Lighted Candles at the Lectern

Author: Father Edward McNamara


Lighted Candles at the Lectern

ROME, 27 SEPT. 2005 (ZENIT)

Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University.

Q: It is becoming increasingly common to see lighted candles burning at the lectern during the Liturgy of the Word. Is this appropriate? Could you please indicate the correct use of candles at a parish Sunday Mass? — O.M., Christchurch, New Zealand

A: I have observed this practice in some places but there is no mention of it in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM). Nor does it form part of liturgical tradition.

Candles are traditionally brought to the ambo only for the reading of the Gospel and usually accompany the procession of the Book of the Gospels from the altar to the ambo. Certainly all Scripture is God's Word, but the Gospel has traditionally received special veneration.

GIRM, No. 60, says:

"The reading of the Gospel is the high point of the Liturgy of the Word. The Liturgy itself teaches that great reverence is to be shown to it by setting it off from the other readings with special marks of honor: whether the minister appointed to proclaim it prepares himself by a blessing or prayer; or the faithful, standing as they listen to it being read, through their acclamations acknowledge and confess Christ present and speaking to them; or the very marks of reverence are given to the Book of the Gospels."

And later in GIRM 133:

"If the Book of the Gospels is on the altar, the priest then takes it and goes to the ambo, carrying the Book of the Gospels slightly elevated and preceded by the lay ministers, who may carry the thurible and the candles. Those present turn towards the ambo as a sign of special reverence to the Gospel of Christ."

In earlier centuries the differences between the Gospel and other readings was even more emphasized, including reserving a special and highly decorated ambo for the Gospel readings. This can still be seen in some ancient churches such as Rome's St. Lawrence Outside the Walls.

The practice of placing permanent candles at the ambo tends to blur the special role of the Gospel and, as Monsignor Peter Elliott mentions in his "Liturgical Question Box," could also tend to "overemphasize the distinction between the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist, to the point of symbolically separating the two phases of the one liturgy."

Regarding the use of candles in general, GIRM 117 specifies:

"[O]n or next to the altar are to be placed candlesticks with lighted candles: at least two in any celebration, or even four or six, especially for a Sunday Mass or a holy day of obligation. If the Diocesan Bishop celebrates, then seven candles should be used. Also on or close to the altar, there is to be a cross with a figure of Christ crucified. The candles and the cross adorned with a figure of Christ crucified may also be carried in the Entrance Procession."

An open question remains regarding the use of unlit candles during a celebration. Certainly the liturgical books do not envisage the use of any unlit candles during a celebration and some authors hold that this implies that unlit candles should not be placed on or near the altar.

It is also true, however, that this is not always a practical or aesthetical possibility. Many churches use candlesticks with several branches; in other cases they form a set with the altar and ambo and can also be quite heavy or even fixed to the floor.

In churches that practice perpetual adoration it seems rather much to insist that candles used during exposition be removed for the duration of Mass. It is surely enough to snuff the extra candles and relight them after Mass.

For such reasons I tend to hold a more flexible position on this point. ZE05092721

* * *

Follow-up: Lighted Candles at the Lectern [10-11-2005]

Some interesting questions emerged from our piece on ambo candles (Sept. 27).

A Massachusetts reader asked: "I have attended a liturgy where the altar servers carried two candles in procession and placed them at the ambo. The candles were then brought to the altar upon the conclusion of the homily or Prayers of the Faithful. In my church, the candles are already lit at the ambo and then blown out after the Prayers of the Faithful so as to focus on the Liturgy of the Eucharist. Is this correct?"

The candles on or near the altar are usually lit before Mass, and thus the processional candles accompanying the Gospel during the entrance procession and proclamation should normally be distinct from the altar candles. The processional candles are usually left on the credence table or another convenient place in the sanctuary while not in use.

However, some places do have the custom of placing the processional candles on or near the altar after the entrance procession, and, provided they are not the only candles present, it does not appear to go against the liturgical norms. All the same, the use of distinct processional candles seems liturgically preferable and avoids awkward movements near the altar.

Likewise, the torches that accompany the thurifer while incensing the Sacred Species during the consecration should, in principle, be different from the processional candles. These latter may, however, accompany the thurifer in smaller parishes with fewer ministers.

The question regarding blowing out the candles after the Liturgy of the Word is somewhat moot, for, as we mentioned in our previous column, the practice of permanent candles at the ambo, lit or unlit, does not correspond to Catholic liturgical tradition.

While liturgical inventiveness still abounds, we need to remember that the most pastorally effective use of symbols remains that foreseen in the liturgical books. Arbitrarily changing the symbols, even with the best of intentions, inevitably conveys a different message to that desired by the universal Church.

Regarding the ambo in general, a Tennessee correspondent asked: "Can we read announcements from the ambo at the end of Mass?" A Kansas reader asked for comments on the following practice: "In our parish lectors have been instructed to approach and make a profound bow to the ambo before proclaiming the word. Further, upon concluding the readings we are instructed to make another profound bow to the ambo and return to our pew. We have been specifically instructed not to acknowledge or genuflect in the direction of the tabernacle which is recessed to the left rear of the ambo."

The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM), No. 309, states: "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."

Thus all other commentaries, announcements and similar activities should be carried out from another suitable place.

The indication of not making a genuflection or other gesture toward the tabernacle during the celebration of Mass is correct and in conformity with GIRM 274: "If, however, the tabernacle with the Most Blessed Sacrament is present in the sanctuary, the priest, the deacon, and the other ministers genuflect when they approach the altar and when they depart from it, but not during the celebration of Mass itself."

The bows toward the ambo — or in other places toward the altar or even toward the celebrant — at the beginning and end of the reading are not prescribed in the liturgical books. They probably arise from a sense of natural courtesy and reverence, especially when the lectors enter from the pews or do not participate in the entrance procession.

Finally, a Winnipeg, Manitoba, reader asked about the origin of the word "ambo."

According to one authoritative dictionary it appears that the word is of medieval Latin origin and probably derives from the Greek "ambon" — a raised rim, or pulpit. It thus referred to either of the two raised pulpits from which the Gospels and epistles were read in early Christian churches. ZE05101122

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