Thursday, May 24, 2018

Liturgy of the Traditional Mass, Part 4: The Epistle, Gospel, and what occurs in between

Everyone, please pray for Ireland! In less than 24 hours, they vote on whether or not to legalize abortion. Millions of innocent lives are at stake!

Previous parts in this series:

St. Thomas Aquinas, in his Summa Theologiæ (IIIa, Q. 83, A. 4), notes that the first half of the Mass, known as the Mass of the Catechumens, is for the purpose of preparation of the faithful to receive the Sacrament, as required in Scripture (Ecclesiastes 4:17, Sirach 18:23, Matthew 5:24, 1 Corinthians 11:27). St. Thomas further divides this preparation into two parts. The first is prayerful preparation, consisting of everything that we have already covered, from the Prayers at the Foot of the Altar to the collects. Further, in order to receive the Sacrament of the Eucharist, one must be properly instructed in the faith. Thus, St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:29 referred to the necessity of “discerning the Body of the Lord.” A bulk of this instruction is done in catechism, before the reception of First Holy Communion, as this is the basic instruction necessary to be a full member of the Church, which is the Mystical Body of Christ. However, immediately before offering up the Holy Sacrifice, we also receive the instruction necessary to partake of the Mass proper to that particular day.

The readings bring out the particular occasion for which the Mass is being offered, whether it be a great feast such as Easter, a penitential occasion such as Ash Wednesday, a great saint and martyr such as on the feast of Ss. Peter and Paul on June 29, or even just an ordinary weekday. The parts of the Mass specific to that particular occasion, called the “propers,” include the Introit and the collects that were already sung, but consist primarily of the readings.

For about the past thousand years, the readings have consisted of one lesson, called the Epistle, from either an epistle of the New Testament, the Acts of the Apostles, or occasionally the Old Testament; followed by a lesson from one of the Gospels, with psalms sung in between the two readings. In the early Church, many lessons were read, including lessons from the Old Testament followed by lessons from the writings of the Apostles. (The Bible as we know it did not exist until the time of St. Jerome in the fourth century.) By the time of St. Gregory the Great in the late sixth century, the pattern of the lessons became fixed as what it is today, with one Epistle and one Gospel reading. On Ember Days, the very ancient practice of reading lessons from the Old Testament is retained. On almost all other days, though, the readings begin with the Epistle.

The deacon, who is just one step away from priesthood and therefore assists very closely in offering up the Mass, will sing the Gospel, which is the greater of the two lessons. The subdeacon, being a sacred minister, also assists closely in the Mass, but not as closely as the deacon. Thus, the subdeacon sings the Epistle. After the last collect, the subdeacon takes the book, goes to the epistle side of the altar (hence its name), and, standing at the bottom of the steps facing the altar, sings the Epistle. The priest remains standing at the altar, while everyone else sits to listen and be instructed. When the Epistle has been sung, the choir responds quietly, saying (not singing), “Deo gratias,” which means, “Thanks be to God.” What other response could we make to hearing the Word of God than to quietly thank him for the instruction he has given us through his servant and apostle? The subdeacon then goes up to the altar to receive the priest's blessing.

Following the Epistle is ordinarily a Gradual and an Alleluia verse. The Gradual is the oldest chant in the Mass, being as old as the readings themselves, which, as said before, date from the early Church. In ancient times, an entire psalm was often sung in this place. Today, the Gradual is just a few verses of a psalm. This practice of psalms alternating with scriptural readings dates back to the worship of the Jewish Synagogue and the Jewish Temple, the latter having the fifteen Gradual Psalms sung on the highest feasts. (These psalms are noted in the Bible as, depending on the translation, “gradual canticle,” “song of degrees,” or “song of ascents.”) The Gradual and the following Alleluia verse are the most difficult chants of the Mass to sing, as elaborate musical praise to God is due to accompany the proclamation of his Word.

This element of praise is especially brought out in the Alleluia verse that follows, in which the word “alleluia” is sung by the cantors and repeated by the choir, a verse or two from a psalm is chanted by the cantors, and then the choir repeats “alleluia.” “Alleluia” is a Hebrew word meaning, “all hail to him who is.” “All hail” is the same as “glory in the highest,” as in the Gloria, and “him who is” is a reference to Exodus 3:14, when God identified himself to Moses as, “I am who I am.” Described by the 1911 Catholic Encyclopedia as “the liturgical mystic expression," this word is used to give praise to God first in Tobit 13:22, then in Psalm 104 and many other psalms, including the beginning and end of Psalm 150, but the word is used in the New Testament only in the book of Apocalypse. In the Alleluia verse in the Mass, we give praise to God for his Word revealed through Jesus Christ in the Gospel.

A couple times in the year, the Church desires to expand her praise of God beyond the one word “alleluia,” so in place of the repeated alleluia after the verse, a Sequence is sung. The Sequence is a longer hymn, not from scripture, that elaborates on the verse. For example, here is the Gradual, Alleluia verse, and Sequence for Easter Sunday.

Hæc dies, quam fecit Dóminus: exsultémus et lætémur in ea. Confitémini Dómino, quóniam bonus: quóniam in saeculum misericórdia eius.


Allelúia, allelúia. Pascha nostrum immolátus est Christus.

Víctimæ pascháli laudes ímmolent Christiáni. Agnus rédemit oves: Christus ínnocens Patri reconciliávit peccatóres. Mors et vita duéllo conflixére mirándo: dux vitæ mórtuus regnat vivus. Dic nobis, María, quid vidísti in via? Sepúlcrum Christi vivéntis et glóriam vidi resurgéntis. Angélicos testes, sudárium et vestes. Surréxit Christus, spes mea: præcédet vos in Galilaeam. Scimus Christum surrexísse a mórtuis vere: tu nobis, victor Rex, miserére. Amen. Allelúia.
This is the day which the Lord hath made: let us rejoice and be glad in it. Give praise unto the Lord, for he is good: for his mercy endureth forever.

Alleluia, alleluia. Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed.

Christians, to the Paschal Victim offer your thankful praises. The Lamb the sheep redeemeth: Christ, who only is sinless, reconcileth sinners to the Father. Death and life have contended in that conflict stupendous: the Prince of Life, who died, deathless reigneth. Speak, Mary, declaring what thou sawest wayfaring. “The tomb of Christ who now liveth: and likewise the glory of the Risen. Bright angels attesting, the shroud and napkin resting. Yea, Christ, my hope is arisen: to Galilee he goeth before you.” We know that Christ is risen, henceforth ever living: Have mercy, Victor King, pardon giving. Amen. Alleluia.

In the Middle Ages, many sequences were composed, so that by the beginning of the sixteenth century many feasts had sequences. However, at the Council of Trent, the number was reduced to just four so that this type of expanded praise could be reserved the highest and most theologically deep feasts.

When the character of the Mass is sorrowful, such as in Lent and at Masses for the Dead, the Alleluia verse is not sung, as such a joyful element would be out of place. Instead, a Tract is sung, which is a longer portion of a psalm sung without refrain or antiphon. Very elaborate chant melodies are also composed for Tracts, though they are also often sung to simple psalm tones. The extended length of the Tract expresses the Church's desire to extend her watch with Christ during those times. At Masses for the Dead, the famous sequence Dies iræ is sung after the Tract. In this case, as with the sequence Stabat mater dolorosa on the feast of the Seven Sorrows of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the purpose of the Sequence is not to expand our praise and joy, but our lament and sorrow.

During these chants, a few ceremonies take place. After the subdeacon has finished singing the Epistle, the ministers read the Gradual and whatever follows to themselves. Then the subdeacon moves the missal, the book from which the priest reads the texts of the Mass, to the gospel side of the altar. He ascends the steps of the altar on the epistle side, takes the missal, descends the steps, ascends the steps on the gospel side, and then places the missal there. “Steps” in Latin is “gradus,” hence the name “Gradual.” This ceremony has two different levels of meaning. First, the ascension and descension of the altar steps represents our walk through life (Ecclesiastes 1:3-6), and the Gradual Psalms of Jewish Temple worship were sung while ascending the steps of the Temple. Second, whereas most of the Mass until now paralleled Jewish Temple worship, the Gospel is where that parallel ends. The movement of the missal from the epistle side to the gospel side represents the transition from the Old Covenant to the New, and the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is what sets the worship of the New Covenant apart from that of the Old.

After the missal has been moved, the deacon, whose function it is to sing the Gospel, comes and lays the Gospel book on the altar. The altar represents Christ, so laying the Word of God on top of it represents the union between the two: Christ as the Word made flesh (John 1:1-14). The priest puts incense in the thurible and blesses it. The deacon then kneels on the top step of the altar, bows low, and prays for purity and worthiness to proclaim the Gospel, alluding to a seraph's purification of the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 6:5-7), before asking the priest's blessing.

Munda cor meum, ac labia mea, omnípotens Deus, qui labia Isaíæ Prophétæ cálculo mundásti igníto: ita me tua grata miseratióne dignáre mundáre, ut sanctum Evangélium tuum digne váleam nuntiáre. Per Christum, Dóminum nostrum. Amen.

Iube, domne, benedícere.

Dóminus sit in corde tuo et in lábiis tuis: ut digne et competénter annúnties Evangélium suum: In nómine Patris, et Fílii, + et Spíritus Sancti. Amen.
Cleanse my heart and my lips, O almighty God, who didst cleanse the lips of the prophet Isaias with a burning coal, and vouchsafe, through thy gracious mercy, so to purify me, that I may worthily announce thy holy Gospel. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Sir, give me thy blessing.

The Lord be in thy heart and on thy lips, that thou mayest worthily and in a becoming manner, proclaim his holy Gospel. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, + and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

The procession is then formed to the place where the Gospel is to be proclaimed. The Gospel is sung facing north, symbolically toward the pagan barbarians (Jeremiah 1:14). Although the Gospel is proclaimed for everyone, it is especially directed toward those who have not yet heard the Word of God, in hopes of their conversion. Servers hold candles on either side of the Gospel book (which is held by the subdeacon), representing the light of Christ revealed in the Gospel (2 Corinthians 4:4). To begin, the deacon greets the people with “Dominus vobiscum,” the only time in liturgy when anyone other than a priest says this greeting.

Dóminus vobíscum.
Et cum spíritu tuo.
Sequéntia sancti Evangélii secúndum __.
Gloria tibi, Domine.
The Lord be with you.
And with your spirit.
The continuation of the Holy Gospel according to __.
Glory to you, O Lord.

“Glory to you, O Lord,” we say in anticipation of hearing the Gospel of Christ. This response is omitted only during Holy Week when the Gospel is that of the Passion of Christ. While singing this, the deacon makes small Signs of the Cross with his thumb first on the Gospel book, then on his forehead, lips, and breast, nonverbally praying that the Gospel may be on his mind, lips, and heart. The deacon then honors the Gospel book with incense and sings the Gospel. The choir responds saying quietly, not singing, “Laus tibi, Christe.” “Praise to you, Christ,” the one whose good news we have just heard. This is perhaps a higher form of the response, “Deo gratias,” that follows the Epistle.

After the Gospel has been sung, the Gospel book is brought back to the priest, who kisses it, whispering a poetic prayer.

Per Evangélica dicta, deleántur nostra delícta.
By the words of the Gospel, may our sins be blotted out.

This prayer originates from the Middle Ages. The deacon then incenses the priest, on whose behalf he has sung the Gospel. Often at this time, particularly on Sundays and major Holy Days, the Epistle and Gospel are then read again (not sung) in the vernacular and a sermon is preached. Necessary announcements may also be made at this time. This is not a part of the liturgy, and no mention is made of it in the missal.

Some have contended that the Epistle and Gospel ought to be sung in the vernacular rather than in Latin. However, the rubrics of the missal require that they be sung in Latin, and rightfully so. Latin is still the universal language of Christ's universal Church, and the Mass is the Church's highest form of worship to God, so it uses her sacred language. Christ is the Word of God made flesh, and the Church is the Mystical Body of Christ, so the chanting of Sacred Scripture in the Mass must use the sacred language of the Church. In addition, Latin is more all-encompassing when the congregation comes from multiple linguistic backgrounds. Therefore, in the liturgy, Latin must be used in singing the Epistle and Gospel. It is both allowed and encouraged, however, to read the Epistle and Gospel in the vernacular before the sermon, to aid in the congregation's understanding of it.

New terms

  • Mass of the Catechumens – The first half of the Mass, which prepares us for the sacrifice itself.
  • Propers – The parts of the Mass that are specific to the occasion.
  • Epistle – The first reading, sung by the subdeacon, from an epistle of the New Testament, the Acts of the Apostles, or the Old Testament.
  • Gospel – The second reading, sung by the deacon, always from the Gospels of the New Testament.
  • Gradual – The psalm verses sung, often to an elaborate melody, after the Epistle.
  • Alleluia verse – A verse from a psalm, preceded and followed by the word “alleluia,” sung after the Gradual on days of a joyful nature.
  • Sequence – A hymn that is sung after the Alleluia verse or Tract on a few special occasions.
  • Tract – A longer section of a psalm that replaces the Alleluia verse on days of a sorrowful nature.
  • Missal – The book from which the priest reads the texts of the Mass.

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