People Look… Somewhere

A great deal of heated discussion among liturgists today focuses upon whether the Mass should be celebrated Ad Orientem (towards the east), or Ad Populum/Versus Populum (towards the people). Early on, Christians adopted the Jewish practice of praying toward Eden, in the east (Gen. 2:8), the direction from which Ezekiel saw come “the glory of the God of Israel” (Ezek 43:2,4) and the direction from which he saw God entering Jerusalem (Ezek 44:1-2), the direction in which Jesus ascended from the Mount of Olives and will return (Acts 1:11), and the direction whence the Angel of the Lord will come in the end time (Rev. 7:2).

Over time, various traditions emerged as to whether the facade of the church should face the east, or the people inside should face east (putting the apse at the east end of the church). The origins, intentionality, and authority of these traditions are subject to dispute, so let’s not go there, but simply acknowledge that the common usage as of the first half of the 20th century was that the priest and people faced toward an common altar located such that the priest and people all faced Ad Apsidem, towards the Apse (the part of the church where the clergy sit), as towards the “spiritual East” of the church, whether that were in fact the geographical east or not.

Arising from Protestant Eucharistic theology which perceives the Eucharist to be a “memorial supper”, and coming to a head in the 1960’s, this tradition of both priest and people facing the altar came to be interpreted as the priest “having his back to” the people, thereby excluding the assembly from fully entering into worship. Allowances were subsequently made for the altar to be moved away from the wall so that the priest could celebrate Mass facing the people and the altar simultaneously. Some found the new arrangement less desirable than the old, but this new arrangement came to be almost universally implemented as the arrangement of choice for the western church. The argument smouldered for the most part, flaming up rarely, and primarily among mostly-ignored ranks of traditionalists and liturgists.

The Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI recently fanned those embers into full flame when he began publicly celebrating some masses Ad Apsidem, facing the altar with the people rather than facing the altar towards the people. This should not have come as a complete surprise, as in his 2000 book “The Spirit of the Liturgy” Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) wrote “facing toward the east…was linked with the ‘sign of the Son of Man’, with the Cross, which announces Our Lord’s Second Coming. That is why, very early on, the east was linked with the sign of the cross… Where a direct common turning toward the East is not possible, the cross can serve as the interior ‘East’ of faith. It should stand in the middle of the altar and be the common point of focus for both priest and praying community.”

We will allow the liturgists to continue their arguments, but the point for most of us is this: the priest and the people all face their physical and spiritual beings towards Jesus during the mass. Facing the same direction implies the priest leading the people towards Jesus, while facing towards an altar between the priest and people implies the desire to allow the assembly to entere into the celebration more fully. Some priests have taken Pope Benedict XVI’s advice, and place a crucifix upon the altar so it is more obvious that he is facing the cross with the people, and that the focus is not the priest (as can be construed from facing away from the people) or the people (as can be construed from facing towards the people), but Jesus.

However the local Bishop and his priests choose to arrange the altar, we can’t go wrong if we heed the advice of Eleanor Farjeon’s Advent hymn, and turn our hearts towards the spiritual East: Jesus.

“People, look east and sing today: Love, the guest, is on the way”

Latin experts… I can’t seem to get a clear answer on “Ad Orientem” versus “Ad Orientum”. “Ad Populum” seems to be used exclusively rather than “Ad Populem”, but I seem to find “orientem” and “orientum” used interchangeably, even within what appears to be identical context and grammatical constructs by the same authors and within the same sentences. Which is more correct, or which is correct in a particular context or usage, “Ad Orientum”, or “Ad Orientem”?

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