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Catholic Voice
  November 7, 2011   •   VOL. 49, NO. 19   •   Oakland, CA
Bishop's Column

Missal changes: Church retains valuable aspects of our identity

By Bishop Salvatore J. Cordileone

Perhaps the most noticeable change in the liturgy since the Second Vatican Council, along with the move to the vernacular, is the turning around of the altar such that the priest now faces the people. Experimentation with celebrating Mass facing the people, though, began as early as the 1920s in some parts of the German-speaking world, on the forefront of the liturgical renewal movement and in keeping with its vision of promoting the conscientious participation of the faithful at Mass.

The first intervention of the Church’s teaching authority concerning the orientation of the altar was Inter Oecumenici, the first instruction on the proper implementation of Vatican II’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium (which itself remained silent on the question). It states at No. 91:

The main altar should preferably be free-standing, to permit walking around it and celebration facing the people. Its location in the place of worship should be truly central so that the attention of the whole congregation naturally focuses there.

This directive remains to this day in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (n. 229). At some points, though, the rubrics of the Mass presuppose that the priest is facing away from the people, such as where it directs him to do or say something “facing the people.” Why the apparent discrepancy?

It is commonly said that before Vatican II the priest at Mass stood “with his back to the people.” While technically correct in terms of the positioning, this phrasing gives the incorrect impression that the Mass is about a conversation between the priest and the people. It can also and equally be accurately stated that the priest and the people stood facing the same direction, which is closer to the theological meaning of this positioning.

To be exact, the point was that priest and people prayed facing east (at least symbolically, if not literally), the position of Christian prayer, both communal and private, from antiquity.

In his oft-cited work, “The Spirit of the Liturgy” (written before his election as pope), Pope Benedict XVI explains a number of reasons for this, most significantly, that the symbol of the rising sun reminds us of Christ with an eschatological orientation. He says: “Praying toward the east means going to meet the coming Christ. The liturgy, turned toward the east, effects entry, so to speak, into the procession of history toward the future, the New Heaven and the New Earth, which we encounter in Christ.” That is, the rising sun speaks to us of Christ rising from the dead, who dispels the darkness of sin and death and enlightens us with his light.

This is also the liturgical meaning of celebrating vigils, most especially the Easter Vigil. We can detect this eschatological meaning foretold by the Prophet Malachi: “for you who fear my name, there will arise the sun of justice with its healing rays” (3:20). Appropriately, this reading occurs toward the end of the Church year (33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C), precisely when the readings focus on the theme of Christ’s return in glory at the end of time.

So ingrained was this eastward orientation for prayer in the ancient Christian mind that, in the house churches of the early Christian communities, the people would place a cross on the east wall of the room so they would know which direction to face for prayer. While originally the altars for Christian worship were typically free-standing and set off in a sacred section of the worship space, research by liturgical scholars such as Louis Bouyer has revealed that, during the prayer of consecration of the bread and wine, the priests and people would face east, no matter how that situated them with regard to each other in the church.

The idea of a free-standing altar around which the priest could walk was indicative of the sacrifices in the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, in which the altar stood behind a veil marking off the Holy of Holies, and where the priest would enter on the Day of Atonement to offer sacrifice for his sins and those of the people, standing in front of the altar and facing away, toward the east.

In his recent book, “Jesus of Nazareth, Volume II,” Pope Benedict speaks of how the definitive destruction of the Temple, and therefore of the Temple sacrifices, coincided right at the moment that Christianity was established, and the Christians understood the sacrifice of the Eucharist as replacing the provisional Temple sacrifices, as the Eucharist is the re-presentation to us of the one, perfect sacrifice of Christ.

The Christian liturgy is, in fact, heavily influenced by this Temple theology. As the Jewish-Catholic art historian Helen Ratner Dietz explains in a chapter entitled, “The Nuptial Meaning of Classic Church Architecture” (in the book, “Benedict XVI and Beauty in Sacred Art and Architecture”), the “fourth-century Christian altar hidden by its canopy and curtains had a deliberately nuptial meaning . . . reminiscent of the Holy of Holies in the Jerusalem Temple.” Understanding their Covenant with God to be a marriage covenant, the canopy and curtains in the Temple represented for the Jewish people a “chuppah,” the bridal chamber used in Semitic marriage rituals. As in the Temple, the Church faced east, but now with a new meaning: the rising sun represented the return of the Bridegroom in glory at the end of time, anticipated each time the Sacrifice of the Mass is celebrated on the altar.

The Christian practice of hanging a curtain between the columns of the baldacchino (the canopy over the altar supported by four pillars) to veil the altar continued throughout the first Christian millennium (see Pope Benedict in “The Spirit of the Liturgy,” citing Bouyer). This served as a “sacred tent,” sheltering the divine presence, harkening back to the Ark of the Covenant located within the Holy of Holies.

The veil “sheltered” the divine presence. The purpose of a veil is to conceal. What is concealed is what is most sacred, and it is most sacred because it is most intimate — thus, the appropriateness of sheltering it.
So we can understand the meaning of the veil in the Temple being torn in two from top to bottom at the moment of Christ’s death (Mt 27:51): it symbolizes that, through the sacrifice of His Son, God has now revealed what before was concealed to us — His intimate, inner life — and has granted us access to it. The veil, then, conceals what is most intimate — and therefore most sacred — precisely so that it can be revealed to allow the nuptial communion of Christ and the Church.

Extrapolating on this, we can see even more clearly the nuptial meaning of the sacrifice of the Eucharist: just as the consummation of a marriage is preceded by the unveiling of what is intimate and therefore most sacred to the spouses, so in the liturgy the marriage feast of the Lamb to his bride the Church is consummated by him giving us his flesh to eat and blood to drink, drawing us into a mystical nuptial union. The Church’s insight into this truth can be seen from the ancient Latin translation of the verse recounting Christ’s last words on the Cross: consummatum est — literally, “it has been consummated.”

While the practice of the veil in front of the altar has been preserved in the liturgy of many of the Eastern rites of the Church, it has been extinct in the West for over a thousand years. However, the sense of the veil was preserved in other — albeit diminished — ways up to recent times. Examples of this would be a veil placed in front of the doors of the tabernacle or immediately behind them inside the tabernacle, and the veiling and unveiling of the chalice during the celebration of the Mass.

The sense of a sacred space set apart to represent the Holy of Holies, though, has always been preserved. After the fourth century, when Christians could worship openly, relics of saints were placed on the altar, and eventually the reredos was developed to house these relics. Over time, the reredos came to be more and more embellished, with the altar placed against it and at a greater distance from the people.

Thus, the altar came to be attached to the wall, as it was known for many centuries up to the Second Vatican Council. However, the prayers of the Mass were not changed, and so at some points harkened back to the free-standing altar, such as the prayer accompanying the washing of the hands of the priest in the pre-Conciliar form of the liturgy: “I will wash my hands among the innocent, and walk around your altar, O Lord” (Ps 26:6).

The same can be said about the incensation of the altar. A principal purpose in returning to the free-standing altar was to observe the ancient tradition of incensing it by walking around it; however, even when the altar was attached to the wall, the method of incensing it alluded to its being walked around.

By the 19th Century, altar pieces had become so elaborate that the altar itself practically became lost in the design. The directive of Inter Oecumenici and the current GIRM reflects the thinking of the promoters of the liturgical renewal movement: that the altar once again be detached from the wall so that it can be walked around for the purpose of incensation, and become again the focus of the gathered assembly, with the focus enhanced by the altar being placed under the canopy (although the current documents do not mention this last point).

The norm, in fact, mentions the point of walking around the altar first, before the principle of the priest facing the people. The latter practice came into use from the understanding that it would better facilitate the “full, active and conscious participation” of the faithful at Mass.

It would be quite superficial and a serious mistake, though, to think that this alone will achieve this vision. “Full, active and conscious participation” is much deeper, an inner disposition and spirituality which informs one’s participation in the liturgy.

Nor can it be said that the Sacrifice of the Mass celebrated ad orientem (priest and people facing east) in and of itself discourages this. We can take as an example, again, the experience of the Eastern Churches, in which the readings are proclaimed facing the people, and the Sacrifice is offered ad orientem within a set off sanctuary, often separated by an icon screen and/or a veil that is then opened immediately prior to Communion (the moment of consummation).

For true “full, active and conscious participation” to happen, then, something more is needed: liturgical catechesis, a life of prayer, service to the poor and involvement in the life of the Church, humble study and personal appropriation of the truths of the faith. While I believe that our experience since the Council would indicate that we have made progress in this vision which it articulated for us, it is something to which we must be ever attentive.

In conclusion, while Mass facing the people is now the prevailing practice in the Church, we should avoid the mistaken interpretation that this is a repudiation of what came before. The Church does not work that way; the Church does not repudiate that which has contributed to her ever-deepening understanding of the mysteries of the faith and her life in Christ.

Both of these orientations retain their value, in that they are expressive of different aspects of our identity as the People of God as God has revealed it to us. Yes, we are a pilgrim people, marching toward the eschatological encounter with the risen Christ, but we do not march as separate individuals, but rather as a Church, a community, a body of believers in communion with Christ and therefore one another.

Yes, we are a people gathered, but not gathered to look at each other, but rather to give praise and glory to God who spurs us onto that encounter with His risen Son in the glory of His Kingdom.

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