gospel should not be read from scraps of paper."

Although the use of a decorated Book of the Gospels is usually reserved for Sundays and feasts, except for emergencies, the readings should always be read from a proper lectionary containing all of the readings.

According to No. 37 of the Introduction to the Lectionary: "Because of the dignity of the word of God, the books of readings used in the celebration are not to be replaced by other pastoral aids, for example, by leaflets printed for the preparation of the readings by the faithful or for their personal meditation."

Another error, a very common one, is that of raising the book while saying, "The Gospel of the Lord." The expression "Gospel of the Lord" refers primarily to the text just read, not to the book that contains the text.

The correct procedure is to first say "The Gospel of the Lord" then to kiss the Lectionary or Book of the Gospels as the case may be, saying quietly, "May the words of the Gospel wipe away our sins." No elevation is foreseen at this moment, although the minister may slightly raise the book in order to kiss it.

At a bishop's Mass the minister may bring the Book of the Gospels to him so that he may kiss it. On solemn occasions he may also bless the people with the book.

A reader from Mumbai (Bombay), India, asked: "According to the new Liturgical norms: On which side should the lectern for the readings be? And on which side should the lectern for the Gospel be? Is there a hard and fast rule?"

Present norms foresee only one ambo for all readings. Although there is no absolute rule regarding location, there is a strong tendency toward placing it on the left-hand side of the sanctuary as observed by the people.

The guidelines published by the U.S. bishops summarize the principal norms found in several books. No. 61 says:

"The central focus of the area in which the word of God is proclaimed during the liturgy is the ambo. The design of the ambo and its prominent placement reflects the dignity and nobility of that saving word and draws the attention of those present to the proclamation of the word.

"Here the Christian community encounters the living Lord in the word of God and prepares itself for the 'breaking of the bread' and the mission to live the word that will be proclaimed. An ample area around the ambo is needed to allow a Gospel procession with a full complement of ministers bearing candles and incense.

"The Introduction to the Lectionary recommends that the design of altar and ambo bear an 'harmonious and close relationship' to one another in order to emphasize the close relationship between word and Eucharist. Since many people share in the ministry of the word, the ambo should be accessible to everyone, including those with physical disabilities."

Finally, a priest from Scotland commented: "If the parish had a permanent place for veneration of the Book of the Gospels, would it be proper after the Gospel, if it was easy enough to do, to place the Book of the Gospels back in this permanent place? [...] I have always had a problem with priests and deacons who place the Book of the Gospels under the lectern to preach or [...] to place it on the credence table -- it is almost as if we are saying, "We have done with that; now on to the important stuff." I know it is not much different but I think it is much better to leave it on the ambo, open or closed."

The guidelines published by the U.S. bishops mentioned in our earlier reply specifically state that the Gospels or sacred Scriptures are set up outside the liturgy. While by no means universal law, it does represent the thinking of a large body of pastors and is in line with overall Church customs.

A further consideration is that very often the liturgical Book of the Gospels is arranged for practical use as separate texts for reading according to the Sunday and festive cycles. It is probably preferable that a permanent place of veneration display the usual Gospel narratives or a complete Bible.

While our reader is probably correct in preferring to leave the book of the Gospels on the ambo rather than some other worthy place, it is not always practical due to its bulk.

Also, if one has performed the usual liturgical honors and incensing of the book I do not believe that placing it on the credence diminishes its importance, especially if placed in a dignified manner such as upon a small bookstand.

Not having any special enthronement is basically a way of distinguishing, without separating, two moments of the Mass. In a certain way we continue the experience of the two disciples whose hearts burned while hearing Christ's word on the road to Emmaus but who only fully recognize him at the breaking of bread. ZE06060621

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