Monday, November 05, 2018

How Contrary Orientations Signify Contradictory Theologies

Catholics who delve into serious discussions of liturgy, wishing perhaps to know what all the fuss is about, quickly discover that one of the hottest of hot-button questions, and in some ways the most important, is the orientation of the liturgy. What is the big deal about the direction the priest happens to be facing at Mass? [1]

For starters, the custom of all Christians either offering or participating in the Eucharistic liturgy facing East has the same apostolic roots and the same universality in Church history as the use of water baptism, the praying of the Psalms, the worship of the risen Christ on Sunday, the veneration of the Mother of God and the saints, and of their relics. As a matter of fact, eastward orientation predates the use of official priestly vestments, consecrated church buildings, and even the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed that we recite every Sunday. Does that make it old enough and widespread enough to take seriously? If not, why do we take the other things seriously? They should be just as dispensable, or more so.

Think of it this way: Would you, if you are a practicing Catholic, want Sunday to be abolished, replaced by another day of the week, or simply taken off the roster? That would be an unthinkable deviation from Christian practice. Would you want all the Psalms removed from the Mass and the Divine Office? Should we replace water baptism with a civil naming ceremony, or stop honoring our Blessed Mother because it might make us feel like immature children or offend anti-maternal feminists? Have priests celebrating in jeans and T-shirts, because that’s the common clothing of our day, as robes and cloaks were the common clothing of ancient times? Impossible! It cannot be that something we have done for millennia should suddenly be dropped.

But this is exactly what we have done with ad orientem worship. For nearly 2,000 years, clergy and faithful together faced in the same direction in expectation of Christ and in adoration of Him, the One who already comes in mystery in the Most Holy Eucharist, the One who is to come manifestly at the end of the world to judge the living and the dead and the world by fire.

Ad orientem preserves the eschatological orientation of the liturgy. When Christians first gathered on Sundays to worship the Lord, they were anticipating the second coming of Christ — this seems to be the very oldest characteristic of our corporate worship. As Dom Gregory Dix notes, the “primordial form” of Sunday was not so much a feast looking back to the resurrection of Christ on the first Easter, or to any particular mystery or moment of His earthly life, but rather a looking forward with longing to the Lord’s return in glory, imploring Him to deliver us from the evils of sin, death, and hell. Sunday Mass was about the life of the world to come, which the early Christians, suffering bitter and horrific trials, must have thought about a great deal as they hoped and prayed that they would remain faithful: “lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.” [2] For this reason, the eastward focus of prayer was a poignant symbol: after the dark and cold night, the sun will rise gloriously on the eastern horizon, shedding light and warmth.

Not to mention all the Scripture passages, repeatedly commented on by the Church Fathers, that either call Christ “the East”, or say that He ascends to the East, or that He will come from the East (cf., inter alia, Ps. 67, 34; Acts 1, 10–11; Mt. 24, 27; Zech. 6, 11–12). [3]

In turning the priest towards the people, we decisively severed ourselves from that which was most ancient, most intrinsic, and most distinctive in our worship as Christians. When we return to ad orientem, we return decisively to the fundamentals of Christian faith and its original practice. Ironically, in adopting the novelty of versus populum — a supposed “return to the earliest practice” in the judgment of mid-20th century scholars, whose conclusions have all been overturned by the work of subsequent scholars — we ended up losing the most ancient element of all.

It is not hard to see why this custom should have been nearly convertible with Christian worship as such. Most simply, worship is about God, not about us. Or rather, it is about us only insofar as we are from God, in God, and for God, our Creator, Savior, Sanctifier, and Judge. Hence, even to the extent that, as St. Thomas Aquinas says, the liturgy is for our needs, since God who is infinitely good stands to gain nothing for Himself, it is still done for the love and praise and thanking of God, who is the source and fulfillment of our needs. Our need, in short, is FOR GOD; our deepest need is to go beyond ourselves into Him. The very purpose of worship is to take ourselves out of ourselves and establish us in God. In this sense, any aspect of liturgy that does not clearly terminate in God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, or any aspect that seems to terminate in us, is not liturgy, whatever else it may be (e.g., self-regard, social posturing, therapy, superstition).

Hence, the ad orientem stance simply expresses the act of worship as such, whereas the versus populum stance contradicts it outright. This is why it is not merely unfitting but antithetical to religion. [4] The theologian Max Thurien, writing (somewhat surprisingly) in the official Vatican journal Notitiae, observed, in a statement that anticipated Ratzinger’s similar and more famous remark in The Spirit of the Liturgy:
The whole celebration [of Mass] is often conducted as if it were a conversation and dialogue in which there is no longer room for adoration, contemplation, and silence. The fact that the celebrants and faithful constantly face each other closes the liturgy in on itself. [5]
Along the same lines, the papal master of ceremonies Guido Marini remarked at a conference in Rome:
In our time, the expression “celebrating facing the people” has entered our common vocabulary. … [S]uch an expression would be categorically unacceptable the moment it comes to express a theological proposition. Theologically speaking, the holy Mass, as a matter of fact, is always addressed to God through Christ our Lord, and it would be a grievous error to imagine that the principal orientation of the sacrificial action is the community. Such an orientation, therefore, of turning towards the Lord must animate the interior participation of each individual during the liturgy. It is likewise equally important that this orientation be quite visible in the liturgical sign as well. [6] 
Marini helps us to see not only that the object of liturgy should always be God, or the God-man Jesus Christ, never mere man, but also that this objective orientation (we cannot avoid the East even in our ordinary way of speaking!) should be visible, evident to the senses, easily grasped by the intellect, and easily translated into the movement of the will that we call love, which is ordered to the good — to a good outside of ourselves, in the case of our ultimate end.

I will characterize the contrast between the contradictory postures in terms of their subject/object signification.

In the ad orientem arrangement, the subject/object appears as man/God. The priest both looks and acts like an image of Christ, the mediator between God and man. Paradoxically, the ceremonial centrality of the priest in the old rite serves to emphasize that God is the one and only object of worship, since the priest is so obviously assimilated to his office as alter Christus.

In the versus populum arrangement, the subject/object appears as people/priest. The priest, even with the best of intentions and behavior, looks and acts like an empowered facilitator of a communal event; the vis-à-vis positioning confers on him a sort of autocratic prominence as the one to whom the congregation is subordinated and beholden. This may be the psychological reason why some priests overcompensate with informality, jokes, banter, smiles, waves, applause, or what have you — the priest’s very “over-againstness” in versus populum seems to demand a downplaying of the over-against by means of emphasizing that he’s really “one of us,” after all! How sad that the one true and obvious way of representing that the priest is “one of us” — namely, by having him face in the same direction as everyone else and offer the sacrifice on their behalf, the very same sacrifice they are offering in the hearts — has been discarded as an opaque and expired symbol, to be replaced by a format that turns the Mass into something done towards the people and, in a sense, imposed upon them. In reality, the Mass is something Jesus Christ according to His human nature does towards the Most Holy Trinity, as the great prayer “Suscipe, Sancta Trinitas” perfectly expresses — and we are permitted to join in.

Ironically for a rite that is supposed to be less clericocentric and more popular, the priest in the new rite becomes far more central and attention-getting because his personality, his “vernacular style” or “way of being a priest,” intrudes. Versus populum does nothing but underline this unfortunate amplification of human presidency at the cost of assimilation to Christ’s kenosis and unique mediation.

Kathleen Pluth brilliantly captures the problem and the solution. Having said that she hates being a cause of distraction to others by cantoring in the front of a church and that she much prefers finding refuge in a choir loft (singers should be heard and not seen), she then turns to the celebrant of the Mass:
The role of the priest is exponentially more complex. He cannot hide. His role is inherently, and in some regards primarily, visible, leading the congregation through the veil, into the Holy of Holies. We follow him, as he expresses in the highest possible way his conformity to Jesus, our advocate before the Father. For centuries the symbolism of our “following” the priest was clear. However, in the postconciliar period, and without a direct referrent in the Council’s documents themselves, the character of the priest’s relationship to the people has been visibly distorted by the versus populum posture.
          When people face each other, they aim to please. They make eye contact; they smile encouragingly. There is a word for such gestures: flattery. People flatter their priests and their priests flatter them, at an average ratio of, say, 500 to 1. None of this is encouraged in the Council documents. The versus populum posture is specifically worldly. It sets up the priest, not as a model to follow, but as a talk show host to be flattered insofar as he delights us. There are no good reasons for this.
          The lines of sight to God should be made clear in the Liturgy (see Pseudo-Dionysius’ Ecclesiastical Hierarchy for a beautiful exposition of how this should work), but instead our path towards God is obscured by the distracting cycle of eye-contact and feedback. The Sunday liturgy is for everyone their primary and for many their only contact with the Church. As such, its symbols should express the truth, including the truth about ecclesial relationships, which should not be a matter of flattery but of service. The Psalmist sings, “Let your priests be clothed with holiness/The faithful shall ring out their joy.” Ad orientem posture lets priests be priests and the people be themselves too, all facing God together.[7]
Accordingly, it was much to the devil’s advantage to turn the priest around to the people, creating a charmed circle of neighborly affirmation that brought the experience of the Mass down to the level of a horizontal exchange, a back-and-forth in everyday speech. There is nothing transcendent about that; on the contrary, God is domesticated, tamed, manipulable — not a recipient of sacrifice but a subject of conversation.

In the Western context, moreover, where the use of a sacral language had been the nearly universal and exceptionless practice for most of the Church’s history, the sudden introduction of the vernacular — until recently, a bland and boorish vernacular, at that — contributed to this serpentine leveling as well. Ad orientem, use of Latin and plainchant, and kneeling for communion are simple but potent ways to repudiate the democratic horizontalism that has afflicted the liturgy for the past fifty years. The dismantling of these things — the removal of communion rails, the practice of communion standing (again, I speak within the Western experience as it developed over the second millennium), the reception of communion in the hand, the abolition of the acolyte with the paten, and so forth — all of these are consistent with a larger perspective of the warping of the act of worship into an act of precipitous self-esteem, one that is hauntingly reminiscent of the scenario played out in the Garden of Eden.


[1] Of course, this topic has been taken up many times at NLM, but there are always more angles from which to pursue it, and we will never leave it alone. Here are some earlier articles: “Why Does Facing Ad Orientem Matter?”; “The Marian Character of Ad Orientem Worship”; “The Priestly Character of Ad Orientem Worship”; “Fr. Dwight Longenecker on Worship Ad Orientem”; “The Normativity of Ad Orientem Worship According to the Ordinary Form’s Rubrics.”

[2] See Dom Daniel Augustine Oppenheimer, “Towards the Second Coming: Facing the Liturgical East.”

[3] All these texts and more, with good commentary, may be found in this article: “Convertere, Israël, ad Dominum Deum Tuum!: A Benedictine Monk Defends Worshiping Eastwards.”

[4] This argument is developed at greater length in my article “Mass ‘Facing the People’ as Counter-Catechesis and Irreligion.”

[5] Max Thurian, “La Liturgie, contemplation du mystère,” Notitiae 32 (1996), 692; reprinted in English in L’Osservatore Romano, 24 June 1996, p. 2.

[6] The full text may be found here.

[7] The article may be found here.

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