Going up the mountain in church

By Patricia Kasten | The Compass | October 20, 2017

The ambo at church is about more than readings

Is your church located on a mountain? Or maybe a hill?

Even if it isn’t outside your church, there is a mountain inside.

The most important piece of furniture in any church is the altar. Near the altar is the tabernacle, where the Blessed Sacrament is kept.

After that, the next most important piece of furniture in church is the ambo, from which the readings and Gospel are proclaimed.

Over the centuries, this ambo has moved, changed in size and even been called by different names. Today, you can still hear the words “lectern,” “pulpit” and “ambo,” used interchangeably.

Only one can move

However, a lectern is a portable device and is not the correct term for the place where the Word of God is proclaimed. It is the more appropriate term for the stand used by the cantor when he or she is near the choir, as well as a place from which announcements are made.

An ambo should not move. (It can be “moveable,” but is meant to stay in a usual spot.) As Denis McNamara, who teaches at the Liturgical Institute at Mundelein Seminary, notes, “An ambo is fixed to the floor for the same reason an altar is fixed: in each case, the permanence of Christ amidst his people is indicated by immovable liturgical furnishings.”

The name “ambo” comes from the Greek ambon for “step” or “elevation” — of even “mountain.” Later, it became known as “a pulpit” (from a Latin word meaning “platform.”)

Technically, a pulpit was a place set aside for preaching, but not for proclaiming scripture. However, this became blurred historically and pulpits were, for a long time, used for both preaching and for reading the sacred texts.

In the early days of the Christian church, the bishop did not preach from a pulpit or an ambo, but from his chair, the cathedra. This was because teaching from a chair was what all teachers in the ancient world did. No one is quite certain when the ambo was first used, but the “Catholic Encyclopedia” says it was around the fourth century. Early ambos stood near the choir, which stood to the left of the altar in the sanctuary.

Up above

Most sources note that St. John Chrysostom, the fourth-century Archbishop of Constantinople and a renowned preacher, was among the first to use the ambo for preaching. Since preaching often took a lot of time and included lessons and not just proclaiming, pulpits became separated from the sanctuary and grew to be quite elaborate on their own. Pulpits were often placed well above eye level, accessed by stairs and covered with a sound-reflecting canopy. This was so the preacher could be seen and heard by everyone.

Many pulpits were heavily ornamented, covered with symbols of Christ or the four evangelists. The “Catholic Encyclopedia” notes that the most ornate pulpits were designed in the Baroque period of the 17th century and cites the pulpit in the Brussels’ Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula where “the banishment of Adam and Eve from paradise is carved underneath the pulpit, while, in contrast, the Mother of God is represented above the sounding-board as a mighty female warrior and slayer of the dragon.”

Even when the ambo had given way to the pulpit, the pulpit was also used for proclaiming the Word of God. It became common for a subdeacon to leave the sanctuary to read the epistles from there, while facing the altar. The deacon would then proclaim the Gospel, also from the pulpit, but facing toward the people.

This variety of positions for different purposes needed to be accommodated. This was done in various ways — sometimes there were two sets of stairs to the pulpit. Other places had a double pulpit, with one above the other. This is also why some churches separated pulpits — one to the left of the altar (the epistle side) and one to the right (the Gospel side.) This, however, was never a liturgical requirement.

Eventually, though, the pulpit fell from prominence — at least among Catholics — and all the readings were handled by the priest at the altar. He would read from his left side for the epistles, and turn to the right to proclaim the Gospel.

After liturgical reforms following Vatican II, the importance of the ambo was restored. As the “General Instruction for the Roman Missal” notes: “The dignity of the Word of God requires that in the church there be a suitable place from which it may be proclaimed and toward which the attention of the faithful naturally turns during the Liturgy of the Word” (n. 309).

However, shadows of famous preachers like John Chrysostrom standing in elevated pulpits still remind us that, from the ambo, we hear the words of the prophets — like Moses and Elijah — who went up to the mountain to hear God.

And the most important role of the ambo is for the words of Jesus, the very Word of God. From here, we hear Jesus’ parables, his lessons, his Sermon on the Mount and, of course, his words on Calvary. In this way, the mountaintop experience of God is brought tangibly into the church setting at the ambo — our own holy mountain.

Rolled away

This going up the mountain aspect of the ambo is also, as the eighth-century St. Germanus of Constantinople noted, a reminder of resurrection. The ambo is raised up in a prominent spot in the sanctuary, just as the stone, rolled away from the tomb, became a raised platform for the Easter angel.

Marcantonio Architects of New York note in their blog about church architecture that a review of classic ambos of Eastern-rite churches shows that the platform of an ambo is often round.

“It is as though the disc-like stone of the Holy Sepulchre has itself been raised up,” they note, “so the priest standing upon it might more perfectly imitate the angel at the tomb proclaiming the Gospel.”

All this reminds us of what the bishops of Vatican II said in their document on the sacred liturgy: “Christ is always present in his church, especially in her liturgical celebrations. … He is present in his word, since it is he himself who speaks when the holy scriptures are read in the church.”

Just as Christ taught from the Mount of the Beatitudes, he continues to speak today from the mountain in your church, at a place we call the ambo.


Sources: Vatican.va; the “Catholic Encyclopedia”; the “Catholic Dictionary”; the “Encyclopedia Britannica”; Myjewishlearning.com; marcantonioarchitects.com; Frmilovan.wordpress.com; “General Instruction of the Roman Missal”; adoremus.org; “Built of Living Stones”; preachersinstitute.com; and ewtn.com


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