Looking East to Jesus
And now, to complete today’s “trinity” of Daily Blog entries about liturgy, here’s a recent article from Zenit, spotted by the sharp eyes of the Register’s associate editor, Tom Wehner:
Tulsa Bishop Explains Why He “Faces East”
Expresses Desire to Recover “Authentic” Worship
TULSA, Okla., AUG. 19, 2009 — The bishop of Tulsa explains his decision to celebrate Mass at the diocesan cathedral “ad orientem”—facing east—as an effort to recapture a “more authentic” Catholic worship.
Bishop Edward Slattery affirmed this in an article featured in the September edition of the Eastern Oklahoma Catholic titled “Ad Orientem: Revival of Ancient Rite Brings Multiple Advantages, Some Misperceptions.”
In a discussion about liturgy, the bishop said, it is necessary to grasp this “essential” truth: “At Mass, Christ joins us to himself as he offers himself in sacrifice to the Father for the world’s redemption.”
He reminded his readers that “all of the faithful offer the Eucharistic sacrifice as members of Christ’s body” through baptism.
The priest has a unique role in this offering, the bishop affirmed, to stand “in the person of Christ, the historic head of the mystical body, so that, at Mass, it is the whole body of Christ—head and members together that make the offering.”
Bishop Slattery explained that “from ancient times, the position of the priest and the people reflected this understanding of the Mass.”
As well, he added, “everyone—celebrant and congregation—faced the same direction, since they were united with Christ in offering to the Father Christ’s unique, unrepeatable and acceptable sacrifice.”
The prelate continued: “When we study the most ancient liturgical practices of the Church, we find that the priest and the people faced in the same direction, usually toward the east, in the expectation that when Christ returns, he will return ‘from the east.’
“At Mass, the Church keeps vigil, waiting for that return. This single position is called ‘ad orientem,’ which simply means ‘toward the east.’”
This traditional posture lasted for nearly 18 centuries in the Church, he noted, as something that was handed on from the time of the apostles.
The bishop observed that this single eastward position “reveals the nature of the Mass” as an act of worship shared by the priest and the congregation.
However, he said, this “shared orientation was lost” as the priest and people became accustomed to facing opposite directions.
Bishop Slattery explained, “This innovation was introduced after the Vatican Council, partly to help the people understand the liturgical action of the Mass by allowing them to see what was going on, and partly as an accommodation to contemporary culture where people who exercise authority are expected to face directly the people they serve, like a teacher sitting behind her desk.”
Unfortunately, he added, this change had some “unforeseen and largely negative effects.”
Not only was it a “serious rupture with the Church’s ancient tradition,” the prelate asserted, but it also “can give the appearance that the priest and the people were engaged in a conversation about God, rather than the worship of God.”
He stated that it also “places an inordinate importance on the personality of the celebrant by placing him on a kind of liturgical stage.”
The bishop noted Benedict XVI’s appeal to “draw upon the ancient liturgical practice of the Church to recover a more authentic Catholic worship.”
He continued, “For that reason, I have restored the venerable ‘ad orientem’ position when I celebrate Mass at the cathedral.”
This gesture, he stated, is not one of rudeness or hostility toward the faithful, nor an attempt to “turn back the clock.”
Rather, Bishop Slattery affirmed, it represents the fact that “we journey together to God.”
As well, he continued, it is an attempt to respond to the Pope’s invitation to “discover what underlies this ancient tradition and made it viable for so many centuries, namely, the Church’s understanding that the worship of the Mass is primarily and essentially the worship which Christ offers to his Father.”