Let’s Restore the Last Gospel

Last Gospel
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In an effort to enculturate the faithful, and give them a sense of the Gospel’s profound distinction from what Pope Francis has suggested is a culture of throwing things away, and to suggest ways to bring current liturgical practice or, more typically, liturgical confusion and lassitude into harmony with that universal Church which does not die when a generation is laid to rest in the earth, I offer the following—the first of several.

One of the claims made for the Novus Ordo cycle of readings at Mass is that it feeds the faithful with a broader and more thoroughgoing diet of Scripture, especially from the Old Testament. I will not address that claim here, except to say that those who make it can hardly object when more Scripture is read. I am thinking here in particular of the Last Gospel, the so-called prologue of John (1:1-18), which used to be read after the dismissal at Mass, with the faithful remaining to hear it, and everyone genuflecting at the world-shaking words, And the Word was made flesh.

Let us pray those words again.

I will meet objections. The first is that it is not feasible. But that cannot be so. At many parishes, the people remain in their pews after the dismissal to say, together, Pope Leo’s prayer to St. Michael. They do so even if there is a recessional hymn after the dismissal. One of the unintended but fortunate consequences—if it is a real hymn they are singing—is that people will learn to remain until the hymn, which itself is a prayer, is complete. Then it is no great burden upon them to remain for another sixty seconds.

The second is that it is not desirable, pastorally, because at the end of Mass we should be ready to get together to do the ordinary things of life that bring human beings together. Well, what most people at the end of a Novus Ordo Mass are doing is getting to their cars to beat the traffic out of the parking lot. Therefore, anything that would delay them, that would put them in a mood of patience, that would give them an obvious opportunity to pause, and perhaps to say a few prayers of their own before they go, would tend to ensure that more people, not fewer, would still be around ten minutes after Mass, and in a better frame of mind to talk.  

Please remember that man is united from above, not from below. Pope Francis is correct to note that a pseudo-culture of consumerism has no power to bring people together; for one obvious reason among many, it reduces man to a machine for consumption or for producing things to consume. Prayer elevates man above that system. Then your neighbor is not a competitor but one with whom you may share what you love; and the highest of our loves direct our souls to God.

The third is that the Last Gospel, placed after the dismissal and the recessional, would be artistically clumsy, an anticlimax. I think here that the experience is emphatically otherwise. The words from John consummate, both intellectually and historically, all that the Mass is about. They are the Gospel of the Gospel. They embrace both the words we hear and speak, and the great Sacrament we receive and adore. For the Word did not remain separate from the world in splendid isolation but is Himself the creator of that world, who entered the world as a creature, in the flesh, to give of Himself to the world, in the flesh, dying upon the Cross, rising from the tomb, and now making Himself present—body, blood, soul, and divinity—in the Eucharist.

Rather, now of all times those words are most urgent. They resist reduction. Sociology has no room for them. Nor do moralism, cultural indifferentism, or pragmatic instrumentalism. They are without price. You cannot hear him say, “and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” and do Jesus the indignity of praising Him as a great teacher, like Socrates or the Buddha. You cannot hear him say, “no man has seen God, but the only-begotten who is in the bosom of the Father has revealed him to us,” and then understand the Mass that has just transpired as an act of merely human homage. 

The words are not simply an intellectual formulation of an idea, or a specific cultural embodiment of a religious attitude common to mankind. They make ultimate claims about what is real—and Who is real; and these claims come not out of John’s imagination, but from a specific person and an event. They comprehend all of time, from beginning to end, and they open to infinite depths each small moment of that time, because in each moment, a human soul can turn and say, “I believe in Him, the resurrection and the life.”

When we hear the Last Gospel, though, and then we turn to man, we find him and ourselves involved in a drama of inconceivable import. Only of man is it said in Scripture that he is made in the image of God, and only as man has God come to dwell with us and to share our creaturely limitations in the flesh, our joys and our sorrows. If we gaze at the far-flung sparks and splinters of matter across the heavens, we may grow faint with our littleness and insignificance, or we may think of it all as an immense waste, with no reason to it but what we ourselves assign for our own purposes; but the words of John check both presumption and despair.  

Only in the Word made flesh do we find the glory of matter revealed, and the order of the cosmos as deiform, and therefore made by God for man his viceroy and steward. Jesus says that not one sparrow falls to the ground without the knowledge and the will of the Father. Not one infinitesimal impulse of energy or point of matter bursts into being without the knowledge and the will of the Father; and if we want to delve so far into a proton as to make its shell as wide as the universe, what we must find within are as Chesterton says,

God Almighty, and with Him
Seraphim and cherubim
Filling all eternity:
Adonai Elohim.

Imagine, then, hearing the words of John not once a year if you hit the right Mass on Christmas day, but at every Mass, as giving form to the matter of your life and of all lives and all existent things. How can they fail to penetrate, and to build up slowly, by their inexhaustible nutritive power, the soil from which, someday, a genuine human and Christian culture will rise once more?

[Photo: Reading the Last Gospel]

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Anthony Esolen is the author or translator of 28 books, most recently In the Beginning Was the Word: An Annotated Reading of the Prologue of John (Angelico Press), No Apologies: How Civilization Depends upon the Strength of Men (Regnery), and The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord, a book-length poem made up of 100 poems centered on the life of Christ. He has also begun a web magazine called Word and Song, on classic hymns, poetry, language, and film. He is a professor and writer-in-residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts.

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