Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Extraordinary Form: "Facing the Lord"

Outside of the use of Latin, one of the most striking differences in the Latin Mass is the orientation of the priest. In popular criticism, the priest “has his back turned to the people.” There are those who think that this creates a barrier between the priest and the congregation, and that the priest is even “hiding” what he is saying. Even those who recognize this as utter nonsense still I think fail to perceive the reasons for the priest facing the altar.

In the minds of eminent liturgical scholars like Msgr. Klaus Gamber and Cardinal Josef Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI), there was no change more damaging in the liturgical reform than the change in which the priest now faces the people from behind the altar. When one considers this, I believe one finds that this is not the ranting of reactionaries, but a very insightful and principled stand. There are numerous reasons the priest faces the direction he does in the Extraordinary Form. I would like to focus on a few.

One is no doubt symbolic. In many Churches, the altar was constructed facing the east. This was because the Scriptures describe Christ as returning from the East. As we face east, we anticipate the return of Our Lord. His descent during the consecration of the Eucharist is a shadow of his eventual return in full splendor and glory at the end of the age. The knowledge of this tradition and symbolism sadly faded in the consciences of many Catholics.

When we lost this knowledge, we began to lose our understanding as a people of the Resurrection. While the Mass is indeed the making present of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross, that Cross means nothing without the empty tomb. St. Paul tells us that if Christ did not rise from the dead, our faith is meaningless. Implied in the Resurrection is that we will also rise again. During the Mass, we add ourselves to Christ’s sacrifice. We join ourselves to the Cross, for without the cross nothing we do can be efficacious. Yet we also express our hope in this Resurrection by directing our attention to where Christ is expected to return.

Another way of describing this orientation would be to say we are “facing God.” In the EF and in the Roman tradition (this one going back many centuries), the tabernacle was front and center on the altar. Within the tabernacle Catholics profess is Jesus Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. Let me emphasize this. Catholics believe that God Incarnate exists within the tabernacle: body, blood, soul and divinity.

When we converse, we view it a common courtesy to face the person. To look away would be to imply disrespect. Those who defend Mass facing the people will jump on this. Yet they fail to understand this one simple fact: The Mass is not addressed to man. It is addressed ultimately to God. We are witnessing in a miraculous way the offering of Christ to the Father that occurs outside of time. Since our King is present on the altar, He takes the position of prominence, not a man.

Finally, we may look at the orientation of the priest as a symbol of unity. Far from the priest “turning his back” on the people creating division, the orientation of the priest is a very powerful sign of unity. The priest is a sinner, just like the people in the pews. He as well must implore God’s mercy. Though he may take a place of prominence amongst those in that respective Church, he must do the same as we do. He humbly leads his faithful towards their encounter with God.

In a rich display of this symbolism, the priest addresses the congregation right before the canon of the Mass and says:

Orate fratres, et meum ac vestrum sacrificium acceptabile fiat apud Deum Patrem omnipotentem.
Pray Brethren, that my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God the Father Almighty

Right before the most important part of the Mass, the priest turns to the people and implores their aid. He is offering Mass for the benefit of the faithful, himself included, even if the faithful are just the altar servers. The priest begs our prayers and implores us to unite our sacrifices with that which he is prepared to offer. When the priest is always facing the people, this moment loses its significance. It becomes one moment amongst many.

One could multiply the times this rich symbolism is diluted by having Mass facing the people. No longer is God the center of attention, but His servant the priest. No longer is there that rich and true egalitarianism of the priest going in the same direction as the people. Instead, he becomes the focus of attention, which the people must gaze upon. In almost all cases, the tabernacle has been removed from the place of primacy that is deserved. Instead, it is placed normally off to the side, almost as an afterthought in the liturgy. The altar no longer becomes the throne of our Blessed Lord.

Have we not lost the sacrificial understanding of the Mass today? Do not many just view it as a mere meal, rather than the making present of the sacrifice by which we granted eternal salvation as a gift from the Father? Are we not more reliant than ever on there being a priest who does the Mass properly, since so many do not? Is there not a higher demand for the “creativity” of the priest, since after all he is now the center of attention?

The entire tone of the EF is set by this simple positioning in the beginning. Let us also set ourselves accordingly.

1 comment:

  1. A lot of people don't realize just how 'damaging' this is to the priest himself, since he himself is trying to pray and doesn't get the benefit of facing the Crucifix or Tabernacle as the rest of us get to do during the prayers. Instead, he must face 'distraction' from start to finish - constantly worried about his 'approval rating' from what are now his critics.

    Yet when he is facing the Altar/Tabernacle/Crucifix, this 'compass' has properly oriented his mind and body for where he is and what he's here to do. He isn't worried about approval from them, but from God, and he knows the people are either going to 'stand behind him' in his duty or they are going to do their own thing and not to worry.


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