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Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Why Sacred Space and Furnishings Matter

Among Verbum Domini's fascinating insights into the Liturgy and the Word, the Holy Father offers some interesting commentary on sacred space, furnishings and environment.   Pope Benedict XVI writes that:

In order to facilitate hearing the word of God, consideration should be given to measures which can help focus the attention of the faithful. Concern should be shown for church acoustics, with due respect for liturgical and architectural norms. “Bishops, duly assisted, in the construction of churches should take care that they be adapted to the proclamation of the word, to meditation and to the celebration of the Eucharist. Sacred spaces, even apart from the liturgical action, should be eloquent and should present the Christian mystery in relation to the word of God”.[238]

Special attention should be given to the ambo as the liturgical space from which the word of God is proclaimed. It should be located in a clearly visible place to which the attention of the faithful will be naturally drawn during the liturgy of the word. It should be fixed, and decorated in aesthetic harmony with the altar, in order to present visibly the theological significance of the double table of the word and of the Eucharist. The readings, the responsorial psalm and the Exsultet are to be proclaimed from the ambo; it can also be used for the homily and the prayers of the faithful.[239]

The Synod Fathers also proposed that churches give a place of honour to the sacred Scriptures, even outside of liturgical celebrations.[240] It is good that the book which contains the word of God should enjoy a visible place of honour inside the Christian temple, without prejudice to the central place proper to the tabernacle containing the Blessed Sacrament.[241]
Reading through this section of Verbum Domini calls to my mind the immense reverence that Ancient Israel had for the Ark of the Covenant and the Holy of Holies.  The Ark of the Covenant contained the stone tablets of the Law of Moses, the rod of Aaron and the manna from heaven.  Prior to the Babylonian invasion that resulted in the destruction of Solomon's Temple, the Ark of the Covenant was housed in the Holy of Holies, the most sacred part of the massive structure built by King David's son.  It was a space so revered that only the high priest could enter it once a year.   Even pagan temples such as those dedicated to Athena (in Athens) and Artemis (in Ephesus) had easily recognizable sacred spaces.  Pilgrims visiting these Grecian shrines believed that they were in the presence of the "immortals". 

In our Catholic churches, the sanctuary is sacred space.  It contains the Altar of Sacrifice and, in most cases, the Tabernacle, our true Ark of the Covenant.  It also contains something else, a podium-like structure called the Ambo where the Word of God is both proclaimed (in some cases, chanted) and preached.   Ancient Israel had immense respect and reverence for the Word of God.  In the synagogue, the scrolls of the Torah were kept in a special place, unrolled with great care and proclaimed with devotion.  The Church, the New Israel, maintains this respect and reverence for the Word of God.  That is why it is important that the furnishings from which that Word is proclaimed and preached should be of the highest quality.  It should be in harmony with the Altar for both the Ambo and the Altar are inseperable.  We are fed from both these sacred furnishings.  We are fed by "every word that comes from the mouth of God."  We are fed by the Word, Himself, Jesus Christ. 

It is something, though, that we take for granted.  It seems that for not a few of us, the proclamation of the Word of God may seem like an after-thought during the Mass.   It's either time time where some of us whip out the pen and checkbook and write a check for our weekly offering, think about what we are going to do after Mass or just simply let our minds wander, especially if we encounter a particularly difficult reading that we cannot quite understand.  We don't realize that we are missing a wonderful opportunity for our souls to be fed by God's very Word.  We tend to ignore what is happening at the Ambo. 

The Ambo is not just a podium.  It is the place where we listen to God speak to us.  Those same words proclaimed out of the Lectionary and the Book of the Gospels are not mere history lessons reminding us of things past.  These words are meant for our hearing as well.   If we really pay attention to the readings, we will find that the same situations that Ancient Israel faced (despair, longing, hope) and the problems that St. Paul wrote about (jealousy, anger and even liturgical abuse) are similar to what we are experiencing today.  In the Gospel, Jesus continues to confront us with things that we need to hear and to invite us to love Him in return.  The story of Zaccheus is not just some isolated moment in Jesus' life.  We are all Zaccheus because we, too, are in need of conversion.  All of us are those 10 lepers who sought healing from Jesus because in our case, our disease is sin.  The Ambo helps orient us and draw our attention to the Word of God.

Regarding the Holy Father's suggestion of giving the Sacred Scriptures a privileged place in the Sanctuary apart from the Mass, I believe it is a good idea that should be explored.   One parish in San Antonio, St. Francesco di Paola, alread does this. 

The Book of the Gospels occupies a special place in the sanctuary, flanked by two candles.   It is located right in front of the altar, but, it does not obscure it.  This serves as an excellent reminder that the Church honors the Word of God, displaying it with the dignity and the reverence that it deserves.

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