Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The End of Orientation

By “end” in this context I don’t mean cessation but purpose. Most readers are probably aware of the theological underpinnings of the Church’s ancient practice of celebrating the Eucharist ad orientem, toward the east – if not geographical east then the “liturgical east” of the cross and apse. A common orientation of priest and people represents the Church on pilgrimage, through history, toward the heavenly banquet of the Kingdom. It points us toward the rising sun symbolizing Christ, the “oriens ex alto” whose coming in glory is anticipated in the Eucharistic liturgy. It expresses the sacrificial character of the Eucharist: priests, whether pagan, Jewish, or Christian, have always offered sacrifice standing before an altar, not behind it. And it symbolizes the faithful reaching out for the transcendent God.

Opponents of the traditional orientation generally dismiss it as contrary to the Second Vatican Council’s emphasis on the full and active participation of the faithful in the liturgy. James White’s remarks about the post-Vatican II “turning of the altar” can be taken as typical:

It was hard to think of ever again turning one’s back on the people of God while at the altar. The personal encounter of facing the people of God may be the most important shift of all, for it proclaims louder than words that the action now belonged to the whole community and was not something the priest did for the community. Now it was with the community.[1]

While I don’t dispute that many Catholics in the past (especially before the Liturgical Movement, or where the movement had little influence) viewed the Mass as something done by the priest on their behalf, I propose this had much less to do with “orientation” than with sacerdotal monopolization of the liturgy resulting from the ascendancy of Low Mass. In support of this claim I point to the Eastern Churches, which, with the exception of the Latin-influenced Maronites, have kept the tradition of celebrating the Divine Liturgy ad orientem without ever having lost a strong sense of corporate worship.[2] When people insist that Mass "facing the people" is crucial to the work of fostering congregational participation, I have to wonder whether the Eastern rites enter at all into their thinking. Do they really want to imply that Eastern Christians have gotten it wrong all this time?

A more recent and, in my opinion, more sophisticated challenge to eastward orientation comes from Jesuit liturgical scholar John Baldovin (Boston College). In an essay published last September in Worship, Father Baldovin argues that Mass facing the people better expresses, not only the communal dimension of the liturgy, but also the sacrificial and Christocentric character of the liturgy. As he sees it, people who hold that the sacrificial nature of the Mass is more evident when the Mass is celebrated ad orientem betray an inadequate, even “dangerous” theology of sacrifice. For Baldovin, the deepest meaning of Christ’s sacrifice is found, not in the “outdated categories” of expiation and atonement, but in the shared meal:

The sacramental sharing of that without which we cannot exist is the perfect way of representing the true meaning of Christ’s sacrifice and of his priesthood, which I take to mean his offering of himself in faith and obedience to the one he calls Abba.[3]

He contends that Catholics who prefer Mass ad orientem for the sake of "facing the Lord" miss the point that

the liturgy requires both vertical and horizontal engagement with Christ. [...] One faces Christ in the assembly, one faces Christ in the presider, one faces Christ in the altar, and of course one faces Christ in the consecrated gifts.[4]

I'll leave aside the apparent relativizing of the substantial Presence of Christ in the Sacred Species, troubling though that is. Although Baldovin does not explain how sacramental communion is the best external representation of the Lord’s sacrifice, this view is not to be dismissed casually. The Church, he points out, has cautiously avoided explicit doctrinal pronouncement about the nature of Christ’s redeeming sacrifice. Baldovin’s stated preference for speaking of every stage of Christ’s life – not just His Passion and death – as a sacrificial offering is consistent with the patristic understanding of Christ’s whole life as a “recapitulation” and thereby a sanctification of every aspect of human life.[5] Furthermore, there is an intrinsic connection between sacrifice and sacred meal in both pre-Christian religions and Christianity. Still, it is not apparent to me why the richness of the sacrificial meanings of the gospel embedded in the celebration of the Eucharist should be thought to preclude a common orientation of priest and people. After all, the sacrificial meal of the New Covenant is a foretaste of the heavenly banquet toward which the Church journeys, and eastward orientation has a lot (if not everything) to do with eschatology.

But even if we grant – what seems exceedingly implausible – that Mass versus populum is a better way of representing the sacrificial nature of the Eucharist, there remains more to consider. The question of Christian sacrifice, like that of “facing Christ,” distracts from what I believe is the soundest justification for the traditional eastward orientation: a common orientation of priest and people when addressing God symbolizes the end or telos of the liturgy. That end, according to the economy of salvation, is ascribed not to Christ but to the transcendent Father, the source of the Godhead.

The Latin theological tradition views the liturgical re-presentation of Christ’s sacrifice (however conceived) as an offering of the whole Christ, Head and members, to the Father through (and with) the Son in the Holy Spirit.[6] In the Roman Canon as well as in the other Eucharistic Prayers of the modern Roman Rite, the First Person of the Trinity, God the Father, appears as both the starting point (principium a quo) and the end (terminus ad quem) of the Eucharistic action, while Christ, the incarnate Son, appears there as High Priest, through whose mediation the Father has been gracious to us and we render praise and glory to Him. In contrast, but not in disagreement, with the Western structure of liturgical prayer, the traditional Eastern liturgical prayer ends with the words: “For unto Thee are due all glory, honor, and worship, to the Father, and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.” From this I reason that the celebration of Mass facing ad orientem symbolizes a movement not only toward the “east” of Christ, but also toward the Father through, with, and in Christ (“Per ipsum, et cum ipso, et in ipso...”).

Whether the traditional topography reflects an outmoded theology of Eucharistic sacrifice, or neglects the true presence of Christ in the assembly, are questions that can be argued in good faith until the Parousia. To some extent, these questions distract from what I consider to be the real question at hand: Which liturgical typography, versus absidem or versus populum, better symbolizes the inner dynamic or Christocentric-Trinitarian movement of the liturgy? A common orientation of priest and people toward a transcendent reference point, it seems, comports well with the fact that it is not Christ but the Father who is terminal in man’s relation to the triune God: the Father is the “end” of liturgical orientation. That, I believe, is the most significant of all the theological reasons for the traditional orientation.


[1] James F. White, Roman Catholic Worship: Trent to Today (Pueblo/Liturgical Press, 2003), p. 125.

[2] Timothy (Bishop Kallistos) Ware, The Orthodox Church (Penguin Books, 1963; reprint 1983), p. 278: "The worship of the Orthodox Church is communal and popular. [...] Orthodox laity do not use the phrase 'to hear Mass', for in the Orthodox Church the Mass has never become something done by the clergy for the laity, but is something which clergy and laity perform together. [...] In the Orthodox Church, where the Liturgy has never ceased to be a common action performed by priest and people together, the congregation do not come to church to say their private prayers, but to pray the public prayers of the Liturgy and to take part in the action of the rite itself."

[3] John F. Baldovin, "Idols and Icons: Reflections on the Current State of Liturgical Reform," Worship 84 no. 5 (Sept. 2010): 386-402, here at 396.

[4] Ibid., 396-97.

[5] E.g. Irenaeus, Adversus haereses III, 18, 7.

[6] Cyprian Vagaggini, OSB, treats of this at length in the chapter 7 of Theological Dimensions of the Liturgy ("From the Father, through Christ, in the Holy Spirit, to the Father: The Liturgy and the Christological-Trinitarian Activity in the Divine Plan"). Eng. trans. Liturgical Press, 1976.

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