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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!” 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, 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 (cf. Daniel McCarthy, OSB, “The Ambo of Westminster Cathedral,” Westminster Record, November 2015, 12).
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.
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.