During my preaching and my writing this year I have place great emphasis on recovering the meaning of the Mass precisely as a sacrifice offered to God. The Mass is a banquet, but it is a sacrificial banquet and the meal, holy communion is the fruit of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, the renewal of the offering of his Body and Blood, first offered on the Cross.
In that context I have also had opportunity to make mention of the position of the priest at the altar, observing that it is more appropriate for the priest to stand before the altar, facing altar and tabernacle, than for him to stand as has become the custom since the 1970s, facing the people, with the tabernacle behind him.
There are a number of reasons that can be given for this.
First, by way of responding to an objection, whatever the set up at the Last Supper, the Mass is not a reenactment of the Last Supper, but a re-presentation of the sacrifice of the Cross. When Jesus said, Do this in memory of me, he is referring especially to the Cross. The words of consecration ‘given up for you’ and ‘which will poured out for your and for many for the forgiveness of sins’ are sacrificial expressions that refer to the reality of the Cross. Also the separate consecration of the Body and Blood of Christ represents Jesus death on the Cross. I do not believe, however, that there is any evidence that in antiquity the Church ever celebrated the Mass as a sort of repetition of the Last Supper.
Second, there is an evident symbolism involved in direction during the celebration of the Mass. To put the matter simply, the people in the pews look towards the altar and will see that as the ‘direction of God’. When the priest recites prayers at Mass, he is not speaking to the people, but he is, of course, speaking to God on behalf of the people. That is why it is appropriate that the priest stand, not with his back to the tabernacle, but with the people behind him facing ‘towards God’ to whom he speaks.
Third, this direction towards God fits with the Mass as the fulfillment of the Temple worship of the Old Testament. In the Old Testament the Temple building, the ‘House of God’, was to the west. In front of the Temple, to the east, was the altar of holocausts. To the east of the altar of holocausts would be the courtyard where the people gathered. The priest offering sacrifice naturally approached the altar from the direction of the people and placed the sacrificial victim on the altar while facing the Temple building, the direction of God. This fits with the words from the Letter to the Hebrews: Every high priest is taken from among men and made their representative before God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. (Heb 5:1)
As a side note here, in the Old Testament, the direction of worship was towards the west apparently to set the worship of God apart from the idolatry of the sun god, which was one of the chief gods in the Egyptian pantheon. In the New Testament, very quickly the rising sun came to be seen as a created symbol, a prophecy almost, of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Also, in his Ascension, Jesus went to the Mount of Olives to the east of Jerusalem. After his Ascension, the angels said to the men, This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will return the same way as you have seen him going into heaven. (Acts 1:12) As a result, the east is traditionally seen as the direction from which Jesus will return in glory. So, in honor of his resurrection and in expectation of his return, until recent times, the direction of worship was quickly established as eastward – ‘ad orientem’ in Latin. For this reason churches used to be built with the altar on the east side of the church; priest and people all faced east.
Now, while the Church allowed celebration towards the people, the Church never actually mandated it, even though it has become the almost universal custom. For the reasons mentioned above (and others) I think that it has been a great mistake and has contributed to the loss of the awareness of the reality of the sacrifice and a loss of reverence for the Body and Blood of Christ.
Even so, it is not my present intention to introduce a permanent change here at St. Peter’s. For one, we are only one parish among many in the Diocese.
Still, I think it is important that we gradually become accustomed to this way of celebration, that we come to appreciate it and that we no longer fear it.
During the course of the past year I celebrated Mass ‘towards God’ on various occasions, most notably during the sacred Triduum.
It is now my intention to celebrate Mass ‘towards God’ during the whole of Advent up to and including the Masses of Christmas itself. Mass ‘towards God’ certainly fits with Advent as the season of expectation in which we wait for the Lord’s coming.
I ask only that you open yourselves during this time to the experience of a more traditional way of worship.
May 18, 2022
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