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).1 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.2 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.”3 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).
The Ambo, Naturally…
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.”5
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.6 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 twentieth-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.”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.8
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.”9
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.10 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.
Table of Contents
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.11 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.
Holy Mountain, Sacred Stone, Empty Tomb
In scripture, mountains or other raised areas are clearly linked to contact with God: Moses received the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai, the Temple was built on Mount Moriah, the Transfiguration happened on Mount Tabor, and the Ascension at the Mount of Olives. Similarly, mountains can signify places from which human beings proclaim the Good News, as in Isaiah 40:9, where the “herald of good tidings” is told to go up to a high mountain and say to the cities of Judah “behold your God!”12 Christ gave the teaching of the Beatitudes by going up a mountain (Mt 5:1) and is described in the Gospels as going up a mountain to pray (Mt 14:23, Lk 6:12) and taking the disciples up a mountain to appoint the twelve apostles (Mk 3:13, Lk 6:13).
The sacramentalization of this holy mountain in the liturgical setting has traditionally been made present by raising the ambo up a number of steps, as several of the earliest existing Roman examples attest. St. Germanus of Constantinople (died c. 730), whose On the Divine Liturgy has proven a rich source for the mystical meaning of the sacred liturgy, described the ambo as a mountain situated in a flat and level place, citing Isaiah in two places: “on a bare hill raise a signal” (Is 13:2) and the aforementioned “behold your God!” Centuries later, William Durandus (d. 1296) extended the notion of the ambo as symbolizing the life of the perfect, those held up in public for emulation, just as scripture speaks of the life and works of the apostles, prophets and Christ.
Germanus also mentioned the ambo as manifesting “the shape of the stone at the Holy Sepulchre” described in Matthew 28. In this passage, the angel who rolled away the stone then sat upon it and proclaimed the news of the resurrection for the first time to Mary Magdalene and the women with her, noting that the tomb was empty and Jesus had risen (Mt 28: 1-7). The ambo, then, can be seen as the sacramental imitation and continuation of this singularly important Gospel message. Architect Dino Marcantonio has aptly analyzed many existing early ambos as fundamentally circular in plan,13 arguing that the stone that was rolled away from the tomb of Christ was then laid flat and became the first of the “holy mountains” from which was proclaimed the Risen Christ. As Marcantonio put it: “It is as though the disc-like stone of the Holy Sepulchre has itself been raised up so the priest standing upon it might more perfectly imitate the angel at the Tomb proclaiming the Gospel.” Likewise, the news of Christ’s resurrection corresponds not only to the stone but to the empty tomb, which the angel asked the women to come and inspect (Mt 28:6). The empty space below an elevated ambo has been compared to the empty tomb, while the ambo’s design richness speaks of the glory of the good news of the resurrection.14
Unlike an altar, which has numerous theological meanings and many explanatory references in the Church’s liturgical books, practical directions for the design of an ambo are given in very general ways and in a relatively few places. The Introduction to the Lectionary for Mass simply notes that “there must be a place in the church that is somewhat elevated, fixed, and of a suitable design and nobility” (LM 32). An elevated ambo corresponds with both the practical considerations of being seen and heard as well as the theological concepts of the holy mountain and sacred stone. Similarly, 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. Moreover, “nobility” carries significant theological import as well. The word “noble” has grown in modern parlance as a shortening of the English word “knowable,” which itself finds its origin in the Latin word noscere, meaning “to know.” So something that is noble is actually “knowable,” meaning that it reveals what it is at the level of its identity. Consequently, a noble ambo will indeed be one which indicates the importance of the proclamation of the resurrection.
The ambo makes its particular contribution to the symbol system of the rite much in the way particular people contribute as members of the Mystical Body of Christ. In every case, it does its particular part in revealing the eschatological glory that all liturgical things share. Through history, therefore, ambos have included precious metals, mosaics, colored marbles and even gemstones to indicate the jewel-like radiance of heaven. Ornaments which grow from the nature of the ambo itself might include the cross, symbols of the gospel writers, other saint evangelists, angels as mystical announcers of the message of the resurrection, or ornamental patterns of leaves and flowers indicating both the garden of Christ’s tomb and the garden of the New Earth anticipated in the liturgy. More than a lectern and more than a pulpit, an ambo gives a glorified visual amplification of the minster of the word who sacramentalizes Christ himself speaking to his people. Christ speaks the word to the ear through the sacramental mediation of his minister. The ambo shows the importance of that word to the eye.
Denis R. McNamara is Associate Director and faculty member at the Liturgical Institute of the University of Saint Mary of the Lake / Mundelein Seminary, a graduate program in liturgical studies. He holds a BA in the History of Art from Yale University and a PhD in Architectural History from the University of Virginia, where he concentrated his research on the study of ecclesiastical architecture of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. He has served on the Art and Architecture Commission of the Archdiocese of Chicago and works frequently with architects and pastors all over the United States in church renovations and new design. Dr. McNamara is the author of Catholic Church Architecture and the Spirit of the Liturgy (Chicago: Hillenbrand Books, 2009), Heavenly City: The Architectural Tradition of Catholic Chicago (Liturgy Training Publications, 2005), and How to Read Churches: A Crash Course in Ecclesiastical Architecture (Rizzoli, 2011).
FAQs on the Ambo
Q: What’s the difference between an ambo and a lectern?
A: The terminology for the ambo is sometimes used loosely and interchangeably, though there is a certain consensus on the use of the words today. Below is a handy glossary for understanding the meaning of each word.
Bema: In ancient Greece, a raised platform for public speeches or legal proceedings. In Judaism, a raised platform for public reading of the Torah. In many Eastern Christian traditions, the raised platform of which the entire sanctuary is comprised.
Lectern: In the Western Church, a relatively small and unadorned stand or desk for cantors or announcements outside of the liturgical proclamation of scripture.
Pulpit: Properly speaking, a raised platform used for preaching rather than the proclamation of scripture. Today, many older pulpits are used for the Liturgy of the Word and are therefore used as ambos.
Ambo: In the Latin Church, a fixed, raised and noble place for the liturgical proclamation of scripture and further commentary in a homily. In many Eastern churches, the area of the bema in front of the holy doors which projects forward into the nave.
Q: Is there to be only one ambo in a church? Some older churches appear to have two.
A: The Church’s liturgical documents do not specifically legislate the number of ambos in a church, though they always speak of the ambo (singular) and not ambos (plural). Before the Second Vatican Council many churches which proclaimed the Mass readings in Latin from their ambos on special occasions had one ambo for the Epistle and one for the Gospel. Therefore certain liturgical documents even up to the mid-1960s spoke of “the ambo or ambos.” Today, though, the unity of the word of God proclaimed in scripture is typically emphasized by the use of a single ambo, typically located in the sanctuary on the liturgical “south” side of a church, that is, to the left of the altar as seen from the pews.
- Here the General Instruction echoes Sacrosanctum Concilium, paragraph 7: “He is present in His word, since it is He Himself who speaks when the holy scriptures are read in the Church.”
- For more on the mystagogical catechesis of the altar, see Denis McNamara, “Altar as Alter Christus: Ontology and Sacramentality,” Adoremus Bulletin, May 2016.
- Lectionary for Mass, Introduction, 4. Hereafter referred to as LM.
- See Socrates of Constantinople, Ecclesiastical History, Book VI, chapter v.
- The Catholic Encyclopedia, 1913, entry “Ambo,” accessed at www.newadvent.com.
- “Pulpit,” New Catholic Encyclopedia (New York: McGraw Hill, 1967).
- Benedict XVI, Sacramentum Caritatis, 64. Italics original.
- See the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1075. “Liturgical catechesis aims to initiate people into the mystery of Christ (It is ‘mystagogy’) by proceeding from the visible to the invisible, from the sign to the things signified, from the ‘sacraments’ to the ‘mysteries.’”
- “Order for the Blessing of a New Lectern,” Book of Blessings, 1173.
- From De Benedictionibus, “Ordo Benedictionis Occasione Data Auspicandi Novum Anbonem,” (no. 900): “Ambo seu locus e quo verbum Dei annuntiatur, eiusdem verbi dignitati respondere debet et in fidelium memoriam redigere mensam verbi Dei semper esse paratam.”
- “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).
- For a translation of Germanus’ On the Divine Liturgy, see Paul Meyendorff, St. Germanus of Constantinople on the Divine Liturgy (St. Valdimir’s Seminary Press, 1985).
- Dino Marcantonio, http://blog.marcantonioarchitects.com/parts-of-the-church-building-the-ambo.
- Daniel McCarthy, OSB, “The Ambo of Westminster Cathedral,” Westminster Record, November 2015, 12.