Vol. VI, No. 3: May 2000
Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger – The Spirit of the Liturgy
The Altar and the Direction of Liturgical Prayer
EDITOR’S NOTE: We are very pleased to be able to offer our readers an excerpt from The Spirit of the Liturgy by Cardinal Ratzinger, published by Ignatius Press in the fall of 2000. The altar and the direction of liturgical prayer is explained by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in the following excerpt from chapter three of The Spirit of the Liturgy, reprinted with permission.
Other excerpt from this book on the Adoremus site are:
"The Theology of Kneeling", from the November 2002 AB.
"Art and Liturgy: A Question of Images – Part I", from the February 2002 AB; and Part II of "The Question of Images",from March 2002 AB.
"Music and Liturgy", from the November 2001 AB.
In Chapter Three, presented here, Cardinal Ratzinger lays out the case for reconsidering the direction the priest faces during the celebration of Mass — toward the liturgical East ("ad orientem"). Please note that this was a pre-publication preview, exclusively available to Adoremus members. This was posted while the translation of Cardinal Ratzinger’s text was still being edited, so there may be some minor changes in the published version. Also, we have edited the text slightly (indicated by ellipses), and added textheads and paragraphing to facilitate reading in this format.
The re-shaping so far described, of the Jewish synagogue for the purpose of Christian worship, clearly shows — as we have already said — how, even in architecture, there is both continuity and newness in the relationship of the Old Testament to the New. Expression in space had to be given to the properly Christian act of worship, the celebration of the Eucharist, together with the ministry of the Word, which is ordered toward that celebration.
Plainly, further developments became not only possible but necessary. A place set aside for Baptism had to be found. The Sacrament of Penance went through a long process of development, which resulted in changes to the form of the church building. Popular piety in its many different forms inevitably found expression in the place dedicated to divine worship. The question of sacred images had to be resolved. Church music had to be fitted into the spatial structure. We saw that the architectural canon for the liturgy of Word and Sacrament is not a rigid one, though with every new development and re-ordering the question has to be posed: what is in harmony with the essence of the liturgy, and what detracts from it? In the very form of its places of divine worship, which we have just been considering, Christianity, speaking and thinking in a Semitic way, has laid down principles by which this question can be answered. Despite all the variations in practice that have taken place far into the second millennium, one thing has remained clear for the whole of Christendom: praying toward the East is a tradition that goes back to the beginning. Moreover, it is a fundamental expression of the Christian synthesis of cosmos and history, of being rooted in the once-for-all events of salvation history while going out to meet the Lord who is to come again. Here both the fidelity to the gift already bestowed and the dynamism of going forward are given equal expression.
Posture and God’s universality
Modern man has little understanding of this "orientation". Judaism and Islam, now as in the past, take it for granted that we should pray toward the central place of revelation, to the God who has revealed Himself to us, in the manner and in the place in which He revealed Himself. By contrast, in the western world, an abstract way of thinking, which in a certain way is the fruit of Christian influence, has become dominant. God is spiritual, and God is everywhere: does that not mean that prayer is not tied to a particular place or direction? Now we can indeed pray everywhere, and God is accessible to us everywhere. This idea of the universality of God is a consequence of Christian universality, of the Christian’s looking up to God above all gods, the God who embraces the cosmos and is more intimate to us than we are to ourselves. But our knowledge of this universality is the fruit of revelation: God has shown Himself to us. Only for this reason do we know Him, only for this reason can we confidently pray to Him everywhere. And precisely for this reason is it appropriate, now as in the past, that we should express in Christian prayer our turning to the God who has revealed Himself to us. Just as God assumed a body and entered the time and space of this world, so it is appropriate to prayer — at least to communal liturgical prayer — that our speaking to God should be "incarnational", that it should be Christological, turned through the incarnate Word to the Triune God. The cosmic symbol of the rising sun expresses the universality of God above all particular places and yet maintains the concreteness of Divine Revelation. Our praying is thus inserted into the procession of the nations to God.
The Church’s living altar
But what about the altar? In what direction should we pray during the Eucharistic liturgy? In Byzantine church buildings the structure just described was essentially retained, but in Rome a somewhat different arrangement developed. The bishop’s chair was shifted to the center of the apse, and so the altar was moved into the nave. This seems to have been the case in the Lateran basilica and in Saint Mary Major well into the ninth century. However, in Saint Peter’s, during the pontificate of Saint Gregory the Great (590-604), the altar was moved nearer to the bishop’s chair, probably for the simple reason that he was supposed to stand as much as possible above the tomb of Saint Peter. This was an outward and visible expression of the truth that we celebrate the Sacrifice of the Lord in the Communion of Saints, a communion spanning all the times and ages.
The custom of erecting an altar above the tombs of the martyrs probably goes back a long way and is an outcome of the same motivation. Throughout history the martyrs continue Christ’s self-oblation; they are like the Church’s living altar, made not of stones but of men, who have become members of the Body of Christ and thus express a new kind of cultus: sacrifice is humanity becoming love with Christ.
Arrangement of Saint Peter’s copied
The ordering of Saint Peter’s was then copied, so it would seem, in many other stational churches in Rome. For the purposes of this discussion, we do not need to go into the disputed details of this process. The controversy in our own century was triggered by another innovation. Because of topographical circumstances, it turned out that Saint Peter’s faced west. Thus, if the celebrating priest wanted — as the Christian tradition of prayer demands — to face east, he had to stand behind the people and look — this is the logical conclusion — toward the people. For whatever reason it was done, one can also see this arrangement in a whole series of church buildings within Saint Peter’s direct sphere of influence.
The liturgical renewal in our own century took up this alleged model and developed from it a new idea for the form of the Liturgy. The Eucharist, so it was said, had to be celebrated versus populum (towards the people). The altar — as can be seen in the normative model of Saint Peter’s — had to be positioned in such a way that priest and people looked at each other and formed together the circle of the celebrating community. This alone, so it was said, was compatible with the meaning of the Christian Liturgy, with the requirement of active participation. This alone conformed to the primordial model of the Last Supper.
These arguments seemed in the end so persuasive that after the Council (which says nothing about "turning to the people") new altars were set up everywhere, and today celebration versus populum really does look like the characteristic fruit of Vatican II’s liturgical renewal. In fact it is the most conspicuous consequence of a re-ordering that not only signifies a new external arrangement of the places dedicated to the Liturgy, but also brings with it a new idea of the essence of the Liturgy — the Liturgy as a communal meal.
Misunderstanding of meal symbolism
This is, of course, a misunderstanding of the significance of the Roman basilica and of the positioning of its altar, and the representation of the Last Supper is also, to say the least, inaccurate. Consider, for example, what Louis Bouyer has to say on the subject:
The idea that celebration versus populum was the original form, indeed the way the Last Supper itself was celebrated, rests purely and simply on a mistaken idea of what a banquet, Christian or even non-Christian, was like in antiquity. In the earliest days of Christianity the head of table never took his place facing the other participants. Everyone sat or lay on the convex side of an S-shaped or horseshoe-shaped table. Nowhere in Christian antiquity could anyone have come up with the idea that the man presiding at the meal had to take his place versus populum. The communal character of a meal was emphasized by precisely the opposite arrangement, namely, by the fact that everyone at the meal found himself on the same side of the table (54f).
In any case, there is a further point that we must add to this discussion of the ‘shape’ of meals: the Eucharist that Christians celebrate really cannot adequately be described by the term ‘meal’. True, Our Lord established the new reality of Christian worship within the framework of a Jewish (Passover) meal, but it was precisely this new reality, not the meal as such, which He commanded us to repeat. Very soon the new reality was separated from its ancient context and found its proper and suitable form, a form already predetermined by the fact that the Eucharist refers back to the Cross and thus to the transformation of Temple sacrifice into the reasonable worship of God.
Not from the meal alone
Thus it came to pass that the synagogue Liturgy of the Word, renewed and deepened in a Christian way, merged with the remembrance of Christ’s Death and Resurrection to become the ‘Eucharist’, and precisely thus was fidelity to the command "Do this" fulfilled. This new complete form of worship could not be derived simply from the meal, but had to be defined through the interconnection of temple and synagogue, Word and Sacrament, cosmos and history. It expresses itself in the very form that we discovered in the liturgical structure of the early Churches in the world of Semitic Christianity. It also, of course, remained fundamental for Rome.
Once again let me quote Bouyer:
Never and nowhere before (that is, before the sixteenth century) is there any indication of the slightest importance being attached, or even attention given, to the question of whether the priest should celebrate with the people behind him or in front of him. Professor Cyril Vogel has proved that, "if anything was stressed, it was that the priest should recite the Eucharistic Prayer, like all other prayers, turned towards the East Even when the orientation of the church allowed the priest to pray facing the people, we must not forget that it was not just the priest who turned to the East, but the whole congregation with him" (p. 56).
Admittedly, these connections were obscured or fell into total oblivion in the church buildings and liturgical practice of the modern age. This is the only explanation for the fact that the common direction of prayer of priest and people got labeled as "celebrating towards the wall" or "turning your back on the people" and came to seem absurd and totally unacceptable. And this alone explains why the meal — even in modern pictures — became the normative idea of liturgical celebration for Christians.
In reality what happened was that an unprecedented clericalization came on the scene. Now the priest — the "presider", as they now prefer to call him — becomes the real point of reference for the whole Liturgy. Everything depends on him. We have to see him, to respond to him, to be involved in what he is doing. His creativity sustains the whole thing.
Not surprisingly, people try to reduce this newly created role by assigning all kinds of liturgical functions to different individuals and entrusting the "creative" planning of the Liturgy to groups of people who like to, and are supposed to, "make a contribution of their own". Less and less is God in the picture. More and more important is what is done by the human beings who meet here and do not like to subject themselves to a "pre-determined pattern".
The self-enclosed circle
The turning of the priest toward 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 locked into itself. The common turning toward the East was not a "celebration toward 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 toward Jerusalem, so in the Christian Liturgy the congregation looked together "toward the Lord". As one of the fathers of Vatican II’s Constitution on the Liturgy, J.A. Jungmann, put it, it was much more a question of priest and people facing in the same direction, knowing that together they were in a procession toward the Lord. They did not lock 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….
But is this not all romanticism and nostalgia for the past? Can the original form of Christian prayer still say something to us today, or should we try to find our own form, a form for our own times? Of course, we cannot simply replicate the past. Every age must discover and express the essence of the liturgy anew. The point is to discover this essence amid all the changing appearances. It would surely be a mistake to reject all the reforms of our century wholesale. When the altar was very remote from the faithful, it was right to move it back to the people. In cathedrals this made possible the recovery of the tradition of the altar at the crossing, the meeting-point of the nave and the presbyterium. It was also important clearly to distinguish the place for the Liturgy of the Word from the place for the strictly Eucharistic liturgy. For the Liturgy of the Word is about speaking and responding, and so a face-to-face exchange between proclaimer and hearer does make sense. In the Psalm the hearer digests what he has heard, takes it into himself, and transforms it into prayer, so that it becomes a response.
Turn to the East is essential
On the other hand, a common turning to the East during the Eucharistic Prayer remains essential. This is not a case of accidentals, but of essentials. Looking at the priest has no importance. What matters is looking together at the Lord. It is not now a question of dialogue, but of common worship, of setting off towards the One who is to come. What corresponds with the reality of what is happening is not the closed circle, but the common movement forward expressed in a common direction for prayer….
The image of God in man
[An] objection is that we do not need to look toward the East, towards the crucifix, that, when priest and faithful look at one another, they are looking at the image of God in man, and so facing one another is the right direction for prayer. I find it hard to believe that the famous reviewer thought this was a serious argument. For we do not see the image of God in man in such a simplistic way. The "image of God" in man is not, of course, something that we can photograph or see with a merely photographic kind of perception. We can indeed see it, but only with the new seeing of faith. We can see it, just as we can see the goodness in a man, his honesty, interior truth, humility, love — everything, in fact, that gives him a certain likeness to God. But if we are to do this, we must learn a new kind of seeing, and that is what the Eucharist is for….
The sign of the Son of Man
A more important objection is of the practical order. Are we really going to re-order everything all over again? Nothing is more harmful to the Liturgy than constant changes, even if it seems to be for the sake of genuine renewal.
I see a solution to this in a suggestion I noted at the beginning in connection with the insights of Erik Peterson. Facing toward the East, as we heard, was linked with the "sign of the Son of Man", with the Cross, which announces Our Lord’s Second Coming. That is why, very early on, the East was linked with the sign of the cross. Where a direct common turning toward the East is not possible, the cross can serve as the interior "East" of faith. It should stand in the middle of the altar and be the common point of focus for both priest and praying community.
In this way we obey the ancient call to prayer: Conversi ad Dominum, "Turn to the Lord!" In this way we look together at the One whose Death tore the veil of the Temple — the One who stands before the Father for us and encloses us in His arms in order to make us the new and living Temple.
Moving the altar cross to the side to give an uninterrupted view of the priest is something I regard as one of the truly absurd phenomena of recent decades. Is the cross disruptive during Mass? Is the priest more important than Our Lord?
This mistake should be corrected as quickly as possible; it can be done without further rebuilding. The Lord is the point of reference. He is the rising sun of history. That is why there can be a cross of the Passion, which represents the Suffering Lord who for us let His side be pierced, from which flowed blood and water (Eucharist and Baptism), as well as a cross of triumph, which expresses the idea of Our Lord’s Second Coming and guides our eyes towards it. For it is always the One Lord: Christ yesterday, today, and for ever (Heb. 13. 8).
Copyright © 2000 Ignatius Press
reprinted with permission by Adoremus Bulletin