The Church, the Ambo and the Word of God (1 of 3)

The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) makes a striking claim: “[W]hen the Sacred Scriptures are read in the Church, God himself speaks to his people, and Christ, present in his word, proclaims the Gospel” (no. 29, echoing Vatican II’s Sacrosancum Concilium).

This high theology of sacramental revelation runs consistently through the Catholic liturgical worldview: human beings encounter heavenly realities through the mediation of earthly matter. At the top of this pyramid of sacramental mediation stands the Eucharist, the very Presence of the ineffable God taking a form that humans can see, touch and eat.

But church furnishings take part in this sacramental economy as well. The altar, for instance, represents Christ as the Anointed One standing amidst his people. Similarly, the ambo is more than a reading desk that conveniently holds liturgical books. It signifies and magnifies the importance of the “living and effective” word of God proclaimed in the liturgy, through which Christ “sanctifies humanity and offers the Father perfect worship,” according to the introduction to the Lectionary for Mass.

According to the mind of the Church, the ambo extends in the visual realm the mission of the proclamation of the sacred scripture which “expresses the Father’s love that never fails in its effectiveness toward us” (LM 4).

In its Greek original, the word ambon (ἄμβων) simply means a rim or raised area. A raised platform called a migdal, frequently translated as “pulpit” in scripture, is mentioned in the Book of Nehemiah (8:4), and Solomon is recorded as having constructed a bronze platform upon which he stood at the consecration of the Temple (2 Chron 13). Over time, though, the term acquired its current meaning as a reading desk used in the liturgical setting. Perhaps the earliest written record of the ambo in ecclesiastical history comes from Canon 15 of the Council of Laodicea (c. 363), which spoke of those who sing from the ambo. Similarly, the fourth-century Church historian Socrates of Constantinople speaks of St. John Chrysostom mounting an ambo to preach.4

The use of the ambo grew widespread through next eight centuries before eventually declining. The 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia included an entry on the ambo by name and summed up the arc of the use of the ambo succinctly: “[T]hey were first introduced into churches during the fourth century, were in universal use by the ninth, reaching their full development and artistic beauty in the twelfth, and then gradually fell out of use.”

The 1967 New Catholic Encyclopedia noted that the term “pulpit” was gradually being replaced by the term “ambo” because the new Order of Mass of Vatican II directed that “the Service of the Word be not at the altar” but at the ambo. Here lies the essential distinction considered so important in the liturgical reform of the twentieth century. Pulpits, properly speaking, were primarily used for preaching, and developed in the late Middle Ages as a place separate from the proclamation of scripture.

The 20th-century development of liturgical theology included a new awareness that the readings of the Mass were meant to be proclaimed and not reduced to a silent recitation by the priest at the altar. The same entry in the New Catholic Encyclopedia noted with a certain sense of regret that the architecturally significant ambos of the early Church had been reduced “to a mere bookstand on the altar.” When this public proclamation of scripture was “rediscovered,” the ambo was rediscovered as well.

The Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy reestablished the importance of the liturgical proclamation of scripture by framing it theologically as part of the liturgical action of Christ: “He is present in His word, since it is He Himself who speaks when the holy scriptures are read in the Church” (SC 7). Later, paragraph 24 took the notion even further: “Sacred scripture is of the greatest importance in the celebration of the liturgy. For it is from scripture that lessons are read and explained in the homily and psalms are sung; the prayers, collects, and liturgical songs are scriptural in their inspiration and their force, and it is from the scriptures that actions and signs derive their meaning.”

The homily, too, was directed to be an expounding of the Word of God which “should draw its content mainly from scriptural and liturgical sources, and its character should be that of a proclamation of God’s wonderful works in the history of salvation, the mystery of Christ, ever made present and active within us, especially in the celebration of the liturgy” (SC 35).

Then word “ambo,” then, is a richly charged term. It signifies the rediscovery and return of the liturgically-celebrated proclamation of Christ’s presence in the scriptures to the people of God. It is no mere functional bookstand, but holds significant theological import as a signifier of the importance of scripture itself. Accordingly, it is a reserved place, one used exclusively by ministers of the Word. The GIRM explains how an ambo is to be used: “From the ambo only the readings, the responsorial Psalm, and the Easter Proclamation (Exsultet) are to be proclaimed; it may be used also for giving the homily and for announcing the intentions of the Prayer of the Faithful” (309).

The very reservation of the ambo to specific use is one way of indicating the importance of the scriptures proclaimed. But an ambo’s design can also lead a viewer to understand its purpose as a thing which reaches into the heavenly future and renders it present to us now. It then begins to contribute to a kind of visual mystagogical catechesis which is always concerned with “bringing out the significance of the rites for the Christian life” (Benedict XVI Sacramentum Caritatis No. 64).

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

Image: Esin Üstün, Flickr.

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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.