Directions in the liturgy

This past week I had the opportunity to serve at two Masses, the first ad orientem, the second versus populum. I don’t have much experience serving at the former – I think, in fact, that this was only the second or third time I did – but the proximity in time to what I’m used to offers a great opportunity to compare them.

Both Masses were according to the Ordinary Form, so the direction the priest faces was really the only significant difference. And what the priest does to an extent dictates what the people assisting him do.

The above photo, which was taken by David Oostveen during last week’s Bootcamp, gives an idea of what the ad orientem Mass looked like. The priest, Father Martin Claes, is facing the tabernacle containing the Blessed Sacrament – Christ – and the crucifix above it. All the parts of the Mass which are directed at God – prayers, the words of consecration, the offerings of bread and wine – are spoken and presented in this direction. Priest and congregation all face in the same direction: the priest truly leads the people in prayer. The homily and other parts of the liturgy of the Mass, which are directed at the congregation are of course spoken while the priest faces the people.

In his lecture a few days after this Mass, Fr. Harry van der Vegt spoke about reference points in the Mass. The liturgy of the Mass has such a reference point, one which is reflected in the very building it takes place in: Christ, truly present in the tabernacle, and the depiction if His sacrifice on the cross, in the form of the crucifix on the altar. Like a Renaissance painting, the lines of the church guide the eye to that point.

The versus populum Mass which I served at today breaks the eye away from that reference point. The priest stands behind the people’s altar (visible in the foreground of the above photo) facing the congregation for all parts of the liturgy: both for those parts aimed at the people as for those parts directed at God. That lends a very different atmosphere to the Mass, at least for me as an acolyte. Facing the congregation is a self-conscious job: you are aware that the things you do or don’t do are being watched (whether people really watch me is something I doubt, though, but the feeling remains). The awareness of the congregation does not vanish when I don’t see them , of course. I am very much aware that it is not just the priest and me at that Mass, but my attention, merely because of the fact that I look in His direction, is on Christ and so on His sacrifice on the cross, on the Eucharist, the unbloody sacrifice.

Of course, God is not dependent on the direction we face when it comes to hearing our prayers and seeing our offerings. Essentially, the orientation (a word which, in itself, seems to refer to the act of turning eastward – east being the traditional side of the apse in Catholic Churches) towards the Lord is for our own benefit.

In his address to the gathered clergy attending the Clergy Conference in Rome last January, Msgr. Guido Marini quotes Pope Benedict XVI on this matter:

“Let us listen to the words of his Holiness, Benedict XVI, directly, who in the preface to the first book of his Complete Works, dedicated to the liturgy, writes the following: “The idea that the priest and people should stare at one another during prayer was born only in modern Christianity, and is completely alien to the ancient Church. The priest and people most certainly do not pray one to the other, but to the one Lord. Therefore, they stare in the same direction during prayer: either towards the east as a cosmic symbol of the Lord who comes, or, where this is not possible, towards the image of Christ in the apse, towards a crucifix, or simply towards the heavens, as our Lord Himself did in his priestly prayer the night before His Passion (John 17.1). In the meantime the proposal made by me at the end of the chapter treating this question in my work ‘The Spirit of the Liturgy’ is fortunately becoming more and more common: rather than proceeding with further transformations, simply to place the crucifix at the center of the altar, which both priest and the faithful can face and be lead in this way towards the Lord, whom everyone addresses in prayer together.””

As all parts of the liturgy, the direction we face and the things we gaze upon have the function of leading us towards the Lord. Giving Him due attention is not only an act of gratitude and loving worship, but also a step towards understanding, both spiritually and intellectually. God has come down towards us, has loved the world so much that He gave His only Son (John 3:16) for our salvation. This is something unheard of. God needn’t have done anything of the kind, but He did it all the same. That understanding of the sacrifice He was willing to make for us is, in my opinion, a basic cornerstone of our participation in the liturgy of the Mass.

Back to versus populum and ad orientem. This ‘leading us towards the Lord’ is possible with both of these (if done correctly, of course), but the means by which they achieve it is different. In a Mass versus populum the sacrifice of Christ is approached via the people, the community, the mystical body of Christ which is the Church. This grounds the Eucharistic sacrifice in the people, the recipients of the salvation Christ won for us. In a Mass ad orientem we first look at He who made the sacrifice. Since we believe that Christ is truly physically present in the Eucharist it seems almost impossible not to look at Him – or at least in His direction – when we address Him.

The immediate difference, at least for one who has the honour to be kneeling in front of the altar where the sacrifice on the cross is made present again, is very clear. The sacrificial character of the Mass retakes its rightful place in the liturgy, a place that in the recent past has often been overshadowed by that other important element: the communio, the sense of community of the gathered faithful.

Although ad orientem worship is often misrepresented as ‘the priest turned away from the people all the time’, the reality is more intricate. The liturgy has a structure which fits the people of God gathered before the Lord. Some parts (the readings, the homily, the invitations to prayer) we share as a community; we listen together, we pray together, we answer together. Other parts are about the community as a whole – faithful and priest – turning to the Lord, to speak to Him, to ask Him things, to offer Him our whole being. This is an inner attitude reflected and strengthened by outward gestures. And we need these gestures, as means to learn, to understand and often simply to get into the right mood.

One thought on “Directions in the liturgy”

  1. Serving ad orientem was a very special thing for me – it makes so much difference in you attitude during Mass. I’m glad I was able to serve during such a Mass.

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