The Altar

The Altar of Sacrifice

The word “altar” connotes a raised or high place (we see in Scripture the equivalent expressions “table,” “Lord’s table,” and “place of sacrifice”), a place of consecration and sacrifice, where God meets man. It is a symbol of God’s presence. 

Gregory of Nyssa makes it clear: “This altar whereat we stand is by nature only common stone, nothing different from other stones, whereof our walls are made and our pavements adorned; but after it is consecrated and dedicated to the service of God, it becomes a holy table, an immaculate altar.” 

We see this in the Bible. Noah built an altar to God (Gen.8:20), as did Abraham (Gen.12:8) and Solomon (2 Chron. 4:1). The central feature of the Temple was the altar of sacrifice. In the upper room the table used at the Last Supper becomes an altar. In Revelation the heavenly altar is described; “underneath the altar the souls of those who had been slaughtered because of the witness they bore to the word of God” (Rev.6:9). This is not just evidence of the Church’s practice in the first century but becomes a model. The altar marks not only the place of the Lord’s sacrifice, but the tombs of martyrs and saints as well. We see in the early Church enormous efforts made to construct altars and churches directly over the graves of the holy ones. The basilicas dedicated to Peter and Paul are the most important examples of the growth of this practice. 

Given the relatively fixed number of martyrs and the growing number of churches, pieces of relics were taken from their original tombs and given to new churches to be included in their altars. This practice continues. The altar is consecrated and marked with five crosses symbolizing the five wounds of Christ. Typically within the altar are sealed relics. 

The Ambo

The word “ambo” comes from a Greek word meaning “step” or “elevation.” Since the 4th century Christians were accustomed to using a raised platform during Mass to chant or read the Epistle (typically a reading from St. Paul’s letters) and Gospel. Some historians believe it is connected to the platform used by Jewish rabbis to read the scriptures before the people. Spiritually it is derived from the action of Jesus when he “went up on the mountain, and … opened his mouth and taught them” (Matthew 5:1,2).

As the liturgy developed two ambos were put in place to distinguish between the Epistle and the Gospel. The Epistle ambo was placed on the southern side of the sanctuary, while the Gospel ambo was located on the northern side. Ambos were designed in various ways, always with a place for the book to be read with several steps leading up to it. By the 14th century the use of ambos was in a steady decline.

The Roman Missal

The Roman Missal is the book containing the prescribed prayers, chants, and instructions for the celebration of Mass in the Roman Catholic Church. Published first in Latin under the title Missale Romanum, the text is then translated and, once approved by a recognitio by the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, is published in modern languages for use in local churches throughout the world. 

In 2002, Saint John Paul II introduced a new edition of the Missale Romanum (editio typica tertia, the "third typical edition" [since the Second Vatican Council]) for use in the Church. Soon after, the complex work of translating the text into English began.

As the Church in the United States introduced the new edition of the Missal in late 2011, so too did much of the English-speaking world. In addition, the Missale Romanum, editio typica tertia is being translated into other languages for use by the the Church in other countries. The process of implementing a new edition of the prayers of the Mass is not new, but has occurred numerous times throughout the history of the Church as the Liturgy developed and was adapted to particular circumstances to meet the needs of the Church.

In the earliest centuries of the Church, there were no books containing prescribed liturgical prayers, texts, or other instructions.  Because the faith of the Church was (and still is) articulated in liturgical prayer, there was a need for consistency and authenticity in the words used in the celebration of the Liturgy.  Collections of prayers developed gradually for use in particular locations and situations such as for a particular monastery, for the Pope, or for other local churches.  Such collections were contained in libelli ("booklets") which over centuries were drawn together into larger collections of prayers.

The Ordo

Eventually larger, more organized collections of prayers were assembled into "sacramentaries" (liber sacramentorum or sacramentarium), which contained some, but not all, of the prayers of the Mass.  The earliest of these sacramentaries were attributed to Pope Leo I, "Leo the Great" (440-461), and Pope Gelasius (492-496), but surviving versions of those sacramentaries date from centuries later.  Other early manuscripts (such as the Ordines Romani) contained detailed descriptions of the celebration of the Mass with the Pope in Rome. 

Those written accounts may have gradually served as instructions or rubrics for the celebration of Mass in other settings.  Liturgical books grew as they passed from one community (a local church, a diocese, a monastery, etc.) to another, often with prayers added in margins or in blank spaces.  The process of sharing text was by copying by hand.  This was a laborious task which at times led to inconsistencies and errors.