There has been quite a buzz lately about the practice of priests celebrating the Mass ad orientem (facing east) as opposed to the much more common practice today of celebrating versus populum (facing the people). It has touched off debate amongst Roman Catholics because of remarks by Cardinal Sarah and the subsequent Vatican response. It has even created some debate lately amongst Episcopalians, including some friends of mine, Bishop Dan Martins and Fr. Matthew Olver who wrote great pieces at Covenant recently on either side of the question (both of which came out after I had already written the bulk of the following post). I do not want to add to the controversy. I believe that ad orientem celebration is generally to be preferred for both historical and theological reasons, but that does not mean that versus populum is somehow all bad nor that ad orientem is without certain pitfalls when done poorly. So rather than throwing another log on the fire of debate, what I would like to do instead is reflect on my experience as a parish priest who has celebrated almost exclusively ad orientem over the last decade and offer a few observations that stem from that experience.
Observation #1: If you are a priest who is going to introduce ad orientem celebration in your parish, you need to educate your people about why you are doing it. And you need to be prepared to explain it to visitors on a regular basis.
The first time I ever saw an ad orientem celebration was during my senior year in college. It was at a small, country parish where the interim Rector had introduced the practice. I had no idea what he was doing. I did not know the history. I assumed that all priests had always faced the people. I was instantly put off and thought this man to be rather rude to turn his back on us. I left vowing never to come back. I offer that not by way of argument, but rather to stress the great ignorance that many laity labor under when it comes to this practice.
Observation #2: If you face the people, you should find a way of making it clear through your mannerisms or through other practices that the prayer you are offering is being directed towards the Father and not towards anyone else. At the altar, the priest stands in the place of Christ. This needs to be emphasized more than I think it currently is.
It was in seminary that I discovered the reasons for ad orientem celebration, mainly from the experience of worship in some fine Anglo-Catholic parishes where the practice is maintained. I was delighted when it turned out that my curacy would be at a parish that faced east. It taught me a deep and abiding reverence for God. I learned to think of myself as in conversation with God. The whole of the Mass became a single motion in which I stood in front of God and offered the Sacrifice for the sake of the gathered faithful. On those rare occasions when I would celebrate at some other altar and face the people, it was profoundly disorienting. I was talking to God but not looking at Him. I did not know where to turn my eyes.
It made me realize that for most of my life I had not known or understood that the Eucharist was being offered by the priest and faithful to God. It seems like a weird thing to say, but growing up with versus populum celebration I unconsciously absorbed the idea that when the priest stood at the altar and faced me he was there to talk to me. It never would have even occurred to me that I should be adding my own prayers to those of the priest, orienting my own spirit along with his so that I could offer myself to God just as he was offering bread and wine to Him, making myself “a living sacrifice” in the words of the Book of Common Prayer. There are, I am sure, ways of mitigating this concern that would still allow for versus populum celebration, but it will not happen on its own. Those who choose to celebrate mostly in this manner need to make a conscious effort to make the orientation towards God clear in the liturgy at all times. Likewise, those who celebrate ad orientem need to be consciously finding ways of inviting people into the mystery, not just doing your own thing at the altar and assuming everyone in the room is with you. This is especially true in church buildings where there is less in the art and architecture that points the people in the direction of understanding and knowing that God is present and that He is the focus of what is happening.
Observation #3: The Mass is a sacrifice before it is anything else. Ad orientem celebration communicates this in a much more evocative way than versus populum. But after years of forgetting and even obscuring this essential truth, both methods of celebration need to be placed in the sacrificial context again.
There are undoubtedly many things happening during the Mass and many images that we can use to talk about the Mass, but among them sacrifice must always be primary. Since the 1960s, the dominant way of talking about the Mass has been to identify it as a sacred meal. To be sure, this is a helpful and true image. More than a meal in fact, the Eucharist is a great banquet. It is the wedding feast of the Lord to which we have all been invited. But as Fr. Olver points out, “The Eucharist is only a meal because it is first and most fundamentally a sacrifice.”
This sacrificial character of what happens in the Mass is not only to be preferred because, as Fr. Olver notes, it is the image most frequently used by the early Church Fathers, but also because it is the source from which comes all the other blessings and good things that we identify with the Holy Eucharist. To have a sacred meal in which the people of God come together to eat as one body is good. To have such an event in which the Lord Himself actually shows up to feed us is even better. Yet when we go to Mass, we are doing one better even than that. We are going to Calvary. We are being transported out of space and time and placed at the foot of the cross. We are being gathered up by Jesus Himself into the one and eternal sacrifice that He made for us. Jesus is bringing us into that moment and pleading that sacrifice on our behalf before God the Father. And then, as part of the priesthood of all believers that unites us with the priesthood of Christ Himself, we do what all priests have always done and actually take the sacrifice into ourselves. In ancient Israel, the priests ate the animals sacrificed in the Temple. In the Mass, we who have shared in Christ’s own priesthood eat the Lamb of God who has offered Himself as both priest and victim on the altar of the cross.
However the Mass is celebrated in your parish, remembering the God-centered, cross-focused nature of the Mass will help you to walk much deeper into its divine mystery. For priests like me, keeping these considerations central to how we celebrate will go a long way towards recovering the great beauty and majesty of the liturgical life in our parishes, no matter on which side of the altar we find ourselves.
Photo from “Beauty of Catholicism“