What do we see at Mass? (Part I)

The chief complaint that has come to my ears regarding the celebration of Mass facing the tabernacle is, “I no longer feel involved.”

Fair enough, but let us use this as an opportunity for deeper reflection.  What exactly are you involved in when you attend Mass? How has that changed? Are you open to learning a new way of ‘involvement’ that might lead deeper into the reality of the Mass?

No one has told me why he no longer feels involved and perhaps people who feel this way are unable to articulate the reason. I will suggest some possible reasons and perhaps that will help people think the matter through.

The first most obvious reason is that when Mass is celebrated facing the tabernacle a person is no longer able to see what he sees when the priest faces the people. Indeed, the only thing that has changed is in what is seen.

When the priest celebrates towards the people his face is visible, the sacred vessels placed on the altar in front of him are visible, and his gestures are more visible.

Now, I would suggest that if seeing the priest’s face is key to ‘involvement’ then something is wrong with the involvement because the focus has become the relation between the person of the priest and the people. The Mass is not about the priest; he is but a minister of Jesus Christ. He is in service of the altar and the gifts on the altar are more important than he is.

How about the sacred vessels? Well there is really not much to see here insofar as they are just sitting there on the altar. Even more what is seen is just the container, not the bread or the wine in the container. Is it not enough to see the bread and wine brought up and placed on the altar by the priest, even if after it is no longer on the altar it has become ‘veiled’ by the priest standing at the altar? Or is this important to someone simply because it is a reminder, a point of focus?

How about the priest’s gestures? When Mass is celebrated facing the people he can be seen actually placing the vessels on the altar. The gesture of hands and face at “Lift up your hearts” is more visible. The movement of his hands when he invokes the Holy Spirit before the consecration is more visible. He can also be seen holding the bread and chalice in his hands when he says the actual words of consecration. Likewise he can be seen holding chalice and paten when says or sings the words at the conclusion of Eucharistic Prayer: “Through him, with him, and in him…”

For myself, when I was a simple layman in the congregation, I never became habituated to participating in the Mass by visually focusing on these gestures. Nevertheless, I can understand that for some people this might be an important point of focus that is taken away from them when the priest turns around and celebrates facing the other way.

Nevertheless, if it is simply a matter of an accustomed manner of focusing, paying attention, and following what is going on in the Mass, this is something that can be changed.

Three things might help here.

First, since you have become accustomed to seeing these things, you actually know what it looks like, you know that what you used to see is still going on, even though it is now hidden by the ‘veil’ of the priest’s body.

Two Sundays ago, I wrote about the meaning of veils in our worship. I wrote: “Veils remind us that in this life we still receive the divine light through the veil of faith, rather than the face-to-face vision of the heavenly kingdom.” The veil of the priest’s back reminds us that all the things that are hidden from our sight on the altar are like veils that both reveal and conceal the mystery. The veil of the priest’s back reminds us that here and now we still walk by faith, not by sight.

Second, if what is seen is a help in focusing and paying attention, the visible things themselves are secondary; that focus and that attention should be leading us to the invisible reality of the Mass. What is on the altar, in front of the priest and very visible to him, always looks like bread and wine. Nevertheless, before the consecration it really is bread and wine, while after the consecration it has become the Body and Blood of Christ. That change is not seen except by the eyes of faith, nor is the Body and Blood seen, except by the eyes of faith.

Third, we can consider what is seen when the priest faces the tabernacle, not the people.

By the way, the priest’s field of vision also changes. When he faces the people he sees the gifts on the altar and the people; when he turns around he sees the gifts on the altar, the tabernacle, and the crucifix.

What do the people see? (To be continued)

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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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