Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: Recently I have seen churches with two lecterns. In some of them the Gospel is read from one, and the rest of the readings are read from the other. I have been searching the liturgical documents to know what the liturgical directives is concerning the use of two lecterns in a church. — G.O., Madras, Oregon
A: With respect to the ambo the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) says the following in No. 309:
“The dignity of the word of God requires that the church have a place that is suitable for the proclamation of the word and toward which the attention of the whole congregation of the faithful naturally turns during the Liturgy of the Word. It is appropriate that this place be ordinarily a stationary ambo and not simply a movable lectern. The ambo must be located in keeping with the design of each church in such a way that the ordained ministers and lectors may be clearly seen and heard by the faithful. 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. The dignity of the ambo requires that only a minister of the word should go up to it. It is appropriate that a new ambo be blessed according to the rite described in the Roman Ritual before it is put into liturgical use.”
The U.S. bishops’ document “Built of Living Stones” is based on the indications of the GIRM but adds some further details:
“61. The central focus of the area in which the word of God is proclaimed during the liturgy is the ambo. The design of the ambo and its prominent placement reflects the dignity and nobility of that saving word and draws the attention of those present to the proclamation of the word. Here the Christian community encounters the living Lord in the word of God and prepares itself for the ‘breaking of the bread’ and the mission to live the word that will be proclaimed. An ample area around the ambo is needed to allow a Gospel procession with a full complement of ministers bearing candles and incense. The Introduction to the Lectionary recommends that the design of altar and ambo bear a ‘harmonious and close relationship’ to one another in order to emphasize the close relationship between word and Eucharist. Since many people share in the ministry of the word, the ambo should be accessible to everyone, including those with physical disabilities.
“62. Our reverence for the word of God is expressed not only in an attentive listening to and reflection upon the Scripture, but also by the way we handle and treat the Book of the Gospels. The ambo can be designed not only for reading and preaching, but also for displaying the open Book of the Gospels or a copy of the Scriptures before and after the liturgical celebration.”
Therefore, current legislation generally foresees a single ambo. The word “ambo” stems from a Greek term which refers to any elevated construction designed as a means to allow whoever read or sang to the faithful to be easily understood.
In early Christian churches, when the office of cantor was intimately linked to the liturgy, the ambo often consisted in a double structure erected in the middle of the nave in front of the area of the sanctuary occupied by the choir. The ambo on the right was higher and more elaborate with stairs on both sides; it was used for the proclamation of the Gospel or by the bishop for preaching. The Easter candle was also placed here. The one on the left was smaller. It was divided into two levels; on the lower one was the singer of the gradual responsorial, on the higher the reader of the epistle.
Several examples of this double ambo have survived from the fifth century to the present day. In Rome they can be found at St. Clements, St. Sabina and St. Lawrence Outside the Walls.
For many complex and diverse reasons — for example, the decline of preaching during Mass, the choir being moved closer to the sanctuary, and the altar moving toward the apse — such ambos were no longer built or were even demolished. Over time they were partially replaced by the pulpit, although the pulpit was usually located closer to the center of the nave and its function was primarily for preaching outside of Mass.
In most Masses the priest would proclaim the readings from the altar, moving the missal from the left to the right sides of the altar as a reminder of the ancient ambos.
After the Second Vatican Council, with its emphasis on the importance of the Word of God in the celebration, the ambo once more has become an important place within the sanctuary.
There is nothing in the official documents to warrant the restoration of the double ambo to churches, although it would not seem to be forbidden. On some occasions in papal Masses in St. Peter’s Square two temporary ambos have been used. However, in the basilica itself a single ambo, habitually located near the high altar, has been used for several years.
To build a double ambo today would appear to be somewhat archaeological and unnecessary, although it might fit in well with some church designs. It could also be used if a smaller lectern were not used for the proclamation of God’s word but reserved for other functions such as commentaries, directing song, or using sign language for the hearing impaired.
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