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Why is the Gospel Read from the Left Side of the Altar?


Someone attending the Traditional Latin Mass for the first time will immediately be struck by several noticeable differences from the New Mass. From the (near) exclusive use of Latin, to the direction of the priest (ad orientem), to a greater emphasis on silence and kneeling, the newcomer soon realizes that there is much ritual contained within the old Rite. This ritual is often replete with symbolism and liturgical meaning. The reading of the Gospel on the left side of the altar is no exception.

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, 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 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.

As the Latin Mass continues its resurgence, and more of the faithful are able to avail themselves to the old Rite, may they learn to understand and fully appreciate the great ritual and symbolism of the traditional liturgy.

[Photo credit: Patrick Craig]

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