Nearly thirty years ago, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, in Feast of Faith: Approaches to a Theology of the Liturgy (Ignatius Press, 1986; German original, 1981. Also available as an e-book), "There is only one inner direction of the Eucharist, namely, from Christ in the Holy Spirit to the Father. The only question is how this can be best expressed in liturgical form" (p. 139). One of his concerns was to address the perception that the priest, celebrating Mass ad orientem, is "facing the wall" or, at best, "facing the tabernacle." This "misunderstanding alone," Ratzinger argued, "can explain the sweeping the triumph of the new celebration facing the people, a change that has taken place with amazing unanimity and speed, without any mandate (and perhaps for that very reason!). All this would be inconceivable if it had not been preceded by a prior loss of meaning from within" (p. 142). The general view of the new celebration, he remarked:
is totally determined by the strongly felt community character of the eucharistic celebration, in which people and priest face each other in a dialogue relationship. This does express one aspect of the Eucharist. But the danger is that it can make the congregation into a closed circle which is no longer aware of the explosive trinitarian dynamism which gives the Eucharist its greatness. A truly liturgical education will have to use all its resources to counter this idea of an autonomous, complacent community. The community does not carry on a dialogue with itself; it is engaged on a common journey toward the returning Lord. (pp. 142-3).In The Spirit of the Liturgy (Ignatius Press, 2000), Cardinal Ratzinger was even more direct:
On the other hand, a common turning to the East during the Eucharistic Prayer remains essential. This is not a case of something accidental, but of what is essential. Looking at the priest has no importance. What matters is looking together at the Lord. It is not now a question of dialogue, but of common worship, of setting off towards the One who is to come. What corresponds with the reality of what is happening is not the closed circle, but the common movement forward expressed in a common direction for prayer. (Read more here.)Fr. Uwe Michael Lang, in Turning Towards the Lord: Orientation in Liturgical Prayer (Ignatius Press, 2009; second edition), discusses the cosmic symbolism of sacramental worship, writing, "By means of a liturgical gesture [ad orientem], the true location and the true context of the Eucharist are opened up, namely, the whole cosmos. ... The common orientation in liturgical prayer thus not only conveys the trinitarian dimension of the Eucharist but also witnesses to a theology of hope in Christ's Second Coming. It realizes the Christian synthesis of cosmos and history. ... The priest facing the same direction as the faithful when he stands at the altar leads the people of God on their way towards meeting the Lord who is to come again. ... This trinitarian dynamism gives the Eucharist its greatness, saves the individual community from closing into itself, and opens it towards the assembly of the saints in the heavenly city, as envisaged in the Letter to the Hebrews"—and he then quotes Hebrews 12:22-24.
The same passage from Hebrews was cause for Mark Brumley to make the following comment yesterday regarding "ad orientem" and "versus populum":
The second reading at Mass today (Heb 12:18-19, 22-24A) brought to mind this orientation discussion. Pardon the use of the NAB:Finally, "The liturgy," notes Fr. Jonathan Robinson in The Mass and Modernity: Walking to Heaven Backward (Ignatius Press, 2005), "is not supposed to lead to a mindless submersion of the individual in a communal experience; it should, on the contrary, leave the individual with a heightened sense of his own self and lead him deeper into the mystery of God who revealed himself in Jesus Christ and who shares himself with us in the sacraments" (p. 316). Drawing upon Pseudo-Dionysius, Fr. Robinson discusses at length the reality of hierarchy—"a structure or system for 'sourcing' or channeling the sacred"—which is not limited to earthy structures of authority, but "extends beyond the visible Church to include the whole of creation" (pp. 321, 322). This structure is found (or should be found and seen) in the celebration of liturgy, which is a participation in the objective order, or hierarchy, given by God so that he might be properly worshiped and encountered. Part of a restoration or reiteration of this reality, Fr. Robinson insists, is the need for the priest to be ad orientem. His reasons include: the Council documents do not support the requirement of the priest facing the people; secondly, "the present arrangement teaches all the wrong lessons about God and the community"; and, "at the practical level, saying Mass 'facing the people', as it is usually described, has turned priests from being servants at the altar of God into social animators of varying degrees of competence" (p. 326). I think most of us can attest to this unfortunate fact.
"Brothers and sisters: You have not approached that which could be touched and a blazing fire and gloomy darkness and storm and a trumpet blast and a voice speaking words such that those who heard begged that no message be further addressed to them. No, you have approached Mount Zion and the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and countless angels in festal gathering, and the assembly of the firstborn enrolled in heaven, and God the judge of all, and the spirits of the just made perfect, and Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and the sprinkled blood that speaks more eloquently than that of Abel."
There are so many levels to consider it’s hard to discuss it in a comment box. There is the sacramental “making present” of the reality above and there is the eschatological “not yet” dimension. The “making present” of heavenly worship has an immanent dimension, but that “making present” is incomplete. It is a “making present” of something that is beyond the congregation—from outside, not from within. “Ad orientem” underscores the incomplete aspect of it and that the worshipping community is directed toward God, not directed toward itself. The reality above comes to be within the community because the community is open to the outside, not closed within itself. "Ad orientem" does a better job of expressing this.
There is the orientation to the Father, through the Son, in the Spirit. Here, the Son leads his people in the Spirit to the Father. The Son acts through the person of the ministerial priest and through him offers the Eucharistic sacrifice and leads the congregation to the Father, which is why the prayers of the priest are generally directed to the Father, not to the Son. The Liturgy of the Eucharist is a participation in the Son’s gift of himself to the Father, not foremost the Son’s dialogue with his people. Hence the “ad orientem”, which has the people and the priest-Christ together dialoguing with the Father. “Versus populum” tends to convey the notion of a dialogue between Christ and his people, which is not what the Eucharistic liturgy is mainly about.
There is the orientation of the Church as bridegroom toward her presently-unseen eschatological bride who is to come “from the east”. The Eucharist proclaims the Lord’s sacrifice until he comes “from the East”, so offering the sacrifice “ad orientem” underscores the provisional, anticipatory nature of the Eucharistic sacrifice and the people’s orientation toward the fullness of Trinitarian life to come when the Bridegroom comes to receive his Bride and to celebrate his eschatological supper.
One more point: it doesn't seem correct to say that in "versus populum" the people and the priest face the same way--toward the altar. They don't face the same way, even if they face the same thing--the altar. They face the same thing from different directions. There orientations are different.
In "ad orientem" priest and people face the same way and face the same thing--the altar.
Of course we shouldn't make more of this than is necessary. The "versus populum" Mass in which I participated today worshipped God, not the congregation. It is a question of which physical orientation better captures the central elements of Eucharistic worship as the Church has come to understand it. Having put such an emphasis on the communal dimension of worship, it seems that the dimension that stresses that the community should be oriented toward God in worship has been lost sight of in many instances. "Ad orientem", which is the form in which the Church's worship has been offered in the vast majority of her existence, seems an important way of recovering and underscoring a neglected element.
Fr. Robinson adds: "Turning toward the altar after the readings from the Scripture, ' conversio ad Dominum,' as St. Augustine puts it, is an action that would turn both priest and people from instruction to worship" (p. 328). And, in the words of Gerald Vann, O.P.: "Worship, then, is not a part of the Christian life: it is the Christian life."
Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles and Excerpts:
• Foreword to U.M. Lang's Turning Towards the Lord: Orientation in Liturgical Prayer | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
• The Reform of the Liturgy and the Position of the Celebrant at the Altar | Uwe Michael Lang | From Turning Towards the Lord: Orientation in Liturgical Prayer (2nd edition)
• The Altar and the Direction of Liturgical Prayer | Excerpt from The Spirit of the Liturgy | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
• How Should We Worship? | Preface to The Organic Development of the Liturgy by Alcuin Reid, O.S.B. | by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
• Learning the Liturgy From the Saints | An Interview with Fr. Thomas Crean, O.P., author of The Mass and the Saints
• The Mass of Vatican II | Fr. Joseph Fessio, S.J.
• Walking To Heaven Backward | Interview with Father Jonathan Robinson of the Oratory
• Does Christianity Need A Liturgy? | Martin Mosebach | From The Heresy of Formlessness: The Roman Liturgy and Its Enemy
• Music and Liturgy | Excerpt from The Spirit of the Liturgy | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
• Rite and Liturgy | Denis Crouan, STD
• The Liturgy Lived: The Divinization of Man | Jean Corbon, OP
• The Latin Mass: Old Rites and New Rites in Today's World | Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D.
• Worshipping at the Feet of the Lord: Pope Benedict XVI and the Liturgy | Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D.
• Reflections On Saying Mass (And Saying It Correctly) | Fr. James V. Schall, S. J.