Those readers who are older (that is, my age) will recall that at the conclusion of the old Latin Mass the celebrant went to the left hand side of the altar and read the opening verses of the Gospel according to St. John from a framed card placed there. Popularly labelled “The Last Gospel” and scripturally known as “The Prologue,” this passage contained verses 1-14 of St. John’s gospel account. The Last Gospel’s most well-known phrase is perhaps the words repeated in the Angelus: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” At these words in the old Mass the celebrant as well as the congregation genuflected.
Like so much of the old Mass, reciting the Last Gospel was a private devotion that gradually crept into the regular liturgy. Often read at a child’s baptism and at extreme unction, people sometimes requested that it be read at house blessings and priests began to recite it as part of their prayers after Mass. For those who could not memorize all fourteen verses, the handy card was eventually placed on the altar. Note that the Last Gospel was recited after the priest had uttered the dismissal words, “Ite, missa est – Go, the Mass is ended.” As Adrian Fortesque, the noted nineteenth liturgist observed, its place in the liturgy was indeed “accidental.” Nonetheless the Last Gospel or more properly the Prologue is a profound act of faith in both the Divinity and the humanity of Jesus Christ – which is why its words became an object of popular piety and of priestly devotion. They are still a fine tribute at Christmas.
Over the course of the two thousand year history of Christianity there have been many heart-felt and much-argued discussions concerning the Divinity of Jesus Christ as Son of God and Second Person of the Blessed as well as opinions about the humanity of Jesus Christ as son of Mary and member of the Jewish people. Although long forgotten now, the Arian heresy maintained that Jesus Christ was not God but an offspring of God, a demi-god, a heavenly being more excellent than man but inferior to the Father. Such Arianism affected a vast amount of the clergy and the laity in the middle of the Church’s first millennium. No words from Scripture could put this mistaken notion to rest more quickly than the opening words of the old Last Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.” So the Word, Jesus Christ, “was God,” and “he was in the beginning with God.” Christ was not an after-thought, a lofty creature, a demi-god. Christ indeed “was God.” By reciting these Biblical words, whether through private devotion or at a public liturgy, clergy and laity were making an act of faith in the Divinity of Christ so powerfully stated in the Nicene Creed: “true God from true God, begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father.”
While some believers were denying the Divinity of Christ other believers through the centuries have argued against the humanity of Christ — and not once but several times. The Manicheans in the era of St. Augustine and the Albigensians in the time of St. Dominic hated the material universe. They understood all matter, all flesh, all corporeal reality, to be evil. The body led mankind to sin; the soul was mankind’s only noble attribute. Therefore the excellent Jesus Christ, the Savior of mankind, could not possibly have been a full human being with a sordid human body like the rest of mankind. Jesus’ body was an illusion, an apparition, a mere teaching device to convey the Gospel message. These heretics denied the true human nature of Christ. Jesus was never really a man. It was all a pretense. Again the memorable, terse words of St. John’s Prologue dispel all doubt about the authentic human nature of Jesus Christ: “And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” The Greek word for flesh “sarx” used by St. John and the Latin word for flesh “caro” employed by St. Jerome could not be more down to earth. The derived English word “carnal,” as in carnal knowledge, is indeed earthy. And this is precisely St. John’s point: Jesus was earthy — just like the rest of the human race!
Appropriately the Church has selected the Prologue to St. John’s Gospel account, the old Last Gospel, as the main Gospel passage for the Third Mass of Christmas, the Mass offered during the day. All believers are invited to make an act of faith in the Divinity and the humanity of Jesus Christ on this merry day!