Recently I was at a meeting on liturgy when the subject of facing east was raised. One person at the meeting referred to the fact that the Holy Father has clearly stated his preference for facing east, or ad orientem, in the appropriate parts of the liturgy. I was not expecting an enthusiastic response (most present were well over 50 years of age) but I was still quite shocked was one priest started pulling mocking faces at the mention of the Holy Father’s preference and another then asserted that we need to beware of the “fads of popes, no matter who they are”.
“The fads of popes”. Apart from the clearly disrespectful tone of such a remark, what engaged my attention was the number of questions such a remark raised. Can popes have fads when it comes to teaching on liturgy and theology? Why is it that the fads of certain liturgists can be so readily accepted but the alleged fads of popes so firmly resisted? More importantly, how can the universal practice of Latin and eastern Christendom for the best part of 1900 years be reduced now to a “fad”?
So rather than rant, it seems more fruitful to look very briefly at the ad orientem issue, that is, of facing east in the liturgy. The first thing to note is that it has never actually been abolished! The change in the late 1960s was to permit Mass with the priest facing the people, versus populum, without ever restricting the right to face east. Indeed in the rubrics of the new Mass it was clearly assumed at the Offertory that the priest had been facing east, for they specify that after the washing of the hands, the priest then “stands at the centre of the altar, facing the people” before he invites them to pray for the acceptance of the sacrifice. Why specify this all of a sudden unless it was assumed that until this point the priest had not been facing the people? This same specification, “facing the people” occurs again before the priest shows the Host to the people after the Agnus Dei, and again after the prayer after communion and before he gives the final blessing. Clearly the rubrics assume that the priest has been facing east.
Facing east is a most ancient and venerable tradition in Christian liturgy. It is pregnant with meaning. At the time of the early Church Jews spread throughout the world would turn towards Jerusalem, whatever direction that might actually be for them, in order to link their prayer to the worship of the Temple. By contrast Christians prayed facing east, towards the New Jerusalem, the coming of which they awaited and towards which they were spiritually journeying. Facing west was to face the evil of this world. Thus in the early baptismal liturgies described by St Ambrose or St Cyril of Jerusalem, among others, the one about to be baptised first faced to the west to renounce Satan and all his works, and then turned around (conversus in Latin) to face east to profess faith in Christ, that is physically “converted” his or her body as a symbol of turning to Christ, of spiritual conversion. For such a congregation to face west for worship would have been scandalous!
The east is, of course, the direction of the rising sun, a symbol of the incarnation of Christ, as well as Christ’s rising from the dead and of Christ returning at the end of time – “the tender mercy of our God, the morning sun which will rise upon us” (Luke 1:78). So it was clearly appropriate that priest and people all faced east for worship of God and Christ. The celebration of the Eucharist is not only a commemoration of a past event and a renewal of the Christ’s sacrifice on Calvary, but it is also a preparation for a future event, the Second Coming of Christ – “as we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Saviour, Jesus Christ” (the prayer after the Our Father at Mass). Thus St John of Damascus could write:
…the Lord Himself said, “Even as the lightning comes from the east and shines to the west, so also shall the coming of the Son of Man be”. So, then, in expectation of His coming we worship towards the East.
What should be clear from all this is that the Mass, and all worship, is not about us. We might do it, but our object and focus is God. I remember hearing constantly in the 80s the fashionable (faddish, perhaps?) liturgists (usually amateur, to be fair) proclaiming that “liturgy” was a “celebration of community”. In Christian terms this could not be more wrong. We celebrate the glory of God and God’s love for us in Christ, and not ourselves. Self-celebration is an insidious form of narcissism which breeds self-satisfaction. If we are satisfied with ourselves, if we are just fine to the point that we can celebrate ourselves, what need is there for repentance, ongoing conversion and God’s grace? The most potent symbol of such a tendency is found in standing around the altar in a circle – everyone faces each other, and the circle is in effect an enclosure which excludes everyone outside the circle. The dynamics of this, the message it conveys, can hardly be Christian.
When the priest and people are all facing east, and the altar from one side, then the dynamics change, and the focus can more clearly and more easily be placed on God. We are united facing the Lord, even those who come in late at the back of the Church or are too bashful to join the celebratory altar-circle. Moreover, the burden of the subtle expectation that the priest has to entertain the people is removed. It is very difficult when facing a group of people from the front, and usually from an elevated position, not to feel that the focus is on the priest. This surely explains why so many priests feel the need to be constantly talking – all these people focused constantly on them. How many times have we heard mini-sermons at the beginning of Mass as the priest explains the readings, a task which is meant to happen at the homily.
And more disturbingly, at the altar itself during the Eucharistic prayer, it is not unusual to see priests show the Host or chalice to the people as they say the words of consecration “Take this all of you…”. The physical dynamic has the unconscious effect on them of making them feel they are talking to the people when in fact the Eucharistic prayer is addressed to the Father! If ever there was a disruption of the meaning and essence of the liturgy it is when this happens.
Occasionally one still hears the argument that it is good for the people to see what is going on at the altar. But really, what is there to see? Physically not much is happening, the actions are few and discreet. And if the people do not know by now what is happening at the altar they never will.
In 2009 the Bishop of Tulsa, Oklahoma in the USA, restored Mass facing east in his cathedral. In explaining his move he wrote:
Unfortunately this change [ie the priest facing the people at the Eucharistic prayer] had a number of unforeseen and largely negative effects. First of all, it was a serious rupture with the Church’s ancient tradition. Secondly, it can give the appearance that the priest and the people were engaged in a conversation about God, rather than the worship of God. Thirdly, it places an inordinate importance on the personality of the celebrant by placing him on a kind of liturgical stage…. [Facing east] ought not to be misconstrued as the Bishop “turning his back on the faithful,” as if I am being inconsiderate or hostile. Such an interpretation misses the point that, by facing in the same direction, the posture of the celebrant and the congregation make explicit the fact that we journey together to God. Priest and people are on this pilgrimage together.
Bishop Slattery has recognised that our actions and posture can either help or hinder the meaning of our words. Indeed it can hinder the proper celebration of the liturgy. When we talk to a person, we face that person. So too in the liturgy it would make things clearer and more logical if the priest faced the people when he talking to them, and faced God when addressing God on behalf of the people.
One small and easy step to restoring the proper dynamic in worship is the use of the upright altar crucifix, which Pope Benedict constantly does whether he faces east or faces the people. This then becomes a visible focus and reminder of the purpose and focus of liturgy: that we are offering worship to the Father in Christ.
More powerful and effective still, I guess, would be a return to facing east. This, however, would meet fierce opposition from those passionately and unquestioningly committed to the post-conciliar reforms (I will not stoop to say fads, if only because many reforms were very sound). Such a change would require explanation. But surely that would be a wonderful opportunity for catechesis and deeper teaching of our faith and its rites of worship.
Whether our worship be at Mass, or at the divine office, Pope Benedict (when Cardinal Ratzinger) made a profound observation relevant to it:
Doing really must stop when we come to the heart of the matter: prayer (the oratio). It must be plainly evident that prayer (the oratio) is the heart of the matter, but that it is important precisely because it provides a space for the action (actio) of God. Anyone who grasps this will easily see that it is not now a matter of looking at or toward the priest, but of looking together toward the Lord and going out to meet him.