What We Lost When We Lost the Last Gospel
“What came to be through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race; the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:4-5)
If one were to line up the Novus Ordo Mass with the Latin (“Extraordinary Form”) Mass—and I’ve no doubt that countless liturgists on both sides have done this ad nauseum—one would find, for the most part, that the latter contains simplified or truncated versions of the former. For example, we still recite the Confiteor in the Pauline Mass, but it is stripped of all saints' names, save the Blessed Virgin Mary. And the absolution affixed to it has been shortened.
Next, the Kyrie gets chopped down from nine to six verses. Later, the Lavabo, where the priest washes his hands, originally six verses from Psalm 25, is now reduced to one. And the “Domine non sum dignus,” just before Holy Communion, instead of being repeated thrice, is said once.
But one part of the Traditional Latin Mass that was completely lopped off with all the precision of Paul Bunyan was the discarding of reading of the Last Gospel—that is, in most cases, the beginning of the Gospel According to Saint John.
And unlike other elements found in the Ordinary Form of the Mass, absolutely nothing replaced it.
I’ve often wondered if this foreshortening—the omission of the Final Gospel—one could even go so far as to call it “The Gospel Finale”—has led to more and more people leaving Mass immediately after reception of Holy Communion.
Perhaps this is at best a tenuous chain of causality, but when one stops to think about it, after Holy Communion, what is left in the Novus Ordo Mass? Perhaps the recitation of the Communion antiphon (one or two lines), which is often omitted or said silently if there is a Communion Hymn. Then occasionally a desultory reading of the parish bulletin, followed by the Post-Communion Prayer, the final blessing, and the Dismissal (with a hymn, if possible). Of course, the priest is free to impart any of the formulae for a Solemn Blessing—with its concomitant group-think of “is-this-where-we-are-supposed-to-say-‘Amen’-at-three-different-times?” but these are used rarely, if at all.
Perhaps it’s the poet in me, but I’m one of those renegade/retrograde Catholics who thinks the Last Gospel actually added something to the Mass, both literally and figuratively—and a great deal is lost by its exclusion.
First, it gave the people a reason to stick around: there’s no greater moment, Thomas à Kempis teaches us in The Imitation of Christ and St. John of the Cross in his “Dark Night of the Soul,” than the soul’s union with Jesus in Holy Communion. It is, after all, the summit of the Mass (per à Kempis, of our lives). While there’s no recapturing this moment, there is a reason to just sit and be one with God—and here I’m speaking quite literally. What better way to do this than to meditate on those inimitable words of Scripture that recount the Word becoming Flesh?
Second, there are many beautiful, fecund, powerful, gut-wrenching, trenchant and poetic verses in Scripture: from the Sermon on the Mount to St. Thomas’s “My Lord and My God!” to the poor father’s plea: “I believe! Help my unbelief!” This is not a competition, of course. However, the Beginning of The Gospel of John gives us a sustained, measured, and stirringly beautiful, reflection on the Incarnation itself: “AND THE WORD WAS MADE FLESH” [All genuflect]. It’s wonderful to hear this most consoling, most theologically-thrilling story of Jesus’ beginnings.
Third, Msgr. George J. Moorman, in his book, The Latin Mass Explained, has noted best of all that—and it is worth quoting at length:
This reading, in the course of time, was added to the Eucharistic service on account of the great reverence the early Christians entertained for this portion of the Gospel and because it contains a summary of the benefits of which we are made partakers through Christ’s Sacrifice. The service was introduced by the prayer of the priest: ‘Send forth Thy Light and Thy Truth!’ It could not be concluded in a more becoming manner than with the words, ‘AND THE WORD WAS MADE FLESH, and dwelt among us; and we saw His glory, the glory as of the Only-begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.’ At the words ‘AND THE WORD WAS MADE FLESH’, the priest and the people kneel on one knee in token of adoration of the mystery of the Incarnation, which is expressed in these words, and to indicate that the Son of God came from Heaven to earth. When the priest has finished the reading of this Gospel, the server answers, ‘Deo Gratias’—‘Thanks Be To God.’ These are the last words of the Mass.
Now what really makes me think that this was a missed opportunities on the part of those who reorganized the Mass was that, if they had retained the Last Gospel (which, it should be mentioned, is almost always the Beginning of the Gospel of John, though occasionally and very rarely replaced with another Gospel passage), it would be read in the vernacular—and not in Latin. Thus, the beginning of the most poetic Gospel would have been in the lingua franca of the men and women in the pews (again, not in Latin, which, for the sake of argument, we’ll say they don’t know).
How long does it take to read the beginning of the Gospel According to Saint John? At a slow cadence, 90 seconds including the introduction and the “Deo Gratias.”
I can think of no harm—and only good—that could come from reinstating the Last Gospel back into the Mass.