Standing Up For What We Believe

Standing Up For What We Believe

When I was doing a liturgy course at Notre Dame University in the USA, a fellow student from an evangelical tradition expressed consternation about the Catholic practice of standing for the Gospel reading at Mass while remaining seated for the other scripture readings. “It gives the impression that the Gospels are more important than the other books of the Bible”, she remarked.

Well, they are! It is for this reason that the Gospels are placed first in the New Testament, before the letters of Paul which predate the written Gospels.

The subject of standing for the reading of the Gospel is dealt with in an article by Rev Dr Charles Sherlock in the latest issue of the Australian Journal of Liturgy. Dr Sherlock responds to those who object to precedence being given to the Gospels by asking: “Which scriptures would you translate first into the language of a people who have just begun to have the Gospel preached to them?”; “Which scriptures would you read first to young Christian children?”; “Which scriptures would you recommend to a person enquiring about Christian faith?”. There is little doubt that the appropriate response in each instance would be “The Gospels”.

Sherlock goes on to say: “In the interpretation of the scriptures as a whole, the teaching and example of Jesus Christ according to the Gospels is central – in theological terms, the living Word is the key to the word written.”

The custom of standing for the reading of the Gospel at the Eucharist has been practised since ancient times. It is mentioned in documents from the East in the 4th century and in the West by the 500s. Standing expresses joy, praise and thanksgiving and is a sign of respect and reverence. We stand to prepare for action, to take an oath, or to show respect for others.

Apart from being a sign of reverence, standing for the reading of the Gospel has two other practical effects. Firstly it helps the assembly focus on what is happening and encourages listening, not least because it discourages people from following the reading in their missals.

Secondly, standing together for the Gospel reading makes it clear that our listening is a corporate rather than individual act. We listen as the Body of Christ to the words and deeds of Christ and are called to follow Christ together.

Besides standing, other gestures of respect before and during the Gospel reading proclaim the presence of Christ in his word: the use of incense and candles during the procession and proclamation of the Gospel; the singing the Gospel acclamation; the people’s response “Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ” when the reading is announced; making small signs of the cross on the Gospel book, the forehead, lips and heart before the reading, the reverencing of the Gospel book with a kiss by the celebrating bishop or priest.

The General instruction of the Roman Missal says this about the Gospel reading at Mass:
“The reading of the Gospel is the high point of the Liturgy of the Word. Great reverence is to be shown to it by setting it off from the other readings with special marks of honour (which) acknowledge and confess Christ present and speaking. “(GIRM # 60)

Elizabeth Harrington