Reflecting Heaven Part 10: The Ambo and the Altar of Sacrifice

06-30-2021Reflecting HeavenFr. Don Kline, V.F.

Over the past nine weeks, we’ve been exploring the various aspects of our current renovation project. Ultimately, the purpose of this project is to facilitate a closer relationship for each of us with Jesus Christ and His Church. Perhaps nowhere in the church is that relationship with Christ more clearly expressed than in the Altar of Sacrifice.

Last week we explored the progression of the pilgrimage from Baptism in the font up the center aisle to the Holy of holies, the Sanctuary itself. You will recall that the Sanctuary is the “nerve center” of the church, the focal point at which heaven and earth meet at each and every Mass.

There are only three furnishings that are present in every Roman Catholic Sanctuary in the world: the altar, the ambo (from which the word of God is proclaimed), and the presider’s chair. Many other furnishings might be present, but only those three are required in the Sanctuary by liturgical law. In this article we’ll examine the altar and the ambo.

Much can be learned about the altar from a study of the words and actions of the liturgy itself. One of the most beautiful and symbolically rich liturgies of the Church is the Order of the Dedication of a Church, celebrated when a church building is first used for Mass. The following passage is from the Liturgical Institute in Mundelein, Illinois, one of the world’s most solid centers of liturgical study.

For an excellent four-minute video on the altar, see Episode 26 at

“The altar is the central feature of every Catholic church. It is the most significant element in the church building. One can argue that the altar is even more significant than the tabernacle, since without altar, there is no reserved Blessed Sacrament.

The altar is the focal point of every liturgical celebration. The Church teaches us that Christ himself is the Victim; Christ is the Priest; Christ is the Altar of Sacrifice.

The Order of the Dedication of a Church can teach us much about the meaning of the altar. Until the altar is consecrated, it is treated as an inanimate object. At the beginning of this ceremony, the altar is ignored: there is no bow, no kiss, not even lighted candles. Before its consecration the altar is merely an object, a hunk of stone, a chunk of wood.

When it is put into service for the worship of God, the altar is first sprinkled with holy water. This constitutes a kind of washing or baptism; it is then anointed with Sacred Chrism [the oil used in Baptism, Confirmation and Ordination]. The altar is honored with incense, and it is dressed with a white cloth, analogous to the garment of the newly baptized. Candles are brought and, in the celebration of the Eucharist, the altar receives the Body of Christ. That altar, like the Christian at Baptism, is made another Christ. The altar is the permanent symbol of the presence of Christ for the Christian community.”

Note that the altar is a primary symbol of Christ himself in the Liturgy. That is why, whenever someone crosses in front of the altar during Mass, the Church calls for a profound bow in reverence to the altar. It is significant that, outside Mass, when the Blessed Sacrament is present in the tabernacle, we genuflect to Christ’s Real Presence in the tabernacle. But during Mass, the only genuflections to the tabernacle are when the priest is opening and closing it and at the very beginning and end of Mass. All other reverences by priest and people are made to the altar itself as a symbol of Christ. Usually that is a bow; the only genuflection is immediately after the consecration, when the Real Presence is actually there on the altar.

In general, then, we genuflect to the Real Presence of Christ; we bow to the symbol of Christ.

In the present renovation, our altar will not be a new altar. The “mensa,” or top surface, is the exact same as we had before. Therefore, the altar will not need to be re-anointed and rededicated.

The beautiful statues on near each corner of the altar are the patron of our school, St. John XXIII and the patroness of our parish, St. Bernadette. The center of the base of the altar is the familiar depiction of the Last Supper.

The Lectern vs. Pulpit vs. Ambo

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).

In a very well written article entitled: The Ambo: Launch Platform for the Word by Denis R. Mcnamara, he states that “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 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” (Lectionary for Mass, 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.

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.

In summary, the terminology for the ambo is sometimes used loosely and interchangeably today.

Below is a handy glossary for understanding the meaning of each word.

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.