On the First Sunday of Advent 2014, the Church of the Resurrection began celebrating the (Novus Ordo) Mass ad orientem. What that means is that at times during the Mass, especially during the Eucharistic Prayer, the priest and the people face in the same direction, toward the “Liturgical East.” This change followed a period of catechesis and preparation that began two years earlier, when we reflected together on the powerful symbolism of praying toward the East. Inspired by Pope Benedict XVI’s book, The Spirit of the Liturgy, we began using what is often called the “Benedictine Altar Arrangement.” We placed six candles on the altar, with a crucifix in the center, to help remind us by the very manner of our prayer that we are not praying to each other but rather to the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit. The recent change to celebrating ad orientem is helping accomplish this goal even more fully.
What is the "Liturgical East?"
Facing East in Christian worship has ancient roots. Scripture and Tradition tell us to look to the East for the Lord’s return. Indeed, as we await the coming of the One who is the Light, we look to the East. St. Clement of Alexandria (2nd Century) stated clearly the basis of this proper “orientation” in Christian prayer: “In correspondence with the manner of the sun’s rising, prayers are made toward the sunrise in the East.”
Because many churches, like ours, are not “oriented,” the Church considers the
location of the altar (and, if it is central, the tabernacle) to be “Liturgical East.”
Therefore, in our church, when we face the altar and the tabernacle, we are
liturgically “oriented.” We are facing Liturgical East even though we are looking
to the geographic north.
Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi
This Latin phrase literally means the law of prayer ("the way we worship") is the law of belief ("what we believe"). It is sometimes expanded to "lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi", further deepening the implications of this truth - how we worship reflects what we believe and determines how we will live.
Since we began praying the Mass ad orientem, I have seen this principle at work. Celebrating this way has fostered a greater reverence, prayerfulness, and attentiveness in my own heart. Members of the parish have said that this change has helped them in their own prayer at Mass as well. Thanks be to God, this simple yet profound change in our prayer has already borne fruit. “Come, Holy Spirit! Continue to bear fruit in us, and draw us all more deeply into the Sacrifice of the Mass. Help us encounter Jesus more powerfully, receive Him more openly, and share Him more freely with the world.”
A Very Long Tradition
Until very recently, the Mass was typically celebrated with the people and the priest facing the same direction. Churches were built with the nave and altar facing East for many centuries. Although the Latin Rite does allow the celebration of the Mass facing the people, the Eastern Rites and the Orthodox Churches continue to face East for the celebration of the Sacred Liturgy.
What did Vatican II Say?
The Liturgical changes after Vatican II allowed Mass to be celebrated facing the people (versus populum), but the Council did not mandate that priests do so. In fact, the rubrics of the Mass tell the priest when to (turn and) face the people, assuming that the Mass could/would be celebrated ad orientem. And the rubrics make good liturgical sense.
My first time celebrating ad orientem with a congregation was when I was on a pilgrimage in Poland. I celebrated at a side altar that faced the wall. There was no way to celebrate facing the people, so I was obviously not “turning my back on the people.” Instead, I was leading them in worship of God the Father as a priest. We were facing the Lord together in prayer. As I prayed the Mass, turning to the people at the appointed times, I realized how “right” this way of praying felt. It made much more liturgical sense to me in light of our worship of God the Father at Mass.
What the Rubrics Say
The General Instruction for the Roman Missal (GIRM) and the rubrics in the Roman Missal direct the priest when to face the people and when to turn towards the altar. The instructions follow:
Arriving at the altar:
“When the Entrance Chant is concluded, the Priest and the faithful, standing, sign themselves with the Sign of the Cross, while the Priest, facing the people, says: ‘In the name of the Father…’ (GIRM 124) The Liturgy of the Word is at the Ambo, facing the people.
After the washing of hands, the rubrics state:
“Returning to the middle of the altar, and standing facing the people, the Priest extends and then joins his hands, and calls upon the people to pray, saying, ‘Pray, brethren . . .’ The people rise and make the response, ‘May the Lord accept the sacrifice, etc.’ Then the Priest, with hands extended, says the Prayer over the Offerings. At the end the people acclaim, Amen.” (GIRM 146)
After the conclusion of “For the kingdom…”:
“Then the Priest, with hands extended, says aloud the prayer ‘Lord Jesus Christ, who said to your Apostles . . .’ and when it is concluded, extending and then joining his hands, he announces the greeting of peace, facing the people and saying, ‘The peace of the Lord be with you always.’ The people reply, ‘And with your spirit.’” (GIRM 154)
After the Agnus Dei (Lamb of God):
“Then the principal celebrant takes a host consecrated in the same Mass, holds it slightly raised above the paten or the chalice, and, facing the people, says the ‘Behold the Lamb of God.’” (GIRM 157)
After Holy Communion and a period of silence:
“Then, standing at the chair or at the altar, and facing the people with hands joined, the Priest says, ‘Let us pray; ‘then, with hands extended, he recites the Prayer after Communion . . . . At the end of the prayer the people acclaim, Amen.” (GIRM 165)
Following the prayer after communion:
“After the Priest’s blessing, the Deacon, with hands joined and facing the people, dismisses the people, saying, ‘Ite, missa est’ (Go forth, the Mass is ended).” (GIRM 185)
Suggested Reading from Ignatius Press
-The Spirit of The Liturgy, by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI), especially Chapter 3 (see quotes below)
-Turning Towards The Lord: Orientation in Liturgical Prayer, by U. M. Lang, with Foreword by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
Quotes from Pope Benedict XVI’sThe Spirit of the Liturgy, Chapter 3
Despite all the variations in practice that have taken place [in the celebration of the Mass] far into the second millennium, one thing has remained clear for the whole of Christendom: praying towards the East is a tradition that goes back to the beginning. Moreover, it is a fundamental expression of the Christian synthesis of cosmos and history, of being rooted in the once-for-all events of salvation history while going out to meet the Lord who is to come again (page 75).
The common turning toward the east was not a “celebration toward the wall”; it did not mean that the priest “had his back to the people”: the priest himself was not regarded as so important. For just as the congregation in the synagogue looked together toward Jerusalem, so in the Christian liturgy the congregation looked together “toward the Lord”. As one of the fathers of Vatican II’s Constitution on the Liturgy, J.A. Jungmann, put it, it was much more a question of priest and people facing in the same direction, knowing that together they were in a procession toward the Lord. They did not close themselves into a circle; they did not gaze at one another; but as the pilgrim People of God they set off for the Oriens, for the Christ who comes to meet us (page 80).
On the other hand, a common turning to the East during the Eucharistic Prayer remains essential. This is not a case of something accidental, but of what is essential. Looking at the priest has no importance. What matters is looking together at the Lord. It is not now a question of dialogue, but of common worship, of setting off towards the One who is to come. What corresponds with the reality of what is happening is not the closed circle, but the common movement forward expressed in a common direction for prayer (page 81).