Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Ad Orientem

The expression ad orientem (Latin for "to the east") is the eastward orientation of a priest celebrating Mass. The perspective here is to face the rising sun which symbolizes the rising and return of our Lord. The posture ad orientem is often used not to mean facing literal east but facing the apse or wall behind the altar, with priest and people looking in the same direction, even if they have their backs to the actual direction east.  To put it simply, ad orientem is when the priest always faces the altar, the same direction as the people face, whether or not the altar is against the wall or freestanding.

The opposite of this is called versus populum, in which the celebrating priest faces the people (at least during part of the liturgy, most generally during the Eucharistic liturgy).  For this the altar must be free standing and have room for the priest and other assisting ministers to stand "behind" it as they face the assembled people.

In effect both terms are somewhat misleading.  It is not about the priest facing the people or the wall but about a liturgical east which has supplemented the actual orientation toward the east.  When the priest faces the people, it is more correct to say he faces liturgical east.  So at St. Peter's in Rome the Pope faces the people because the building faces west and for him to face east is to face the people.

In the earliest days of the Church, the Eucharist appears to have been celebrated on portable altars set up for the purpose. Some historians hold that, during the persecutions, the Eucharist was celebrated among the tombs in the Catacombs of Rome, using the sarcophagi of martyrs as altars on which to celebrate. When Christianity was legalized under Constantine the Great, formal church buildings were built in great numbers, normally with free-standing altars in the middle of the sanctuary, which in all the earliest churches built in Rome was at the west end of the church.  This did not mean that priests faced the people but this did allow for censing the altar on all sides.  The Eastern Churches maintain a freestanding altar but celebrate ad orientem.  As the sacrificial understanding of the mass predominated, so, it seems, did the altar move further back until it was against the wall, at least this is what some have postulated.

The present-day Roman Missal does not forbid the ad orientem position for the priest when saying Mass and provides that new or renovated churches make possible the facing-the-people orientation (versus populum): "The altar should be built apart from the wall, in such a way that it is possible to walk around it easily and that Mass can be celebrated at it facing the people, which is desirable wherever possible." For this reason many beautiful and massive stone and wooden high altars were virtually abandoned following Vatican II and a cheap, ugly, and insignificant little table placed in front of the "high altar" to allow for versus populum orientation.

Rome faces the odd circumstance that in some ancient churches the ad orientem position is physically impossible, and in others it is impossible for the priest to face the people throughout the Mass.  When Benedict XVI celebrated ad orientem in January of 2008 the fire for the return to ad orientem and to the Latin mass was kindled even more.  It is customary for this Pope to celebrate versus populum and yet the altar is set with candles and crucifix between the celebrant and the people. Rome is filled with the buzz over a return to Latin in regular use, with heated discussions over orientation, as well as a host of other liturgical issues.  But Rome is not the only place where this is all the buzz.  Lutheranism is also rethinking the orientation of the priest.

For the Lutheran this involves the discussion of the sacrificial and sacramental acts in the Divine Service. The all sacrificial acts are directed to or speak to God and therefore are said facing the altar.  The sacramental acts (God addressing us) are said facing the people. The sacrificial  parts of the liturgy are generally agreed to be the invocation, confession of sins, introit, kyrie, gloria, collect, gradual, creed, offertory, intercessions, proper preface, sanctus, our father, verba, nunc dimittis, post communion collect. The rest are sacramental where the pastor faces the people -- except for the elephant in the room, the Verba.  There has been more than a little ink spilled over the historic designation of the Words of Institution as sacrificial, that is, prayer or prayed proclamation.  Rubrics tell us in the pastor faces the altar for the consecration.Some would suggest that this is not a question of turning your back to the people but all facing the same direction during prayer.

Brother Weedon said once: Finally, about those free-standing altars. Luther early on expressed a preference for them and for the pastor facing the people from behind them. But the Lutheran Church largely ignored his preference and until the 20th century most Lutheran altars were against the east wall and the pastors faced them whenever a "sacrificial" part of the service took place. 

I grew up ad orientem, both churches I attended during college and seminary and both parishes I have served are versus populum (including Redeemer Ft. Wayne under Fr. Evanson).  Quite frankly, I cannot get excited about this argument.  It is with not a little amusement I read the dripping commentary from Rome and I am saddened to say that some Lutherans have begun to make this a big issue and addressed it in the same biting way.  Just like those who are convinced the Common Service (TLH style) is the ONLY legitimate Lutheran liturgical expression and the the other Divine Service formats of LSB are less than legitimate.  I cannot get excited about this debate either.  I am interested in the legitimate theological perspectives which shape the discussion on both sides -- just not convinced that it is worth becoming as entrenched in this debate as is Rome (and, by extension, its brouhaha over Novus Ordo or Extraordinary Form).  I love Latin, too.  But I am not thinking that Latin needs to be reintroduced as the language of the mass.  Surely all would agree that the English translation of the Roman mass is abysmal but that could be corrected without returning to Latin.  If there are errors in the way that free standing altars are used among Lutherans, surely they can be addressed without tearing them out and restoring the altar against the wall.  At least, that is how I see it...


boaz said...

These kinds of silly debates are what happens when practice takes on a life of its own, separate from doctrine. People argue for whatever they grew up with or prefer, or pick one tradition among the many historical Christian practices to enforce, or become confused at the variety of practices and become anxious or despairing for no good reason.

Our doctrine is that any practice that teaches the Gospel, without causing offense to those prone to be superstitious or weak, is good. And if there is a common practice used by Christians that is good, it should be used to promote unity, as much as possible without compromising the Gospel. That's Christian freedom.

If directional facing during the verba is a print of debate, maybe face the side to teach Christian freedom, then go back to facing the people, because that's who the new testament is for, and holding it up for them teaches them that. (couldn't help adding my own two cents!)

boaz said...

Oh, and our confessions describe Lutheran churches as retaining the Latin.

As much as I would like that, nobody seems to think thats prescriptive.

Anonymous said...

I am interested in the legitimate theological perspectives which shape the discussion on both sides -- just not convinced that it is worth becoming as entrenched in this debate as is Rome (and, by extension, its brouhaha over Novus Ordo or Extraordinary Form). I love Latin, too. But I am not thinking that Latin needs to be reintroduced as the language of the mass. Surely all would agree that the English translation of the Roman mass is abysmal but that could be corrected without returning to Latin.

Pastor Peters, a couple of thoughts. As a practicing Catholic for ten+ years I saw plenty of what you describe, magnificent older church buildings with high altars, enough sacred imagery to fill a convention hall, elaborate tabernacles, the works in front of which those ugly "peoples' altars" were placed. However, the issue is not about Latin per se. The novus ordo can be said in Latin as well. The use of Latin for the canon of the Mass helped to safeguard the liturgy from the tampering and ad-libbing that went on in many places in the aftermath of Vatican II by priests who felt they needed to keep the people "entertained."

The fact is that the Tridentine Rite and the novus ordo express two different rites and theologies and it is an aberration to have them living side by side. As the people worship, so they believe, change their worship, change their belief. Archbishop Marcel LeFebvre understood that very well and protested what he saw was happening at Vatican II, subsequently forming the Society of St. Pius X to safeguard what he saw as the "Mass of the Ages." My Catholic dad always maintained that he could attend Mass anywhere in the world before Vatican II and feel at home.

It is no accident that many Catholics no longer have the classic Catholic belief in the Real Presence. Many don't even bother to genuflect when the tabernacle is still placed in a central location in the sanctuary.

Having returned to my Lutheran roots I now know that to be catholic I need to be an evangelical catholic as upheld in our Lutheran Confessions and have no further yearnings for Roman Catholicism. But, I would humbly submit, unless one has lived inside the walls of the Church of Rome it is very difficult to understand her culture. Looking in from the outside is a whole different matter, which I found true for myself even though half my family has always been Catholic. It is said that the largest second denomination in the U.S. is former, disaffected and non-practicing Catholics. Too many options aren't necessarily good either.


Anonymous said...

These kinds of silly debates are what happens when practice takes on a life of its own, separate from doctrine.

Boaz, I think that you have made a very relevant observation here, inasmuch as the old Tridentine Rite very much involved "practice and doctrine" -- the tight rubrics and high symbolism of the Tridentine Rite did exactly that, unfold what a Catholic believed through the practice of a very specific form of worship.


Anonymous said...

Free standing altars are
a terrific way for the pastor to
communicate to the people during
the consecration of the elements
in the Eucharist. To have your back
to the people at this time is simply
poor manners.

Anonymous said...

Manners?? As the awesome Eucharistic hymn "Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence" lifts up, we are in the presence of the Lord of Lords at His table.

Here are comments from a Catholic source about what happened at Vatican II:

Liturgical reform should be organic. It should not be the kind of revolution that reinvents, in an “instant oatmeal” moment, a so-called contemporary liturgy. There is little about the Novus Ordo that is praiseworthy. From the hordes of lay ministers to the bleak tables instead of high altars to bare churches and Evangelical-style hymns — and yes, and even down to the design of modern vestments — thousands of years of sacred tradition have been given a bloody punch in the face.

I daresay that has happened in some instances to the Lutheran Reformation as well.


Terry Maher said...

The priest "faced the wall" for a reason, and that reason is, the distinction between person and office. As a human being, he is no different than anyone else and faces the altar just as they do, which emphasised as well his office to stand in the place of Christ, but not instead of Christ, to re-present his one historical sacrifice. Therefore, the act is Christ's alone, and the priest, a man, even though standing in loci Christi, faces the altar too.

This concept survives in Lutheran usage as the pastor faces the altar when speaking with or on behalf of the people to God, and faces the people when speaking on behalf of God to the people.

Pastor Peters said...

As an aside... though the parishes I have served have a free standing altar, I am oblivious to the congregation when facing them and my whole attention and attitude is toward the sacrament which the Word of Christ effects. Whether in the prayer of the Eucharist, the Verba Christi, the elevation, Our Father, or Pax Domini, the focus is not looking at the people but the means of grace now fulfilled among us by the Word of Christ acting upon the elements. Any sane Pastor would do the same and not pay attention to the people for such would distract from and diminish the sacramental action taking place.

Anonymous said...

Boaz is correct. This silly debate
is MAJORING in MINORS. This is why
our laity become amused at the
high church folks who focus on the
actions of the presiding pastor.

Janis Williams said...

Latest anonymus, the laity are amused by "high church folks?"

I beg to differ. People and especially children watch our pastors' every move, and listen attentively to every word. What the presider does has importance. It is not mere symbolism, but the Word accomplishing what it promises.

To minimize or castigate the actions at the altar (especially during the Eucharist) is essentially to deny what is really happening there.

I don't consider it "high church" to take seriously God's Word and God's minister. I think the "low church" folk are not amused, but offended.

Paul said...

I have been serving at an ad orientem Altar since 1994. For my money, it enhances my sense of reverence and belief in the real presence. Also, it passes my understanding why almost every "reform" for Vatican II was embraced by non-Romanists.

Anonymous said...


Leave it to those who intentionally chose to become Lutheran to see so clearly.

You are a blessing to us.


Also, it passes my understanding why almost every "reform" for Vatican II was embraced by non-Romanists. Right you are. The Revised Common Lectionary was adopted eagerly by the Protestant mainstream and almost every denomination therein has become heterodox.