Perhaps the most commonly misunderstood element of liturgical worship in the Ordinary Form of Roman Rite – second only to the use of Latin – is the direction which the priest faces during the
If you are familiar with the Extraordinary Form of the Mass, you are well aware that for the majority of the Mass, the priest is not facing towards the people, but away from them. This orientation has been described in numerous ways, some of which are inaccurate and misleading: some say the priest has his back to the people (or worse, has turned his back on the people) or that he is facing the wall, others that he is facing the altar or the tabernacle. Mass.
First, if the priest “has his back to the people,” then the same must be said of all the people in the church (except those sitting in the back), but I know of no one who takes offense to the fact that the people sitting in front of them aren’t looking at them! Just because the priest is not facing the people does not mean he is being rude or is ignoring them. Those who see the gesture as the priest “turning his back on the people” are simply deriving the wrong symbolism, one of moral injustice, from this posture. Second, if the priest is “facing the wall,” then the same should be said of the whole congregation. Yes, the congregation is also facing the priest and the altar, but they’re facing the wall beyond the priest and altar as well. Third, many modern churches are built such that when the priest is “facing the altar” he is also facing the people, so this description is not very specific. Fourth, the tabernacle is not necessarily on (or behind) the altar, so the priest is not necessarily facing it; and again, the tabernacle should not be the focus of the priest’s attention at
(cf. Ratzinger, Feast of Faith, p. 139) Mass.
All these descriptions focus on the wrong center of attention. What is the proper center of attention during the Mass? The Mass is a prayer to God; the “direction of the Eucharist [is] from Christ in the Holy Spirit to the Father.” (Feast of Faith, p. 140; cf. Catechism 1073) This means that liturgy should be directed spiritually ad Deum, that is, “towards God.” Ancient Christian tradition has manifested this spiritual orientation by facing ad orientem, to the east (whereas Jewish worship faces
Why the east? As they say in real estate: location, location, location! The east is the direction of the rising sun, which is a biblical (not pagan) symbol of Christ; thus, the east is associated with His Incarnation, Resurrection, Ascension, and Second Coming.
God is often identified with light in both the Old and New Testaments: the psalmist calls God “a sun and shield” (Ps. 84:11) and
says that “God is light and in him is no darkness at all.” (1 John 1:5) So too Christ is likened to light and the sun, especially in His Incarnation, the first coming. St. John
The prophet Isaiah foretold a time when a child would be born who be called “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isa. 9:6) and who would sit on the throne of David and have a never-ending kingdom. Of that day Isaiah said “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined.” (Isa. 9:2) St. Matthew tells us that this was fulfilled by Jesus’ preaching throughout the regions of Zebulun and Napthali. (cf. Matt. 4:12-16; Isa. 9:1)
The prophet Malachi foretold that the “sun of righteousness” would rise. (Mal. 4:2) The Advent hymn “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” also invokes Christ as the Oriens, the “Day-Spring” or dawn. The Canticle of Zechariah (the Benedictus, Luke 1:68-79), which the father of St. John the Baptist proclaimed upon the birth of his son, ends by describing God’s mercy being manifested as “the dawn [oriens] from on high” which would “shine on those who dwell in darkness,” alluding to the Incarnation.
the Evangelist refers to Jesus as the “light” in the prologue of his gospel (cf. John 1:4-9), and Jesus spoke of Himself in the same way. (cf. John 8:12; 9:5; 12:46) St. John
At Christ’s crucifixion the sun was darkened (cf. Luke 23:45) and with the setting of the sun: Golgotha is on the west side of
, and Jesus was buried in the evening. (cf. Matt. 27:57) On the contrary, His Resurrection is associated with the rising of the sun. Cardinal Ratzinger explains that “the rising sun, the east – oriens – was naturally [a] symbol of the Resurrection” (Feast of Faith, p. 140) Jerusalem
Jesus rose from the dead at (or just before) sunrise. (cf. Luke 24:1; John 20:1) His Apostles captured a glimpse of His resurrected glory at His transfiguration when “he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his garments became white as light.” (Matt. 17:2)
, in his letter to the Ephesians, quotes an early Christian baptismal hymn: “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light.” (Eph. 5:14) St. Paul
St. Luke records in the Acts of the Apostles that Jesus ascended into Heaven from the Mount of Olives (cf. Acts 1:9-12), which was located to the east of
. The Roman liturgy associates Psalm 67:33-34 with the Solemnity of the Ascension; the Latin Vulgate reads “psallite Deo qui ascendit super caelum caeli ad orientem,” which the Douay-Rheims Bible renders as “Sing ye to God Who mounteth above the heaven of heavens, to the east.” Jerusalem
The Second Coming (Parousia)
Cardinal Ratzinger points out that the rising sun, the oriens, was not only a natural symbol of the Resurrection, but also of “a presentation of the hope of the parousia.” (Feast of Faith, p. 140) Indeed, “every Mass is an approach to the return of Christ.” (Feast of Faith, pp. 140-141)
The angels at the Ascension told the Apostles that “Jesus … will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” (Acts 1:11) Jesus Himself prophesied His return from the east: “as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of man.” (Matt. 24:27) When Jesus returns, His appearance will probably be like that seen by
as recorded in the book of Revelation: “his face was like the sun shining in full strength.” (Rev. 1:16) In the heavenly St. John , Jesus is the lamp. (cf. Rev. 21:23; 22:5) Temple
The East and the Cross
We also read in the book of Revelation that
“saw another angel ascend from the rising of the sun, with the seal of the living God” (Rev. 7:2) The seal of God is believed to be the sign of the Son of Man, which is the cross. (cf. Ezek. 9:4; Rev. 7:2-3) St. John
The early Christians marked the eastern wall of their meeting-houses with a cross first as a sign of hope for Christ’s return and only later as a reminder of His Passion. (cf. Feast of Faith, p. 141) This tradition was the origin of the rubric, still present in the Extraordinary Form of the Mass, which required there to be a crucifix on the altar, so that Mass would be celebrated not only facing east, but also facing the cross. In the Ordinary Form of the Mass, a crucifix is still required, but it can be near the altar if not on it. (cf. GIRM 117)
The east, the oriens, signifies the whole Christian concept of time: the Lord is “the rising sun of history.” (The Spirit of the Liturgy, p. 84) So while it is not proper to say that the Eucharist is celebrated facing the tabernacle or even facing the altar, it can be said that the Eucharist is celebrated “facing the image of the cross, which embodied in itself the whole theology the oriens.” (Feast of Faith, p. 141)
So what value is there in celebrating the Eucharist facing the east?
First, we can express our spiritual worship through our bodies. When the priest says “Lift up your hearts” before the Eucharistic Prayer, and the congregation responds “We lift them up to the Lord,” there is an internal orientation towards the Lord being spoken of. This internal reality should also be expressed by external signs if possible. Celebrating the Eucharist facing the east is an external manifestation of being directed to the Lord, of our hope for His return, for the new dawn and the endless day of Heaven.
Second, this posture should not be misconstrued as the priest having his back to the people, but as the priest and the people facing the same direction together. At the end of his sermons, St. Augustine would often say “conversi ad Dominum” (“let us turn toward the Lord”), which had both a spiritual (conversion) and a literal (orientation) meaning in the liturgy, as priest and people would face the east together for the Eucharistic portion of the liturgy. In this way, we resume the shared posture of the entrance procession by which we express our pilgrim state on earth, on a journey to the Lord. (cf. The Spirit of the Liturgy, p. 80)
Third, churches were traditionally built facing the east, that is, with the altar at the eastern end, so that the Eucharist could be celebrated in that direction. Cardinal Ratzinger refers to this as being mindful of the “cosmic dimension” or “orientation” of the liturgy (Feast of Faith, p. 140) by which the whole of creation can be included in worship of God. This architecture “stand[s] in the cosmos, inviting the sun to be a sign of the praise of God and a sign of the mystery of Christ.” (Feast of Faith, p. 143) Cardinal Ratzinger suggests that if our buildings were oriented this way, it would facilitate the recovery of a spirituality which embraces creation in a traditional manner.
Fourth, while it is reasonable for the Liturgy of the Word to be celebrated face-to-face as an exchange between the one proclaiming the Word and those hearing it, this orientation is not as suited to the Liturgy of the Eucharist. The communal character of the liturgy is a positive and necessary one, but it should not be emphasized to the point that the Eucharist is regarded merely a communal meal. The Eucharist is offered first to God as a sacrifice, from Whom it is received as spiritual food.
Fifth, there is sometimes confusion about the various ways in which Christ is present in the liturgy. He is present in the priest in a particular way, and He is also present in the congregation, for where two or three are gathered in His name, He is present in their midst. (cf. Matt. 10:10) But the congregation does not pray to Christ-in-the-priest, nor does the priest pray to Christ-in-the-people. God is present in nature, but we do not worship a rock or a river as God; likewise, we do not worship one another as Christ. The manner of God’s presence is not the same in all things. The Church is not a community closed in on itself, but is open to “what lies ahead and above,” to God. (The Spirit of the Liturgy, p. 80) The Eucharist is not a “dialogue” between the priest and the congregation but between the Church and the Lord.
The Church, in both the east and west, has traditionally prayed facing the east. If you attend a Byzantine Divine Liturgy, you will see that the priest prays the majority of the anaphora (i.e. the Eucharistic Prayer) facing the east, and probably behind an iconostasis, a screen with doors decorated with icons of Jesus, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and other saints and angels. The priest will from time to time turn to speak to face the congregation to speak to them; this happens in the Extraordinary Form of the Mass as well.
Eastward posture is the traditional posture of the Latin Church as well, although changes started occurring in the middle of the 20th century, even before the Second Vatican Council. The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy said nothing about “turning altars around.” Still, the practice of priests celebrating Mass “facing the people” (versus populum) – standing on “the other side” of the altar – became more and more prevalent so quickly that it became the perceived norm, to the point where Mass celebrated ad orientem seemed to be incompatible with the Ordinary Form. However, as Pope Benedict XVI has shown by his example, the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite can be celebrated ad orientem; in fact, the Roman Missal anticipates that the priest will be celebrating Mass in this manner because on several occasions its rubrics instruct him to turn toward the people or toward the altar, instructions which are redundant if those two directions are the same.
An unfortunate “Latinization” of the Eastern Rites, by which they adopted traditions and characteristics particular to the Latin Rite (often at the expense of their own), has occurred at times during the Church’s history. In 1996, the Vatican Congregation for Eastern Churches put out a document on Eastern liturgical worship, Pater Incomprehensibilis (PI). The document praises the “the inalienable value of the particular heritage of the Eastern Churches” (PI 7) and stresses the need for preserving the Eastern liturgical traditions. One such tradition, prayer facing east, was being endangered by “a new and recent Latin influence” (PI 107) which spread in the years following the Second Vatican Council. After quoting St. John of Damascus at length (who provided numerous proofs from Scripture of God’s hallowing of the east) and addressing that the priest is “guiding the people in pilgrimage toward the Kingdom” rather than has his “back turned to the people,” the document calls for the retention and safeguarding of prayer facing east as “truly coherent with the Eastern liturgical spirituality” and having “profound value.” (Ibid.)
The Cross as East
Pope Benedict XVI, both before his election to the papacy and after, has suggested an alternative approach to facing east: “the cross can serve as the interior ‘east’ of faith.” (The Spirit of the Liturgy, p. 83)
Because the Liturgy of the Eucharist is not about a dialogue between the priest and the congregation, but between the whole church and God, the cross can serve as a focus point when the priest and the congregation face each other: since the cross can be placed on the altar, rather than just near it, it serves to distinguish the Liturgy of the Word from the Liturgy of the Eucharist. (cf. Feast of Faith, p. 145) This is the arrangement found on the altar at most papal Masses.
An objection to this is that the cross can be regarded as a “barrier” or “obstruction” to the act taking place on the altar. Cardinal Ratzinger asks in reply, “Is the cross disruptive during Mass? Is the priest more important than the Lord?” (The Spirit of the Liturgy, p. 84) His response to this objection is that “the cross on the altar is not obstructing the view” and is “an open ‘iconostasis.’” (Feast of Faith, p. 145)
 The word “orientation” comes from the Latin oriens, meaning “the east; sunrise,” which in turn comes from the verb orior, meaning “to rise.”
 That this gate “shall remain shut” was seen by many (e.g. Tertullian, Methodius, Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome, John of Damascus) as a prophecy of Mary’s perpetual virginity, that she bore no other children besides Jesus.
 This hymn comes from a series of prayers said during the Liturgy of the Hours on the days concluding Advent, the season in which the Church celebrates the first coming of Christ and anticipates His second coming.
 This link is described in Praying the Mass: The Prayers of the People, pp. 28-29.
 When a church’s architecture does not place the sanctuary and altar in the eastern end of the building, one could treat that part of the church where the altar is located as a “liturgical east.”
 Among these are: God is light (cf. 1 John 1:5), Christ is the “sun of righteousness” (Mal. 4:2), Christ as “the East” (Zec. 3:8 in the Septuagint), the location of
Eden “in the east” (Gen. 2:8), the east-facing gate of the (cf. Ezek. 44:1), Christ ascending toward the east (cf. Acts 1:11), and His statement about His return “from the east.” (Matt. 24:27) Temple