The Ambo: The Open Tomb of Christ

Empty TombTry this on for size: the ambo from which we proclaim the Gospel and preach has its origins in the earliest days of the Church, as a sign of the open tomb of Christ from which the deacon would proclaim the Good News of salvation and new life.

In reviewing some material on early pioneers of the renewed diaconate, I came across this wonderful insight from an early promoter of the diaconate in Spain: Bishop Pere Tena Garriga, who passed away earlier this year.  He served as a renowned professor of liturgical theology for many years, was then the Secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments at the Holy See from 1987-2004, and also served as Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Barcelona from 1993 until his retirement in 2004.

Tena GarrigaShortly before his death, Bishop Tena Garriga was interviewed by Deacon Rob Mascini from the Netherlands, the former long-time President of the International Diaconate Center headquartered in Rottenburg, Germany. Deacon Mascini has now completed and published (in Dutch) a wonderful book on the international pioneers of the renewed diaconate and we are working to get it translated and published in English as well. Bishop Tene Garriga was one of those pioneers.

During the bishop’s interview, he recalled not only the ravages of global war and depression on Spain (as well as the rest of the world), but also the particular tragedies surrounding the Civil War and the horrors which still affect so many people in Spain. He spoke of the death of Franco in 1975 as a great “relief and memorable moment” for all in Spain. It was only at this point that the Church could truly rebuild itself in light of the Second Vatican Council, and one of the elements of that rebuilding was the renewed diaconate. As a theologian and later as bishop, Garriga was an early proponent of a renewed diaconate in Spain, following the lead of the Council Father and Cardinal-Archbishop of Barcelona, Narciso Jubany Arnau. Following the death of Generalissimo Francisco Franco in 1975, Jubany Arnau was central in his country’s transition from dictatorship to democracy. In 1977, he was instrumental in the formation of an interested group of priests and laity who became known as “The Friends of the Diaconate.”

Empty Tomb 2During the interview with Deacon Mascini, the retired bishop stressed the role of preaching as critical to the ministry of the deacon. He referred first to the ancient liturgies, often in the catacombs, in which the episkopos would celebrate Mass over the bones of the martyrs. The deacon, likewise, was directed by the bishop to proclaim the Gospel from an open tomb nearby in order to stress the fact that the Gospel leads us out of our own tombs and into new life. The bishop remarked, “Do you realize that the ambo of today represents the open grave of Jesus on Easter morning? The deacon filled the role of the angel who proclaimed the resurrection.” He continued, “Today in the old basilicas of Rome you can still see the high ambos where the deacons later proclaimed the Gospel. Next to the ambo stands the Easter candle, representing the risen Christ. It is also the place from which the deacon chants the Exultet. . . . He proclaims life and light for the communion he is part of, and who he serves. Together with his bishop, the deacon should lead the church in such a way that the concrete message of life is a constant source of hope. Rooted deep in the deacon’s ministry is a sacramental dimension that is essential for the Church.”

This idea of the ambo as a representation of the empty tomb of Christ on Easter is a stunning challenge to all of us charged with proclaiming the Gospel, not only during the Mass, but through our lives. It can also focus our preaching as the constant call to move from death to life for all the people we serve.

Over the years I have been writing about the reasons behind the renewal of a diaconate permanently exercised in the Church today. Repeatedly we have found that the inspiration for the diaconate is to be found in the concrete and often messy needs of very real people facing very real tragedies, horrors and terrors today. The diaconate did not emerge out of a theological theory or some abstract principle: our task is proclaim life in the face of death, hope out of despair, and meaning out of chaos. Understanding the ambo as representing the empty tomb of Christ should inspire us all.