Sun Rising In The East On Priests And Altars

by Michael Morris


An essay on the history of direcitonalism. Points covered include: the liturgical debate over which way the celebrant at Mass should stand, versus populum or ad orientem, the specific placement of liturgical furniture, and the scriptural/traditional roots concerning this issue.

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The Morley Institute, Inc., Washington, D.C., November 2000

In the current liturgical debate over which way the celebrant at Mass should stand during the eucharistic prayer, two camps have emerged. The versus populum group has advocated since the Second Vatican Council that the celebrant face the people during the sacred mysteries. The ad orientem group advocates that the priest return to the posture that held sway for centuries in the Roman rite, namely that he face the liturgical East with the people.

To call this the "orientation debate" is perhaps too loaded a phrase, given the sensitivity of language in an era that has become increasingly contentious. The verb "to orient" is, by its very root, charged with directional sense that means to face east, while the noun "orientation" has been coopted into a euphemism for sexuality by contemporary wordsmiths. Directionalism is, perhaps, a more useful label for this overall issue because it stands unfettered by alternate shades of meaning.

Even the Latin labels that define the two camps come packed with conflicting interpretations. The phrase versus populum can also mean that the priest stands "against the people" and not with them (in a unidirectional sense), and the phrase ad orientem seems less than genuine when a church is itself not oriented toward the geographical east (as is the case in many modern churches). In his book, Looking at the Liturgy, Fr. Aidan Nichols, O.P., an ad orientem advocate, introduces the phrase versus apsidem, which circumvents this nettlesome problem. But to substitute a phrase that means to face the apse of a church seems to rob its advocates of the very symbolism they want to promote — namely, to face the east where the rising sun represents the risen Lord — substituting instead an architectural focus that may not even be relevant. How does one face the apse in a church with no apse? So many churches today, like those built in the round, are apse-challenged.

Arranging Liturgical Furniture

Fr. Joseph Fessio, S.J., a vital force behind the Adoremus movement and another ad orientem advocate, likes to use the term "the symbolic east" when referring to priest and congregation praying in one direction. But what exactly do they face when they turn together to the symbolic east? Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, another ad orientem advocate, argues in his The Spirit of the Liturgy that the priest and people together should face the crucifix, and it "should stand in the middle of the altar and be the common point of focus for both priest and praying community." In other words, the ad orientem gesture of prayer entails more than just facing east. It commemorates the crucified Christ of history as well as the cosmic Christ who has risen and will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead. Even the versus populum advocates have concurred with this important focus — and, yet, with disastrous results. It gave birth to the liturgical monster known as the "double-corpus crucifix", a historical and artistic embarrassment. Its aim was to allow the crucifix to be viewed by both priest and congregation in a versus populum Mass.

If the cross stands in the middle of the altar and is not suspended from the ceiling or hanging on the back wall of the church, where then does one place the tabernacle? Fr. Michael Carey, O.P., in an article entitled "A Theology of the Sanctuary" in the March 1997 Homiletic and Pastoral Review, argues that the tabernacle should be located in the sanctuary in direct relationship to the altar of sacrifice. Whether it be because of instinct or tradition, that arrangement seems to have growing support among laypeople and members of the American hierarchy. However, the body of the priest with his back to the people would obscure both the sacred elements and the altar with its tabernacle during the eucharistic prayer. Is obscurity necessarily a bad thing? The 18th-century statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke listed obscurity as one of the elements for encountering what we might call "God" in a rationalistic age in his work, A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (1756). Obscurity is tied to mystery, and mystery evokes the supernatural.

But there seems to be no mystery in the exalted positioning of the celebrant's chair as described in the revised edition of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal. It says the chair should be in the vertex or summit of the sanctuary, making it yet another piece of liturgical furniture vying for attention in the perennial clashing of symbols that has come to typify Catholic liturgy. As the chair assumes totemic importance, it must necessarily compete with the altar, tabernacle, crucifix, and sacred elements in the hierarchy of visual things found in the sanctuary. Ad orientem advocates would see the chair as an obstacle or distraction if placed high above the altar on the back wall. Its size and placement could lessen the sanctuary's importance and ultimately turn the church into a throne room. Not even in the early basilicas was there such an exaggerated emphasis on the chair raised on high, even though its origins trace back to the emperor-worship of Rome.

What are the theological and cultural consequences of this misguided atavism? Directionalism is an issue not only for the church building as a whole but the sanctuary in particular. Within the sanctuary, it not only dictates where the liturgical furniture goes, it underscores what the praying community believes in by the very order in which its trappings are positioned.

Next to the chair, the altar itself has become a focus of controversy in the past three decades. Altar or table? Moveable or fixed? Wood or stone? The General Instruction states that the altar should be "fixed and dedicated" and freestanding, so that one can walk around it and celebrate versus populum. It says this should be done "ubicumque possible sit," which many will translate as being a mandate for the celebration of Mass facing the people, not seeing that the phrase "wherever possible" is ambiguous. It is not clear whether it refers to the positioning of the altar or the celebrant. If it is the latter, it would fly in the face of Cardinal Ratzinger's preference, the pope's practice in his own private chapel, and the long-standing tradition of the Roman rite.

Many ad orientem advocates have no problem with the concept of a freestanding altar, and see it as an improvement over the altars of the old rite wherein elaborate altarpieces were appended to them. Architect Steven Schloeder, author of Architecture in Communion, says, "The object is to get back to the idea of the altar being the locus of sacrifice, of its having its own integrity and not being overshadowed by a painting connected to it." On the other hand, wouldn't a painting be a visual aid to help us focus on the supernatural, something beyond ourselves?

As a "window to heaven," the altarpiece should, if anything, reinforce in a perceivable way the sacred mysteries being celebrated in the sanctuary. The rabid destruction and removal of altarpieces in the last 30 years have been a blow to art and contributed to the desensualizing of the liturgy. While the General Instruction blueprints how things ideally should be arranged inside a church, it does not advocate the wholesale elimination of architectural and artistic works from earlier eras, a common phenomenon in the United States, where liturgical fads are often marked by ignorant fanaticism. Substituting a thronelike chair for the visual splendor of the altarpiece or reredos is not only disquieting but disorienting, and it works against the cohesive sense of directionalism that has been handed down to us through the ages.

East Of Eden

Directionalism has its roots in Scripture and tradition. One of the earliest references in the Old Testament can be found in the Book of Genesis. After Adam and Eve were expelled from the garden of Eden, they gave birth to Cain and Abel. When Cain killed Abel, Yahweh placed a mark on the murderer and turned him into a wanderer: "Cain left the presence of Yahweh and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden" (Genesis 4:16). This implies that the East is a land of exile, while Eden and the presence of God were to be found in the West.

In his book, The Temple: Its Symbolism and Meaning Then and Now, Rabbi Joshua Berman argues that the temple in Jerusalem drew on a language and symbolism of sanctuary that is found in the description of Eden in the Book of Genesis. The same Hebrew words are used to describe both the presence of God in the garden and in the sanctuary of the temple. The symbolism of garden and temple and the activity of tending both share in the same Hebrew vocabulary, Rabbi Berman says, that would imply "an identity between Eden and Sanctuary as environments wherein man enters the realm of the divine and resonates with a midrash that likewise equates the two." When God banished Adam and Eve from the garden of Eden (Genesis 3:23), Rabbi Berman declares, it is a foreshadowing of the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70 A.D.

History and myth repeat themselves and are renewed through time by a symbolism that reflects epic moments filled with meaning. Adam and Eve were cast out of Eden and barred from reentering when God posted, at the front of the garden, the cherubs and the flame of a flashing sword. They were sent out into the world in a certain direction. While Cain's own banishment as a wanderer took place east of Eden, one could surmise that his parents, Adam and Eve, were also in exile to the east of that sacred precinct. Eden is a geographical name, but its location cannot be identified. Genesis 2:10-14 tries to fix a locality for paradise by naming four rivers that flow through it. The Tigris and the Euphrates are two of these rivers, and their source in the Armenian mountains is well-known. While the other two rivers, the Pishon and Gihon, remain unidentified, it is thought that they existed far to the west. In fact, some aggadists locate Eden in the center of Africa (an interesting conjecture, since many scientists today believe that man's origins were on that continent).

If man is in exile east of Eden, then a return to that sacred precinct would necessitate a journey west, past the fiery sword and beyond the sentry cherubs. In the pregnant world of symbols, archetypal myth is played out in the very brick and mortar of sacred architecture. It is no mere coincidence that inside the tabernacle tent of Moses, the temple of Solomon, and the rebuilt temple of Herod the Great, the "Holy of Holies" — the place where the presence of God resided, where only the high priest could ritualistically enter at an appointed time of the year — was situated in the western end of these structures and the entry was from the east. Cultic engagement with the divine presence was ritualistically restricted for the Jews by a series of courts and sanctuaries that increased in importance from east to west. King David left detailed instructions with his son, Solomon, concerning how the temple was to be built. In its construction, Solomon fashioned over the door to the Holy of Holies a linen veil of violet, scarlet, and crimson, and "he worked cherubs on it" (2 Chronicles 3:14). Lastly, the doors to the temple were made of gold so that they could shine and radiate before the rising sun. What better way could an artist fashion with material goods a re-creation of those fabled cherubs guarding the garden? How marvelous in their brilliance must have been those temple doors, like the flame of a flashing sword.

"The Sanctuary resembles Eden because the Sanctuary replaces Eden after the fall of man as the venue through which man can aspire to commune with God," Rabbi Berman says. The Jewish temple, with its art, architecture, and ritual, was an attempt to journey back to paradise and find unity with the Creator. It stood as a symbol of the covenant, and its orientation toward the west gave it a linear link with a divine focal point.

The bloody, horrific siege of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple by the forces of Rome in 70 A.D. brought an end to the old sacrifice and covenant of the Jewish nation. As Eusebius reports, the Christian community of Jerusalem escaped to the hill country before the conflagration. They survived and continued to offer a new sacrifice under the auspices of a new covenant. They adopted the idea of directionalism from the Jews but reversed the region of the divine to the east, because that was the direction of the rising sun, the cosmic symbol of the risen Christ. Likewise, they co-opted many of the ritual practices of the Jews while at the same time breaking radically from their spiritual forefathers. For instance, Sunday (the day of Christ's resurrection) replaced the Jewish Sabbath (Saturday) in importance.

But directionalism did not die out for the Jews with the destruction of the temple. For the Jews in Diaspora, the synagogue came to substitute that fabled house of God in Jerusalem, and the enshrined torah replaced the Holy of Holies. The synagogue did not align itself with the mythic Eden in the west as the temple had done. That chain of symbolism was broken. The ark of the torah now aligned itself in the direction of Jerusalem. A nation in exile prayed toward the place where the temple had stood. Just as Daniel prayed toward Zion while held captive in the east, so too do Jews from around the world pray today at the ruins of the Western Wall, all that remains of Herod's temple.

Dark Western Skies

In his book, Architecture in Communion, Schloeder revives many of the reasons why Christians have positioned their churches to the east for so many centuries. From the earliest days of the Church's history, Christians looked to the skies and adapted a symbolic idea already well-established among the ancient religions of the Mediterranean. The sun sets in the west, bringing with it darkness, and darkness is equated with death. The Egyptians buried their dead on the west side of the Nile, and the Greeks placed Hades in the west. The east, on the other hand, witnessed the rising of the sun and the vigorous energy of a new day. The pagan author Vitruvius, writing in his treatise on architecture, advocated that divine images be erected at the east end of the temples so that worshippers would face the eastern sky. For Christians, the rising of the sun was seen as a cosmic symbol of the light of the resurrected Christ dispelling the darkness of sin and death. As St. Cyril of Jerusalem wrote, "Since the west is the region of sensible darkness, and he being darkness has his dominion also in darkness, therefore, looking with a symbolical meaning towards the west, you renounce that dark and gloomy potentate." Many Christians also believed that Eden had been in the east, not the west. Certainly, the two known rivers demarcating Eden and mentioned in Scripture were to the east of the burgeoning Christian community. St. John Damascene wrote that God planted a garden eastward, and man's sin sent him into exile. Therefore, Christians look toward their ancestral home by praying toward the east. It was also thought that the resurrected Christ would return from the east, the direction in which He ascended to heaven, to judge the world. For these and numerous other reasons, all of them highly charged with symbolism, the Christian community adopted the custom of praying toward the east.

As is often the case, liturgists advocating a versus populum position point to St. Peter's in Rome and other basilicas as paradigms for a Mass in which the priest stands behind the altar and speaks to the people, imitating the way Christ would have addressed His apostles at a meal. In his book, The Reform of the Roman Liturgy: Its Problems and Background, Msgr. Klaus Gamber deconstructs this notion as a romantic fantasy. Unlike most of the great churches of Christendom, St. Peter's was never oriented toward the east but to the west (as the temple in Jerusalem had been). Further, the area around the altar at St. Peter's and other basilicas was historically covered with veils, curtains, candlesticks, and other liturgical paraphernalia so as to obscure any notion of an interface between prelate and people. Gamber points to Martin Luther and his The German Mass and Order of Worship of 1526 as the catalyst for re-creating the supposed dynamic and seating arrangement of the Last Supper. "The altar should not remain in its current form and the priest should always face the people — as we can undoubtedly assume Christ did during the Last Supper," wrote Luther, who was probably unaware of the art historical evidence disproving his argument.

The sixth-century mosaic found in the Church of San Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna reveals the customary seating arrangement for correct dining in the ancient world. Christ reclines on a sofa at the place of honor at the far-right end of the semicircular table. The seating arrangement Luther envisioned is a later, European-styled gathering with a round table and upright chairs or benches. This is typified by Jörg Ratgeb's painting of the Last Supper completed in 1510. There the apostles are gathered around a table drinking, talking, sleeping, and even blowing snot as Christ distributes the Eucharist. It is a boisterous Last Supper, one that in more ways than one resembles many a modern liturgy where the cosmic importance of the act taking place seems to have escaped the full attention of the participants. No one in this painting seems to have noticed the angels above Christ's head, bearing aloft the sacred host.

Neopagan Liturgy

On July 14, 1790, one year after the storming of the Bastille, the first great liturgy of the French Revolution took place on the Champs-de-Mars in Paris. Organized by the National Assembly, its purpose was to promote national unity and order by demonstrating overwhelming public support for its revolutionary principles. Hundreds of thousands of citizens attended. Called the "Fête de la Fédération," this propagandistic stadium liturgy was inspired in its physical plan by the circuses of ancient Rome. The revolutionaries adopted Roman geometric forms like circles, squares, cylinders, and cubes to better express Enlightenment ideals. Each of these shapes held its own formal integrity while being part of a larger unified whole. Geometric symbolism was as much a part of the rationalist agenda as was the liturgy itself. In the center of the circus, in a position from which the proceedings could be seen from all sides, stood the Altar of the Fatherland (Autel de la Patrie) on a raised platform. Surrounded by flaming braziers, Tallyrand celebrated Mass on that altar. Reluctantly, the king and his family attended the ceremony, not realizing that within just a few years, this same spirited crowd would be demanding his head and that of his wife, sparking the bloodbath known as the Reign of the Terror. But for now, the optimistic belief that they were entering a new age had the populace spellbound. After the Mass, the Marquis de Lafayette (a popular hero at this phase of the revolution) ascended to the altar and swore an oath of allegiance to "the nation, the law, and the king." Everyone in the audience, from the military guards to the king himself, repeated the oath, and "the spectators were intoxicated" with enthusiasm.

This liturgy in the round became a paradigm for future revolutionary rites, and the theatricality of these ceremonies increased as the neopagan program of the revolutionary designers replaced the rituals of orthodox Catholicism. Artist Jacques Louis David, the revolution's minister of culture, engineered many of the pageants that focused on fallen revolutionary heroes, the goddess of reason, and the cult of the supreme being. Even in St. Peter's Square, one of these neopagan rituals was staged when the invading revolutionary forces of France occupied Rome, sending the pope into exile.

This break from the directionalism of the Judeo-Christian tradition, wherein the divine was invoked far outside the gathering place of the worshipping community, radically shifted the focus of the crowd from the cosmos outside to the spectacle within. In effect, it encouraged a kind of liturgical onanism. With no other outlet for its creative energy, the revolutionary liturgy had to turn on itself and increase its theatricality to appease an audience grown used to ceremonial novelties. Little wonder that the paradigmatic plan of the Roman circus — with its history of crowd-pleasing tortures, games, and races — is best adapted in modern times not to liturgy but to sports arenas, racetracks, boxing and wrestling rings, and the mosh pits of raves.

On The Boards

Form follows function. Many of today's liturgical architects and consultants have been programmed to create an environment wherein the congregation can gaze on itself and appreciate the spectacle staged inside an expanded sanctuary. Churches in the round are now commonplace. Priests are trained to celebrate Mass not just as an "alter Christus" but with the heightened awareness of being an actor, even a comedian, facing an audience that must be won over. When an individual is on a stage facing a large crowd of people, the dynamics of the theater kick in. So much rests on the personality of the celebrant in the versus populum mode that the double role of being another Christ and an individual expressing himself can cause a dangerous conflict. An entertainment priest is not taking on Christ but indulges instead in the cult of his own personality.

Theatricality (and this includes music) in the liturgy frequently draws its inspiration from secular sources, such as Broadway plays and television. In the United States, where the predominant culture has always been Protestant and somewhat hostile to foreign cults, it was hard for Roman Catholics to adapt to liturgical changes without borrowing heavily from the familiar showbiz techniques of the entertainment industry. For liturgy to be relevant, it had to be fresh, new, surprising, and affective. America gave birth to televangelist programming, where entertainment and feel-good spirituality are inextricably fused.

Evidence that the variety show motif of televangelism has had an effect on Roman Catholicism can be seen in the expanded role of the sanctuary, which now literally explodes with diverse activity. The choir has crept into the sacred precinct, so has the baptismal pool (the latter having been historically contained in a separate room or building for initiates). The sanctuary, already a battleground for the positioning of liturgical appointments, has become a performing arts stage, and the congregation responds to the entertainment contained therein by clapping its approval. "The horrible thing in ministry," admits ex-con and millionaire minister Jim Bakker, "is when it becomes show business, and the show must go on."

For liturgy to go on and survive with its ideals intact, an analysis and differentiation must be made between cult and carnival. Directionalism, with its focus on the transcendent, has, in the past, kept liturgy honest by keeping eyes from drifting into the narcissistic gaze of self-infatuation. But how can liturgy, having so long flirted with the hot-flash techniques of telecommunication, return to customs that look archaic and out of vogue? How can you keep 'em down on the farm after they've seen MTV? Even Cardinal Ratzinger, who so clearly sees the problems that have arisen in the past 30 years, is hesitant to call for an immediate corrective. "Are we really going to re-order everything all over again?," he asks in The Spirit of the Liturgy. "Nothing is more harmful to the liturgy than constant changes," he adds, "even if it seems to be for the sake of genuine renewal."

If directionalism is to make any logical sense in contemporary liturgy, then everyone — both clerics and laypeople — must recover the wonder that symbols once exercised in churches. A clarion call should be sounded for a neosymbolist movement within Catholicism — not one that duplicates the French antirealist movement of the 1880s, but one that draws on the metaphysical symbol system inherited from Judaism and flowing into the rich cultural history of the Catholic Church, one that necessitates a knowledge of — and reverence for — the way the material world can reflect profound, cosmic ideas. The reason so many of the liturgical changes of the past 30 years had upsetting consequences was because they established a disorder in the house of God. Literally and figuratively, disorientation occurred.

Aquinas defines peace as the tranquility of order. If we are to find peace in the liturgy, then we have to restore its order. Directionalism is connective. It is one kind of order that visibly links a congregation to its God. Stepping back into the future may be initially jarring, but if it is right, then eventually it will ring true to the soul.

Michael Morris, O.P., Ph.D. is a Dominican priest and art historian who teaches at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. He is also the director of the Santa Fe Institute, a research center in Berkeley dealing with issues of Catholic faith and culture.

© 2000 The Morley Institute, Inc.

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