ASK FATHER: Reading Gospel from the right, symbol of preaching to pagan barbarians

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.

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  1. Imrahil says:

    I’ve heard it doesn’t have so much directly to do with the fact that there were heathen barbarians in the north, but that (on the Northern Hemisphere) the sun never shines in the north, so: bring the light of the Gospel into the darkness.

    ’tis East we have the Sun arise,
    ’tis South where she’s her running wise,
    ’tis West we will her setting see,
    but North, that’s where she’ll never be

    and that’s exactly where the Gospel is preached to.

  2. Glennonite says:

    I think this topic is fascinating and important, however. Father, if I am facing east, then isn’t south to my right? Please correct my misunderstanding on this; I want to get this right.

  3. jazzclass says:

    If we are facing ad orientum and went to the Epistle (right) side we would be facing south, not north. No offense to you Father, but I think you have your compass bearing messed up.

  4. Alice says:

    If you are facing East, then North is to your left. A priest I knew who was raised in a Catholic/Lutheran home used to have the Old Testament Lesson and the Epistle read from an ambo on the Epistle side and read the Gospel on the Gospel side of his church. He had picked it up from going to church with his Lutheran parent and thought that the symbolism was important.

  5. iPadre says:

    I love the many symbols of the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite. They are “dripping like honey from the comb” with deep Liturgical spirituality.

  6. iamlucky13 says:

    “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. “

    Interesting. I’ve seen this done to the central aisle of the nave (although not very solemnly), where the Gospel is then read, in a few Ordinary Form Masses, and assumed it was an “innovation.” Since the GIRM requires readings to be done from the Ambo, I guess this is not presently allowed, but at least it has precedent within the Church.

    I assume there is similar background for the Gospel entrances in the Byzantine liturgy, which seem chock full of symbolism.

  7. Luvadoxi says:

    Father’s talking about the direction as seen from the congregation, not stage left or right. I think that’s where the confusion lies.

  8. Baritone says:

    One of our priests explained the movement of the missal to us basically as follows (paraphrasing):

    The Epistle side of the altar represents the Jews, and the Gospel side represents the Gentiles. The missal represents the Faith. The movements of the missal tell the story of the Faith throughout time.

    At the start of Mass, the missal is on the Epistle side of the altar, just as the Faith was first revealed to the Jews. In the fullness of time, Our Lord Jesus Christ came and was rejected by the Jews. The movement of the missal from the Epistle side to the Gospel side represents this rejection of the true Faith by the Jews and the subsequent acceptance of the Faith by the Gentiles. Near the conclusion of Mass, the missal is moved from the Gospel side of the altar to the Epistle side, signifying the rejection of the true Faith by the Gentiles and the final acceptance of the true Faith by the Jews at the end of time.

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