The centrality of the crucified Christ in the liturgical celebration
"They shall look on Him whom they have pierced."
By Mauro Gagliardi
Consultor to the Office of Liturgical Celebrations of the Supreme Pontiff
In this season of Lent, one cannot but think of the great mystery of the sacred Triduum at the end of these forty days will make us meditate and live again in the today of the liturgy, the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Jesus. An aid on this way of conversion comes from meditation on the centrality of the Cross in the cult and, consequently, in the life of the Christian. The biblical readings of the Mass of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross (September 14) present, among others, the theme of looking upon. The Israelites must look upon the bronze serpent lifted on the pole, to be healed from the poison of the snakes (cf. Numbers 21, 4b-9). Jesus in the Gospel of this liturgical celebration, says that he must be lifted up from the earth as the mosaic serpent, so that who believes in him, may not perish, but may have life everlasting (cf. John 3, 13-17). The Israelites looked upon the serpent of bronze, but had to make an act of faith in the God who heals. For the disciples of Jesus, however, there is perfect convergence between "looking at" and believing: in order to obtain salvation, one must believe in Him upon Whom one looks: the crucified Risen One, and live in a manner consistent with this fundamental view.
This is the fundamental insight of the traditional liturgcial usage, according to which the sacred minister and the faithful are together turned towards the Crucified. At the time when the practice of celebrating towards the people came into use, the problem arose of the position of the priest at the altar, because now he had his back to the tabernacle and the crucifix. Initially, in several places was restored the box-shaped tabernacle placed above the altar separated from the wall: that way the tabernacle came to be between the priest and the faithful, in such a way that, although the one was still facing the others, both sacred minister and faithful could all look towards the Lord during the Liturgy of the Eucharist. [NLM note: I don't think I have ever consciously seen such an arrangement and would be most curious to see an image, should any of our readers know of one.] This provisional solution was, however, soon superseded, mainly based on the conviction that this arrangement of the tabernacle generated a conflict of presneces: one could not keep the Blessed Sacrament on the altar of celebration, because this would put in contradicttion the different forms of presence of Christ in the liturgy. In the end, this was resolved by the displacement of the tabernacle to a side chapel. There was still the crucifix, to which the celebrant continued to turn his back, since as a rule it still remained at the center. This was resolved even more easily, by providing that it could now also be placed to the side of the altar. In this way, to be sure, the minister did not turn his back to it anymore, but the image of the crucified Lord lost its centrality and, in any case, the problem was not solved consisting in the fact that the priest was still not able to "look toward the Crucified" during the liturgy.
The liturgical norms, established for the current Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite, allow to place crucifix and tabernacle in abgesondert positions, however this does prevent a continued discussion about the greater appropriateness of them being placed in the center, as it must be with the altar. [NLM note: a point not always observed in some proposals for modern churches.] This is especially true for the image of the Crucified. The Instruction "Eucharisticum mysterium" [NLM note: issued by the Sacred Congregation of Rites in 1967, cf. here], in fact, states that "because of the sign" (ratione signi, no. 55), it is better that on the altar on which Mass is celebrated is not placed the tabernacle, because the real presence of the Lord is the fruit of the consecration and should be seen as such. This does not exclude that the tabernacle can as a rule remain at the centre of the liturgical edifice, especially where there is the presence of an older altar, which is now behind the new altar (see no. 54, which among other things the licitness of the placement of the tabernacle on the altar facing the people). Although this is a complex question and would require a more profound reflection, one can probably ackowledge that the moving of the tabernacle from the altar of celebration versus populum (i.e., the new altar) has some arguments more in its favor, since it is based not only on the conflict of presences, but also on the principle of the truth of the liturgical signs. [NLM note: This does indeed require further reflections, not least in the light of the pronouncements of the Servant of God Pius XII who only ten years prior to this instrcution rejected the separation of altar and tabernacle in his famous allocution to the Assisi liturgical congress.] But one cannot say the same about the crucifix. If the centrality of the crucifix is eliminated, the common understanding of the meaning of the liturgy runs the risk of being distorted as a result.
It is obvious that the "looking to" cannot be reduced to a mere outward gesture, made with the simple direction of the eyes. In contrast, it is mainly an attitude of the heart, which can and must be maintained whatever orientation is assumed by the body of the one praying and whatever the direction of the eyes during prayer. Still, in the Roman Canon, even in the missal of Paul VI, there is the rubric that requires the priest to raise his eyes to heaven just before pronouncing the words of consecration over the bread. The orientation of the spirit is more important, but the bodily expression accompanies and sustains the movement within. If it is true, then, that looking toward the Crucified is an act of the spirit, an act of faith and adoration, it remains true, nevertheless, that to look to the image of the Crucified during the liturgy helps and sustains very much the movement of the heart. We need sacred signs and gestures, which, while not a substitute for it, support the movement of the heart which yearns for sanctification: this, too, means acting liturgically ratione signi. Sacredness of the gesture and sanctification of the one praying are not elements opposed to each other, but aspects of one single reality.
If, therefore, the use of celebration versus populum has some positive aspects, one must nevertheless also recognise its limitations: in particular the risk of creating a closed circle between the minister and the faithful, who relegates to the second tier just the One to whom everyone must look with faith during the liturgical cult. It is possible to counter risks by returning to the liturgical prayer its orientation, in particular concerning the Eucharistic liturgy. While the liturgy of the word has its most appropriate form if the priest is facing the people, it seems theologically and pastorally most appropriate to apply the option - recognised by the missal of Paul VI in its various editions - to continue to celebrate the Eucharist toward the Crucified. This can be realised in practice in various ways, including placing the image of the Crucified at the center of the altar of the celebration versus populum, so that everyone, priest and faithful, can look to the Lord during the celebration of His holy sacrifice. In the preface to the first volume of his Gesammelte Schriften [opera omnia], Benedict XVI has said that he is happy that a proposal is gaining more and more ground which he had made in his Introduction to the Spirit of the Liturgy. This, as the Pope has written, consisted in suggesting "not to proceed with new transformations, but simply to put the cross in the center of the altar, towards which the priest and faithful can look together, to be guided in this way to the Lord, to whom we all pray together."
(© L'Osservatore Romano - 9/10 March 2009)
Now, to add a caveat, it might seem like in the last paragraph Fr Gagliardi were suggesting that we should not celebrate Mass ad orientem in the traditional sense, nor even make minor, non-structural re-arrangements. I do not think this is actually his point; instead, he is rather focusing on the "Benedictine altar arrangement" as a primary means by which to begin re-orienting our approach to the liturgy because it is the most easily practicable way of achieving it and the least likely to cause a repetition of the upheaval of the structural changes introduced into most sanctuaries following the reforms of the 1960s. This, then, does not mean that ad orientem in its traditional expression is outside the pale -- indeed, it is envisioned and allowed for by the Missal and by liturgical law. Since Fr Gagliardi makes express reference to the preface of the Pope's Opera omnia, it would be worthwhile to consider again the points Shawn made on the occasion of the publication of said preface about Pope Benedict's actual thought and proposals with regard to the re-orientation of the liturgy (see second half of that post).