Monday, January 14, 2008

"Thus orienting the attitude and disposition of the entire assembly..."

The posture of the priest when he is celebrating ad orientem versus apsidem is a grossly misunderstood idea. To those not famiilar with it -- itself indicative of a bigger, deeper issue -- it can seem surreal, even rude. Why, after all, would the priest ignore the people gathered there?

That question highlights the relevant principle that drives this confusion. The confusion arises out of a misunderstanding that believes that the liturgical mysteries occur in reference to oneself and the community. It is as though the Mass is thought of in the same way one might consider a university lecture hall. After all, would it not seem strange for the lecturing professor to "face the wall" (as the saying is often used with regard Mass ad orientem) rather than to be positioned in such a way as he can address his students? It would indeed.

But the sacred liturgy is not a lecture and the priest is not a professor -- even though there are didactic, or in other words, teaching moments and aspects, within the Mass.

The Mass is not all about us and the function of the priest is not primarily to dialogue with us; his primary function is to act as a priest, to act in the person of Christ offering up to God the one pleasing sacrifice. The priest leads us in worship.

The community does have its place of course, but it is primarily that of a worshipping community. Whereas the idea that the priest is ignoring us reveals the wrong principle reference point, that verb (worshipping) reveals the exact opposite. It speaks to the right principle that we need to bring to the liturgy and is the basis for understanding ad orientem.

It has been interesting to watch some of the reaction to the events of recent in the Sistine Chapel, including the evident struggle some people have to understand why he would do this.

One particularly popular explanation that has arisen is more or less pragmatic and aesthetic: the architecture. It is true the office of papal liturgical ceremonies made reference to this, and indeed, that is an important consideration to account for. That said, if one simply reduces it to that, one misses a more fundamental point. (Perhaps for some, however, that is precisely the point, but that is another sort of problem; a theological problem.)

In that same explanation, there is also found a deeper, more theological, and certainly much more Ratzingerian aspect:

" some moments the pope will find himself with his back to the faithful and his eyes on the cross, thus orienting the attitude and disposition of the entire assembly..."

Celebrating thus, the Pope is not simply respecting the architecture of the place, he is doing something more, something related to the fundamental nature of the liturgy itself.

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