The entire room stared at me. They had never heard this before. I saw a spark in their eyes grow into a bright light.
I was just explaining the ambo.
Do you know what an ambo is? Most people don’t. In a Catholic church, the ambo is one of the most important and meaningful furnishings representing Christ’s threefold identity. Ambos continue an ancient practice, mirroring the Jewish synagogue. They are sacred places reserved for God’s Word. But for most people? The ambo is just a podium or pulpit, where a “reader” stands.
A while ago, when I was asked to give a ‘crash course’ in lectoring to my parish youth ministry team, I realized how much profound, beautiful meaning has been lost on almost every Catholic, related to the first part of Mass. Now is a perfect time to learn more. Until January 10, the Church still celebrates the Christmas Season, when God’s Word became flesh.
We often hear about the flesh of God during Mass… but what about the Word? How much are you missing? Let’s get a taste!
Go up onto a high mountain,
Zion, herald of good news!
Cry out at the top of your voice,
Jerusalem, herald of good news!
Cry out, do not fear!
Say to the cities of Judah:
Here is your God!
– Isaiah 40:9
The word ambo comes from the Greek for an elevated or high place, such as a mountain. Elevated places have always been associated with the proclamation of God’s word. Remember Moses bringing the Commandments down from the mountain? Or Jesus preaching the Sermon on the Mount? You will find dozens of similar examples in Scripture.
If you’ve ever visited a Jewish synagogue, you’ve seen the bimah, which is the ancestor of the Christian ambo. (Bimah and ambo are the same word, just in different languages.) The bimah is the elevated platform from which the Torah is read. As early as the Book of Nehemiah (400’s B.C.), people stood on a bimah and read God’s words for all the people to hear.
So, the next time you see this at your parish, think about what an ancient tradition you are witnessing!
For Christians, the ambo is particularly important. As I mentioned, it is one of three key furnishings within the church building that represent Christ’s threefold identity: priest, prophet, and king. When we are baptized, each of us is “incorporated into Christ who is anointed priest, prophet, and king” (Catechism CC, no. 1241). The altar represents Christ as priest, the presider’s chair represents Christ as king, and the ambo represents Christ as prophet.
This is why, especially in older cathedrals or basilicas, the ambo is not only a simple ‘podium’ but actually juts out into the congregation’s seating. This represents Christ the Prophet who goes out to the people, proclaiming the Good News!
The official instruction manual for Mass confirms how important this part of the Mass truly is:
When the Sacred Scriptures are read in the Church, God himself speaks to his people, and Christ, present in his word, proclaims the Gospel. Therefore, the readings from the Word of God are to be listened to reverently by everyone, for they are an element of the greatest importance in the Liturgy. – GIRM, no. 29
Typically, the person who reads the Scriptures during Mass is called a lector. This word comes from the Latin which means “chosen reader”. Consider all that we’ve learned about the Scriptures’ amazing role during each Mass. It may not surprise you, then, to discover that Lector is not just a job description, but is actually a ministry instituted by the bishop.
On a typical Sunday, you would probably hear a priest see me and say, “Oh, hi, Angela. Are you the lector today?” That use of “lector” is actually shorthand, because I am not an instituted Lector.
However, a dear friend of mine, Brother Sean Stilson, BBD, is truly a Lector. He received the ministry of Lector from Archbishop Gustavo almost two years ago, because he is a seminarian on the way to becoming a priest. It is most appropriate for instituted Lectors to proclaim the Scriptures during Mass* because of the importance, sacredness, and tradition in that moment. However, when instituted Lectors are not available, the Church appoints lay people (like me) to proclaim the readings. *The Gospel reading is the exception. As the highest point of the Liturgy of the Word, it is proclaimed only by a deacon or priest.
My responsibility to proclaim the Scriptures during Mass has deepened my love and appreciation for Scripture—an appreciation which developed naturally in my childhood and progressed as I grew. Every day, I spend time with the Scriptures. They are ancient stories of my spiritual family. They are my heritage as a Christian. The Scriptures are God’s living words; every time I read them, they pierce my heart and speak to me about my life and identity.
I hope and pray that this little “confession” of mine will entice you to learn more about the Scriptures, both inside and outside your parish walls. After many years of study, I am still learning!
What treasures await us!