by Father Mike Stubbs
When people who are not Catholic attend a Catholic Mass, they often notice that we Catholics frequently change our physical position during the ceremony. We do not remain seated throughout, but sometimes kneel, sometimes bow, sometimes stand. We are constantly on the move. It is Catholic calisthenics.
For example, we stand during the reading of the Gospel, to show our respect for the words of Christ and our willingness to act upon them.
In doing that, we reflect the action of the congregation assembled to hear the book of the law read to them, as it is described in Sunday’s first reading: Neh 8:2-4a, 5-6, 8-10. They also stand up as Ezra the scribe begins reading to them: “He opened the scroll so that all the people might see it — for he was standing higher up than any of the people — and as he opened it, all the people rose.”
At this particular point in the history of Israel, people have returned from exile in Babylon. They will involve themselves in the rebuilding of the city of Jerusalem, which had been destroyed. They will also rebuild the Temple, which had suffered a similar fate.
Before the exile, the people were accustomed to worshiping in the Temple, above all, offering sacrifices there. But during the exile, that was not possible. Instead, their worship focused upon the reading of Scripture.
That focus continued after their return from exile. It formed the core of the synagogue service. It contributed to their high regard for the Scriptures, which we see demonstrated in the reading from Nehemiah. That reading tells us that “all the people listened attentively to the book of the law.” That means that they listened about six hours, because “he read out of the book from daybreak till midday.”
When the Gospel is being read to us, it should similarly command our attention. After all, it is Christ who is speaking to us. He is present in his words, just as he is present through his body and blood in the sacrament of the Eucharist. The reading of the Gospel deserves a similar reverence. That is why we stand during its reading. That is why the priest or deacon reading the Gospel book kisses it after concluding the reading. That is why the Gospel book is often highly decorated, to show its great dignity in bringing us the Word of God.
After all, we would not use a Styrofoam cup to hold the consecrated wine, the blood of Christ. Why would we use cheap, disposable sheets of paper to bring us the words of Christ? After all, he tells us: “The words I have spoken to you are spirit and life” (Jn 6:63).