Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Not exactly ‘ad orientem’? Or is it?

On the CNS News Hub, CNS writer John Thavis has a piece up, Not exactly ‘ad orientem’ whose basic premise is as follows:

The Pope didn't really celebrate 'ad orientem' this past weekend because the Sistine Chapel does not have its apse oriented to the East. He continues, "On the contrary, “ad orientem” was the direction popes faced when they used the free-standing portable altar in the Sistine: the celebrant faced east when he faced the people."

Thavis continues:

"...the Christian tradition of worshipping “ad orientem” faded, and over the last 500 years many churches have been built facing different directions, including one not far from the Sistine Chapel — St. Peter’s Basilica, which also faces west."

Thavis, I think, misses the point and also mistates the case.

Ad orientem didn't fade in the West, it evolved.

Originally, ad orientem would find the priest and faithful alike turning toward the geographic East which symbolized the resurrection and the watching for the Second Coming of Christ. Scholarship suggests that this seems to have occurred regardless of where the altar was, even if that meant putting it behind the faithful at the appropriate points of the liturgy.

In that regard, this common direction toward that symbolic point was more important than even watching the altar and the liturgical action occurring there, which perhaps reveals something of the symbolic essence of ad orientem. In many cases however, the altar was placed at the Eastern end of the building, thereby effecting both the common orientation toward that symbolic, Christological point, as well as allowing the liturgical action at the altar to remain in view. Gradually then, the altar itself, with the priest and people facing in the same direction toward it, would become representative of this symbolic orientation; a kind of symbolic, or liturgical, East which, while not being necessarily geographically Eastward, retained the unified direction of the priest and faithful that potently symbolized and emphasized their being turned towards the Lord.

Today, this is what is meant and understood by ad orientem, and not rather the geographic orientation. The mention of the East is itself is a historical remnant of the time when this was expressed geographically, but it is the common direction of the priest and the faithful which is its continuing expression; the expression of the theological focus of the liturgy itself.

In that regard, I would suggest that focusing in upon the geographic aspect -- as Thavis does when he notes "'ad orientem' was the direction popes faced when they used the free-standing portable altar in the Sistine" -- while geographically true, substantially misses the deeper theological point which is expressed by common direction, regardless of cardinal direction. In that regard, it can come across as nitpicking and one is left wondering what Thavis is actually trying to say?

Thavis concludes his piece with these thoughts:

"Whatever a church’s compass orientation, some have wondered whether the papal Mass last Sunday marked the beginning of a trend. Are we going to see a Vatican effort to turn all the altars back to the pre-Vatican II position?

"Probably not. Pope Benedict weighed in on this when he was a cardinal. He said he agreed with theological arguments for the priest and the people facing the same direction, but thought it would leave Catholics more confused than ever if the altars were turned around again."

It is evidently worth noting that it is quite imprecise and misleading to refer to this traditional posture as a "pre-Vatican II position".

With regard to the Cardinal's view of the matter, Ratzinger has indeed made it clear that he understands that pastoral prudence is required, but he certainly didn't suggest its exclusion -- an impression one could easily be left with in Thavis' article.

In point of fact, the recent "re-orienting" actions of the pontiff Benedict mirrors quite nicely the thought of the cardinal, Ratzinger. He has demonstrated a notable consistency in this regard, so that anyone intimately familiar with his liturgical writing over the years would find none of these actions surprising.

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