Monday, March 15, 2010

On Facing Towards the Dayspring from on High

What do you think? When a priest is facing ad orientem (towards the East) during Mass is he "standing with his back to the people"? Or is he facing along with the congregation towards Christ, who is the Dayspring from on high?

Critics always refer to the posture of the priest when he says Mass facing towards the East as "standing with his back to the people," with the implication that the posture is an insult to the congregation.

The current Pope and many others cite this ancient practice as praiseworthy, since the priest and the people are facing the altar, the crucifix, the tabernacle, the East, and ultimately God, and not each other.

We all have experienced the disorientation (pun intended) that occurs when the priest and the congregation face each other. With the priest facing the congregation, there is a well-known tendency to turn the Mass into a performance by the individual priest. And the focus is not so subtly shifted from the Sacred Mystery of the Eucharist to the interaction between the priest and the people.

Some quotes [see below] I recently found from ancient authors strongly reinforce the idea that the priest and the people should be facing together towards the East.

Why the East? It is the direction identified with Christ, and salvation, and, of course, with the dawn. In the Canticle of Zechariah, Christ is called the Dayspring, the dawn, from on high.

Churches were traditionally built with the sanctuary at the East end. The altar was installed on the East wall, so that when you faced the altar you were facing the East.

Turning to the East is turning to Christ

In reading St. Ambrose's On the Mysteries for last week's Dead Theologians Society meeting, I found in Chapter 2 that Ambrose wrote that the person being baptized turns to the east "for he who renounces the devil turns to Christ, and beholds Him face to face."

Atonement Comes From the East

In the Office of Readings one day this week, I found Origen in a homily on Leviticus wrote, "Atonement comes to you from the east. From the east comes the one whose name is Dayspring, he who is mediator between God and men. You are invited then to look always to the east: it is there that the sun of righteousness rises for you, it is there that the light is always being born for you."

This is a good article about ad orientem.

This is another good article.


Berni said...

I see it as leading us, as the head of a parade leads a parade. Not to liken the Mass to a parade per se, but as an example of someone who has their back to those behind because they must follow what he is doing and they are all going towards the same goal.

Roseanne Sullivan said...

That's a good point, Berni. We are all facing the same goal during Mass. All actively participating in worshipping God.