The first thought I’ve been mulling over for a while. The second thought came to me last night before I drifted off to dreamland. So for the first one, I’m ready for a real discussion, but for the second one, go easy on me!
FIRST: There are many definitions one encounters for “the Church.” Examples are, “the community of believers,” “the Mystical Body of Christ,” “the communion of grace,” “the Bride of Christ,” to name a few. None of these would be wrong, but there is one that I have never encountered before as far as I can recall which might be legitimate… That would be, “rational creation’s participation in Christ.” The merit of this is that it includes human beings insofar as they are united with Christ, that is, to the extent which they share His Life by imitation and union. It excludes non-rational creatures, like rocks, cacti, and lemurs. It excludes, or at least intensely qualifies, Christ Himself – it does not seem quite right to say that Christ is “in” the Church… To compare this definition with the others could be helpful; for example, the Bride of Christ is not exactly Christ Himself, the Bridegroom, nor is His Mystical Body exactly the same as His “normal” Body. Maybe the most interesting aspect of this definition is its limited openness to angels (who are rational creatures)… Insofar as they are united with Christ by doing His Will or by sharing His Life, they are in the Church. But they are not in the Church the same way human beings redeemed by Christ are in the Church. Further, each individual has his or her own unique participation in Christ, according to differing graces, sacramental characters, and virtues. Therefore, this definition allows for a multiplicity of ways of being “in the Church” – in fact, there are as many ways to be “in the Church” as there are rational creatures, since it seems no two participations in Christ will be precisely the same, with the possible exception of humans who do not possess the ability for rational activity (and therefore voluntary cooperation with grace). Finally, were there some other economy of salvation with another Incarnation of the Son (such as might happen for an extraterrestrial race), rational creatures which participate in that particular order of grace would be in their own communion of grace, as it is mediated by another human nature, even though it is still the same Divine Person… They would be in a different Church, a different Mystical Body, although still ultimately participating in the same Divine Life.
So there are some major advantages to this definition.
SECOND: A little less thought out, but it really hit me last night… So, first, the Eucharist contains the real and substantial Presence of Christ’s own Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity. This is, as pointed out above, distinguishable from His Mystical Body, which is the whole Church. Okay. Second, the Eucharist contains the secondary dimensive quantity of Christ – which means He is present in that space according to “being in a space” but without having normal shape, the manner of presence being merely according to the mode of substance, which is in relation to the accidents of the substance that has been transformed, viz. bread and wine. (See St. Thomas on that here for more.) Okay. Third, while it is not quite right to say that Christ is “physically” in the Sacrament, due to the primary dimensive quantity not inhering in the Substance, it is still correct to say that the Substance of Christ is “here” and “not over there.” When a Host or Chalice is moved, Christ is not moved physically (His physical Body and Blood are resting in Heaven under their primary dimensive quantity), but the Substance appears in different places according to the motion of the accidents of bread and wine; that is to say, the Substance is “here,” then “there.” Okay, so with that relatively unclear explanation, let me briefly get to what hit me… It seems that, in a way, the Eucharist rips open the universe and taps into the Substance of Christ which is “underneath” it. The Substance is potentially made real in this particular spot, not by placing the Substance there – which can only be done by physically moving Christ under His primary dimensive quantity – but by “opening” this place to “uncover” it.
What are the implications of this? Is this a legitimate way to look at this reality? I’m not quite sure. I need to think about it more. But I found the possible line of inquiry very interesting.
As Corpus Christi approaches – and with the season for First Communions already upon us – I would like to offer a simple analogy to help explain transubstantiation to children. Or adults. Or both.
First, a note: there is no perfect analogy for the process whereby bread and wine become Our Lord (Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity), because in all other kinds of changes, either an accidental change causes the substantial change (as burning a paper changes it to ash), or the substantial change is at least followed by accidental change (as death causes the body to stop functioning as a living, unified whole). For neither of these things to happen, but for the “what” of a thing to change nonetheless, is altogether special.
That being said, we can point to the reality indirectly, by using the “via negativa” (transubstantiation is not Jesus hiding in the substances of bread and wine, it is not a destruction and replacement of the substances bread and wine and God producing an illusion of the accidents of bread and wine, etc.), or, in this case, by making an analogy of experience.
From far away, a rainbow looks like a colorful, solid, translucent band which could be touched, like a window. This corresponds to our experience of the accidents of bread and wine – it really does look, feel, taste, etc., as if bread and wine were before us, and we really do see what looks like a solid, translucent band of colors. As any keen 2nd grader knows, that’s not what a rainbow really is. A rainbow is a bunch of little bits of light that look like one big band of colors. Now, for some kids, perhaps it will come as a shock that you can’t really reach the end of a rainbow – but plenty will be able to tell you that when you move towards a rainbow, it moves away from you. The “reality” can’t be reached by looking more closely: it will always be hidden by an appearance of what it is not. Of course, one can go to the spot where such-and-such bits of light are being refracted, but then there won’t be any experience at all. In each case – chasing a rainbow, or being where a rainbow was seen from a different spot – the reality is hidden from our senses.
I have used this analogy myself with kids and have found it to be helpful. (Of course, it is really an explanation of the effects of transubstantiation – I have no idea of how to explain the change itself rather than by laying out all the doctrine and its metaphysical pieces, which would not be necessary or helpful for a 2nd grader.) I would recommend showing first that a thing doesn’t change its “being” just because its shape or color changes… This helps to give them an idea of the difference between accidents and substances/essences.
Have you found any different analogies that work well? Comment below!
In my time in parish work, and in my exploration of the world’s great (and little) churches, I have encountered many interesting phenomena. As you might imagine, that involves a spectrum, with the simply “good” on one end and the simply “bad” on the other, with plenty of ho-hum stuff in the middle. But there is also a category of things sort of “in the middle” which don’t really fit well into such a simple paradigm. They deserve their own little separate space.
At this point, I’m not exactly sure how I would rearrange the variables on this chart to explain these experiences, but they are definitely of the kind that would fit into that valley which just feels “off.”
Electric candles – especially votive candles – are a big one.
Yes, it’s cheaper. Yes, it’s less dangerous. Yes, it’s cleaner. But isn’t that all part of what makes it not as good? It seems far “less human” than it should. All you do is put in a coin… Some electrons move… And there you go. That’s it. No careful management of the flame as you transfer it from a candle already lit, no satisfaction of getting your wick to light, no organic timeline for when it will go out, and nothing is actually burnt up and “wasted” on God. The last bit is probably the most important. Here’s 2 Sam. 24:22-24:
But Araunah said to David: “Let my lord the king take it and offer up what is good in his sight. See, here are the oxen for burnt offerings, and the threshing sledges and the yokes of oxen for wood.All this does Araunah give to the king.” Araunah then said to the king, “May the Lord your God accept your offering.” The king, however, replied to Araunah, “No, I will buy it from you at the proper price, for I cannot sacrifice to the Lord my God burnt offerings that cost me nothing.”
King David was worried about not spending enough himself for a burnt offering of oxen. One can only imagine the king’s reaction if Araunah had offered to put coins into a candle machine that just moves electricity in a circle.
This does not necessarily mean that the one using a candle machine is doing a poorer job praying, but perhaps over time it could have an effect on a person’s perception of worship, leading to the thought that what’s in your wallet is more important than what’s in your heart… After all, there are no “suggested donations” for a machine.
Another big one is recorded music.
We don’t accept lip-syncing at concerts. Why would God accept a recording from a CD at Mass? This can be especially prevalent at funerals, where a well-meaning family wants their loved one’s favorite song played, and while it is certainly difficult to deny a grieving family, the songs are often inappropriate and are never anything much more than a catharsis over memories when what the funeral rite is primarily for is prayer for the soul of the deceased.
Recorded music also shows up outside liturgies as “filler,” when silence is, I suppose, too unsettling. You will find this in many churches in Rome, Paris, and beyond. While the music is often “good,” the fact that it is an mp3 means that those voices and instrumentalists are not actually there praying with you – it just sounds like it. And to me that can be a bit more unsettling than silence.
Notice once again the lack of “waste” – it is a mere digital re-presentation of someone else’s work.
On the other hand, once I walked into Wieskirche in Bavaria and there was a magnificent little choral arrangement being sung by a small group. Wonder and joy, the opposite of the liturgical creeps?
The “liturgical creeps” are then, I suppose, when something a little “fake” is helping mediate or ground prayer that reduces the “waste” of human effort. It’s a working definition, at least.
Perhaps you have had the experience yourself. What else fits into the liturgical uncanny valley?
Post by: Eamonn Clark
Main image: Opening title from the popular 90’s kids’ show, “Are You Afraid of the Dark?”
“I heard there was a secret chord, that David played and it pleased the Lord.” But if you can’t figure out what that chord was, maybe just try singing. God made your voice, after all.
With roots going back to ancient Judaism, singing is an integral part of Christian worship. St. Paul tells us to “be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart” (Eph 5:17-19). One would guess that musical instruments would be helping to make this melody, adding another musical layer and aiding proper pitch, tempo, and rhythm.
However, the Fathers of the Early Church came down very hard against the use of any musical instruments in the liturgy. For example, St. John Chrysostom says rather forcefully that “where aulos-players are, there Christ is not.” By exploring their reasons, we’ll uncover some theological underpinnings to the Church’s use of chant in her liturgy.
“Praise him with trumpet sound; praise him with lute and harp! Praise him with timbrel and dance; praise him with strings and pipe! Praise him with sounding cymbals; praise him with loud clashing cymbals! Let everything that breathes praise the Lord!” (Psalm 150:3-6)
Although the Temple at one point was known for its loud instruments, Judaism itself cast aside musical instruments in the wake of the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D. When the Romans left Jerusalem devestated, the Jews dispersed throughout the Roman Empire abandoned their harps and lutes, as they had once done in the Babylonian Exile 600 years prior:
By the rivers of Babylon there we sat and wept, remembering Zion; on the poplars that grew there we hung up our harps. For it was there that they asked us, our captors for songs, our oppressors, for joy. “Sing to us,” they said, “one of Zion’s songs.” O how could we sing the song of the Lord on alien soil? (Psalm 137: 1-4)
Like the Babylonian Exile, the destruction of the Temple fundamentally changed Jewish worship, and the “lute and harp” lost out.
Another reason musical instruments lost out was that pagan cults were known for playing musical instruments. And since the early Jews had a real fear of obfuscating the sacred and the profane, the association of musical instruments with paganism was enough to render musical instruments unclean.
When the Early Church looked for guidance in how to conduct their worship, they seemed to follow suit. But the Church Fathers didn’t stop with just condemning the use of musical instruments in the liturgy of the Church; they went on to condemn them in other aspects of secular life. For example, St. John Chrysostom calls musical instruments “the devil’s great heap of garbage.” St. Augustine adds: “The pipe, tabret, and harp here associate so intimately with the sensual heathen cults, as well as with the wild revelries and shameless performances of the degenerate theater and circus, it is easy to understand the prejudices against their use in the worship.”
Because of this great aversion to musical instruments, early Christian liturgical music was exclusively vocal. The liturgy would be sung but only in a subdued fashion, using a form of singing called “cantillation” that resembled speech more than song.
“He who sings, prays twice” – this aphorism often attributed to St. Augustine is actually a distillation of his commentary on Psalm 73:
For he that sings praise, not only praises, but only praises with gladness; he that sings praise, not only sings, but also loves him of whom he sings. In praise, there is the speaking forth of one confessing; in singing, the affection of one loving.
Perhaps better distilled as “Only the lover sings,” singing adds to our praise the element of love, the internal disposition of the heart. The act of singing, involving the mechanisms of the human voice, expresses that love of God or, even, is that love of God. Something much more profound is happening in the song of the lover than a mere doubling of prayer.
But what about musical instruments?
Although Jewish and Christian worship changed, the Old Testament did not. How did the Early Church contend with the many instances of musical instruments in the Old Testament? The Church Fathers interiorized the external musical instruments featured in the psalter. Chief among the Church Fathers in that area, St. Clement of Alexandria writes on Psalm 150:
The Spirit, to purify the divine liturgy from any such unrestrained revelry, chants: ‘Praise Him with sound of trumpet,’ for, in fact, at the sound of the trumpet the dead will rise again; ‘praise Him with harp,’ for the tongue is a harp of the Lord; ‘and with the lute, praise Him,’ understand the mouth as a lute moved by the Spirit as the lute is by the plectrum; ‘praise Him with timbal and choir,’ that is, the Church awaiting the resurrection of the body in the flesh which is its echo; ‘praise Him with strings and organ,’ calling our bodies an organ and its sinews strings, for from them the body derives its coordinated movement, and when touched by the Spirit, gives forth human sounds; ‘praise Him on high-sounding cymbals,’ which mean the tongue of the mouth, which, with the movement of the lips, produces words.
Far removed from the “unrestrained revelry” of pagan culture, the human voice alone sufficed for authentic praise of God. All the references to musical instruments are made into allegories for the human body, each signifying different aspects of our physical anthropology.
But more than just our bodies, God made the whole human person – body and soul – in His image, capable of praising Him in melodious song. The early monk Cassiodorus writes that “the notes previously observed as issuing from musical instruments are now seen to emanate from the rational bodies of men.” Connecting this to the Incarnation, St. Clement of Alexandria writes:
The Word of God, scorning the lyre and cithara as lifeless instruments, and having rendered harmonious by the Holy Spirit both this cosmos and even man the microcosm, made up of body and soul – he sings to God on his many-voiced instrument and he sings to man, himself an instrument: “You are my cithara, my aulos and my temple,” a cithara because of harmony, and aulos because of spirit, and a temple because of the word, so that the first might strum, the second might breathe, and the third might encompass the Lord… The Lord made man a beautiful breathing instrument after his own image; certainly he is himself an all harmonious instrument of God, well-tuned and holy, the transcendental wisdom, the heavenly Word.
The Word of God became flesh – with human lungs, lips, tongue, and voice – and continued his eternal praise of the Father, now as one of those “beautiful breathing instruments.”
The definitive departure from “lifeless” Davidic musical instruments made room for such interpretations of the psalms. With this anthropologizing and allegorizing of the psalms with the elevated anthropology of the Incarnation, we have the beginnings of a theological foundation for liturgical chant.
Theology of the Unassisted Voice
When the Word became human flesh in the Incarnation, the study of human nature became a study of God – anthropology became a theology. Likewise, the study of the human voice reveals in some way the mystery of Christ. According to Dom Mark Kirby, the human voice in the Church’s liturgy prepares “in a kind of renewal of the mystery of the incarnation, an acoustical body for the Divine Word” (“The Psalmody of the Divine Office,” 17-18). In this way, liturgical chant is a participation in Christ’s mediation to the Father, as manifested in the Incarnation.
Here (with some help from Dom Kirby) are some theological musings on several aspects of the unassisted human voice.
Breathing: Within the Trinity, “the breath of God is indissociable from the word of God, and the word of God cannot be uttered save in a communication of the breath of God.” (“Toward a Definition of Liturgical Chant,” 15). Breathing thus images the action of the Holy Spirit in singing. In a cappella singing, pauses for breathing are left unfilled and exposed. Through the breathing necessary for supported singing, “the human person, fully alive, expresses likeness to God. Breath, life, and word constitute an inseparable triad in the divine economy of creation and redemption” (Ibid.). Together, the co-incidence of breath and word resonate in the human heart, the inner sanctuary of the temple of one’s body, where one prays to the Father in secret (Matt 6:6).
Memory: Unlike visual art which is stretched spatially, music is stretched temporally, requiring the human memory to link words across time into a coherent discourse. “Liturgical chant,” according to Dom Kirby, “being heightened discourse, engages the memory of both singer and hearer, becoming a disclosure, in time, of the timeless mystery, a contemplative unfolding of the Word” (“Toward a Definition of Liturgical Chant,” 14).
Communion: The prayer of the Christian is never solitary; every prayer is uttered in union with Christ and in communion with His Church. Chant captures this aspect of communion. The propers, antiphons, and psalmody chanted in the sacred assembly make present that communion of persons, all praying ecclesially with the voice of the Church. Chanting the prayer of the Church together leads to a uniformity without homogenization, a unity without loss of identity – each unique voice aids the others in a common song of praise. Even when chanted alone, the prayer of the liturgy is united with the prayers of all the faithful from the rising of the sun to its setting, stretching throughout space and time.
Silence: Chant begins and ends with silence: “the context of liturgical chant is, before and after anything else, silence. It originates, with the word, in silence. Like the Word, it ‘springs from the silence’” (Ibid., 20). More than merely assisting prayer, chant is prayer. In fact, chant is a participation in the highest prayer of Christ’s mediation to the Father. As such, chant should not feel rushed or busy, but must rather be irrigated with silence. The pockets of silence are little Mount Horebs wherein we hear the “still small voice” of God (1 Kg 19:12). This prayer does not need musical instruments filling in the gaps of singing and supporting the sound of the human voice with additional melodic layers. Rather, in liturgical chant, the exposed and vulnerable human person encounters the Father most authentically in silence.
In chant, the human voice alone carries the word and expresses the fullness of the human person – body and soul. Chanting the text without accompaniment, one’s voice, one’s prayer – one’s whole person – is exposed to God. Chant is thus a full, conscious, and active participation in the prayer of the Church in the liturgy.
As the Church spread throughout Europe and the influence of paganism began to wane, musical instruments lost their negative associations. No longer seen as “the devil’s heap of garbage,” the Church began to reintroduce instruments into worship. With a little help from Charlemagne, the pipe organ became a prominent feature of medieval churches. As a “breathing” machine operated by bellows, the pipe organ was seen as an appropriate mechanical approximation of the human voice.
But before the organ became a staple of church construction, the initial vacuum created by the Church Fathers’ opposition to musical instruments was filled by a theology of the unaccompanied human voice. Even though the Church no longer fears a connection to pagan worship, it was that initial aversion that occasioned the development of a robust theology of the unaccompanied voice – a theology whose praises are often unsung.
Such a theology became the basis for the great depositum orandi – deposit of prayer (to coin a phrase) – in Gregorian Chant. To this day, Gregorian chant is still “specially suited to the Roman liturgy” and “should be given pride of place in liturgical services” (Sacrosanctum Concilium 116).
Like the Early Church, the negative cultural associations of some contemporary genres of music ought to be taken into account in developing liturgical music fitted for the worship of the Father through, with, and in the incarnate Son. But more importantly, we ought not to turn our back on the larger theology of chant rooted in the Incarnation.
Let’s be bold and ask the question: if the priest has his back to the people when he faces ad orientem, Who does he have his back to when he faces them?
Robert Cardinal Sarah, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, recently gave an address to the “Sacra Liturgia” Conference, entitled “Towards an Authentic Implementation of Sacrosanctum Concilium.” In this address, he said the following:
…[It] is very important that we return as soon as possible to a common orientation, of priests and the faithful turned together in the same direction—Eastwards or at least towards the apse—to the Lord who comes, in those parts of the liturgical rites when we are addressing God. This practice is permitted by current liturgical legislation. It is perfectly legitimate in the modern rite. Indeed, I think it is a very important step in ensuring that in our celebrations the Lord is truly at the centre.
Cardinal Sarah’s appeal to return to ad orientem worship is not made in a vacuum. There has been a growing interest in the traditional practice that has kept pace with a growing scholarship in this area.
The whole question of the orientation of the liturgy takes as a starting point the fact that the liturgy is the communication of something innately beautiful – that, in the highest sense of the word, liturgy is an art.
In his Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Sacramentum Caritatis, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI argues that beauty is no mere decoration, but rather an “essential element of the liturgical action, since it is an attribute of God himself and his revelation.” The gestures and signs of the liturgy form a sort of divine choreography. This divine choreography – the “ars celebrandi” – arises not from arbitrary or superficial principles, but from the astounding depth of the Paschal Mystery and the truth of the Christian faith. For our purposes, it is important to see that the ars celebrandi cannot be underestimated for its ability to invite real immersion into the liturgy. Indeed, for Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, it is “the primary way to foster the participation of the People of God in the sacred rite.” With stakes so high, it is necessary to embody within the celebration of the Mass the right imagery.
Behind the recent remarks of Cardinal Sarah, there is a world of theological debate about the choreography of the liturgy – particularly the orientation of the priest. To situate the debate, we will examine two major works on the topic: Turning Towards the Lord by U. M. Lang and The Spirit of the Liturgy by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI).
Within this context of liturgy as art (and without delving too much into the liturgical polemics in the wake of Cardinal Sarah’s address last week), we will investigate some of the reasoning that advocates for versus populum have used, the response by those who advocate ad orientem, and the prevailing recommendation to correct the issues.
Arguments In Favor of Versus Populum
First, it will be most helpful to have an idea for the argument for keeping the new practice of celebrating Mass versus populum.
1. Advocates of versus populum would point out that the Mass originates in the Last Supper on Holy Thursday. In that context, Christ was reclined around a table with his apostles. Thus, the Mass in the modern day ought to be reflective of a communal meal, with priest and the people facing each other in order to be true to the origins. Doing so would fulfil Sacrosanctum Concilium’s call for “active participation” in the liturgy by the faithful, by inviting them into the communal act in so direct a way. Since “active participation” is such a major concern in the last century’s liturgical reform, it has seemed most expedient to construct new altars that invited versus populum celebration.
2. By way of anticipating objections, advocates for versus populum are guarding against “archaism” in liturgy. Pope Pius XII, in his encyclical Mediator Dei, warns against any misguided archaism:
The liturgy of the early ages is most certainly worthy of all veneration. But ancient usage must not be esteemed more suitable and more proper, either in its own right or in its significance for later times and new situations, on the simple ground that it carries the savour and aroma of antiquity … [I]t is neither wise nor laudable to reduce everything to antiquity by every possible device.
Lest the Church fall into this archaism, supporters of versus populum argue that we must allow the liturgy to develop the way that it has. New forms and new practices are all the more fitting for new ages of the Church. Accordingly, they argue that there is no reason to reverse the trend of celebrating versus populum.
Responses to these Arguments
Is the appeal to bring back ad orientem celebration simply “archaism”? Are its proponents just advocating liturgical nostalgia?
Quite the contrary. The defense of ad orientem celebration is robust, thorough, clear, and convincing. Lang points out several flaws in the reasoning for versus populum. That the Last Supper was merely a meal, Lang takes issue. The Mass did begin as a meal, but its development did not end there. The Eucharistic sacrifice commemorates the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus – the Paschal Mystery. It is not merely a meal. Lang explains: “it was the new reality, not the meal as such, that Christ commanded us to repeat in memory of him” (93). To think that the development from the Jewish festal meal to the distinct act of liturgical worship in Christianity could or should be reversed, Lang concludes, would be “a most deceptive archaism” (93).
The second flaw with the appeal to the Last Supper is that it does not match up with the reality of the actual meal in the first place. According to Lang, “it was customary for the diners to recline on couches arranged in a semicircle, with small tables being used for holding food and dishes. In this arrangement, the place of honour was on the right of the semicircle” (93). In effect, it is not true that the Last Supper would have meant that the people would face each other, as has been perpetuated by the art of the 13th century onward. Although a contemporary reading of the Last Supper meal would impose such a reality, it is more likely that all the diners were facing the same direction at the time. Thus, the appeal to the Last Supper fails, not only because it is a mistaken view of the Mass as merely a meal, but also because it does not take into account the actual historical conditions of the Last Supper.
If the image of a meal does not fully capture the symbolic meaning of the Mass, are there other ways in which we may understand the Mass? Ratzinger puts forward another image: the Exodus. In the liturgical exodus, the priest is not just a “presider” – rather, like Moses he leads the people towards the Lord from slavery to the Promised Land. The priest facing the same direction as the people expresses the meaning of pilgrimage in our participation in the Exodus of the New Covenant – the Paschal Mystery of our Lord.
As a final response to the proponents of versus populum, Lang addresses the accusation of archaism:
This is not a form of archaism, if only because it was the virtually universal practice in the Latin Church until the most recent times and is part of the liturgical heritage in the Churches of the Byzantine, Syriac, Armenian, Coptic, and Ethiopian traditions. (98)
The practice of offering Mass ad orientem simply has too rich of a history and is too universal in its usage to be oversimplified to archaism.
The Defense for Ad Orientem
Having discussed the flaws in the versus populum argumentation, it is fitting to look at the whole argument for facing east in the offering of Mass. We will look at this argument based off the history of Church, the symbolism behind the orientation, and the necessity of maintaining proper symbols.
The history of the Church’s liturgical celebrations and the symbolism contained within these decisions are so interwoven that we will discuss them together. The Jewish custom for worship consisted in the synagogues facing the temple. All the ritual celebrations pointed back to Jerusalem as the focal point of Jewish worship. It was here that God centered his relationship with His chosen people.
As the Christians developed their own identity and broke from Jewish customs, it was no longer important to face the temple. Now, Christians faced towards the New Jerusalem. How could this be manifested in the direction of worship? Facing the east quickly became the Christian response, not only in liturgy but in prayer in general. Lang gives some biblical examples:
[F]or instance, the sun of righteousness (Mal 4:2), the feet of the Lord standing on the Mount of Olives, which lies before Jerusalem on the east (Zech 14:4), the day dawning from on high (Lk 1:78), the angel ascending from the rising of the sun with the seal of the living God (Rev 7:2), not to mention the Johannine light imagery. (41)
In addition to these examples, the Son of Man came with power and glory, appearing as lightning in the east, shining as far as the west (Mt 24:27,30). For the early Christians, the image of the rising sun was very significant. They would face that direction in order to face the Lord.
This eastward orientation held true nearly universally and affected all types of Christian prayer. Origen (around AD 231) explains the connection in his treatise On Prayer:
It should be immediately clear that that the direction of the rising sun obviously indicates that we ought to pray inclining in that direction, an act which symbolizes the soul looking where the true light rises.
In case Origen is not enough of an authority, St. Augustine is in agreement: “When we stand at prayer, we turn to the east.”
The architecture of ancient Churches points out that the liturgy was almost always celebrated ad orientem. In the cases where the doors were facing to the east, which was a minority, the celebrant and the people would all look to the doors together. When, as was the case most often, the apse faced east, the celebrant and the people all faced the apse. The common direction became important no matter what the architectural direction was. (Remember that pews are a recent invention, and most ancient churches did not have seating of any kind except for the elderly and infirm.)
Finally, the defense of ad orientem drives home the point most powerfully when it argues that the symbolic significance of the direction of prayer is of utmost importance. Lang states:
The sacrificial character of the Eucharist must find an adequate expression in the actual rite. Not even the best mystagogical catechesis can make up for the decline of understanding of the Mass among Catholics, if the liturgical celebration sends out signs to the contrary. (115)
So it is clear that there is significant symbolic importance to celebrating the Mass ad orientem. Does this hold true for versus populum as well? The Congregation for Divine Worship, explains albeit in a 1993 editorial, that the symbolism does not hold up for versus populum:
It is fitting to explain clearly that the expression ‘to celebrate facing the people’ has no theological sense but is only a topographical concept … Theologically, therefore, the Mass is always facing God and facing the people. In the form of celebration one must be careful to avoid confounding theology and topography, especially when the priest is at the altar. It is only in the dialogues from the altar that the priest speaks to the people. All the rest is prayer to the Father, through the mediation of Christ in the Holy Spirit. This theology must be visible. (Quoted in Lang, 126)
As a sacred art, liturgy grips the imagination with symbols that carry divine meaning. If you change the symbol, you lose that meaning. If you want to retain the symbolism – if you want to ensure that the meaning of “facing God” is maintained – then you ought to make sure that symbolism is expressed visibly.
Unfortunately, liturgical practice in the last few decades has forgotten the cosmological and theological significance of the celebration of the Mass ad orientem and has thus changed its practices unnecessarily. Lest in our celebration of the Mass we betray the imagery that most befits it, the Church indeed must reconsider how she intends to incarnate the Mass’s deep reality in its ars celebrandi.
Recommendations for the Future
Since it seems that the significance of the liturgy as a procession and as a sacrifice to God is best protected in the celebration of the Mass ad orientem, it is fitting to provide the scholarly recommendation for how to amend the liturgy in its current situation. Ratzinger says, “This mistake should be corrected as quickly as possible; and it can be done without further rebuilding” (84).
Cardinal Sarah gives the following exhortation:
I ask you to implement this practice wherever possible, with prudence and with the necessary catechesis, certainly, but also with a pastor’s confidence that this is something good for the Church, something good for our people. Your own pastoral judgement will determine how and when this is possible, but perhaps beginning this on the first Sunday of Advent this year, when we attend ‘the Lord who will come’ and ‘who will not delay’ (see: Introit, Mass of Wednesday of the first week of Advent) may be a very good time to do this. Dear Fathers, we should listen again to the lament of God proclaimed by the prophet Jeremiah: “they have turned their back to me” (2:27). Let us turn again towards the Lord!
How ought ad orientem worship be implemented? First, with prudence, catechesis, and confidence. But what will ad orientem look like in the particulars of the Mass? That may be outside the scope of this post to make concrete suggestions (others, like Fr. Ryan Erlenbush, have provided some much-appreciated guidance). The point here is that the Mass, as a divine choreography that communicates supreme beauty, ought to express visibly its intrinsic orientation – its ars celebrandi ought to be configured to Christ’s prayer to the Father.
Ad orientem worship is not only well-founded in theology and history, but is also spiritually advantageous to the faithful. Cardinal Sarah, recognizing the demands of pastoral charity and prudence, sees this upcoming Advent as a great opportunity to “turn again towards the Lord.”
-Post by Jacob Gruber
Main image: Pope St. Pius X celebrates a Pontifical Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica.