The early liturgies of the Catholic Church included a special reverence of the Gospels for everyone present.
The tradition of kissing the Gospel at Mass is an ancient one with rich symbolism. Nikolaus Gihr in his book The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass explains, “The Book of the Gospels, or rather, the sacred text of the Gospels in general, represents our divine Savior Himself and was, therefore, ever (the same as the images of Christ) a subject of religious veneration … After having tasted and experienced in the Gospel how sweet the Lord is, how faultless His doctrine, how good and refreshing His consolations and promises, the heart of the priest overflows with happiness and joy, and he kisses the words of eternal life, in order to testify his profound reverence, his great and ardent love for them.”
The Second Vatican Council reiterated this belief that Jesus his present in a special way when his Word is proclaimed at Mass, “He is present in His word, since it is He Himself who speaks when the holy scriptures are read in the Church.”
This does not supersede Jesus’ Real Presence in the Eucharist, but is meant to remind us of the particular power of God’s Word.
With this in mind, it should not be surprising how early Christians desired to kiss the book of the Gospels when it was proclaimed at Mass. This was done to express their love of God and a recognition of his presence in his Word.
In a book on the Mass by Thomas Frederick Simmons, this history is explained by referencing various documents and other liturgies in the Eastern Church.
The Ordo Romanus describes the deacon, after he had read the gospel, as giving the book to the subdeacon, who thereupon held it before his breast above his chasuble to be kissed first by the bishop and clergy, and then by the people—”
In Greek churches the same rule is observed … the priest, as directed in the rubric, may be seen coming into the nave, and the gospels are kissed by men, women, and children of the congregation. Benandot quotes the rule of the Coptic liturgy, that the people should follow the example of the priests and kiss the book of the gospels when it was brought to them, after having been read.
This practice was prevalent in various regions up until the 13th century, when it became expressly reserved for the clergy in the sanctuary.
Catholics are still encouraged to kiss the Bible, however not in the context of the liturgy. It does make sense why the older tradition of allowing everyone to kiss the Gospel is no longer part of the liturgy, as it essentially would create another “communion line” and prolong the duration of the Mass.
Nevertheless, it is a beautiful tradition, one that recognizes the power of Jesus’ words in the Gospel.
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