May 2019 Print

The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass: The Epistle

by Fr. Christopher Danel

In the Mass, the Savior’s entire work of redemption is shown forth and carried out, and the celebration of the Mass embraces in its several parts the whole operation of the Redeemer. As the Lord exercised during His mortal life the office of Mediator, thus He continues to exercise it in His Church, and that in a sacramental manner. There is a profound and interior connection between the teaching of truth and the mystery of the altar, between the word of God and the Divine Eternal Word, who was made flesh and who under the Eucharistic veil is again present and dwells among us.

— Monsignor Nicholas Gihr


In this article we will examine the Epistle, presenting the work of Monsignor Nicholas Gihr in his fundamental liturgical commentary The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass: Dogmatically, Liturgically, and Ascetically Explained. Monsignor Gihr was a priest of Freiburg in Breisgau whose work of liturgical research took place during the time frame spanning the pontificates of Popes Pius IX to Pius XI, including that of Pope St. Pius X. The early years of his work were contemporaneous with the last years in the work of Dom Prosper Guéranger. (The English translation of his study appeared in 1902; the original is: Gihr, Nikolaus. Messopfer dogmatisch, liturgisch und aszetisch erklärt. Herder: Freiburg im Breisgau, 1877.)

The Teaching of Christ

The first office of the Redeemer consisted in teaching the truth and the law of God exteriorly by the words which fell from His lips, and interiorly by the light which He infused into hearts. Already the Prophet remarks that in the days of the Messiah “the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the Lord, as the covering waters of the sea” (Is. 11: 9). Only after the Lord had as teacher of truth shown the way to Heaven did He die on the Cross the death of reconciliation, in order to unite man again in grace and love with God. Now all this is repeated in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Before the Savior descends on the altar at the Consecration as a mystical victim, He speaks words of eternal life to us, first by His prophets and apostles, then through Himself. The Epistle and Gospel come before the sacrificial action. Thus, the announcement of the truth precedes the accomplishment of the sacrifice, for knowledge is the beginning of salvation. The living word of God is the seed whence proceeds the imperishable life of faith, which here below is perfected by grace and in the next life is transformed into glory.

Sacred Scripture

The Church with predilection and preference employs in her liturgy Scriptural words, because they are especially holy and venerable, efficacious and full of grace: they are, indeed, the words of God, words that have the Holy Ghost for their author. In the preceding part of the Mass we already frequently prayed in God’s words; but in the readings now following we have the word of God, by which He speaks to us and instructs us in all doctrine and truth. “For what things soever were written, were written for our instruction: that through patience and the comfort of the Scriptures, we might have hope” (Rom. 15:4). In the midst of a world fallen away from Christianity and hostile to the Church, amid all the sufferings and persecutions that oppress us, amid the storms that rage around us, the imperishable word of God, which does not pass away, though even Heaven and earth should pass away, encourages and raises us up, and imparts life eternal to all who receive it with faith and docility.

Liturgical History

It is incontestable that from apostolic times the canonical or holy books have been read aloud at the assemblies of divine worship, and principally at the celebration of the eucharistic sacrifice. St. Justin Martyr (+ 166 or 167), who describes the order of divine worship among ´╗┐Christians, says that at the Sunday assemblies the writings of the apostles (that is, the books of the New Testament) or the writings of the prophets were read. In the first four centuries the different books of the Bible were read serially (lectio continua or in continua serie), as they are still in the Breviary. For the highest feasts there were chosen already from the beginning appropriate passages, that is, such passages as had reference to the mysteries celebrated. With the progressive evolution of the ecclesiastical year the lectio continua was replaced by a series of biblical extracts arranged for the various feasts and festal seasons. In this matter St. Jerome, who by order of Pope Damasus I (366-384), completed, corrected, and perfected the traditional arrangement of the biblical extracts for the Mass, deserves great credit.

According to a general rule that has few exceptions, every Mass formula has two Biblical readings, the first of which is called the Epistle and the other the Gospel. Ember Wednesdays have two lessons before the Gospel, while on Ember Saturdays there are six lessons (five from the Old Testament and one from the New) before the Gospel. These were formerly read by 12 lectors, each lesson read first in Latin and then in Greek. In the pope’s high mass the Epistle and Gospel are still sung both in Latin and Greek.

The first reading may be taken from any part of the Old and New Testaments; but generally the Epistle is taken from the writings of the apostles. Hence it is that the name Epistola, that is, letter, was used to designate the first lesson, even when it was not taken from the Epistles of the apostles, but from some other part of Holy Scripture. In regard to the superscription Lectio libri Sapientiae, it is to be observed that this heading is used not merely for extracts from the Book of Wisdom (Sapientia), but also for portions from Ecclesiasticus, Ecclesiastes, the Canticle of Canticles, and Proverbs. All these taken together are called by the Fathers and in the liturg´╗┐y Books of Wisdom (Libri Sapientiales).

The Ceremonies

From the fact that the Epistle was not sung in former times, but only read, it is introduced with the title Lectio, that is, lesson. Subsequent development led to the mode of delivering the Epistle in a tone between singing and simple reading, as is still described in the Liber Usualis (although a more ornate tone is frequently used). The simple tone is a manner of singing in which the whole text is delivered in a monotone without modulation, except at an interrogation the voice descends half a tone, but in the last syllable it returns to the dominant tone. The rubrics designate this as chanting (subdiaconus cantat Epistolam alta voce). The ancient liturgists called it choraliter legere, meaning “reading in a choral manner.” This way of choral reading served to distinguish the Epistle from the Gospel, as the tone of the former is more restrained, while the singing tone of the Gospel is more melodious and, therefore, more festive.

A cleric ordained to the minor order of lector had charge of reading the Epistle perhaps up to the fifth century; but from that time forward the solemn reading of the Epistle was assigned to the subdeacon, who only since the 14th century was especially empowered thereto by the handing to him at his ordination of the book of the Epistles, while it is the office of the deacon to sing the Gospel. In former times the lectors were even allowed to read the Gospel. St. Cyprian mentions this when speaking of the confessors Aurelius and Celerinus whom he had ordained lectors. In a sung Mass without the assistance of the deacon and subdeacon, a lector in surplice may sing the Epistle (Ritus servandus, VI, 8). [The 1962 Ritus servandus expanded this role by using the term ministrante in the cited text.]

In ancient churches, in the space between the sanctuary and the nave of the church, there stood the ambo, that is, an immovable tribune or oblong pulpit, which was ascended by a few steps. The word ambo is derived from the Greek anabaino or ambaino (to ascend); it is also called a bema, which designates a step, tribune, or rostrum. If a church had two ambos, as seen in some ancient basilicas, then one served for the reading of the Gospel and the other for that of the Epistle. If there was but one ambo, then the Gospel was read from the highest step and the Epistle from a lower one. The subdeacon no longer reads the Epistle to the people from the ambo, as was formerly done till towards the end of the Middle Ages, but at the left side of the sanctuary turned towards the altar. He must, nevertheless, both before and after reading it make a genuflection in the middle of the altar, as if he had gone to and returned from an ambo on the Gospel side.

Epistle Subordinate to the Gospel

The prominence due to the Gospel over the Epistle was and is now expressed in various ways. The ceremonies surrounding the chanting of the Gospel are very evident, but, as seen in the preceding paragraphs, this prominence is also shown by the tone of delivery, by the person of the reader, and the place of reading. In addition, the subdeacon receives the blessing from the celebrant, who represents Christ, only after he has finished reading, because the Old Law, symbolized by the Epistle, was fulfilled, or annulled by Christ (Mt. 5:17-20); the deacon, on the contrary, is blessed by the celebrant before he reads the Gospel, because the Gospel is derived from Christ. Furthermore, from the most ancient times it is customary to sit with head covered in choir at the solemn reading of the Epistle, whilst from the beginning, the Gospel was listened to standing and with head uncovered. The subordination of the Epistle to the Gospel is signified likewise by the position which both occupy in the rite of the Mass: the Epistle precedes and makes way for the Gospel.

The Gospel places before our eyes the life of Jesus Christ, the word and the example of the Eternal Wisdom made flesh; in it appears the God-man Himself teaching and acting, suffering and triumphing while in the Epistles the Holy Ghost speaks to us, instructs and admonishes us only by His human messengers and servants. Hence, it is usually said that the instruction of the people takes place at first in the Epistle, in a preparatory and imperfect manner through the doctrine of the prophets and apostles, but that the faithful are more perfectly instructed through the teachings of Christ as contained in the Gospel (Cf. Summa Theologica III, q. 83, a. 4). According to the liturgies of the Middle Ages, the Epistle precedes the Gospel, because it represents the law and the prophets, or the efficacy of the Precursor of Christ, or the preaching of the 72 disciples, who prepared the way for the Savior. The Epistle, therefore, is read before the Gospel because it is subordinate to it, prepares for it, paves the way for it, that is, leads to the understanding of it.

Deo Gratias

At the conclusion of the Epistle the acolyte, in the name of the people, answers: Deo gratias!—Thanks be to God! What is more befitting than that we should thank the Lord from the bottom of our heart for the divine instruction which He has imparted to us by the mouth of His messenger? In the Epistle, Almighty God, so to speak, sends a letter, a writing from Heaven, to us miserable creatures; should we not with faith and reverence receive His words which are of infinite dignity, power and depth of meaning, and obey them with cheerfulness and alacrity? Every word emanating from the mouth of God is supernatural and heavenly food for the life of the soul. Holy Scripture more than any other book is fit “to instruct us unto salvation, to teach, to reprove, to correct, to indoctrinate in justice, that the man of God may be perfect, furnished unto every good work” (II Tim. 3:15-17). By means of the biblical readings the minister of God plants and waters the field of our heart; let us be grateful for this, and the Lord will then give the increase, so that the heavenly seed of the living word may germinate and thrive, blossom and produce fruit thirty, sixty and a hundredfold.