In this post, we will resume our consideration of the celebration of the Liturgy of the Word with the proclamation of the Gospel. The traditional practice of the Roman Rite can help provide many details regarding postures and gestures for this part of Mass, indications which are simply missing in the more cursory descriptions found in the relevant sections of the General Instruction on the Roman Missal (GIRM).
Having processed from the altar with the Gospel book, the deacon (or a concelebrant or even the celebrant himself if necessary) arrives at the ambo and opens the Gospel book to the appointed reading. The servers stand on either side of the ambo with their lit candles in hand, facing each other (See P. Elliott, Ceremonies of the Modern Roman Rite, Ignatius Press, 1995, p. 142). The thurifer stands to the deacon’s right, ready to offer him the censer. The master of ceremonies usually stands to the deacon’s left if he is going to assist the deacon by turning pages as needed (See P. Elliott, Ceremonies, p. 386, and A. Fortescue, J.B. O’Connell, A. Reid, The Ceremonies of the Roman Rite Described, 15th ed., Bloomsbury, 2009, p. 130). Standardizing these positions is a help to the deacon: he should not have to guess at every Mass to which side he should turn in order to receive the censer, for example.
With hands joined, the deacon greets the people and announces the Gospel. A priest who proclaims the Gospel in the place of a deacon also greets the people saying, “The Lord be with you” with hands joined. This is the only case during Mass where the people are greeted by an ordained minister with hands joined. The celebrant, who exercises a presidential function representing Christ as Head of the Body, extends his hands in greeting. The deacon (or his replacement) exercises a ministerial function when proclaiming the Gospel, not a properly presidential one; hence the difference in the gesture associated with this greeting.
With his left hand resting on the book, the deacon (or the priest who replaces him) uses his right hand, opened flat with the fingers joined, to trace a Greek cross at the beginning of the Gospel text with the thumb, holding it separated from the rest of the fingers. Then with his left hand resting on his chest, he traces the cross with the thumb of his right hand on his forehead, his lips, and his chest above where his left hand rests. He holds his right hand open, with the fingers joined, parallel to himself when making these crosses.
After joining his hands, he turn to his right and takes the censer in his right hand and incenses the Gospel book with three double swings, once to the center, once to his left, and once to his right, and then hands the censer back to the thurifer, or to the minister assisting him (See P. Elliott, Ceremonies, p. 390). He bows before and after incensing the Gospel book according to the general rule that one bows before and after incensing an object or person during Mass, except for the altar and offerings at the preparation of the gifts (See GIRM, 277).
When giving the censer to the deacon, the thurifer (or the minister assisting the deacon) will take care to place the censer in the right hand of the deacon, and the ring to the chain of the censer in the left hand of the deacon facing him. Again, this is simply to render this action more graceful, to eliminate any awkward moments, and to make clear the importance of the words about to be proclaimed. Once he has received the censer back from the deacon (or from the minister assisting him), the thurifer then continues to stand at the deacon’s right, slightly behind him, holding the censer by the ring of the chain in his right hand, moving it gently back and forth. The thurifer’s intention at this point is simply to generate some smoke to accompany the proclamation of the Gospel; this gesture is not meant to become a distraction to those listening to the Gospel.
The deacon reads or sings the Gospel with hands joined. During the reading of the Gospel, all in the sanctuary stand facing the ambo with hands joined, turning in their places if necessary. This small gesture is often forgotten but it can be a powerful witness to the belief that Christ is speaking and we should be listening. During the reading, all bow their heads at the name of Jesus, Mary, or of the saint commemorated that day. At the words, “The Gospel of the Lord,” the deacon does not raise the Gospel book in order to show it to the assembly. He pronounces those words with hands joined while looking at the faithful, since he is speaking to them. Moreover, the words just proclaimed, not the book which contains them, are the Good News which the faithful are invited to acclaim. The gestures associated with the proclamation of the Gospel should not contradict this belief.
After the people have responded, “Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ,” he then picks up the book and raises it slightly toward himself simply to be able to venerate it with a kiss more easily. Otherwise, he would have to bend down to kiss it, a gesture which can often be less than graceful. Therefore, after the concluding acclamation and response, the deacon picks up the Gospel book with both hands, raises it slightly, and bows his head slightly to meet it. He kisses the Gospel book, that is, touches the book lightly with his closed lips, in the same location where he traced the sign of the cross at the beginning of the text, and then closes it.
The deacon (with the minister accompanying him walking to his left) may then carry the Gospel book back to the credence table (or some other suitable location) where it remains for the rest of Mass. In this case, the deacon could simply hold the closed Gospel book with both hands at the bottom, with the top of the book resting on his chest. This is not a second Gospel procession; therefore it should not appear as one. It is rather a purely practical gesture, that is, the movement of a group of ministers across the sanctuary in order to lay aside the Gospel book now that it has served its purpose and will not be used again. The deacon and ministers follow the candle bearers and thurifer back to the credence table, and eventually to their seats, pausing to reverence the altar as a group (with at least a bow of the head if they are carrying anything) if they pass in front of it.
In the next post, we will examine the postures and gestures which have been historically associated with the preaching task, and with the profession of faith and prayers of the faithful which follow it.
Monsignor Marc B. Caron, S.T.L., is a vicar general and moderator of the curia for the Diocese of Portland, ME. He has served as a pastor, as the director of the diocesan Office for Worship, and as a chancellor of the diocese. Most recently, he was a member of the faculty of St. John’s Seminary, Brighton, MA, where he was also director of liturgy. He received his licentiate degree from the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC, and is currently a doctoral candidate at the University of St. Mary of the Lake, Mundelein, IL. He is the author of a number of articles which have appeared in The Jurist, Worship, Catechumenate, and in Homiletic and Pastoral Review.