In the small rural community in Ireland where I grew up, life was dominated by people’s relationship with the Church. Our community in County Laois, like most of the country, was overwhelmingly Catholic and for the majority of people religion was life and life was religion. The social calendar of people’s lives revolved around the liturgical seasons of the Church, from the rigours of Lent to the celebration of Christmas.
In such a community the priest was revered and even feared. To be looked on favourably by him meant much to you and your standing in the community. And for a young boy to be chosen to be an altar server – assisting the priest at Mass – was deemed a great honour and a source of pride for his family.
I could not have been more than nine years of age when I was chosen, with a few of my friends, to ‘serve Mass’. Masses then were celebrated in Latin, with the priest facing the sanctuary wall and his back to the congregation. Mass, then, was mostly a private ritual conducted by the priest, entirely in Latin, and which congregations witnessed as spectators. There was little or no congregational participation in the celebration. And although my grandfather had coached me in learning the Latin responses, it took months of training by the priest, usually after school, to learn all the finicky rituals associated with what is now known as the Tridentine Mass.
For instance, all Masses began with a regimental-like procession of priest and servers to the altar which ended with the priest removing his biretta and handing it to a server. The biretta is a black square cap with three or four peaks, sometimes surmounted by a tuft. The server had to receive the biretta in a particular way, with one of the peaks inserted between his first two fingers, and then place it on a credence or side table. And God help you if you got in wrong! After beginning with ‘In nomine Patris et Fili …’ the priest would intone from one of the Psalms: ‘introibo ad altare Dei’ (I will go to the altar of God) and the servers, in unison, would respond ‘ad Deum qui leaetificat juventutum meam (to God the joy of my youth). This would then be followed by us reciting the lengthy Confiteor (I confess) in Latin, which included striking our breasts when we reached ‘mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa’ (through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault’). Throughout the whole of the Mass, the congregation uttered not one word …
All of this comes to mind when I hear the Gospel according to St John which we’ve just heard. At every Mass I served back then, up to 1963/64 when it began to be celebrated in English (and was known as the People’s Mass), this Gospel text, in Latin, was recited by the priest at the end of every Mass. It was referred to as the Last Gospel and began …
In principio erat Verbum, et Verbum erat apud Deum, et Deus erat Verbum … (In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.)
The priest read the whole of this text from a framed card, mounted on the altar, just like this one which I have kept from those days and is mounted inside the presbytery hall door …
Of the four Gospels, St Mark’s begins with the baptism of Jesus and a voice declaring him to be God’s Son. Matthew and Luke begin with stories of Jesus’ birth and infancy. St John goes back in time to the very first words that open the Bible – in the beginning … in principio … He does thisto present Jesus as existing with God from the very beginning of time, becoming incarnate or taking on human form on earth, being rejected ‘by his own’ only to eventually be raised in glory.
He describes Jesus as ‘the Word [who] was made flesh, [he] lived among us and we saw his glory, the glory that is his as the only Son of the Father …’
The easiest way to understand what John means by referring to Jesus as the Word is to think of how and why we use words or language. At the moment, I am using words to convey my thoughts about the Gospel to you. Words are my means to communicate with you. In John’s Gospel Jesus is presented as THE means God uses to communicate with us. So he refers to Jesus as the WORD or human expression of the mind of God, the channel used by God to enter into a relationship with us. So the Word (Jesus) ‘became flesh’ (took on human form) for God to relate with us in a way we would understand and thus be drawn into the life of God.
In the first reading the author presents Wisdom as an attribute of God that resides in the Law given by God to Moses and his people. This Law is the Wisdom of God that guides people in how to live. For St John, Christ is the embodiment or personification of this Wisdom: he is the Wisdom or Word made Flesh, who dwelt amongst us.
Holy Name, Jesmond
3 January 2021