I recommend that you read the first article in this series before the current one. Since most of you won’t, I am also placing the link at the end of this post.

In the early 1990’s our liturgy was radically transformed (reformed if you prefer), and regardless of the motives and purposes (let’s assume they were all good) I suggest that they were guided by a transient spirit of that day and were both unnecessary and an overreaction to temporal concerns.  The changes left us with an order that dis-united actions and words. We became accustomed to saying things we have no intention of doing and doing things which are contrary to what we say and sing. (again, previous article.) We worship with a string of oxymorons and non-sequiturs that accelerate malpractice in other areas of our church order, our discipline, and our lives.

This is not a footnoted dissertation on the history and foundational theology of the practice. If you are reading this esoteric article with a Latin title, then you probably already have that—or at least enough of an interest to look it up on your own.  This is an essay encouraging us to reassess the value of the ad orientem posture and all that naturally flows from it: a worship of God who is wholly immanent and wholly other.

Ad Orientem and the Eternal Eucharist

“Where priest and people together face the same way, what we have is a cosmic orientation and also an interpretation of the Eucharist in terms of resurrection and Trinitarian theology. Hence it is also an interpretation in terms of Parousia, a theology of hope, in which every Mass is an approach to the return of Christ.” (Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, The Feast of Faith, 1986, pp. 140-41.)

 “The person who gives thanks should embody the centrality of the text, both in being fully visible to the whole congregation and by conveying the dignity and authority that an act so important implies…. (T)he celebrant is there in the stead of Christ the host; no earthly host would ever entertain at a dinner table while facing toward a wall away from the people” (Stookey, Eucharist, 1993, p. 119.)

Two quite different understandings. Notice that Stookey (in explaining current UM practice) is not doing away with liturgical east but is embodying it in a mortal. The implications of this are too profane for me to write. We begin the rite with, “Christ our Lord invites to His table…” The pastor is not the host, and we are not “entertaining”. The pastor is the guide leading the people into the sacred. The “dinner party” analogy may be homiletically useful, but it is a deeply flawed catechesis. For the purpose of sermon illustration, the dinner table may be a useful means of demonstrating some aspect of the rite, but it is not fully analogous to the sacrament. We do many things in Eucharist that we would never do at a dinner table, and the purpose and effect of the two are incomparable. If Jesus sits down at your dinner table, then nobody is going to be looking at you. Where the illustration fails, our responsibility is to toss the analogy and provide a new one. We do not alter the sacrament to fit our faulty analogy.

In facing liturgical east, the pastor does not turn his back on the audience but symbolically turns towards the audience. The east is the direction of the rising sun, which is a biblical and traditional symbol of Christ. The east is associated with Christ’s birth, resurrection, ascension, and parousia. When facing liturgical east, our actions unite with words to recognize the true host of the sacrament who is both wholly immanent and wholly other. Our worship is directed spiritually towards God.

Nor is it possible for the pastor to face the community gathered at this table because this is an eternal table. The gathered community includes all at every place who are partaking of this communion. The table extends around the world. The table extends beyond this world as well. In some mystic way the gathered community shares this meal in glory. We pray “with your people on earth and all the company of heaven,” and we “join their unending hymn.” A mortal cannot face the community gathered at this table. In facing the local assembly our actions deny our words, but the pastor may face with the gathered community everywhere by looking toward the host—together with the people, the angels, and the archangels. We can look together towards his coming again in glory. It is a cosmic orientation appropriate for a cosmic event.

Perhaps most galling for me is the description of ad orientem by its critics as “facing a wall.” To those who would demean it thus I would say, “Take that silly scarf off your neck! Nobody wears a scarf indoors at a dinner party.” Such complaints are focused on the wrong center.  It is not a wall we are facing, and if that is all that you see then the fault is in your own vision.

Where people draw the wrong inference from an action in the liturgy then the correct response is to inform their understanding through catechesis—not to alter the sacrament so it more closely fits a misunderstanding. Yet, that is exactly what we have done with Eucharist and consequently with much of our order. When the people make the false inference that an action of the church is intolerant, then rather than introduce them to true charity it is much easier to change the posture of the church to one more accommodating to the false teaching. When people consider the behavior of the church to be out-of-step with the times, then the default position is to change the teaching of the church rather than catechize the people. When clergy face east and see only a wall, it is easiest to permit them to turn away from God.

A great danger of our liturgy is in calling on God but not acting as though he hears. We say and sing things we have no intention of doing and do things that are contrary to our words. We sing, “Be present at our table, Lord,’ and then by our actions ignore his presence. Through our current liturgy we are ritualizing the separation of words and actions as though this ought to be the Christian norm. Cardinal Sarah identifies “very serious misinterpretations of the liturgy” thanks to an attitude which places man rather than God at the center. “The liturgy is not about you and I. It is not where we celebrate our own identity or achievements or exalt or promote our own culture and local religious customs. The liturgy is first and foremost about God and what He has done for us.”

We already have the right language. The words permeate our hymns and our various orders of service. It is just a matter of aligning actions and words. When the language is addressed to the people, then the pastor faces the people as a guide on the journey into the sacred. When the language is addressed to God, then together we all, symbolically and spiritually—with the angels and archangels, turn towards God; fully expecting he will hear and show up.  If we expect to unite our words and actions in worship, then maybe we will start expecting that we can do the same in the world.


The previous article in the series is here.

Next post: Kneel in Silence—Uniting Words and Actions


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