Movement of Missal during mass

Church Movement and Sacred Space Terms – Gospel side/epistle side

Someone asked me the other day “Why do we move the missal from one side to the other?” It has to do with movement from the epistle side of the altar to the gospel side of the altar. What follows below is from a blog post by the Liturgy Guy.[1]

“Unlike in the New Mass, where the Liturgy of the Word (Old Testament, Epistle, and Gospel) are all read from the ambo, in the Traditional Mass both the Epistle and Gospel are read at the altar by the priest. However, while the Missal sits on the right side of the altar for the first reading, the server moves the Missal to the left side for the proclamation of the Gospel. This brief procession, in which the altar server may also be joined by a thurifer and torch bearers, can be an act of liturgical mystery for the newcomer.

In his pre-conciliar classic, The Latin Mass Explained,[2] Monsignor George Moorman helps to explain the meaning behind this moving of the Missal from right to left:

After the reading of the Gradual or Tract, the server carries the Missal to the left (or Gospel) side of the altar. According to an old custom, church and altar should be erected in such a manner that the priest faces the East (ad orientem) when offering Mass. If this custom is followed, the priest will face toward the North when reading the Gospel. As the South, with its luxuriant vegetation, was regarded as a type of the realm of grace, so the cold North, with its extensive wastes, came to be regarded as the realm of evil…But when the Gospel of Christ was preached, the face of the earth was renewed, and love for God and for virtue was re-enkindled in the hearts of men.

As with many liturgical practices that have organically developed over the centuries, the symbolism behind this traditional practice has other meanings as well. Msgr. Moorman explains another such one:

The Jews, to whom the “Gospel of the Kingdom” was first preached, rejected it. It was then carried to the Gentiles. This is symbolized by carrying the Missal to the other side of the altar. Transferring the Missal from one side of the altar to the other also recalls to our minds how Our Lord was led about from one iniquitous judge to another.

This traditional understanding behind the moving of the Missal from right to left can also be found in the 19th century classic The Catechism Explained[3] by Father Francis Spirago:

The Epistle, the carrying across of the missal, the Gospel and the Creed, are to remind us that the Gospel was first preached to the Jews, and being rejected by them, was proclaimed to the Gentiles, many of whom believed and were baptized.”

In the Ordinariate we continue this tradition of moving the missal from the Epistle side to the Gospel side and the Gospel is read from the ambo, or carried in procession and read from the middle of the nave.  These liturgical actions are not remnants of a decaying past, but a lived reality where movements, and symbols, have real meaning.

The Last Gospel[4]

Immediately after the Last Blessing the priest goes to the Gospel side of the altar. There he says, “[The Lord be with you],” and makes the Sign of the Cross on the altar, and then on his forehead, lips, and breast. This is just as he did at the first Gospel.

As we make the Sign of the Cross on our forehead, lips, and breast, we can have the same thoughts as we did before the first Gospel. We want our minds to know about Our Lord and His teachings. We want our voices and tongues to make them known. We want our hearts to love them. We know we prove our love for the teachings of Our Lord by putting them into practice in our everyday life.

On most days, the Last Gospel is the same. It is the first fourteen verses of the Holy Gospel written by St. John. Parts of the Last Gospel are given at the beginning of this lesson. Sometimes there is a special Last Gospel. You can tell when this special Last Gospel is being read. The altar boy moves the Missal from the Epistle to the Gospel side of the altar. The priest always reads a special Last Gospel from the Missal . The first fourteen verses of the Gospel of St. John are printed on the card on the Gospel side of the altar.

These fourteen verses from the Gospel of St. John speak about Our Lord. They tell that He is God. They also tell that He became man. The priest and people bend their knees to adore Our Lord, God made man. They do so at the words of the Last Gospel, “And the Word was made flesh.”

In the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass Our Lord Jesus Christ, Who is God, has been made flesh again.

At the end of the Last Gospel [we] say, “Thanks be to God.”  …  With the priest they have been thinking of Our Lord, Who is God. They know how He came again upon earth in Holy Mass. He has been the victim of the Holy Sacrifice just offered. He has been our gift to God. He became our food. Yes, He became food for our soul. For these reasons we say, “Thanks be to God.”

Below is an explanation of sacred space within the church and where everything is in the church.

*Note: The map below uses a liturgical compass. When the faithful in the Nave face the Altar, they face Liturgical East, where the sun rises and the day begins, representing the Resurrection and a new creation. Christ died on the cross and rose from the dead in the near East, and at the end of time, the Lord will come to Earth from the East.

The Sacristy is the area where the sacred vestments, vessels, and linens are stored, and the ministers prepare to celebrate a liturgical action. In the Sacristy there is a special sink which drains straight into the earth, and not the sewer. This drain is called the Sacrarium. It is used to dispose of old Holy Water, holy oils, and leftover ashes. The words Sacristy and Sacrarium are derived from the Latin word Sacer, which means “sacred.”

The Sanctuary is the holy place where the ordained celebrate the sacred mysteries. The word Sanctuary is derived from the Latin word sanctus, which means “holy.” Aside from being the place of the Altar, the Sanctuary is also the place where the Tabernacle, the receptacle which holds the Blessed Sacrament, is kept. A Sanctuary Lamp is kept lit to indicate and honor the presence of the Eucharistic Christ in the Tabernacle.

The Apse is a five-sided architectural structure which surrounds the rear of the Sanctuary. The word Apse derives from the Latin word apsis, which means “arch or vault.”

The Ambulatory is the walkway behind the high altar. Ambulatory is derived from the Latin word ambulo, which means “I walk.”

The Ambo is the podium from which both the Gospel and other Scripture readings are read aloud. Ambo is derived from the Latin word ambi, which means “both.”

The Ambry is a receptacle that houses the holy oils (Chrism Oil, Oil of the Sick, Oil of Catechumens). Ambry is derived from the Latin word armarium, which means “closet.”

The Altar of Sacrifice is the mensa (table) on which the one bloody sacrifice of Calvary is offered in an unbloody manner and the Body and Blood of our Lord is made present. It sits on a platform called the predella.

The Chancel is the platform in front of the Foot of the Altar (the Foot is the first step leading up to the Altar). The word Chancel is derived from the Latin word cancellus, which means “sing.” The area in front of the Foot of the Altar is the area from where the sacred ministers would chant the liturgy.

Altar Rails
The Altar Rails divide the Sanctuary from the Nave. They are marks of separation around which the faithful can gather.

The Crossing is the domed area where the Nave, Chancel, and Transepts (the two arms of a cross- shaped church building) intersect.

The Nave is the area where the faithful assemble to sit, stand, or kneel as called for in the rubrics. From the Latin word for ship, navis, the assembled faithful are on a ship, as it were, a vessel that keeps them safe on their journey to Heaven. The Nave may contain confessionals, pews, holy water fonts, and stained glass windows that depict Saints or scriptural events. It might also contain clearstory windows, placed high above for the purpose of letting in natural light.

When in the Narthex, the faithful are not yet technically inside the church. In the early Church, penitents and catechumens (unbaptized persons preparing for Baptism) were confined to this area until their reconciliation with or admittance into the Church took place.



[3] A free e-book available in many different formats

[4] Adapted from: The Kingdom of God series The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass by Ellamay Horan


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