altar, Eucharist

Frank Answers About Eastward Altars

Question: Cardinal Robert Sarah, the Vatican’s prefect for the Congregation of Divine Worship,  at a conference in  England has asked priests to begin celebrating Mass ad orientem, that is, facing east rather than towards the congregation, beginning in Advent. This request/directive builds on Pope Benedict XVI’s emphasis on “turning together toward the Lord”—that is, the priest and congregation facing east for prayer. Did liturgical renewal go in the wrong direction on this? Should we push all our free-standing altars up against the wall?

Answer: There’s no doubt that early Christians (I don’t know how early) faced toward the east for prayer, just as Jews faced toward Jerusalem and Muslims later on faced toward Mecca. The reason for the eastward “orientation” (ad orientem = “toward east”) was that Christ was hailed as the “new orient”—the rising sun of righteousness. This reinforced the eschatological consciousness of the early Christians.

This had nothing to do with where the table or altar was placed. Early Christian Eucharists weren’t celebrated in church buildings but in house churches and cemeteries. The standard arrangement for a Greco-Roman banquet was the triclinum—three couches for reclining guests with a central table. The space “behind” the table was open so that servants could place food on it. Additional couches could be added as needed. If Christians stood for prayer they might have faced east, but not necessarily toward the table. If the Eucharist was celebrated in the cemetery at night on the grave of a martyr, saint, or faithful departed Christian, the mensa (table top) of the tomb served as the table for the Eucharist and the participants gathered around it.

When Christians moved into basilicas (public halls) in the 4th century, the bishop and presbyters took seats in the apse where magistrates usually sat when they held court. The altar-table was between the apse and the nave where the people assembled. In terms of maintaining the eastward direction for prayer, it was found convenient to have the apse in the east end of the hall. The Syrian Apostolic Constitutions (ca. 380) gave this as a rule when building churches. Then for the Eucharist the celebrant would stand on the west side of the altar with his back toward most of the people. Priest and people together faced the east for prayer.

But not every church had an east-end apse. The first Roman basilicas turned over to the Church for worship had the entrance on the east. Most famously, St. Peter’s Basilica on the Vatican hill had a west-end apse with the free standing altar over the tomb of St. Peter. So the pope would have presided facing the congregation across the altar and the congregation would have had to turn their backs to the altar and the bishop. It’s not likely that they did since we find no directions about that. Moreover, Pope Leo the Great had issues with people standing on raised platforms facing east in Rome doing sun salutes because of the lingering cult of the sun (Sol invictus) in this conservative city where old pagan practices lingered on. In a Christmas sermon, when the Christian celebration of the nativity of Christ competed with the pagan Roman celebration of the nativity of the Invincible Sun, he castigated ignorant Christians who continued this pagan piety even on the steps of St. Peter’s Basilica: “When they have mounted the steps which lead to the raised platform, they turn around and bow themselves toward the rising sun and with bent neck do homage to its brilliant orb” (see Thomas Talley, Origins of the Liturgical Year, 101). This pope was not in favor of ad orientem.

In any event, the issue is orientation, not where the altar is placed. An eastward altar was a matter of logistical convenience so that everyone would be facing in the same direction.  This means, if this principle is to be scrupulously followed, that in church buildings in which the altar is not on the geographical east end of the worship space no one should face the altar for prayer. If orientation is to be scrupulously observed, Christians should face east for prayer no matter where the altar is. A free standing square altar table would enable the presiding minister to stand on whatever side of the altar that would enable him or her to face east for the Great Thanksgiving while also being able to handle the Eucharistic vessels. (Note that within the apses of Eastern rite churches the square altar table is free standing so that the bishop or priest is able to move all around it, for example, when incensing.)

Orthodox priest at altar

My guess is that if Cardinal Sarah’s request (it is not a directive) is implemented, many parishes will not practice a literal but a symbolic ad orientem because their altars are not at the geographical east end of the worship space. The real issue seems to be getting the priest’s back to the people, as it was before Vatican II liturgical reforms, suggesting a return to a hierarchical arrangement, and this will become the divisive issue. If the altar is in the center of the worship space with people assembled on all sides, the request can be implemented with little change. And the celebrant is still presiding in the midst of the people.

As concerns Protestants, 16th century reformers favored a free standing altar. Luther wrote in his German Mass (1526), “In the true mass…of real Christians, the altar should not remain where it is, and the priest should always face the people as Christ doubtlessly did in the Last Supper. But let that await its own time” (Luther’s Works, American Edition, Vol. 53, 69). Its “own time” was a long time coming in most places, although in south Germany altars were placed in the midst of the chancel (but often with a triptych on its back side).  The main altar of the Ulm Minster in south Germany is free standing, but the reredos and triptych make presiding toward the people impossible.

Most Lutheran churches in Europe still have east wall altars. If altars are free standing, it is accomplished by moving the altar out from the wall to enable ministers to stand behind it, not to by placing a communion table in front of an otherwise impressive altar. The main altar in the Uppsala Cathedral is free standing and ministers may preside across the mensa toward the nave.

In the Reformed tradition the Lord’s table was placed at the head of the nave and the ministers stood and sat behind it. In the Anglican Reformation, the Ordinance of 1550 which abolished the high altars on which the sacrifice of the mass had been offered ordered a wooden table placed lengthwise in the chancel between the choir stalls and the priest presided on the north end of the table facing the communicants across the table in the south side stalls. Only with great controversy did Anglicans get back to an eastward altar during the Anglo-Catholic revival of the 19th century. Of course, the late 19th century neo-gothic revival in church architecture encouraged east wall altars along with divided chancels.

What to do (if anything)? Orientation is an interesting, if not always a practical, idea. Maybe during the eschatological Advent season try having everyone face east for the prayers, wherever east actually is (the direction of the rising sun). Introduce the idea by singing “People, look east. The time is near of the crowning of the year,” with its refrains, “Love, the Guest/the Rose/the Star/the Lord is on the way.” Use this orientation for the prayer of the day, the intercessions, the Lord’s Prayer, and the prayer after communion. But for the Great Thanksgiving everyone should face toward the altar where Christ actually comes to us and is present in the sacrament of bread and wine. Since the Eucharistic prayer, which includes the Words of Institution, is proclamation as well as prayer, some Lutheran pastors have emphasized this by turning toward the people during the Words of Institution even if presiding at an eastward altar and holding the bread as the words of Christ are recited over the bread and then holding the cup as the words of Christ are recited over the cup. The other option, of course, if the pastor doesn’t turn around to face the people is a grand elevation of each element (obviously not with a stack of pre-filled communion glasses).

“Ad orientem” for all prayer may not be what Cardinal Sarah or the Tridentistas have in mind. They have their agenda that goes by the motto “reform of the reform”, but it’s not one that the rest of us, especially heirs of the Reformation who have experienced the blessings of liturgical renewal, need to follow. Apparently, Roman Catholic priests are not obligated to follow Cardinal Sarah’s request either because celebrating the Mass facing the people is encouraged in the General Instruction on the Roman Mass (GIRM) and the prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship has no authority to change GIRM on his own. In my opinion, I do not think liturgical renewal went in a wrong direction on this. But liturgical renewal’s emphasis on the character of the liturgy as “the people’s work”, enacted in the practice of people and priest gathering around the table of the Lord, is not shared by everyone in the Catholic Church—or in Protestant Churches.

Pastor Frank Senn

st. mary of the angels singapore

St. Mary of the Angels Catholic Church in Singapore. Spaces in the center of the worship hall provide for a baptismal font and pool, a free-standing altar, and a place for the word, with the congregation gathered on three sides. A number of post-Vatican II Catholic church buildings have no space for an altar against the east wall, as in the image above this article.

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