Towards God: Part III

As we begin the season of Advent we also begin to experience the celebration of the Mass with the priest standing at the altar “towards God”. I have written about this traditional practice the past two Sundays and I would like to add a couple of more observations here.

The first addresses a possible objection to the practice, namely that the words of consecration, “This is my Body” and “This is the Chalice of my Blood” seem to be addressed to the people, not to God, because they are preceded by “Take this all of you and eat” or “take this all of you and drink”. Here we learn the importance of context, both the verbal context of the Eucharistic prayer, and the context of tradition. Let’s start with tradition.

The present rubrics (instructions regarding the manner of celebration) for the Mass specify that the priest is to bow slightly when saying the words of consecration and that after the words of consecration he is to show the host or chalice to the people for adoration. The older rubric is even more pronounced as it specifies that the priest is to bow leaning his forearms on the edge of the altar as he holds the host or the chalice and pronounces the words of consecration. The specification of the bow tells us that the priest’s attention at the moment is not towards the people.

How should we understand this? That sends us to the verbal context of the whole Eucharistic Prayer, which is a prayer addressed to God, the Father. The actual words of consecration are found within what is called the “Institution Narrative”, that is a prayerful recollection of how it is that Jesus instituted the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist. Immediately before the Institution Narrative the priest, extending his hands, asks God to change the offerings of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ. In most of the Eucharistic Prayers this involves an explicit invocation of the Holy Spirit. Consequently, the Institution Narrative is still addressed to God, giving him the reason, as it were, why he should send forth the Holy Spirit to change the offerings.

This is made clear in the 1st Eucharistic Prayer because in the Institution Narrative the priest speaks recalls that Jesus raised his eyes to heaven “to you, O God, his almighty Father, giving you thanks”. The expression “giving you thanks” is repeated before the consecration of the chalice. The 3rd Eucharistic Prayer also uses the expression “giving you thanks” before the consecration of both the host and the chalice. The 4th Eucharistic Prayer introduces the Institution Narrative with these words: “For when the hour had come for him to be glorified by you, Father most holy”.  The 3rd and 4th Eucharistic Prayer both make the connection with the invocation of the Holy Spirit (which is called the ‘epiclesis’) explicit by the use of the word ‘for’.

In other words, when the priest recites the Institution Narrative, including the actual words of consecration, he is not speaking to the people as though he were dramatizing the Last Supper for them. Instead, in his prayer to the Father, after invoking the Holy Spirit, he is recalling the words and actions of Jesus at the Last Supper. As the priest recalls the words of the Jesus, the Father acts, and sends the Holy Spirit to change the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ.

My second observation has to do with the significance of the times when the priest standing at the altar actually does turn around and address the people.

He does not do this when he introduces what is called the “Preface”, the part of the Eucharistic Prayer that precedes and introduces the “Holy, Holy, Holy”. Even though he begins with the greeting, “The Lord be with you”, he stands facing the altar because he is getting ready to invite the people to “Lift up your hearts” and “Let us give thanks to the Lord, Our God”. He is already ‘out in front’ should we say, leading the people to God.

There are, however, three times that he does turn to the people. When he invites them to pray “that my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God the almighty Father”.  When, after the recitation of the Lord’s prayer, he greets them with “The Peace of the Lord be with you always”.  And finally when he shows them the host before communion saying, “Behold, the Lamb of God”.

When the priest is facing the people the whole time he is at the altar, the significance of these moments is diminished. When the priest has to turn to the people in order to say these words, the significance of these moments is heightened. It is made clear that the people are invited to share in the sacrifice, that the Peace of Christ comes to them from the altar of sacrifice, and that finally that it is really and truly the Lamb of God, offered for the sins of the world, that is given us in holy communion.

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Fr. Joseph Levine graduated from Thomas Aquinas College and after a long journey was ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Baker, Oregon. He currently serves as pastor of St. Peter Catholic Church in The Dalles on the Columbia River.

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