The Mass: the symbolism of 'facing East'

The Mass: the symbolism of 'facing East'

Fr Fabian Duggan OSB

Until very recently, say thirty years ago, every holy Mass in every part of the world, in cathedral, parish church or small chapel, for century after century, was celebrated turned towards the Lord, not as now, "facing the people".

Facing the Lord came to mean facing the tabernacle because it was there that the Blessed Sacrament was reserved. The tabernacle was most often situated on the altar itself or directly behind it in such a prominent place as to focus attention as soon as one entered the house of God. The priest, as the minister of the Lord, faced the tabernacle when he stood at the altar to offer the sacrifice of the Mass.

Almost at once we hear the uninformed remark, "The priest said Mass with his back to the people." That is not accurate. It is more exact to say that priest and people faced in the same direction, the priest as shepherd leading the flock towards their true homeland.

Significance of east

In point of fact, the priest was not primarily facing the tabernacle, he was facing the east, that point of the compass so rich in symbolism all through the sacred Scriptures both the Old and the New Testaments. As far as was possible, all altars faced the east, so that all Masses were offered facing the east as well. The significance of the east was well known to the early Christians. Like the rising sun, Christ (the Sun of Justice and Light of the world) rose in the early morning on the first Easter Sunday.

Even before the coming of the Saviour the significance of the east was not lost. The major prophet Ezechiel announces: "And behold the glory of the God of Israel came in by the way of the east ... And the majesty of the Lord went into the temple by the way of the gate that looked to the east. And the Spirit lifted me up and brought me into the inner court, and behold the house was filled with the glory of the Lord" (ch 43).

In the great cathedrals the visual impact of the first rays of the rising sun piercing the rich stained-glass windows towards which the priest was offering the Body and Blood of Christ must have been quite overwhelming to the devout soul attending Mass in the hush of the early morning.

But after the Second Vatican Council came a great change, an almost total shift of focus. Even if the Council documents nowhere even remotely suggest that Mass should now be said facing the people, a flurry of 'liturgical experts' rushed into print and went on tours proclaiming that suddenly everything was going to be different. It was forbidden (they proclaimed) to say Mass in Latin (any other language was all right, but not Latin) and all Masses would be said facing the people. Both these statements were of course quite untrue.

Much devastation and vandalism have been wrought by self-appointed prophets, and much serious damage to immortal souls, with the sacred liturgy often reduced to the level of a low grade concert hall by people lacking the slightest notion of what liturgy is, let alone its history and development through the centuries.

It is rather curious that 'liturgical experts' made a big issue of tearing down altar rails in many churches on the pretext that they were a barrier between priest and people. Yet almost immediately they substituted an even greater barrier, the altar itself being placed between the priest and the congregation, with the priest standing half-obscured like a shopkeeper behind his counter.

Before, there was movement and variation as the priest began on floor level, confessing his sins and unworthiness and, mounting the altar steps, as he declared, "I shall go up to the altar of God." There he began the sacred action of the Mass, placed between the people and the Lord as God’s chosen minister and his people's representative. He moved, as the rubrics directed, to various points of the altar and sanctuary, for the most part facing the Lord and turning to face the people when addressing them. It made sense.

Now, with the changes and the shift of emphasis, the priest becomes much more static. True to our television era he began to resemble a newsreader at his microphone, no longer leading his flock eastwards towards the Lord, but mostly fixed on one spot, facing the people but addressing God.

With the introduction of Mass facing the people, the tabernacle housing the Holy of Holies became a major embarrassment. On the altar it would be an obstruction. Behind the altar it would mean the priest said Mass with his back to the Lord, a grave discourtesy. So it was decided the tabernacle must go, relegated to an obscure corner, or in an off-centre position, or removed altogether to another room - all this in the name of making the liturgy "more meaningful."

Eucharistic presence

With so many attempts to downgrade the importance of the Blessed Sacrament, is it any wonder that children growing up in this spiritual environment have hardly any knowledge at all of what the Blessed Sacrament is? Is it surprising they have little, if any, love, respect or reverence for the eucharistic presence of Jesus?

By far the biggest mistake the reformers of the liturgy have made is to imagine they can ‘invent' a new liturgy. Like a language or a national character, a liturgy grows and develops organically over a long period of time, usually over hundreds of years. It can never be satisfactorily formulated by committees in the rarefied atmosphere of academia.

The liturgy, and especially the Mass, was never meant to be an entertainment, just as the sacrifice of Calvary was not meant to entertain. It is the bridge between earth and heaven, a joyful but serious business of adoration and supplication that cannot be taken lightly.

Father Fabian Duggan is based at Lumen Christi Priory, Wagga Wagga, NSW.

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