The ambo and the Word of God
By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter
KANSAS CITY - The "ambo," a word which has replaced the word, "pulpit" in the lexicon of the Catholic Church, is the raised platform for reading and preaching which is an important liturgical component. Whether simple or ornate, it is still the place for the proclamation of sacred readings.
Marty Denzer/Key photo
The ambo and the preaching cross preach a silent sermon about the Word of God near the altar on Visitation Church's predella.
In a series of First Friday retreats at Visitation Church, sponsored by the parish's Faith Formation Team, parishioners have been exploring some of the art and architecture of the new Visitation church, as part of their year of dedication. The retreat on Feb. 4 explored the ambo, its construction and its place in church history.
Bishop Raymond J. Boland of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph led the 50 people present on a journey through time and place as he discussed the ambo.
The word "ambo" is a Greek derivative meaning "to mount or ascend," he said. Over the centuries, other words including "legitorium," "tribunal" and "analogium" have sprung into use and died away. There is some linkage between the platform used for scripture services in a Jewish synagogue and modern ambos, particularly since they are used for the same purpose, Bishop Boland said.
Both in sacred and secular history there are many examples of unique and special places used to deliver important messages, he said.
"Moses ascends a mountain to listen to God, and Jesus gives us the Sermon on the Mount, known as 'the Beatitudes.' In a reading from Nehemiah usually used in church dedications (Nehemiah 8:1-4a, 5-6, 8-10), Ezra stands on 'a wooden platform made for the occasion' so that he was higher up than any of the people. He showed them 'the book of the law' and explained it from that vantage point."
One of Luke's Gospels "chronicled Jesus asking Peter to position his fishing boat some distance from the crowed shoreline so that he could more easily address his audience" and no doubt that they could identify his person with the wisdom of his teaching, the bishop said.
In more modern times, millions of people have patiently waited, rain or shine, for the pope to deliver the Angelus message, the annual "urbi et orbi" blessings and other messages. And also in Rome, Mussolini delivered his political rhetoric from a balcony overlooking the Piazzo San Marco.
In November 2000, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops approved the document "Built of Living Stones," which included the "General Instruction of the Roman Missal." In it the ambo is described as "The central focus of the area in which the word of God is proclaimed during the liturgy. The design 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."
Placing the ambo near the altar emphasizes the close relationship between the word of God and the Eucharist, it said.
Bishop Boland told the Visitation parishioners that the positioning of the ambo has varied over the centuries. Sometimes it was placed inside the sanctuary, often outside the altar rail, and in places of pilgrimage, it was frequently placed outside the church or shrine. Before the days of the microphone, the placement and height of the ambo was dictated by the power of the unaided human voice, he said.
The number of ambos varied also: At one time there was an ambo for reading the epistle, and a second ambo, usually more ornate, for the reading of the Gospel. Although even the Second Vatican Council spoke of two ambos, this thinking has been replaced by the current liturgical opinion that there is a unity in the word of God which is best served by the construction of one ambo. The design of the ambo often reflects the architecture of the church and, when not in use for readings or preaching, it preaches a silent sermon, Bishop Boland said.
The ambo at Visitation Church is located on the predella, or raised platform, with the altar and presider's chair. The hand-built ambo has a tulip-shaped base and is made of painted oak, rojo alicante marble (a red Spanish marble with white veins), and forged iron in a somewhat baroque design. It is surmounted by a 12-foot "preaching cross" of lindenwood, gesso and polychrome.
The ambo is especially associated with the proclamation of the Word of God, Bishop Boland said.
"When contemplating God and his word, we are dealing with the transcendent. Our human limitations preclude a direct and intimate contact, so we struggle with symbols to give some tangible reality to our faith."
The ambo occupies a consecrated place, the sacred texts are reverenced, and Catholics emphasize their belief by sacred ritual, he said.
Bishop Boland also discussed ways Catholics could participate more fully in the Word of God. Some of the ways included praying the rosary, reading the Bible, and family discussions of the Mass over breakfast.
Bishop Boland concluded his talk by saying, "Lent is an ideal time to get to know the word of God. After all they are the words that constitute the greatest love story of all time." Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the 40 days of Lent, was to fall on Feb. 9.
Six First Friday retreats were planned to help Visitation parishioners get to know their new church home, said Peg Ekerdt, pastoral associate.
Parish staff, parishioners, Benedictine Abbot Gregory Polan of Conception Abbey and Bishop Boland have led retreat participants through history, art and scripture in discussing the baptismal font, the Blessed Sacrament chapel, the catafalque, the reconciliation room, the altar and the ambo. The final retreat is planned for March 4. Benedictine Father Benedict Neenan, rector of Conception Abbey, will talk about the sun and moon windows in the church.
Ekerdt said the retreat will be open to anyone interested in participating.