The comment is sometimes heard, “In the Latin Mass and in many other Masses at Mary Immaculate Church, the Priest turns his back on the people at the Altar.” Some people even seem to remark upon this with an unsaid implication that the Priest is somehow being impolite to the people in offering Mass this way. To describe this orientation of the priest in prayer as turning his back on the people actually misses the whole point of what was being expressed here in the liturgy, from the early centuries of the Church right up until the late 1960’s.

When the priest is at the High Altar for the Canon or Eucharistic prayer facing the crucifix and tabernacle, he is leading the people in prayer as their representative and mediator, acting in the person of Christ the High Priest. Priest and people together face the same direction, coming through Christ and His cross and resurrection to God the Father. We are a pilgrim people journeying together through this life to our Fathers home above. To put it another way, if you were travelling in a bus, you would hardly want the bus driver to be facing you! You would be glad to see his back as it hopefully means he has his attention on the road ahead. Moreover, we are obviously not offended by looking at the back of the person in the pew in front of us, as we know we are one as a congregation in turning toward the Lord in prayer and worship.

In The Traditional Latin Mass or Ad Orientem Ordinary form Mass, the Priest and people share a common orientation in prayer. The Priest is one with the people as he acts on their behalf. He is together with them in facing the same direction as they do. Both Priest and people are together “turned towards the Lord” in prayer and worship. This common direction is what is meant by the term “Ad Orientem” (literally towards the east) and it is one of the most ancient Christian liturgical practices. In fact, Pope emeritus Benedict believes that in considering all the evidence it is of Apostolic origin. It was common for Theologians of the first millennium to point out that while Muslims turned towards Mecca for prayer and the Jews towards Jerusalem, Christians turned towards the east to pray.

Why east? Early Christians saw the rising sun in the east as a powerful sign of Christ coming again in glory. It was a sign of the light of the resurrection and the heavenly Jerusalem to which we are all journeying as a pilgrim people. Jesus is the “Day dawning from on high”. Luke 1:78. Johns Gospel also contains key imagery of Christ as “the light of the world”. There are many other scriptural passages that also point to Christ as the light that rises in the east to dispel the darkness. Eg: Mal 4:2; Rev 7:2; Mt 24:27-30.

Fr. Uwe Michael Lang, whose work in this area of liturgy has been translated into many languages, links this specifically to the celebration of the Mass when he writes –

Mass is a common act of worship in which priest and people together – representing the pilgrim Church – reach out for the transcendent God. What is at issue here is not the celebration “towards the people” or “away from the people,” but rather the common direction of liturgical prayer. This is maintained whether or not the altar is literally facing east; in the West, many churches built since the 16th century are no longer “oriented” in the strict sense. By facing the same direction as the faithful when he stands at the altar, the priest leads the people of God on their journey of faith. This movement towards the Lord has found sublime expression in the sanctuaries of many churches of the first millennium, where representations of the cross or of the glorified Christ illustrate the goal of the assembly’s earthly pilgrimage. Looking out for the Lord keeps the eschatological character of the Eucharist alive and reminds us that the celebration of the sacrament is a participation in the heavenly liturgy and a pledge of future glory in the presence of the living God.

Interestingly, nowhere in the documents of the second Vatican Council do we find a call to change the Mass by having the Priest face the people. Even today the newly translated Roman Missal contains instructions for the priest to be turned towards the people for the “Pray Brethren that my Sacrifice and yours…”, the sign of peace and the “Behold the Lamb God…”. This is based on the understanding in the origin Missal of the new Mass, that the Priest and people are facing the same direction from the offertory prayers onwards until the concluding rites. This having been said, it is clear that Mass with the Priest facing the people became almost the universal practice in the Roman rite from the late 1960’s. Mass celebrated like this is what people are now accustomed to and what they tend to expect. When the priest faces the people for Mass it emphasises the presence of the Lord among us and with us as a community. Pope emeritus Benedict however, in his book ‘The Spirit of the Liturgy P80-81 points out a concern that we need to be aware of: He writes:

The turning of the priest towards the people has turned the community into a self enclosed circle. In its outward form, it no longer opens out on what lies ahead and above, but is closed in on itself. The common turning towards the east was not a “celebration towards the wall”; it did not mean that the priest “had his back to the people”: the priest himself was not regarded as so important. For just as the congregation in the synagogue looked together towards Jerusalem, so in the Christian liturgy the congregation looked together “toward the Lord” …. They did not close themselves into a circle; they did not gaze at one another; but as the pilgrim People of God they set off for the Oriens, for the Christ who comes to meet us….A common turning to the east during the Eucharistic Prayer remains essential. This is not a case of something accidental, but of what is essential. Looking at the priest has no importance. What matters is looking together at the Lord.

Virtually all of our weekday Masses and two of our weekend Masses at Mary Immaculate church are now celebrated Ad Orientem; Some of these are the ‘EF’ extraordinary form traditional Latin Mass, others the OF+ Ordinary form modern Mass. I hope this reflection assists parishioners to understand this legitimate liturgical option for the celebration of the Mass, and why it is a characteristic of the liturgy of many Oratorian communities around the world.