From a reader…
Father, I have read that the reason the Gospel was read on the altar’s right was a symbol of the priest preaching to the north where lived the pagan barbarians. Do you know if this is true? Thank you
I’ve, too, have heard that.
First, just so we have our compass bearing, if Mass is celebrated ad orientem (facing liturgical East), then the left side of the altar (as you face it) is North.
Some of the things we do and we and wear during Holy Mass started out with practical origins and then, later, developed symbolic meanings. There’s nothing wrong with maintaining something because of the symbolism that was acquired later.
As far as the shifting of the Gospel book from the right (as you view the altar) to the left is concerned, there are various explanations.
St. Alphonsus de Liguori explained the shifting of the book is really about the movement of the priest from the Jews (right-side as you view the altar), who rejected the Gospel, to the Gentiles (left-side), who accepted it.
Adrian Fortescue thought believed that chanting the Gospel to the North was a carry over into the Low Mass from the Solemn Mass. In Solemn Mass there is a procession of the deacon and the subdeacon away from the altar to some place either in the sanctuary (if large enough) where the Gospel is sung to the North. Sometimes the procession goes out the gates into the nave. Ancient ambos, tall triangular structures with stairs on each side, were away from the altar on the South side of the nave or choir area. The deacon would ascend and sing the Gospel to the North (from the South side).
The liturgical scholar Joseph Jungmann, writing in Missarum Sollemnia, thought the move to a new place was influenced by the position of the bishop’s cathedra or throne. Also, he suggests that perhaps the change came from the desire that the deacon to face the men, rather than the women, in the days when they sat on different sides of the church.
In any event, this is what we do in the older, traditional form of Holy Mass.
Finally, I’ll note that preaching to the LEFT is indeed preaching to barbarians. So, maybe our symbol-hungry forebears were on to something.