September 2019 Print

The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass: The Gospel

by Fr. Christopher Danel

The Gospel bestows that heavenly wisdom of which Solomon says: “I preferred her before kingdoms and thrones, and esteemed riches nothing in comparison to her. Neither did I compare unto her any precious stone: for all gold, in comparison to her, is as a little sand, and silver in respect to her shall be counted as clay. I loved her above health and beauty, and chose to have her instead of light; for her light cannot be put out” (Wis. 7:8-10).


In this article we examine the Gospel of the Mass, 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 im 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.)

Reverence for the Gospel

The readings from the Gospel at Mass serve not merely for instruction and edification, but are at the same time a liturgical action by which religious veneration and homage are paid to the word and truth of God hence to God Himself, who is present in His word, so to speak, as our teacher. This explains the splendid wreath of customs, full of meaning, wherewith the reading of the Gospel especially at the solemn celebration of Mass is surrounded and distinguished. Next to the Body and Blood of the Lord in the Most Holy Sacrament and the grace of the Holy Ghost, the Church esteems nothing so sublime and so holy as the word of God in the holy Gospel. To the Gospel are paid the honors of a divine service: when it is solemnly chanted, it is enveloped with the splendor of lights and the fragrance of incense.

Liturgical Preparation

To announce the words of eternal life at the Holy Sacrifice is an exalted and sublime office (praedicare, praeconare). The solemn reading of the Gospel at Mass, therefore, belongs since the fourth century to the deacon, or to the priest, but both must specially prepare themselves that they may be worthy to lend, as it were, their heart and mouth to the Lord. To this effect, two prayers are now recited: the one for purification, the other for the bestowal of the blessing. The priest stands in the middle of the altar, raises his eyes aloft, as if “to the mountain whence assistance comes,” and soon lowers them again; with body profoundly inclined and with hands joined, he prays: “Cleanse my heart and my lips, O Almighty God, who didst cleanse the lips of the Prophet Isaias with a burning coal: vouchsafe so to cleanse me by Thy gracious mercy, that I may be able worthily to proclaim Thy holy Gospel. Through Christ our Lord. Amen. Give me Thy blessing, O Lord! The Lord be in my heart and on my lips, that I may worthily and in a becoming manner announce His holy Gospel. Amen.”

First comes the petition for interior purification (Munda cor meum). This petition has its foundation and development in a symbolical reference to a mysterious event in the life of the prophet Isaias. In a marvelous vision he beheld the glory of the God of hosts and heard the canticle of the angels in His praise; filled with holy awe, he acknowledged and confessed his sinfulness and unworthiness. Then a seraph took from the heavenly altar of incense a live coal, touched therewith the lips of the prophet, burning away all its defilement, saying these words: “Behold! This hath touched thy lips, and thy iniquities shall be taken away, and thy sin shall be cleansed.” Then only did Isaias say: “Lo, here am I, send me!”

“Give me Thy blessing, O Lord!” This blessing asked for is twofold: that the Lord would be in the purified heart as well as on the purified lips of the priest. If the Lord be in the heart of the priest, then will he worthily (digne) announce the tidings of salvation. If the Lord be on his lips, then will the priest announce the Gospel competently (competenter), that is, in a proper manner, clearly and distinctly, with power and energy, so that all may be edified. Prepared after this manner, the priest is a pure channel which receives within itself the salutary waters of the Gospel in a clear state from the fountain-source of the Holy Ghost, and then conveys them into the hearts of the faithful.

Heading of the Gospel

The headings of the Gospels are very ancient. They appropriately express that one and the same Gospel of Jesus Christ was written under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost by the Evangelists in a fourfold manner. This is comprised in the little word secundum, meaning according to. St. Bede points out that, although there are four Evangelists, there are not four Gospels, but rather the one Gospel of Jesus Christ put forth in four beautiful ways. If the passage to be read is taken from the context that follows the beginning of the Gospel, which is most often the case, then the announcement runs thus, for example: “Continuation (Sequentia) of the Holy Gospel according to St. Matthew.” The term sequentia is not singular, but plural, meaning “ea quae sequuntur in textu Evangelistae—those things which follow in the text of the Evangelist.” The acolyte thereupon answers in the name of the people: “Gloria tibi, Domine!—Glory be to Thee, O Lord!”

At the above words the priest with his thumb imprints a cross on the first words of the Gospel extract, then on his forehead, mouth and breast. The Sign of the Cross made on the book is to express that the whole Gospel, the whole doctrine and the whole work of salvation is comprised and contained in the mystery of the Cross. Hence St. Paul, who wished to know and to preach nothing other than Jesus Christ and Him crucified, calls the Gospel simply “the word of the Cross.” The Cross with which the Gospel in the Missal is signed, is intended to remind us of all this. On their forehead, mouth and breast the priest and the faithful make the Sign of the Cross, in order to express that they wish to bear and preserve the doctrine of the Cross and of the Crucified in their mind, on their lips and in their heart, and that they are not ashamed to proclaim freely and cheerfully to the world both by word and deed the glory of the Cross of Christ. For the priest, who is to preach Christ crucified, this Sign of the Cross is at the same time a serious admonition to lead a life hidden with Christ in God, to be attached with Christ to the Cross and to be crucified to the world. But since the Cross is not only a significant, but also an efficacious sign, it can here be also conceived principally as a protection and a defense against the evil one, to prevent his coming and snatching the seed of the divine word out of our hearts.

Proclamation of the Gospel

The prominent position and sublime signification of the Gospel is clearly evident in the ecclesiastical rite. The Gospel is read on the right side of the altar in contrast to the left, as the right side is generally regarded as the more honorable. As the church and altar, in consequence of a very ancient custom, were usually built to face the East, the book on the Gospel side is so placed as to be turned toward the North, and in this there is a mystical meaning. For as the beautiful life of Nature in the warm sunny South is a symbol of the higher life of grace, so the reverse in Nature is the dark and frigid North. These dormant, snow-bound regions, enchained in the death grip of winter’s frosts, represent in a suitable manner the dreary and lifeless condition, the unfruitful and desolate existence of heathenism. Thus the Gospel is read toward the North as a sign that the good tidings of Heaven have awakened men to an imperishable spiritual spring of grace and changed the icy coldness of mankind into the mild warmth of summer.

In like manner, it is not without a deeper meaning that all present stand when listening to the Gospel. This rite, in all probability, dates from the time of the apostles. By the act of standing up at the Gospel, we would first testify that the Gospel of the peace and of the glory of the blessed God fills us with great joy, and that the truth of Christ has made us truly free and brought us spiritual resurrection. Furthermore, standing is a mark and a practical proof of the profound reverence, esteem and attention due to the word of Jesus Christ. Finally, to stand is the posture of the servant in the presence of his master. In the Gospel, Christ Our Lord appears as our teacher, and by the fact that we receive His word standing, we express our obedience and our readiness to serve Him.

During solemn high Mass the reading of the Gospel is distinguished and honored by the splendor of lighted candles and the fragrance of incense. The two acolytes hold lighted candles and stand one on each side of the book. St. Jerome already defended the higher meaning of this very ancient custom of lighting candles at the Gospel, inasmuch as he insists that thereby we should give expression to the joy and jubilation of our hearts at the good tidings of salvation. Above all, the light by its brightness and its glow symbolizes Jesus Christ, the Sun that knows no setting and the Light of the City of God as well on earth as in Heaven.

The incensing at the Gospel is also rich in symbolism. In the first place, the incensing of the book of the Gospels is to be regarded as an act of holy reverence, a religious mark of honor paid to the words of eternal life. The fragrant clouds that envelop the book call to mind how the good odor of the pre-eminent knowledge of Jesus Christ is spread by the announcement of the Gospel. The incense furthermore admonishes us that, with the heavenly ardor of devotion the words of the Gospel should be announced by the deacon or the priest, and be listened to by the faithful and laid up in their hearts.

When the reading of the Gospel has ended, the acolyte answers: “Laus tibi, Christe!—Praise be to Thee, O Christ!” The priest kisses the initial words of the extract just read, saying at the same time: “By virtue of the words of the Gospel may our sins be blotted out.” Thus the reading of the holy Gospel is closed not only with a chant of thanksgiving, but moreover with a kiss and a prayer. What is the meaning of kissing the Gospel? This liturgical kiss expresses what is contained in Psalm 18, that the words of the Lord are “more to be desired than gold and many precious stones, and sweeter than honey and the honeycomb.” If the Gospel is taken into the heart and preserved therein, with all the esteem and submission which the kissing of the book denotes, then is the Gospel also able “to blot out our sins.” It is self-evident that no such power of effacing sin may be ascribed to the words of the Gospel as is peculiar to the sacraments of baptism and penance, but the word of God is a sacramental which, accompanied by the interior working of grace, exercises a redeeming, healing and sanctifying influence on man when he is properly disposed, by exciting faith, hope and charity, fear, contrition, conversion, and amendment of life.


St. Augustine wrote, “The Gospel is the mouth of Christ. He sits in Heaven, but ceases not to speak on earth” (Os Christi Evangelium est. In coelo sedet, sed in terra loqui non cessat). The words of the Lord are spirit and life: they are powerful, two-edged, penetrating. “Are not my words as a fire, saith the Lord, and as a hammer that breaketh the rock in pieces?” (Jer. 23:29) When Christ on the road to Emmaus opened the meaning of the Scriptures to the two disciples, their hearts burned within them. The word of God has a marvelous power for enlightening the eyes, for imparting wisdom to the lowly and the humble, for rejoicing the heart and refreshing the soul. In like manner, may the living and quickening word of God, which abides forever, impart to us salvation and protection; may it ever more and more purify, consecrate and sanctify our souls.