Praying 'Ad Orientem Versus'

Author: Fr. John Zuhlsdorf


(Published as an editorial in 332, Vol. 29, No. 5, May 1993, pp. 245-249, this article was translated from Italian by Fr. John T. Zuhlsdorf.)

1) The Eucharistic celebration is, by definition, connected to the eschatological dimension of the Christian faith. This is true in its most profound identity. Is this not perhaps the sense of the wondrous change () of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of the Lord of glory, who lives always with the Father, perpetuating His paschal mystery?

2) The sober description of the Acts of the Apostles in the first summary concerning the life of the community speaks of the "joy" () with which those joined in the assembly (), broke bread in the homes. This term () is the same that Luke used to indicate eschatological joy.

3) There is a logic of Ascension in the Eucharist: "This Jesus that you have seen ascend into heaven, will return. . ." In the Eucharist the Lord returns; He anticipates sacramentally His glorious return, transforming the profound reality of the elements, and He leaves them in the condition of signs of His presence and mediation of communion with His own person. It is for this that the various liturgical families underscored a common point in different ways: with the Eucharistic prayer the Church penetrates the celestial sphere. This is the meaning of the conclusion of the Roman prefaces, of the chant of the and of the eastern .

4) In analyzing the origins of the Eucharistic prayer one is struck by the typically Christian variant introduced in the initial dialogue. The greeting, , and the invitation, , are common to the Jewish . Only the Christian one, beginning with the first complete redaction that we possess-the Apostolic Tradition-inserts the . For the Church, in fact, celebrating the Eucharist is never to put into action something earthly, but rather something heavenly, because it has the awareness that the principal celebrant of the same action is the Lord of glory. The Church necessarily celebrates the Eucharist oriented toward the Lord, in communion with Him and, through His mediation, toward the Father in unity with the Holy Spirit. The priest, ordained in the Catholic and apostolic communion, is the witness of the authenticity of the celebration and at the same time the sign of the glorious Lord who presides at it. Just as the bread and wine are the elements that Christ assumes in order to "give Himself," the priest is the person that Christ consecrated and invited to "give."

5) The placement of the priest and the faithful in relation to the "mystical table" found different forms in history, some of which can be considered typical to certain places and periods. As is logical when treating liturgical questions, symbolism took on a noteworthy role in these different forms, but it would be difficult to prove that the architectural interpretation of such symbolism could, in any of the forms chosen, have been considered as an integral and basic part of the Christian faith or of the profound attitudes of the celebrating Church.

6) The arrangement of the altar in such a manner that the celebrant and the faithful were looking toward the east-which is a great tradition even if it is not unanimous-is a splendid application of the "parousial" character of the Eucharist. One celebrates the mystery of Christ until He comes again from the heavens (). The sun which illuminates the altar during the Eucharist is a pale reference to the "sun that comes from on high" () (Ps. 18:6) in order to celebrate the paschal victory with His Church. The influence of the symbol of light, and concretely the sun, is frequently found in Christian liturgy. The baptismal ritual of the East still preserves this symbolism. Perhaps the Christian West has not adequately appreciated this, given the consequence of having come to be known as a "gloomy place." But also in the West, at the popular level, we know that there remains a certain fascination for the rising sun. Did not Saint Leo the Great, in the fifth century, remind the faithful in one of his Christmas homilies that "when the sun rises in the first dawning of the day some people are so foolish as to worship it in high places?" He adds: "There are also Christians that still retain that it is part of religious practice to continue this convention and that before entering the Basilica of the Apostle Peter, dedicated to the only and true God, after having climbed the stairs that bear one up to the upper level, turn themselves around toward the rising sun, bow their heads and kneel in order to honor the shining disk" (Homily 27, 4). In fact, the faithful entering the basilica for the Eucharist, in order to be intent on the altar, had to turn their backs to the sun. In order to pray while "turned toward the east," as it was said, they would have had to turn their backs to the altar, which does not seem probable.

7) The fact that the application of this symbolism in the West, beginning from very early on, progressively diminished, demonstrates that it did not constitute an inviolable element. Therefore, it cannot be considered a traditional fundamental principle in Christian liturgy. From this it also arises that, subsequently, other types of symbolism influenced the construction of altars and their arrangement in churches.

8) In the encyclical , Pius XII regarded as "archeologists" those who presumed to speak of the altar as a simple table. Would it not be equally an archeologizing tendency to consider that the arrangement of the altar toward the East is the decisive key to a correct Eucharistic celebration? In effect, the validity of the liturgical reform is not based only and exclusively on the return to original forms. There can also be completely new elements in it, and in fact there are some, that have been perfectly integrated.

9) The liturgical reform of the II Vatican Council did not invent the arrangement of the altar turned toward the people. One thinks concerning this of the witness of the Roman basilicas, at least as a pre-existing fact. But it was not an historical fact that directed the clear option for an arrangement of the altar that permits a celebration turned toward the people. The authorized interpretors of the reform-Cardinal Lercaro as the president of the Consilium-repeated from the very beginning (see the letters from 1965) that one was not dealing with a question of a liturgy that is continuing or passing away (). The fact that the suggestions of Cardinal Lercaro in this matter were, in that moment of euphoria, little taken into consideration, is unfortunately not an isolated case. Changing the orientation of the altar and utilizing the vernacular turned out to be much easier ways for entering into the theological and spiritual meaning of the liturgy, for absorbing its spirit, for studying the history and the meaning of the rites and analyzing the reasons behind the changes that were brought about and their pastoral consequences.

10) The option for celebrations is coherent with the foundational theological idea discovered and proven by the liturgical movement: "Liturgical actions are celebrations of the Church. . .which is the holy people of God gathered and ordered under the bishops" (SC 26). The theology of the common priesthood and the ministerial priesthood, "distinct in essence, and not in degree" () and nevertheless ordered to each other (LG 10) is certainly better expressed with the arrangement of the . Did not monks, from ancient times, pray turned toward each other in order to search for the presence of the Lord in their midst? Moreover, a figurative motive is worth underscoring. The symbolic form of the Eucharist is that of a meal, a repetition of the supper of the Lord. One does not doubt that this meal is sacrificial, a memorial of the death and resurrection of Christ, but from the figurative point of view its reference point is the supper.

11) Furthermore, how does one forget that one of the strongest arguments that sustain the continuance of the uninterrupted tradition of the exclusive ordination of men, lies in the fact that the priest, president in virtue of ordination, stands at the altar as a member of the assembly, but also by his sacramental character, before the assembly as Christ is the head of the Church and that for this reason stands there in front of () the Church.

12) If from the supports we pass to the applications, we find much material for reflection. The Congregation of Divine Worship, taking into consideration that a series of questions has been rising up in this regard, proposes now the following guiding points:

1. The celebration of the Eucharist requires of the priest a greater and more sincere expression of his ministerial conscience: his gestures, his prayer, his facial expression must reveal to the assembly in a more direct way the principal actor, the Lord Jesus. One does not improvise this; one acquires it with some technique. Only a profound sense of the proper priestly identity in is able to attain this.

2. The orientation of the altar requires with great care a correct use of the different areas of the sanctuary: the chair, the ambo and altar, as well as a correct positioning of the people that preside and serve in it. If the altar is turned into a pedestal for everything necessary for celebrating the Eucharist, or into a substitute for the chair in the first part of the Mass, or into a place from which the priest directs the whole celebration (in almost a technical sense), the altar will lose symbolically its identity as the central place of the Eucharist, the table of mystery, the meeting place between God and men for the sacrifice of the new and eternal covenant.

3. The placement of the altar is certainly something in the present liturgical legislation that is desirable. It is not, nevertheless, an absolute value over and beyond all others. It is necessary to take into account cases in which the sanctuary does not admit of an arrangement of the altar facing the people, or it is not possible to preserve the preceding altar with its ornamentation in such a way that another altar facing the people can be understood to be the principal altar. In these cases, it is more faithful to liturgical sense to celebrate at the existing altar with the back turned to the people rather than maintain two altars in the same sanctuary. The principle of the unicity of the altar is theologically more important than the practice of celebrating facing the people.

4. It is proper to explain clearly that the expression "celebrate facing the people" does not have a theological sense, but only a topographical- positional sense. Every celebration of the Eucharist is praise and glory of God, for our good and the good of all the Church (). Theologically, therefore, the Mass is always facing towards God and facing the people. In the form of celebration it is necessary to take care not to switch theology and topography around, above all when the priest is at the altar. The priest speaks to the people only in the dialogue from the altar. All the rest is prayer to the Father, through the mediation of Christ in the Holy Spirit. This theology must be visible.

5. At last, a conjectural consideration that is not to be left in silence. Thirty years have passed since the constitution . "Provisional arrangements" cannot be justified any longer. In the re- organization of the sanctuary if a provisional character is maintained which is either pedagogically or artistically badly resolved, then an element of distortion results for catechesis and for the very theology of the celebration. Some criticisms of certain celebrations that are raised are well-founded and can only be taken with seriousness. The effort to improve celebrations is one of the basic elements to assure, in so far as it depends on us, an active and fruitful participation.

This article appeared in the Winter 1993 issue of "Sacred Music." Published by the Church Music Association of America, 548 Lafond Avenue, St. Paul, MN 55103.