The high point of the Liturgy of the Word is the proclamation of the Gospel. All of God’s Word is inspired; the Gospels are the words of the Lord himself addressed to believers in the here and now. As such, we show our reverence for those words, and our desire to allow that Word to take root in our hearts by a posture of reverent attention.
All the gestures associated with this act should testify to this conviction. For example, as the Alleluia chant begins, all rise. Servers should be reminded to stand attentively, not slouching or leaning to one side. Otherwise, they can give a strong counter-witness to the belief that Christ himself is about to come and speak to his people as he once did. If there is no deacon, the celebrant himself goes to the middle of the altar. If concelebrants are present, preferably one of their number fulfills this office. There, since the silent prayer “Cleanse my heart…” is addressed to God, the celebrant (or one of the concelebrants), according to the traditional practice, looks up momentarily to the altar cross before bowing profoundly with hands joined to say this prayer of preparation (See A. Fortescue, J.B. O’Connell, and A. Reid, The Ceremonies of the Roman Rite Described, 15th ed., Bloomsbury, 2009, 70). The priest then proceeds to the ambo, with hand joined, unless there is a procession with the Gospel book, in which case he takes up the Gospel book in the manner described below.
Ideally, a deacon is present to proclaim the Gospel. If so, he bows profoundly with hands joined before the celebrant as the Alleluia chant begins in order to ask for and to receive the priest’s blessing. The priest, standing at the chair, prays the blessing with hands joined and concludes by making the sign of the cross over the deacon, his left hand resting on his chest. The deacon signs himself and responds, “Amen.” The deacon then proceeds directly to the ambo with hands joined if there is no procession with the Gospel book. He bows profoundly when passing in front of the altar on the way to the ambo and again as he returns to his chair.
If there is a genuine procession with the Gospel book, the minister of the Gospel is led to the ambo by a thurifer with incense and two servers holding candles. As the second reading is concluded and before the Alleluia chant begins, the thurifer kneels in front of the celebrant who imposes incense from a seated position (See A. Mutel and P. Freeman, Cérémonial, 99). Alternatively, once the Alleluia begins, all rise, including the priest celebrant in order to impose incense; in that case, the thurifer is obviously standing before him (See General Instruction of the Roman Missal, 212).
Meanwhile, the deacon stands and receives the incense boat in his right hand to assist the celebrant in the imposition of incense. The celebrant imposes and blesses the incense saying nothing. Handing the incense boat back to the thurifer (or the master of ceremonies), the deacon then bows profoundly before the celebrant and asks for his blessing. The celebrant offers the blessing in the manner described above and the deacon signs himself and responds Amen. The deacon (or the priest if no deacon is present) bows to the altar upon arriving and takes up the Gospel book in both hands. The deacon (or the priest) holds the Gospel book in the same manner as in the entrance procession. He holds the Gospel book with its front cover facing forward, his right hand near the top of the book’s spine and his left hand near the bottom of the book’s opening (See Mutel and Freeman, Cérémonies, 102).
The thurifer leads the way from the altar to the ambo, followed by the candle bearers walking side by side, followed by the ordained minister (priest or deacon) who will proclaim the Gospel. This priest or deacon follows the incense and candles with no further sign of reverence to the altar during the procession itself. The thurifer in the procession holds the censer in his right hand from its ring as he leads the procession to the ambo. He probably holds the incense boat in his left hand, unless this was taken from him by a master of ceremonies after the imposition of incense by the celebrant. The servers walking side by side with candlesticks hold them in the same manner as the entrance procession. The server on the right side facing forward holds his right hand on the node of the candlestick and his left hand on its base. The server on the left side facing forward holds his right hand on the base of the candlestick and his left hand on the node. With time and patience, it should be possible to prepare servers to function this way in order to prepare for the proclamation of the Gospel.
According to historical practice, the deacon in the Gospel procession was commonly accompanied to the ambo by an instituted acolyte, or an instituted reader, and a server walking to the deacon’s left or even ahead of him (See Fortescue, O’Connell, and Reid, 130, n.58). In addition, the master of ceremonies might accompany the thurifer at his left in order to direct the procession more effectively. This arrangement is not for the sake of additional ceremony itself but for the sake of a more gracious and dignified movement from the altar to the ambo, the place of the Gospel’s proclamation.
Historically, the procession to the ambo with the Gospel book included the use of incense and candles. There were then and indeed are now some occasions such as funerals, Palm Sunday, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil, when the minister bearing the Gospel book is preceded only by two servers with hands joined, holding nothing. It would seem, then, that the use of the Gospel book in procession would demand either two servers with (or without) candles preceding the deacon (or concelebrant, or celebrant) or at least a thurifer with incense in order to make it a true procession with the Gospel book (See Mutel and Freeman, Cérémonies, 102). Lacking these, traditional custom suggests the appointed Gospel passage would be simply read from the Lectionary.
During the proclamation of the Gospel, we are reminded of the presence of Christ in the person of the minister announcing Christ’s own words, living and active today. In the next post we will examine how the rest of the Liturgy of the Word is carried out according to the provisions of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal and the traditional practice of the Roman Rite. Following the homily, the words of the Creed summarize our faith; we proclaim them with confidence and conviction. In the final part of the Liturgy of the Word, the faithful fulfill their baptismal priesthood by interceding for the needs of the world and local needs, while the priest celebrant raises his own prayer of intercession to the Father.