Q: I was hearing recently that some religious communities, like some Carmelites, do not make the three-fold sign of the cross on their forehead, mouth, and breast when saying the words “Gloria tibi, Domine” before the proclamation of the Gospel during Mass. The reasoning is that their rule predates the introduction of the gesture into the liturgy. In the current rubrics of the Novus Ordo, only the priest or deacon, whoever proclaims the Gospel, is instructed to make the gesture. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) only seems to mention it in three areas: Paragraph 134, when a priest says Mass without a deacon, instructs the faithful to make the same gesture. Paragraph 175, when a deacon proclaims the Gospel, does not instruct the faithful to make the gesture. Paragraph 262, when the priest says Mass with only one minister participating, omits the dialogue altogether. The final element of this conundrum: The words we are taught accompany the gesture (besides “Gloria tibi, Domine”) are “May the words of the Gospel be on my mind, on my lips, and in my heart.” The middle element, “on my lips,” seems liturgically proper for the minister proclaiming the Gospel, but is it liturgically appropriate for the congregation? Shouldn’t the reference be to the ears for those who are hearing the Gospel? Is the gesture even necessary for the congregation, and if not, why do we do it? — T.D., Madison, Wisconsin
A: While I cannot confirm from personal knowledge regarding the practice of the Carmelites, it is not unusual for ancient religious orders to have some legitimate liturgical customs that vary from common practice.
As our reader points out, No. 134 of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal does mention that the people make this gesture along with the priest. To wit:
“134. At the ambo, the priest opens the book and, with hands joined, says: Dominus vobiscum (The Lord be with you), and the people respond: Et cum spiritu tuo (And with your spirit). Then he says: Lectio sancti Evangelii (A reading from the holy Gospel), making the Sign of the Cross with his thumb on the book and on his forehead, mouth, and breast, which everyone else does as well. The people say the acclamation: Gloria tibi, Domine (Glory to you, Lord). The priest incenses the book, if incense is used (cf. nos. 276-277). Then he proclaims the Gospel and at the end sings or says the acclamation: Verbum Domini (The Gospel of the Lord), to which all respond: Laus tibi, Christe (Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ). The priest kisses the book, saying quietly: Per evangelica dicta (Through the words of the Gospel).“
That this specification is omitted when speaking of the deacon in No. 175 does not mean that the people omit it. It just means that there was no need to repeat mentioning an indication that was already clear.
With respect to when a priest celebrates with only one minister the text says: “Then the priest bows profoundly and says the Munda cor meum (Almighty God, cleanse my heart) and, afterwards, reads the Gospel. At the conclusion he says: Verbum Domini (The Gospel of the Lord), to which the minister responds: Laus tibi Christe (Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ). The priest then venerates the book with a kiss, saying quietly the Per evangelica dicta (Through the words of the Gospel).“
It is frankly not very clear if this paragraph implies that the priest simply reads the text in the usual manner already described twice or if he is to omit the introduction to the Gospel completely. The second interpretation would be rather strange as other, less significant, greetings to the minister are included. Likewise there is no indication as to how to begin the Gospel with no introduction. It would be somewhat absurd that the reader introduce “A reading from the prophet X” while the priest omits any introduction to the Gospel. I consider therefore that the priest should make the usual introduction and make the triple sign of the cross.
It is worth pointing out that No. 134’s indication for the people to make the triple sign of the cross is a novelty of the third edition of the Roman Missal. It was not found in the corresponding No. 95 of the earlier GIRM from the 1970s, where the gesture was prescribed only for the minister reading the Gospel. In making this indication the missal simply recognizes a practice which had already become almost universal among the faithful over the centuries.
The origin of the sign of the cross on the forehead and the heart is Frankish or German, and it probably entered into the Roman liturgy sometime between the years 800 and 1000. The sign of the cross on the lips was added rather later, but it is not clear when it became standard practice.
The people probably started mimicking the gesture of the priest or deacon at some point. Nobody seems to know when, but I would hazard a guess that it was not until after the Roman liturgy was fully unified following the Council of Trent. This practice was probably also reinforced by catechists teaching children the gestures for Mass.
Given this history, any spiritual meanings attached to the gestures are also probably of later origin. This does not mean that they are fantasy nor that they have no basis in truth, but it does mean that they are not necessarily the only possible interpretations. They also share in the general meaning of the sign of the cross itself as a profession of faith in the Trinity and the redemption through the Cross.
One meaning is suggested by the prayers that the priest says before and after proclaiming the Gospel. Before the Gospel, the priest bows before the altar and silently prays, “Cleanse my heart and my lips, almighty God, that I may worthily proclaim your holy Gospel.” These same ideas are also contained in the blessing of the deacon: “May the Lord be in your heart and on your lips, that you may proclaim his Gospel worthily and well, in the name of the Father .…” After the Gospel, the priest or deacon kisses the Gospel book and prays, “Through the words of the Gospel may our sins be wiped away.”
In this way, in making the triple cross the faithful ask God to bless their minds and hearts that they will accept, embrace the Gospel message proclaimed by the priest or deacon, and in turn proclaim it themselves through their lips and through their lives.
It is also a proclamation of faith that the word we receive is truly that of Christ. Indeed, it is Jesus himself who speaks to us, and we desire that he take total possession of our beings, thoughts, words, sentiments and works.
There may be other possible interpretations for this gesture, but these are sufficient to show that even a simple act like this may contain deeper spiritual meanings.
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