‘Ad Orientem’ Liturgy: To What End?

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One of the chief arguments for the traditional Christian practice of celebrating the Eucharist ad orientemthe priest and people together facing the same direction, toward the liturgical “east” of the apse — is that the Mass is a sacrifice offered up to God.1 To be specific, the Eucharist is at once a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving to the Father, the re-presentation (making present) and offering of Christ’s all-sufficient sacrifice on the Cross, and the substantial presence of Christ’s Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity. See Catechism of the Catholic Church, nos. 1356-81. The German liturgical scholar Msgr. Klaus Gamber († 1989) observes:

You stand before an altar on which a sacrifice is to be offered. You do not stand behind it. This simple concept was even apparent to the priest offering a sacrifice in pagan times. The priest faced the image of the god in the temple’s inner sanctuary, the god to whom the sacrifice was being offered. This basic approach was quite similar to what occurred in the Temple of Jerusalem. The priest whose task it was to offer the animal sacrifice stood before the “Table of the Lord” (Mal. 1:12), as the great altar in the center of the temple yard was called, facing the inner temple where the Ark of the Covenant was kept in the Holy of Holies, the place which was the abode of the Most High (see Ps. 16:17).2 Klaus Gamber, The Reform of the Roman Liturgy: Its Problems and Background (San Juan Capistrano CA: Una Voce Press and Harrison NY: Foundation for Catholic Reform, 1993), p. 174.

A few years ago, the Jesuit theologian John Baldovin (Boston College) published an article challenging that rationale.3 John F. Baldovin, “Idols and Icons: Reflections on the Current State of Liturgical Reform,” Worship 84 (Sept. 2010) 386-402. As he sees it, to assert that ad orientem celebration expresses the sacrificial nature of the Eucharist better than versus populum (the priest facing the people) is to betray an inadequate, even “dangerous” understanding of the sacrifice by which the world was redeemed. Father Baldovin finds the deepest meaning of Christ’s sacrifice, not in the “outdated categories” of expiation and atonement, but in the shared meal:

The sacramental sharing of that without which we cannot exist is the perfect way of representing the true meaning of Christ’s sacrifice and of his priesthood, which I take to mean his offering of himself in faith and obedience to the one he calls Abba.4 “Idols and Icons,” 394. It is one thing to find fault with this or that theory of atonement, and quite another to dismiss the concept altogether.

Baldovin doesn’t elaborate on why the essence of Christ’s priestly sacrifice is best represented by our sharing in the Eucharistic gifts at Holy Communion.5 It might have to do with the ancient sacramental theology of mimesis and imitation. “This theology,” says Enrico Mazza, “is older than our present theology of transubstantiation; it is even older than the patristic theology of the anamnesis [memorial] of the Lord’s death and resurrection. The theology of transubstantiation bypasses both middle terms, that is, ‘Last Supper’ and ‘death and resurrection.’ The theology of anamnesis bypasses only ‘Last Supper’ and highlights ‘death and resurrection.’ The theology of figure and image, on the other hand, takes the Lord’s final meal as the starting point for everything else, and bypasses nothing, since it gives full emphasis to both middle terms: ‘Last Supper’ and ‘death and resurrection.’ ” Enrico Mazza, The Eucharistic Prayers of the Roman Rite, trans. M. J. O’Connell (New York: Pueblo, 1986), p. 69. In any event, Baldovin does maintain the unity of the doctrinal content of the Eucharist (the Paschal mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection) and its liturgical form (ritual meal): the Eucharist is both a sacrificial banquet and a sacramental sacrifice. On the intrinsic connection between sacrifice and sacred meal in both pre-Christian religions and Christianity, see Royden Keith Yerkes, Sacrifice in Greek and Roman Religions and Early Judaism (New York: Scribner’s, 1952). According to Father Louis Bouyer, sacrifice is God’s self-gift to humanity in which we are ourselves incorporated and made fully self-gift, and it is consummated in the sacred meal, wherein our being comes to fulfillment. Louis Bouyer, Cosmos: The World and the Glory of God (Petersham MA: St Bede’s, 1988), pp. 26-27. Nor does he explain why that idea should be thought to preclude ad orientem celebration. Instead, he expresses concern that Catholics who prefer the traditional orientation for the sake of “facing Christ” forget that

the liturgy requires both vertical and horizontal engagement with Christ. […] One faces Christ in the assembly, one faces Christ in the presider, one faces Christ in the altar, and of course one faces Christ in the consecrated gifts.”6 “Idols and Icons,” 396-97. The Second Vatican Council’s constitution on the liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, no. 7, distinguishes various modes of Christ’s presence in the liturgy: “He is present in the sacrifice of the Mass, not only in the person of His minister, ‘the same now offering, through the ministry of priests, who formerly offered Himself on the cross,’ but especially under the Eucharistic species. By His power He is present in the sacraments, so that when a man baptizes it is really Christ Himself who baptizes. He is present in His word, since it is He Himself who speaks when the holy scriptures are read in the Church. He is present, lastly, when the Church prays and sings, for He promised: ‘Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them’ (Mt. 18:20).”

To keep the discussion within limits, we can’t get into the question of sacrifice in the New Covenant.7 On the theology of Eucharistic sacrifice specifically, see Michael McGuckian, The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass: A Search for an Acceptable Notion of Sacrifice (Mundelein IL: Hillenbrand, 2005). It’s worth mentioning, however (as Baldovin does), that the Church has cautiously avoided explicit doctrinal pronouncements about the nature of Christ’s sacrifice. It is evident from the Scriptures that Christ’s death was only the last and most dramatic expression of what had been a life of continual self-offering in love to the Father. From this perspective, we may speak of Christ’s whole life — not just his Passion and death — as a sacrifice.8 This view is consistent with the patristic understanding of Christ’s whole life as a “recapitulation” and thereby a sanctification of every aspect of human life (e.g., St. Irenæus of Lyons, Adversus hæreses 3.18.7). In this regard, it has been argued that medieval theology went astray in singling out Christ’s death as the essential event of His atoning sacrifice and in relating the Eucharist primarily to that death; see F. C. N. Hicks, The Fullness of Sacrifice: An Essay in Reconciliation (London: Macmillan, 1930).

As important as it is to understand the meaning of Christ’s redemptive sacrifice and to give it its proper liturgical expression, I submit there is another, more compelling reason for ad orientem worship, one that stands on its own merits, independently of the question of sacrifice. The internal dynamic of the Church’s liturgy is classically understood as the oblation of praise, thanksgiving and supplication addressed to the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit.9 Here I speak not only of the Mass but of the sacred liturgy in general. In the rite of Mass specifically, the themes of praise, thanksgiving and supplication are interwoven with that of propitiatory sacrifice, since the Eucharist is the sacrificial memorial and offering of Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice on Calvary. A common orientation of priest and people facing toward the apse symbolizes this dynamic, this movement of the pilgrim Church toward the transcendent Father to whom we have access through Christ in the Spirit.10 Ad orientem celebration is not about facing toward the tabernacle but rather toward the altar, whether or not the Blessed Sacrament is present there in a tabernacle.

Eastern and Western Christianity formulate this dynamic differently.11 On the development of the Eastern and Western schemata, see Cyprian Vagaggini, Theological Dimensions of the Liturgy, 4th ed., trans. L. J. Doyle and W. A. Jurgens (Collegeville MN: Liturgical Press, 1976), pp. 207-246 (citing, inter alia, Josef Jungmann’s seminal study, The Place of Christ in the Liturgy). The collects of the Roman liturgy are usually addressed to the Father “through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with You in the unity of the Holy Spirit,” whereas Eastern liturgy frequently invokes the whole Trinity,12 For example, in several places the Byzantine liturgy features the doxology: “For to You belongs all glory, honor, and worship, to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, now and always and forever and ever” (or similar words). or else the Son directly.13 Against the Arian heresy, which arose in the East, faith in the full divinity of Christ was expressed so emphatically at the Council of Nicæa (325) that His status as the God-man was somewhat clouded. He became in popular piety (and even in liturgy) less “the firstborn of many brothers” (Rom. 8:29), our High Priest eternally interceding for us, and more the ultimate object of worship. The Byzantine stress on Christ as Pantokrátor (Creator of all), while certainly orthodox, has the effect of obscuring His function as Mediator with the Father. He is seen, not so much as the Way to the Father, as terminal in man’s relation to God. The devotional attitude in the West, on the other hand, characteristically accentuates Christ’s instrumental, intermediary role. In both East and West, however, the Eucharistic prayers or anaphoras are addressed by the Church to the Father. It is the Father who appears as the starting point (principium a quo) and end (terminus ad quem) of the liturgical action, while Christ appears as High Priest and Mediator. 14 There are exceptions, such as the anaphora of St. Gregory the Theologian (Gregory of Nazianzus), used by the Coptic Church, which is addressed throughout to the Son, and Ethiopian anaphoras addressed (partly) to Our Lady. While the Eucharist is classically conceived as an offering of the whole Christ, head and body, to the Father, in truth it is offered not to the Father alone but to the undivided Trinity. Christ the incarnate Son, the Priest and Victim of the Eucharistic sacrifice, is substantially united to the second Person of the Holy Trinity, God the Son. Ad orientem liturgy, whether Eucharistic or otherwise, symbolizes the Church on pilgrimage toward the “east” of the rising sun, meaning the risen Son whose return we await, but ultimately toward God the Father who is the origin and end of all. 

This symbolism is not wed to any particular theory of sacrifice or even, more generally, to the themes of atonement and expiation. Moreover, it respects the grand narrative or “economy” of salvation: the Father gives Himself, and we approach the Father, through Christ in the Holy Spirit. Besides being debatable, criticism of ad orientem celebration on the grounds that it misrepresents the true meaning of Christ’s sacrifice, or that it neglects Christ’s real presence in the assembly, misses that point entirely. Christian life is a journey to the Father who is forever the “source and goal of the liturgy.”15 This is the title of the section containing nos. 1077-83 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

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Footnotes   [ + ]

1. To be specific, the Eucharist is at once a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving to the Father, the re-presentation (making present) and offering of Christ’s all-sufficient sacrifice on the Cross, and the substantial presence of Christ’s Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity. See Catechism of the Catholic Church, nos. 1356-81.
2. Klaus Gamber, The Reform of the Roman Liturgy: Its Problems and Background (San Juan Capistrano CA: Una Voce Press and Harrison NY: Foundation for Catholic Reform, 1993), p. 174.
3. John F. Baldovin, “Idols and Icons: Reflections on the Current State of Liturgical Reform,” Worship 84 (Sept. 2010) 386-402.
4. “Idols and Icons,” 394. It is one thing to find fault with this or that theory of atonement, and quite another to dismiss the concept altogether.
5. It might have to do with the ancient sacramental theology of mimesis and imitation. “This theology,” says Enrico Mazza, “is older than our present theology of transubstantiation; it is even older than the patristic theology of the anamnesis [memorial] of the Lord’s death and resurrection. The theology of transubstantiation bypasses both middle terms, that is, ‘Last Supper’ and ‘death and resurrection.’ The theology of anamnesis bypasses only ‘Last Supper’ and highlights ‘death and resurrection.’ The theology of figure and image, on the other hand, takes the Lord’s final meal as the starting point for everything else, and bypasses nothing, since it gives full emphasis to both middle terms: ‘Last Supper’ and ‘death and resurrection.’ ” Enrico Mazza, The Eucharistic Prayers of the Roman Rite, trans. M. J. O’Connell (New York: Pueblo, 1986), p. 69. In any event, Baldovin does maintain the unity of the doctrinal content of the Eucharist (the Paschal mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection) and its liturgical form (ritual meal): the Eucharist is both a sacrificial banquet and a sacramental sacrifice. On the intrinsic connection between sacrifice and sacred meal in both pre-Christian religions and Christianity, see Royden Keith Yerkes, Sacrifice in Greek and Roman Religions and Early Judaism (New York: Scribner’s, 1952). According to Father Louis Bouyer, sacrifice is God’s self-gift to humanity in which we are ourselves incorporated and made fully self-gift, and it is consummated in the sacred meal, wherein our being comes to fulfillment. Louis Bouyer, Cosmos: The World and the Glory of God (Petersham MA: St Bede’s, 1988), pp. 26-27.
6. “Idols and Icons,” 396-97. The Second Vatican Council’s constitution on the liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, no. 7, distinguishes various modes of Christ’s presence in the liturgy: “He is present in the sacrifice of the Mass, not only in the person of His minister, ‘the same now offering, through the ministry of priests, who formerly offered Himself on the cross,’ but especially under the Eucharistic species. By His power He is present in the sacraments, so that when a man baptizes it is really Christ Himself who baptizes. He is present in His word, since it is He Himself who speaks when the holy scriptures are read in the Church. He is present, lastly, when the Church prays and sings, for He promised: ‘Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them’ (Mt. 18:20).”
7. On the theology of Eucharistic sacrifice specifically, see Michael McGuckian, The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass: A Search for an Acceptable Notion of Sacrifice (Mundelein IL: Hillenbrand, 2005).
8. This view is consistent with the patristic understanding of Christ’s whole life as a “recapitulation” and thereby a sanctification of every aspect of human life (e.g., St. Irenæus of Lyons, Adversus hæreses 3.18.7). In this regard, it has been argued that medieval theology went astray in singling out Christ’s death as the essential event of His atoning sacrifice and in relating the Eucharist primarily to that death; see F. C. N. Hicks, The Fullness of Sacrifice: An Essay in Reconciliation (London: Macmillan, 1930).
9. Here I speak not only of the Mass but of the sacred liturgy in general. In the rite of Mass specifically, the themes of praise, thanksgiving and supplication are interwoven with that of propitiatory sacrifice, since the Eucharist is the sacrificial memorial and offering of Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice on Calvary.
10. Ad orientem celebration is not about facing toward the tabernacle but rather toward the altar, whether or not the Blessed Sacrament is present there in a tabernacle.
11. On the development of the Eastern and Western schemata, see Cyprian Vagaggini, Theological Dimensions of the Liturgy, 4th ed., trans. L. J. Doyle and W. A. Jurgens (Collegeville MN: Liturgical Press, 1976), pp. 207-246 (citing, inter alia, Josef Jungmann’s seminal study, The Place of Christ in the Liturgy).
12. For example, in several places the Byzantine liturgy features the doxology: “For to You belongs all glory, honor, and worship, to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, now and always and forever and ever” (or similar words).
13. Against the Arian heresy, which arose in the East, faith in the full divinity of Christ was expressed so emphatically at the Council of Nicæa (325) that His status as the God-man was somewhat clouded. He became in popular piety (and even in liturgy) less “the firstborn of many brothers” (Rom. 8:29), our High Priest eternally interceding for us, and more the ultimate object of worship. The Byzantine stress on Christ as Pantokrátor (Creator of all), while certainly orthodox, has the effect of obscuring His function as Mediator with the Father. He is seen, not so much as the Way to the Father, as terminal in man’s relation to God. The devotional attitude in the West, on the other hand, characteristically accentuates Christ’s instrumental, intermediary role.
14. There are exceptions, such as the anaphora of St. Gregory the Theologian (Gregory of Nazianzus), used by the Coptic Church, which is addressed throughout to the Son, and Ethiopian anaphoras addressed (partly) to Our Lady. While the Eucharist is classically conceived as an offering of the whole Christ, head and body, to the Father, in truth it is offered not to the Father alone but to the undivided Trinity. Christ the incarnate Son, the Priest and Victim of the Eucharistic sacrifice, is substantially united to the second Person of the Holy Trinity, God the Son.
15. This is the title of the section containing nos. 1077-83 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.