Liturgical Celebrations

Enthroning the Book of the Gospels

March 11, 2009

MARK JOSEPH COSTELLO

Since the reform of the liturgy following the Second Vatican Council, many Catholics experience a profound appreciation for the role of scripture in liturgy and in life. The introduction of the three-year Lectionary for Sunday worship allowed all to hear a greater portion of sacred Scriptures. Scripture-based homilies are the norm, opening the faithful to further reflection. Bible study groups have become common in parish life. These clearly positive developments reflect the importance scripture has in faith lives today. This development has engendered understanding and familiarity with the scriptures that is supported by liturgical practices and devotional possibilities.
Christ in gold
The ancient method of binding the books of the bible for liturgical use resulted in a Book of the Gospels separated from the other scriptures that were proclaimed in worship. Often these books were beautifully ornamented with illuminated pages. Their covers were works of art in precious metals, carvings and even jewels. These precious Gospel Books were carried in processions accompanied by candles and incense. The gospel procession, from the altar to the ambo while singing the Alleluia, heightened the uniqueness of the Word of God revealed in Christ. The books themselves were echoes of the treasures that the scriptures revealed.

The liturgical use of the Book of the Gospels was reinstated following the reforms of Vatican II. The deacon (or the reader in the absence of a deacon) carries the Gospel Book in the entrance procession. It is then placed on the altar (General Instruction of the Roman Missal #173). It is on the altar that the Book of the Gospels is enthroned during the Liturgy of the Word. During the singing of the Alleluia, the deacon (or priest) approaches the altar and carries the Gospel Book in the procession to the ambo. It is significant that the altar which is Christ (Dedication of a Church and Altar, ch. 4, n. 4) becomes the place of enthronement for the Book of the Gospels – the revelation of the Incarnation. It is then from the altar that the procession begins.

The heightened attention to the Gospel reading marks the highpoint of the liturgy of the word. Liturgically, it is in the proclamation of the Word that Christ is present and speaking. This may account for the directive that after the gospel reading the Book of the Gospels may be taken to the credence table or other dignified place (GIRM #175) as no further enthronement is envisioned. The Book of the Gospels may be presumed to simply remain on the ambo as well.

Curiously, in paragraph 62 of Built of Living Stones (Guidelines of the U.S. Catholic Bishops, 2000) there is a suggestion that the ambo can be designed to hold an open Book of the Gospels for display. Lest one think that this would be the logical place to put the Gospel book immediately after it is proclaimed, the paragraph notes that this display is intended only before or after the liturgical celebration. A footnote suggests that the front of the ambo or another pedestal could be used for this more “permanent display of the Scriptures.”

Gilt, bejeweled cross on Book of GospelsThe suggestion that the ambo be the place for enthronement (display) seems to have become a custom in some areas, though there is no historical precedent or official directive to support this prior to the suggestion that this may occur in Built of Living Stones. Some parishes set up stands for the Scriptures or create niches for their display. Often these places for enthronement appear in the sanctuary area and become another competing visual element, downplaying the significance of altar, ambo and chair. Sadly, some of these places of enthronement are used instead of the altar during the celebration of liturgy, which is a symbolic loss and contrary to the guidelines. More often these permanent enthronement areas are used for the Gospel Book immediately following the proclamation, though this too is not in keeping with the directive noted above.

A more permanent display or enthronement of the Book of the Gospels (possibly the Lectionary or sacred Scriptures) suggests a devotional activity, separate from liturgical celebration. It also poses a few problems for how the enthronement area is treated during the liturgy, especially if it is in or near the sanctuary area. The guidelines suggest that these display areas would remain empty during the liturgy. Creating a prominent “empty” shrine may well confuse the assembly or make its own demands to be filled.

If the more permanent enthronement of scriptures is meant to heighten our appreciation of scripture and perhaps offer the possibly to read from them, it seems that a location close to people is desirable. Niches and shrines for this purpose can provide for this devotional activity outside of liturgy. Like devotional areas for images of the saints, these are best designed to offer intimacy and proximity for the faithful who use them. Their location in the church should not visually compete with primary liturgical elements.

Enthroning the Gospels is a liturgical action. Hopefully, parishes will experience the precious Book of the Gospels, carried in the entrance procession, and reverently placed upon the altar. During the singing of the alleluia the enthronement gives way to a procession that focuses the community's attention followed by the proclamation that opens the ears of the faithful to Christ’s speaking presence.

Photos provided by Mark Joseph Costello

Mark Joseph Costello is a Capuchin priest living in Chicago. He works nationally as a liturgical design consultant. A graduate of the Catholic Theological Union at Chicago with a Master of Divinity Degree, he also received a Master in Fine Arts in Interior Architecture from the School of the Art Institute in Chicago.

READ OTHER ARTICLES BY MARK JOSEPH COSTELLO:

Art as Identity
Parish Consolidations: Using Art and Artifacts
Reordering Historic Churches

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