Sunday, December 17, 2006

Ad Orientem: Praying to the Father

I don't know about many of the readers here, but I have often felt uncomfortable in churches when the priest is praying the Eucharistic prayer where his gestures and words seem to imply that this prayer is some sort of a rehearsal for the people rather than a prayer asking God to make the bread and wine become for us the sacramental body and blood of Jesus. In many parishes in England for instance, the church maintains an eastern position of a high altar and has opted for a 'nave' altar where most celebrations take place. What would 'turning towards the east' say about what we believe is taking place in the liturgy of the Church? When we speak to God, we face him and turning to the east for the prayer of consecration would communicate that it is God to whom our prayer is being offered. God addresses us in the receiving of Jesus' body and blood when he gives of himself in the Eucharistic elements. See U.M. Lang's words that follow. The entire article is found here.

When these texts use the phrase versus populum, they do not necessarily mean a visual connection between the people and the sacred action at the altar. It is by no means suggested here that nothing should limit, let alone block, the faithful's view of the ritual acts of the celebrant. Such an interpretation would have seemed alien to the understanding of the liturgy that was common from Christian antiquity until well into the Middle Ages and is still found in the Eastern Churches. Thus it is hardly surprising to find that even with altars versus populum the sight was significantly restricted, for example, by curtains that were closed during certain parts of the liturgy or already by the architectural layout of the church.25

The guiding points of the Congregation for Divine Worship make clear that the expression versus populum does not convey the theological dimension of the Eucharistic liturgy. Each Eucharist is offered for the praise and glory of God's name, for the benefit of us and of the holy Church as a whole ("ad laudem et gloriam nominis Dei, ad utilitatem quoque nostram, totiusque Ecclesiae suae sanctae").

Theologically, the Mass as a whole, the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist, is directed at the same time towards God and towards the people. In the form of the celebration one must avoid a confusion of theology and topography, especially when the priest stands at the altar. The priest speaks to the people only during the dialogues at the altar. Everything else is prayer to the Father through Christ in the Holy Spirit. Evidently, it is most desirable that this theology should be expressed in the visible shape of the liturgy.26

Cardinal Ratzinger is equally emphatic that the celebration of the Eucharist, just as Christian prayer in general, has a trinitarian direction and discusses the question of how this can be communicated most fittingly in liturgical gesture. When we speak to someone, we obviously face that person. Accordingly, the whole liturgical assembly, priest and people, should face the same way, turning towards God to whom prayers and offerings are addressed in this common act of trinitarian worship. Ratzinger rightly protests against the mistaken idea that in this case the celebrating priest is facing "towards the altar", "towards the tabernacle", or even "towards the wall".27 The catchphrase often heard nowadays that the priest is "turning his back on the people" is a classic example of confounding theology and topography, for the crucial point is that the Mass is a common act of worship where priest and people together, representing the pilgrim Church, reach out for the transcendent God.

Reinhard Me├čner notes that what is at issue is not the celebratio versus populum, but the direction of liturgical prayer that has been known in the Christian tradition as "facing east".28

My claim is that the intrinsic sense of facing east in the Eucharist is the common direction of priest and people oriented towards the triune God. The following chapters on the historical and theological dimensions of this traditional liturgical practice are meant to show that its recovery is indispensable for the welfare of the Church today.


Blogger Adam said...

What's worse is when the priest seems to be addressing the people, looking at them intently. It's so awful. And it seems like a lot of Anglo-Catholics have gone this direction with nave altars... How sad.

6:32 pm  
Blogger Jeff said...

Yes, it is interesting! I wonder if the liturgical move in Rome and what is spilling over into the Anglican Church will have any impact on changes to return to the ancient practice of praying eastward!

8:43 pm  
Blogger Christopher+ said...

We have successfully made the return at my parish to strictly eastward celebrations. It can be done!

2:03 am  
Blogger Adam said...

We never stopped the eastward. Thank goodness.

4:20 am  
Blogger J. Gordon Anderson said...

I have never quite been able to figure out what churches that have switched to using the "picnic table" think they have accomplished that is better than before. Picnic tables are still set far away from the people in the pews - just like the old high altar; people still can't see what is going on up there - just like the old high altar (and even if they could, many modern priests do so few manual acts anymore that it is really kind of pointless to watch).

Other things that are kind of strange is that the priest looks like a jack-in-the-box when he genuflects; and the set-up of the altar becomes very strange (like the current set-up they have on the EWTN daily mass) and always changes from parish to parish.

The bit at the end of the article about mass being a common act of worhsip, where we all pray together and face the same way, says it all.

6:11 pm  

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