A (Re)Orientation of the Liturgy

"Despite all the variations in practice that have taken place far into the second millennium, one thing has remained clear for the whole of Christendom: praying toward the east  is a tradition that goes back to the beginning. Moreover, it is a fundamental expression of the Christian synthesis of cosmos and history, of being rooted in the once-for-all events of salvation history while going out to meet the Lord who is to come again" [emphasis added]
 (Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI), The Spirit of the Liturgy
by Mr. Phil Kosloski, Director of Adult Formation & Liturgy

            By far, the change in the liturgy that has most characterized the "Spirit of Vatican II" has been the turning of the priest away from the tabernacle and towards the people (versus populum). Unfortunately, this is also one of the most fundamental misunderstandings in the new regulations that came out after the Second Vatican Council. Yes indeed, there was the provision that allowed the celebration of the Mass in this way, not found in any of the documents from Vatican II, but in the instructions in the new Roman Missal published in 1969: "The altar should be built apart from the wall, in such a way that it is possible to walk around it easily and that Mass can be celebrated at it facing the people." However, the instruction does not mandate Mass being celebrated towards the people, but simply allows it. Consequently, even though 99% of parishes today celebrate Mass towards the people, it does not mean that this direction is the only possible way of worshiping God.
            Historically speaking, the liturgy of the ancient Christians was always celebrated towards the East. The reasoning behind this was primarily rooted in the Eschatological hope of Christ's Second Coming. They saw the rising of the sun as a foreshadowing of when Christ would come again at the end of time. Since East is where the sun rises, it became fitting for the early Christians to always face the east whenever they prayed. In fact, other religions developed their own direction of prayer. Muslims, for example, always pray towards Mecca. This position of prayer adopted by the early Church became known as ad orientem (towards the East). Churches were then built always to face the East, with the sanctuary at the eastern end. In Rome, where some churches were built facing West, the priest would still always celebrate Mass towards the East. This is evident in St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, where the priest still faces East.  However, to our eyes he is facing the people. In reality, the priest is only facing the people because of the construction of the church and the need for the priest to face the East. In the modern day in order to correct this orientation, many priest will put a crucifix on the altar and so develop a "liturgical East." In this instance the priest faces not so much the people as Christ on the Cross, who is the proper end of our worship.
            Another reason why the priest is directed to "turn his back" away from the people, is so that the priest is in direct unity with those in the pews. When the priest celebrates Mass toward the tabernacle, he is united with everyone in the proper posture of prayer: towards God. This is important to keep in mind, for the liturgy is not primarily meant to be a gathering of individuals for fellowship, but it is supposed to be directed towards worship of God. When the priest is oriented in this manner, he is leading the people behind him towards God. He is like Moses leading the people through the Red Sea into the Promised Land. The priest is like the Good Shepherd leading his flock towards better pasture. He is a leader of a pilgrimage, and it is vital that the leader or guide be facing the proper direction. Facing the tabernacle in this way, he is not "turning his back on the people, obscuring our view of the Mass." Instead, he is opening up for us an aspect of the liturgy that is vital for us to understand: our lives are meant to be directed towards Heaven.  Facing the East with the priest reminds us of the need to direct our entire selves, indeed our whole body and soul, "to the heights" as Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassti would often say. Our goal is Heaven and ultimate union with God and so it is fitting to be oriented in such a way that we are all on the same path; pilgrims on a journey to the Promised Land of Heaven. In addition to all of this, the direction of the priest facing the tabernacle puts him in direct dialogue with God the Father. Indeed, the priest is meant to be an "alter Christus," another Christ who intercedes on our behalf to God the Father.

"A common turning to the east during the Eucharist Prayer remains essential.  This is not a case of something accidental, but of what is essential.  Looking at the priest has no importance.  What matters is looking together at the Lord. It is not now a question of dialogue but of common worship, of setting off toward the One who is to come.  What corresponds with the reality of what is happening is not the closed circle, but the common movement forward, expressed in a common direction for prayer."
[emphasis added] (Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI), The Spirit of the Liturgy

            As it is seen by the two quotes given above, Pope Benedict XVI highly favors this proper orientation at Mass. Thus far in his Pontificate, he has shown this in two ways: (1) whenever he celebrates Mass, there is always an altar crucifix to show that he is celebrating Mass "towards God;" (2) on several occasions, he has turned "with the people" and has faced the tabernacle while celebrating Mass. The reason why he does this is simple: our Supreme Pontiff desires to teach us an important lesson about how we are to worship. He desires that we worship not each other, but that we direct our minds, hearts, and bodies towards God. He realizes the truth of the old maxim, lex orandi, lex credendi: "the law of prayer is the law of belief." What this challenges us to consider is that the way we pray to God very often reflects the way we believe. This does not mean that Mass celebrated versus populum is inherently bad (it is permitted by the Church), however, it does challenge our attitude toward worship. The question is raised to each one of us, "do we truly worship God and focus solely upon Him in the way we pray?" 

This Sacred Triduum, let us open ourselves to renewal and a proper re-orientation in the manner in which we participate in the Wedding Feast of the Lamb.

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