How are we to understand the silent prayer after the Gospel at Mass: “Per evangelica dicta, deleantur nostra delicta: By the words of the Gospel may our sins be blotted out”? How does the reading of the Gospel blot out our sins? The brilliant German novelist Martin Mosebach in one of the essays in his rather idiosyncratic book on the Liturgy uses this prayer as an argument for having the Gospel read in Latin: the reading of the Gospel is much more than proclamation; in it Christ becomes present, and it thus as the character of a sacramental an efficacious, sin-forgiving blessing. (Häresie der Formlosigkeit, 2nd. ed. 135) I have no problem with reading the Gospel in Latin, but I think that Mosebach’s argument tends to muddle the distinction between sacramental and sacrament a bit. We say a sacrament is efficacious “ex opere operato,” from the work done, but a sacramental “ex opere operantis,” from the work of the doer. Mosebach seems to be wanting the sacramental to work like a sacrament: as if it were irrelevant whether one understood the words of the Gospel for them to have their effect. In the case of a sacrament this is clear; Ronald Knox famously remarked, on being asked to use the vernacular for a Baptism, “the baby doesn’t understand English and the Devil knows Latin.” But in the case of a sacramental this is not at all clear.
Although the subtitle of Mosebach’s book is “On the Roman Liturgy and its Enemy” its spirit is rather Byzantine than Roman. I think this is manifest in many parts of the book, but perhaps nowhere so clearly as in the place just cited. For Byzantine theology does not distinguish between sacraments and sacramentals. There is an old Russian story which gives gives a kind of exaggerated version of what Mosebach seems to be thinking: A monk gives a drunkard a copy of the Gospel in Church Slavonic, and advises him to read it whenever he wants a drink, but the man assures the monk that he does not understand Church Slavonic and the book can be of no use to him.
But the monk went on to assure me that in the very words of the Gospel there lay a gracious power, for in them was written what God himself has spoken. ‘It does not matter very much if at first you do not understand. […] If you do not understand the Word of God, the devils understand what you are reading and tremble […] St. John Chrysostom writes that even a room in which a copy of the Gospels is kept holds the spirits of darkness at bay and becomes an unpromising field for their wiles.’
Now, I don’t want to deny that there might be something to all this, Chrysostom is a strong authority, but it is hardly likely that this typically Byzantine enthusiasm is what the Roman Liturgy is referring to with “per evangelica dicta…” The Roman tradition places great emphasis on attention to the liturgically proclaimed word, “ut mens nostra concordet voci nostrae” (Regula Benedicti XIX,7). Even one of the most Byzantine-spirited Latin theologians, the “Origen of the 20th century,” H. U. von Balthasar, is very Roman when it comes to this question. Like Origen himself Balthasar occasionally makes a really good point:
It is essential to listen [to the word] obediently and with full attention, not least as a means of purification and preparation for holy communion ("You are made clean by the word which I have spoken to you" [Jn 15:3]; "Per evangelica dicta deleantur nostra delicta"). This attention is therefore necessary as a liturgical act, i.e., an act pertaining to the worship of the whole Church. Consequently it is wrong to isolate this act, which can only be a personal act, and as such makes ready for the sacramental act of holy communion, and to sacramentalize it, ascribing to it a kind of ex opere operato effect which is totally foreign.
The contact which we have with the Word in the Gospel is a preparation for the union which we will have with Him in through the Sacrament, which is itself a foretaste of the union which we will have with Him in the Beatific Vision.
The contact with him in the Gospel is the contact of faith. Blessed Columba Marmion’s Christ the Life of the Soul is largely concerned with how the contact that we have with Christ through faith is the foundation of the spiritual life and our adoption as sons. Thus when the Gospel is proclaimed in we come into real contact with the Light of the world, who reveals to us our sin and blots it out on condition that we believe:
For God so loved the world, as to give his only begotten Son; that whosoever believeth in him, may not perish, but may have life everlasting. For God sent not his Son into the world, to judge the world, but that the world may be saved by him. He that believeth in him is not judged. But he that doth not believe, is already judged: because he believeth not in the name of the only begotten Son of God. And this is the judgment: because the light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than the light: for their works were evil. For every one that doth evil hateth the light, and cometh not to the light, that his works may not be reproved. But he that doth truth, cometh to the light, that his works may be made manifest, because they are done in God. (Jn 3:16-21)