Sunday, July 19, 2009

Ad Orientem

Before you start…

Use the restroom, get a cup of coffee, then put your feet up-- this one’s gonna take a while to read!


In most major religions, the position taken in prayer and the layout of holy places is determined by a "sacred direction." In the Catholic Church it is a place in which both congregation and celebrant face a central goal that all strive for throughout the actions and liturgy of the Mass.

Fr. Uwe Lang is a published author who wrote “Turning Towards the Lord: Orientation in Liturgical Prayer” explaining the need for our proper orientation in the Liturgy of the Mass. Fr. Lang explains how the practice of celebrating the liturgy "ad orientem," or "facing east," developed in the early Church in an interview with the online Catholic news source, Zenit:

“The sacred direction in Judaism is toward Jerusalem in the Holy of Holies of the Temple. Jews pray toward Jerusalem, Muslims pray toward Mecca, and Christians pray toward the East.

The early Christians no longer turned toward the earthly Jerusalem, but toward the new, heavenly Jerusalem. It was their firm belief that when the risen Christ would come again in glory, he would gather his faithful to make up this heavenly city.

They saw in the rising sun a symbol of the resurrection and of the second coming, and it was a matter of course for them to pray facing this direction. There is strong evidence of eastward prayer in most parts of the Christian world from the second century onward.

In the New Testament, the special significance of the eastward direction for worship is not explicit.

Even so, tradition has found many biblical references for this symbolism, for instance: the "sun of righteousness" in Malachi 4:2; the "day dawning from on high" in Luke 1:78; the angel ascending from the rising of the sun with the seal of the living God in Revelation 7:2; and the imagery of light in St John's Gospel.”

One can see this when the priest consecrates the host upon the altar, hidden from the view of the congregation, and then he suddenly elevates it after the consecration. The elevation reminds us of something wondrous, like the sun suddenly rising.

There are two forms of worship which we are dealing with here: versus populum (facing the people), and ad orientem (facing liturgical east).

Many people believe that Vatican II specifically mandated the use of versus populum in the Novus Ordo Liturgy (The Mass most people are familiar with since the Second Vatican Council.) and that it “did away” with the Old Mass (The Tridentine Mass celebrated before Vatican II), and ad orientem worship. These assumptions are completely inaccurate.

Rather, the documents of the second vatican council gave no mandate about the direction of the celebrant during Mass. Vatican II only gave priests the option to say Mass versus populum, but never mandated it.

The cause of this change is attributed to the way Mass is celebrated at the main altar of St. Peter’s Basilica. There, to face physical East the Holy Father must face the congregation. There is no tabernacle behind the pope either, so there really is no direction of orientation in that church except to look to the pope and the altar.

People and the media misunderstood this and pushed for a renewal in which priests could face their congregations from behind the altar.

Doing such seemed to cause an “open dialogue” between the priest and the congregation. Rather than the priest going to God on behalf of the faithful and speaking to God directly, he became a “show man.”

This is where I think the priest lost his purpose in the Mass. He was no longer a man put up by the faithful to go before God and act in persona Christi (in the person of Christ) carrying out the sacrificial actions of the Mass. The priest became a “personality,” who in essence becomes the main focus of the Liturgy.

Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) has this to say in his “Spirit of the Liturgy” (Ignatius Press, 2000) about the priest facing versus populum:

“Everything depends on him (the priest). We have to see him, to respond too him, to be involved in what he is doing. His creativity sustains the whole thing..... Less and less God is in the picture. More and more is done by human beings that meet here and do not like to subject themselves to a “predisposed pattern.” The turning of the priest to the people has turned the community into a self-enclosed circle. In its outward form it no longer opens out on what lies ahead and above, but is closed in on itself.”

The Mass then becomes filled with distractions to the faithful, who are distracted by the priest’s “shtick”, and the priest, who feels compelled to put on a show and has to face the people and their reactions to what he does. All this does is cause distraction and blatant disregard for what is actually going on at Holy Mass. Even when the priest has best intentions, he still feels pressure to cater to the emotional needs of the congregation.

The way to fix this problem (that we have created) is to re-orient ourselves to our Lord, toward our ultimate goal. We, as priests and congregation, focus ourselves on the sacrificial actions occurring before us and look to see the second coming of Christ at the end of this world(the eschatological aspect of Mass).


One of the main problems people mistakenly have is their claim that the priest "is turning his back on the people." This statement misses the crucial point that the Mass is a common act of worship in which priest and people together reach out for a God, who reveals Himself through the Eucharist. By facing the same direction as the faithful when the priest stands at the altar, the priest leads the people of God on their journey of faith.

Fr. Lang says, “Looking out for the Lord keeps the eschatological character of the Eucharist alive and reminds us that the celebration of the sacrament is a participation at the cross at Cavalry and the second coming of Christ. The Mass occurs outside of time, linking both past, future and present into one action.

Churches have traditionally been constructed facing the rising sun as explained above. Facing east we are turned in expectation toward the Lord who is to come (eschatology) and we show that we are part of an act that goes beyond the church and community where we are celebrating, to the whole world (the cosmos). In churches not facing geographical east, the Cross and Tabernacle become ‘liturgical east’.

This gives the Eucharist its greatness, saving the individual community from closing in upon itself and opening it toward the assembly of the angels and saints in the heavenly city. We are not alone in our worship at Mass. All of the saints and angels join with us in Mass.” (Zenit interview)

The whole point of facing east is to emphasize the essential character of the liturgy: that of a procession out of time and into eternity in Heaven. The priest, standing in the person of Christ, leads the way, but we are all moving together, as a community and as the people of God, as part of the same procession that begins at the Introit, continues through the Offertory, and culminates with our reception of Holy Communion.

An example of this is how the military sends forth a general to lead his army into battle. The people appoint someone that is trained to go forward and lead the faithful (the Church Militant) toward their goal.

The main principle of Christian worship is the dialogue between the people of God as a whole, including the celebrant, and God, to whom their prayer is addressed.
French liturgist Marcel Metzger argues that the phrases "facing the people" and "back to the people" exclude the One to whom all prayer is directed, namely God.

In the document of the second Vatican council, Eucharisticum Mysterium (May, 1967) the expression “active participation” is discussed. Since then, many have maintained that this "active participation" by the faithful demanded celebration toward the people.

Recent critical reflection on the concept of "active participation" has revealed the need for a theological renewal of this important principle. In his book "The Spirit of the Liturgy," then Cardinal Ratzinger drew a useful distinction between participation in the Liturgy of the Word, which includes external actions, and participation in the Liturgy of the Eucharist, where external actions are quite secondary, since the interior participation of prayer is the heart of the matter.

The practice of ad orientem offers a psychological and spiritual benefit as well. It permits the worshipper to contemplate the purely sacramental character of the Mass and focus less on the personality of the celebrant. From the celebrant's point of view, it permits a more intense focus on the mystery of the sacrifice taking place rather than on the personalities of the worshippers.


I think there is great aesthetic beauty when the priest says Mass facing the Lord. Everything comes together up at the altar: the beautiful backs of the vestments used as a living iconostasis; the elevation of the Host in front of the crucifix, calling to mind the sacrifice of Christ; the unity of the priest, servers and entire congregation praying and orienting themselves towards the mystery being accomplished on the altar.

The priest acts as a living iconostasis. The back of his vestments are even covered in icons. His vestments are those icons that the Eastern Church has on their walls. He serves as a living wall, he serves as that iconostasis between congregation and God. (To read more on revelation and iconostasis go to another of my posts HERE.)

The combination of all of these elements makes the experience something transcendent – takes our attention from the face of the priest, and refocuses it on the sacrifice of Christ. This reminds us that the Mass is not about the priest or his “performance,” but about Jesus’ offering of Himself to God the Father. The point of liturgy is to create an encounter with mystery. If liturgy doesn’t do that, it has failed.



I ask for your forgiveness in making such a long and drawn out post. But this is something very important. It’s a piece of our Liturgy that many parishes are missing. I have witnessed the transcendence of ad orientem worship personally in the Mass, in both Ordinary and Extraordinary forms (both the "old" and "new" Masses). It is something that changes the entire tone of the whole Mass. I don’t think we can understand its role, importance, and beauty in the Mass until we experience it. When one does, however, one must experience it by setting aside all personal “bug-a-boo’s” and “issues.” One needs to take a deep breath and focus on the fact that the Mass ISN’T ABOUT US- it’s about GOD!

No one can sum it up better than Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI:

“The Lord is the point of reverence and reference. He is the rising sun of history. That is why there could be a cross of the passion, which represents the suffering of the lord who for us let his side be pierced, as well as a cross triumphant, which expresses the idea of the second coming and guides our eyes toward it. For it is always the one Lord: Christ yesterday, today and forever.” (Spirit, p. 84)

For any more reading on this topic please read the two books I have been quoting throughout this post:

Spirit of the Liturgy” by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger

Turning Towards the Lord” by Fr. Uwe Lang

(Thanks to Fr. Doctor for the great pictures of the stained glass windows!!)

5 comments:

Joe of St. Thérèse said...

Don't apologize it's an excellent post.

Fr. Brian Stanley said...

This past Monday evening, I was invited to speak to parishioners here in Paw Paw about the Recovery of Reverence in the Liturgy in the Benedictine Reform, and in particular, about ad orientem worship, and made repeated reference to both Fr. Lang's book, and the writings of Card. Ratzinger, especially in "The Spirit of the Liturgy," in which he devotes the third chapter to the issue of ad orientem worship.

The notion of the "closed circle," and the intense, self-focus on the community, is pervasive in the Church today. The reaction of some at the presentation this past Monday was very telling, and self-conscious, because this emphasis on community has been a constant in contemporary catechesis. At one point in the presentation, I asked, "What is the purpose of the Mass? Why do we celebrate Mass?" The first answer given, offered by a very sincere and earnest woman, was, "To come together as a community." I am not making this up. I thanked her for demonstrating the success of the relentless yet misdirected catechesis which has succeeded in bringing people to this wrong conclusion. Mass is not about us: it is about Him. It is about our encounter with Him in profound worship. It is about giving ourselves over to Him in the holy offering, so that we might first be united with Him in mind and heart. Approaching Him, in humility, brings us to our knees. The priest, united with the people, leads this humble adoration, in the same direction. To characterize the priest as having turned his back on the people is to miss The Subject toward Whom the priest is facing, and genuflecting, and bowing.

The purpose of the Mass is worship of the One True God, who gives us Communio with Himself. Out of this Communio, and only out of this Communio, do we even dare to bring forth community. For the past several decades, there has been concerted catechetical effort to bring about the community first, and then establish Communio. This is the wrong direction -- pun intended. Ad orientem worship re-establishes the right direction, i.e., the direction toward Christ who is before us first not only chronologically but physically as well, for He is truly present in the Eucharist, and only after Communio is He in us, literally, really. We have no community without the Communio first.

Anonymous said...

I have a most excellent homily written by one of my favorite priests in the universe on the topic from a couple of years back.
E-mail me at wardniner at gmail dot com if you'd like to read it and I'll send it your way.
:)

-Cathy

Anonymous said...

P.S. Father,

Your flock is blessed to have you.
God bless.

-Cathy

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