Jesus Christ Is Present at Mass: In the Eucharist, In His Word (2 of 3)

At Mass, Jesus Christ is present in “the eucharistic sacrifice of His Body and Blood” and he “is present in His word, since it is He Himself who speaks when the holy scriptures are read in the Church,” the Second Vatican Council proclaimed in its Constitution on Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium, No. 56 and No. 7).

In designing an ambo, the practical, functional needs are presumed to be taken into account, but after mere functionality, mystagogical catechesis comes into play. A simple lectern, for instance, by its nature indicates the idea of a book holder and stand. A properly designed ambo reveals something more: the deep, interior meaning of the importance of the proclamation of scripture. The architect’s choices either help or hinder the process of being led from the external signs to the realities of Christ’s own word. Here in a nutshell is the concept of “mystagogical catechesis:” a Christian is meant to encounter the realities of God by seeing earthly “signs” and be lead through them to encounter the heavenly realties which break through (see the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1075).

Instructions given in liturgical books typically first establish the nature of liturgical things by laying out foundational practical considerations. The GIRM, for instance, gives the eminently practical direction that there be an ambo in a church and that it should be located in a place where the attention of the faithful naturally turns during the Liturgy of the Word (309). The Book of Blessings continues where the GIRM leaves off, noting that the ambo must be “worthy to serve as the place from which the word of God is proclaimed and must be a striking reminder to the faithful that the table of God’s word is always prepared for them” (Order for the Blessing of a New Lectern,” Book of Blessings, 1173).

The concept of a “striking reminder” indicates that an ambo should somehow claim the viewer’s attention and give clarity to the importance of the word proclaimed. The Latin text of the blessing of an ambo from the Book of Blessings does not use the word “striking,” but rather the verb redigere, indicating that it should redirect or render present in the memory of the faithful that this table of the Word is always ready. Indeed the concept of mystagogical catechesis is embedded in this phrase; the external signs should lead to the realities of the mystery. Growing from the nature of proclamation of the scriptures, the ambo has acquired several symbolic meanings which can provide helpful in understanding their design: table of the Word, holy mountain, sacred stone, and empty tomb.

Because Christ is present in the scriptures proclaimed and he himself proclaims the Gospel through his earthly minister, the Church makes it clear that the reading of scripture is indeed a liturgical act, not simply a classroom lesson before the Eucharistic Prayer (“The celebration of Mass in which the word is heard and the Eucharist is offered and received forms but one single act of divine worship,” LM, 10). In liturgical celebrations, the realities of salvation history are not offered as reminders only, but are “presented anew as mysterious realities” (LM 7), making them effective in the life of their hearers. Under the working of the Holy Spirit, the Church aspires that “what we hear outwardly [may] have its effects inwardly” (LM 9).

The presence of Christ in scripture should not, however, be seen as competitive with the Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Indeed, the presence of Christ in the scriptures, while important, is held in great reverence precisely because it leads to the Eucharist. The Introduction to the Lectionary for Mass notes that preaching the word is necessary for proper participation in the sacraments because they are “sacraments of faith, and faith is born and nourished from the Word” (LM 10). Understanding and believing in the Eucharist, for example, is rooted in Christ’s life, death and resurrection, which believers know from hearing the word proclaimed. While the scriptures do not substitute for faith in the Eucharist, they provide a role so critical that the Church offers the following phrase: “The Church has honored the word of God and the Eucharistic mystery with the same reverence, although with not the same worship, and has always and everywhere insisted upon and sanctioned such an honor” (LM 10).

The Church gives a poetic and thorough description of this relationship between word and sacrament: “The Church is nourished spiritually at the twofold table of God’s word and of the Eucharist: from the one it grows in wisdom and from the other in holiness. In the word of God the divine covenant is announced; in the Eucharist the new and everlasting covenant is renewed. On the one hand the history of salvation is brought to mind by means of human sounds; on the other it is made manifest in the sacramental signs of the liturgy” (LM 10).

Logically, then, the trend of recent church design which relates the design of the ambo to the altar through material and ornamental motifs is a positive outgrowth of this rediscovery of the relationship between word and sacrament. The Church asks quite conspicuously that the ambo be designed to indicate the “harmonious and close relationship of the ambo with the altar” (LM 32). And just as an altar indicates Christ in his eschatological glory, similarly this care should be extended to the ambo.

Part 1: The Church, the Ambo and the Word of God

Part 2: Jesus Christ Is Present at Mass: In the Eucharist, In His Word

Part 3: Holy Mountain, Sacred Stone, Empty Tomb

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Denis McNamara

Denis R. McNamara is Associate Professor and Executive Director of the Center for Beauty and Culture at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan. He was previously Associate Director and Associate Professor at the Liturgical Institute of Mundelein Seminary in the Archdiocese of Chicago. He is the author of Heavenly City: The Architectural Tradition of Catholic Chicago and Catholic Church Architecture and The Spirit of the Liturgy.