Here are the next four weekly bulletin blurbs, continuing to give reflections and explanations on why we are celebrating Mass facing together to the Heavenly Father. (And the last set are found here.)
V. In the original ad orientem homily, I said that there were things that I would miss about Mass facing the people, and this last week pointedly reminded me of one. One of the things that I do miss is that there are times that the priest emphasizes a verbal point with a movement. In Eucharistic Prayer I, which was used on Sunday and All Saints, there are a couple of extra moves the priest makes. When the priest “raises his eyes to heaven” right before the consecration, the people don’t see his eyes going up (though he can tip his head up to make the point) and when he strikes his breast as he implores for mercy for “us, though sinners”, even if you are on the edges of the congregation, this can be hard to see clearly. There are also moments where the priest isn’t told to do something or look a certain way, but he could still convey certain emphases by looks or motions: “Listen graciously to the prayers of this family whom you have summoned before you,” “having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end,” and of course “and gave it to his disciples saying.” All these moments are ones I loved, and I loved them especially because when I was a teenager coming back to the Church, they and the other “little extras” at Mass in my home parish helped me understand and enter in. So, I do miss them. But I also know that if I am sacrificing some pieces of unspoken communication, we as a parish are also gaining other subtle gifts in body language that speak to us subconsciously. It’s a hard trade, but ultimately worth it.
VI. Some years ago I did a funeral in a little country church. The man hadn’t been to Mass in years, and it became obvious in the first five minutes that none of his pallbearers were Catholic. The six stern men were all over 50, with long grey beards, and kind of a weathered look to them. I couldn’t tell if they were Mennonite farmers, or a motorcycle club, or members of ZZ Top. As I did the funerary rites I kept feeling like they were looking at me like: What kind of crazy Catholic stuff is this boy doing to our friend? I knew I couldn’t stop and explain it all, especially the Mass itself, which might have been their first. I had this huge urge after the sermon to flip the book and candles and say the Mass ad orientem. There was no time to defend our most Catholic of ritual Masses, so I just wanted to say: “This will still be weird, but at least you'll be able to tell by body language that I'm not talking to you, or anyone else here on earth, but I'm beseeching God to receive your friend's soul. We might disagree on prayers for the dead, but you'll have no doubt about what kind of ceremony this is." I didn't, but I still think anybody walking into a Mass ad orientem knows right off the bat what kind of prayer we're making and with whom we believe we're conversing.
VII. An objection to Mass ad orientem, both now and in the 1960s, was that several important basilicas in Rome always had their chief altars facing the people, and that in the Eastern Christian liturgy the priest might face toward the people. St. Peter’s, for example, has its altar at the west end, so when the Pope said Mass ad orientem (toward the east) he was also versus populum (toward the people). The same sometimes happens for Eastern Christians. But the Eastern priest and the celebrant in a basilica actually have more in common with what we do now at St. Wenceslaus than what we did six months ago. Previous to 1965, nobody, not Catholic or Orthodox, was looking eye to eye with their priest at the Eucharistic Prayer, even if he was pointed east and they faced west. The Eastern priest is always behind the iconostasis, a wall of icons that makes “a chapel within the chapel”, and in basilicas, the altar is on a high platform, often with a baldacchino (canopy) over it. These structures give essentially the same mental effect as the priest facing the same direction as the people: he faces the people during the Word but then he takes our prayers and leads us “up on high somewhere” to come face to face with the Father—like Moses at Sinai, like the high priest going into the Holy of Holies, like Jesus in the Letter to the Hebrews. All three locales, using three different arrangements of architecture, all give the same impression—making it abundantly clear when we are talking to Our Father.
VIII. One of the points made to me when we started having Mass all facing the same way was that at the Last Supper Jesus didn't face away from the apostles. This is a good point. But the Mass isn't merely Holy Thursday reenacted. It's the whole Paschal Mystery. It's the Last Supper, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection, and even the Ascension—which the Letter to the Hebrews at length describes as the entry of Jesus the High Priest into the heavenly sanctuary to offer the blood of his sacrifice. St. Paul, in Christianity's oldest Eucharist passage (1 Cor 10-11), intertwines worship and meal, sacrifice and community. Martin Luther famously wanted to to unhitch the Eucharist from these sacrificial, worshipful moorings and to emphasize the meal aspect more, so he "turned the minister around" and traded the altar for a table. Perhaps unwittingly Catholics absorbed some of that split too when we flipped things around in the late 60s.