Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Ad Orientum et Versus Populum

Ad Orientum et Versus Populum

Ad Orientem et Versus Populum

Not only Westwards but also Eastwards

A friendly word from a high-church Evangelical to Anglo- Catholics & Evangelicals

Before Vatican II most if not all celebration of the Mass in the Roman Catholic Church involved both the celebrant and congregation facing the East. Since Vatican II much but not all celebration of the Mass in the Roman Catholic Church has witnessed the congregation facing East and the celebrant facing West.

Likewise in the Episcopal Church, USA there has been a change in the last 30 years from the celebrant facing the East to facing the people (in fact the rubrics in the 1979 American prayer book taken at their face value actually presuppose that the priest will face East for the Eucharistic Prayer after the Sursum Corda).

“Ad orientem” is from “oriens” meaning “the rising sun” -- thus “the East” or “the dawn” – and with the preposition “ad” ( “to” or “towards”).

In the Early Church the bodily posture of priest and people at the “Eucharistia” was a symbol of Christian hope. Jesus Christ was identified with the dawn and rising sun. And as such His dawn (rising from the dead and then coming in glory) marks the consummation of all things and the restoration of Paradise (Eden lies in “the east”). Not only the celebrant but the whole assembly, united in the one body of Christ, looked to the risen Lord who shall come in glory to restore all things. The eucharistic feast is in anticipation of the messianic banquet at the consummation.

So “ad orientem” is not the priest being bad mannered with his back to the people, but it is the whole people of God looking with awe and joy at the resurrected Lord Jesus and in expectation and hope looking for his coming in glory.

Celebration “ad orientem” does not mean that the celebrant and assisting ministers face East all the time. When they address the people in the ministry of the Word they face the people, for here they are the messengers of God to his people. But when the whole assembly prays they all, laity and priests, face the risen and coming Lord Jesus.

When a congregation is well taught in the content and meaning of the sacred Scriptures and the rich symbolism of the ancient way of celebration is explained to them, then the faithful can see that celebration “ad orientem” can be beautiful and well pleasing to God the Father through His Son and with His Holy Spirit.

It is a major mistake to think that celebration “ad orientem” has been banned by the R C Church since Vatican II and that “versus populum” (“facing the people”) has become the norm.

A careful study of the appropriate documents and rubrics from the “Consultation on the Liturgy” (the major document of Vatican II which significantly does not call for an end to “ad orientem” and does not even mention “versus populum) to the present day ( see e.g.,“Documents of the Liturgy” and the “Missale Romanum” which do not mandate celebration “versus populum”).

From the evidence of the official liturgical books of the RC Church this is what can be said about the reforms after Vatican II. The Liturgy of the Word is to be celebrated “versus populum” facing the people (not from the altar facing East as in much pre-Vatican II practice). Then there is an option. Either the Eucharistic Prayer can be offered in the ancient manner ( priest and people “ad orientem”) or in the modern manner ( priest “versus populum” and people “ad orientem”). The so-called spirit of Vatican II allows for both forms of celebration and certainly does not require only the “versus populum.”

One can understand why there was a major rejection of “ad orientem” in the wake of Vatican II when changes were occurring everywhere and priests wanted to escape from the “bondage” of the pre-Vatican ways of celebration. “Versus populum” seemed to fit where people were psychologically and socially in the 1960s and 1970s. Many were happy to see the priest as a kind of spiritual bar tender or friendly presiding officer who jovially faced them and served them divine food and drink.

The more serious minded saw the Westward celebration as being a reflection of the Last Supper (Christ presiding over the meal with his disciples), of making clear to all the faithful not only the words but also the actions of the Mass – taking & blessing, and of communion/community.

Perhaps now that we find ourselves in God’s good providence at the beginning of a new millennium and over thirty years after Vatican II, we are in a better position to see both the awesome imagery of the celebration “ad orientem” and the homely imagery of the “versus populum.”

The Rev’d Dr. Peter Toon

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