Why We Should All “Face East” During the Eucharistic Prayer

Israhel van Meckenem, “The Mass of Saint Gregory” (c. 1515-1520)
Israhel van Meckenem, “The Mass of Saint Gregory” (c. 1515-1520) (photo: Public Domain)

Cardinal Robert Sarah has made additional comments about the so-called “ad orientem” or eastward direction for the Eucharistic Prayer wherein priest and people all face one direction for the canon of the Mass.  As widely reported, he has expressed a desire for priest to teach on and implement the option by the first Sunday of Advent.

I have noted earlier my support for his view and my hope to further teach and implement this option on a more regular basis. As I continue to teach the faithful about the Eastward “orientation” of Mass I want to present some of what I have offered. Soon enough I want to put my reflection in a letter format to my congregation. What follows is a series of separate reflections I have made in verbal settings.

This is not a scholarly paper, just a pastor’s attempt to explain and encourage the faithful to lay hold of the vision of the eastward orientation, even if at first it puzzles them. At the end of these brief reflections there is also a concern I express.

Historical errors. Mass facing the people is a modern phenomenon. It was largely unknown in the ancient world. Back in the 1960s and 70s it was widely thought that the early Christians faced each other for the Mass. But these conclusions were based on dubious theories about Masses celebrated in the days of persecution in the so-called “house churches” where the faithful gathered in secrecy for Mass. The ancient Christians did not call these places “house churches” but rather, the Domus Dei (the house of God). The term “house church” conjures up informality and fueled an emphasis on the Mass as a simple meal. But such liturgies were anything but informal and meal-like.  The descriptions we have of them indicate a great deal of formality, and as ancient texts and recent archeological findings in places like Dura Europa show, the liturgy was directed eastward. I have written more on this here. Note the following excerpt from the Didiscalia written in 250 A.D.  and see the formality and Eastward direction.

Now, in your gatherings, in the holy Church, convene yourselves modestly in places of the brethren, as you will, in a manner pleasing and ordered with care. Let the place of the priests be separated in a part of the house that faces east. In the midst of them is placed the bishop’s chair, and with him let the priests be seated. Likewise, and in another section let the laymen be seated facing east. For thus it is proper: that the priests sit with the bishop in a part of the house to the east and after them the lay men and the lay women…Now, you ought to face east to pray, for, as you know, scripture has it, Give praise to God who ascends above the highest heavens to the east… And if there is one to be found who is not sitting in his place let the deacon who is within, rebuke him, and make him to rise and sit in his fitting place… Likewise, the deacon ought to see that there are none who whisper or sleep or laugh or nod off. For in the Church it is necessary to have discipline, sober vigilance, and attentive ear to the Word of the Lord.

So presumptions that the early Masses were informal meal-like experiences around tables do not seem to be born up by evidences such as this.

Orientation is about the Cross, not the compass. While it is true that the ancient Church, and many ancient peoples faced east, toward the rising sun to pray, and while this remains ideal today, it is not always possible to position buildings “compass-east.”

As people settled in cities, the city grid did not always permit the orienting of the church’s apse to the East. Thus, As Cardinals Ratzinger and others have pointed out, the cross came to take on the point of focus and became a sort of Liturgical East. All faced the crucifix to pray.

Later as tabernacles came to occupy a space in the center of the altar, the Crucifix, altar and the tabernacle were all aligned on the same axis. This remains an ideal combination today and the bishops have rightly encouraged us to have our tabernacles in the central axis of the Church where it can be truly central and prominent.

Thus the happy coincidence occurs that we face the altar, the tabernacle and the crucifix. Here are  two symbols of Christ, and one his true presence. Jesus Christ is the center of our life, as such wherever we face, when we face him, we are properly oriented.

It is for reasons such as this that Cardinal Ratzinger (who also preferred that we should one day return to the common eastward orientation) encouraged that, even when Mass was said facing toward the people, a crucifix should be placed on the altar to remind us that we are facing the Lord, not each other.

Through Christ our Lord. As I noted in a previous article here, the Eucharistic Prayer is wholly directed to the Father. Thus why do we face Christ? Simply put, we pray to the Father through Christ our Lord. Thus our prayer of adoration and gratitude in the Eucharistic Prayer is directed to the Father, but is directed there through Christ our Lord. We the members of Christ’s Body look to the Father through Jesus, and speak to him through Jesus. We gaze upon him as it were, up and through Christ on the Cross. Visually we are reminded of all this by the Crucifix, Tabernacle and altar we face together.

I stand with you! As a priest and a pastor I have a complex relationship with the congregation in the sacred liturgy. As the celebrant of the Mass I act in the person of Christ the Head, and thus I am a sacrament and sign of his presence as the true High Priest of every liturgy. Christ stands at the head of us looking to the Father and offering him perfect praise. We behind him look also to the Father.

So, as a priest I am for the congregation the celebrant and a sign of the presence of Christ.    But with you the congregation I am a brother. Thus, I, like them stand before God like a blind beggar or a languishing leper. I stand before the crucifix, I stand before the Lord, seeking and pleading for his mercy and grace. This is more beautifully symbolized by us having a common “eastward” stance before God looking for the Lord to return and begging mercy and grace in the meantime.

Christ will come again. The Crucifix is more than a reminder of the historical fact of the Passion. The crucifix points to the whole paschal mystery: the passion and death, resurrection and ascension. Further, the crucifix also has an eschatological significance that Christ will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead. As such, when we look to the cross we look for Jesus to come again. We proclaim your death O Lord, and profess your resurrection, Until you come.

Facing the Cross together we communally look for Christ to come again. This beautiful and happy thought is also declared in the embolism of the Our Father, where we await the blessed hope and the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Yes, together we stand looking to the east: “When will he come?!” Come Lord Jesus! And may you find us looking for you, in joyful hope.

Ok, just a few thoughts of mine.

But let me reiterate the concerns that Cardinal Sarah needs to address to the world’s bishops on this matter. Otherwise the wishes and attempts of priests may prove dead on arrival. While it is true that a priest can use this option on his own, Bishops who are displeased with such a notion can apply a good deal of pressure on priests who seek to fulfill the request. It is not merely that some bishops might be “nasty” about it. Rather, most priests do not seek to do things (and optional things at that) that are displeasing to their bishop or might create dissentions among the faithful. Consensus among priests and bishops to respect the option of eastward orientation and the wish of Cardinal Sarah is going to be important for success in bring forth a wider use of it. Even if a particular priest or bishop does not prefer such an option, an official communiqué from the Cardinal (not just a talk at a liturgical conference) can go a long way to defuse conflicts. A letter “on Vatican stationery” can assist mutual respect in this matter.

Priest too who support the option to face east might also assist the faithful by implementing the option at certain Masses, but not all. We who support the Eastward stance of the Eucharistic prayer have insisted all along that this is an option. And thus we might demonstrate a pastoral solicitude for those who prefer the Eucharistic prayer facing the people even after our teaching. If this thing becomes a liturgy war it will be a countersign and is doomed to failure and overreaction.

To reiterate, an official communiqué from Cardinal Sarah to the world’s bishops is important to preserve charity among bishops and priests. Pastoral prudence is also very important for those of us who would like to more widely use the Eastward option. This will be a hard change for some. And while I feel very strongly that the eastward orientation of the Eucharistic prayer is best, I do not seek to do to others what was done to us all in the late 1960s as changes railroaded through our churches at the hands of enthusiastic clergy but bewildered parishioners. 

As always, your comments and corrections are appreciated. I am grateful if you would address the issues, not me. This helps keep the conversation going between all the readers. Caritas!