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June 18, 2020 (LifeSiteNews) – At the end of every Tridentine Mass, after the final blessing, the celebrant steps to the Gospel side of the altar to read the Last Gospel, the Prologue of John: “In the beginning was the Word…” This beautiful custom is described thus in Dom Prosper Guéranger’s explanation of the Mass:
Why is this reading done? The custom originates from the Middle Ages. At that period, as in earlier times also, the faithful had a great devotion to having a portion of the Gospel read over them, and the commencement of that of St. John was a special favourite. Demands at last became so multiplied, that the number of Priests was insufficient to satisfy all: to simplify the matter, it was decided to recite it over all those assembled, at the end of the Mass. The devotion of the faithful, therefore, alone originated this addition…. When the Priest comes to these words of the Gospel of St. John: Et verbum caro factum est, he genuflects in honour of the annihilation of the Word made flesh, who emptied Himself, taking the form of a Servant (Phil 2:7). The Gospel being ended, the Priest comes down from the Altar, after bowing to the Cross.
The fittingness of this organically developed practice is well articulated by Martin Mosebach:
The Last Gospel is the most recent part of the classical rite. The prologue of St. John’s Gospel was not integrated into Holy Mass until the 13th century; it appears in the Dominican missals for the first time in 1256. The liturgical manuals refer to the prologue of St. John as a “blessing.” In fact, even the reading of the gospel in the rite of the Catechumens was not merely a proclamation but also a sacramental and a blessing with absolution: “Per evangelica dicta deleantur nostra delicta—By the words of the gospel may our sins be blotted out.” At the Last Gospel it is this aspect of blessing that comes to the fore. It contained the core of the Christian faith in the shortest possible form, and that is why the prologue was regarded as possessing special power. In the Book of Gospels that was used at imperial coronations this prologue was written in letters of gold on purple parchment. The emperor spoke the words as a coronation oath, thus professing his responsibility for a creation that had been hallowed by the incarnation of the Word. (Heresy of Formlessness, 117–18)
Mosebach then notes that St. Thomas Aquinas, when called upon to compose Propers for the Feast of Corpus Christi, did not write a new Preface but chose the Preface of the Nativity, which celebrates the mystery of the Incarnation. In this way, he powerfully linked the mystery of the sacramental renewal of the Sacrifice of the Cross with the mystery at its origin, the enfleshment of the Son of God so that He would have a body and a human life to offer as an infinitely pleasing oblation. As the Epistle to the Hebrews declares: “Wherefore when he cometh into the world, he saith: ‘Sacrifice and oblation thou wouldest not: but a body thou hast fitted to me… Behold I come: in the head of the book it is written of me: that I should do thy will, O God’… In the which will, we are sanctified by the oblation of the body of Jesus Christ once” (Heb 10:5, 7, 10). Behold, He comes into the world to offer this all-holy Body as the only worthy sacrifice that coincides with the will of God and sanctifies all who partake of it.
In Mosebach’s words:
Is it by chance that, at the same time and in the same religious order, the Christmas preface and the Christmas gospel acquired a function in the Mass that goes beyond their particular link with Christmas? What the Christmas preface contributed to an understanding of the sacrament of the altar at Corpus Christi, the prologue of St. John’s gospel—the Christmas gospel—did every day. It constantly called to mind that celebrating the memoria of the sacrifice of redemption presupposes the real enfleshment, the changing of God into man, from wine into blood, from death into life. The prologue of St. John became the epitome of the whole Mass. Each concrete, individual celebration of Mass was concentrated in the visionary, supra-temporal words of the prologue. “We have seen his glory”—this now referred, not to the memory of Christ’s transfiguration in St. John’s gospel, but to the sight of the elevated Host. At Mass the believer became a witness of the events of faith. (Ibid., 119)
In the period from St. Pius V to the mid-twentieth century, the Prologue of John would often be replaced with a proper Gospel of the day when the latter had been displaced by the Gospel of a feast of higher rank. Although this “shifting” of a Gospel to the final slot had the advantage of ensuring that loyal “dogs of the Lord” (Domini canes, as one might say) would not lose any of the crumbs that fell from the Master’s liturgical table, at the same time we can recognize, with Mosebach, that the Prologue of John is uniquely appropriate for the end of Mass. In the rubrics governing the 1962 Missale Romanum used by most traditional Catholics today, the Prologue was reestablished as the sole Gospel after the Mass. Mosebach defends the fittingness of this rubric:
The prologue of St. John cannot be replaced by any other gospel; it is profoundly nonsensical to put in its place a reading that belongs to a commemorated feast. Those who are committed to the Last Gospel will not agree, either, with the widely accepted custom of permitting the congregation to sing a hymn while this Gospel is being read…. As a text that is constantly being read and that many people know by heart, the prologue of St. John can be read (un)self-consciously sotto voce while the members of the congregation follow it in their missals. The aim of the prologue is contemplation, the retrospective beholding of a lived reality. (Ibid., 120)
Whether we agree with Mosebach’s pugnacious opinion or not, we can observe that every scholarly treatment of the sacred liturgy and every devotional manual throughout the Catholic world contained edifying reflections about this Prologue and the rightness of its placement at the end of every (or nearly every) Mass.
The liturgical reformers glibly removed this Last Gospel, this veritable epitome of the Christian Faith, and allowed it to remain in the lectionary for one day of the year: the Christmas Day Mass. We can be assured that contemporary Catholics who attend only the Novus Ordo are barely familiar with this reading, in contrast to traditional Catholics who know it extremely well—often well enough, as Mosebach notes, to mouth the words along with the priest, if they wanted to.
In a course on the mystery of the Trinity at Wyoming Catholic College, theology professors require students to memorize the Prologue of John and then write it out, word for word, for the final exam. Students may choose to write it out in English, Latin, or Greek (the last for extra credit). Due to the love of these young adults for the Latin Mass, which had already immersed them in this Prologue, some find it easier to write it out in Latin than in English. This Gospel is lodged in their memory, part of their soul, part of the interior architecture in which they will live their lives.
This, indeed, is how the liturgy should be—and it is impossible for the liturgy to function this way when the readings are so numerous and constantly changing, as occurs in the Novus Ordo. Put it this way: it would be better for a man on his deathbed to have words from the Prologue of John come spontaneously to his imagination and his lips, than for him to fail to recall the vast swathes of the Bible that were sprayed over him for decades. This is part of the genius of the old Mass: it carefully selects the most powerful passages of Scripture and repeats them year after year, even—as with the Prologue and certain Psalms—day after day.
Unquestionably, the Prologue of John is the ideal capstone to the Holy Mass, and its loss is deeply regrettable. There is frankly no good reason at all for any traditionalists (I think here especially of some Benedictine monasteries) to continue to follow the maimed 1965 ritual, now that it is so well known that the liturgical reformers intended 1965 merely as a halfway house on the path to the Novus Ordo of 1969. The 1965 “interim missal” is already a torso without limbs, like one of those still-beautiful but sad antiquities at the Vatican museum: Venus, sans an arm or a leg. Such is the Mass without its Introibo and its In Principio. The lopping-off of the prayers at the foot of the altar and of the Last Gospel creates a serious artistic imbalance. Before these prayers were added historically, the Mass would have seemed complete enough; but as with many great works of art, these finishing touches elevated what was already beautiful to a new perfection, as an elaborate gilt frame enhances the painting within.
So beloved was this glorious fanfare of the Fourth Gospel, familiar to all from its placement at the end of Mass, that it led, in the blossoming of early Renaissance music, to a magnificent polyphonic setting of it by Josquin des Pres (1450/55–1521):
The polyphony of Josquin comes from an era in which liturgy achieved its supreme perfection. The glaring absence of the Prologue in the 1965 interim missal and in the Novus Ordo, as well as the general absence of polyphony of the quality of Josquin’s, are signs of the glory of God having departed from the temple.