Saturday, January 26, 2013

Ad Orientem!

Some time ago over at Weedon’s Blog, Fr. Weedon posted a series of “Patristic Quotes of the Day”  from St. Basil the Great’s work, De Spiritu Sancto (On the Holy Spirit).  I really liked a number of these citations, so I took some time to read the Saint’s words in their fuller context.  Among the many passages that might strike a Confessional Lutheran as pertinent, one citation immediately jumped out at me when I happened upon it:  “We all look to the East at our prayers, but few of us know that we are seeking our own old country, Paradise, which God planted in Eden in the East. Genesis 2:8” (par. 66). 

This quote adds an interesting dimension to the Ad Orientem (“To the East”) and versus populum (“Toward the People”) discussion.  For those unfamiliar with the dichotomy, in Lutheran parlance they are typically used to describe the direction a pastor faces during the Divine Service.  Ad Orientem means that the pastor is facing toward the Altar (“Liturgical East,” the direction that Altars traditionally face).  Versus poplum, then, refers to celebrating the Divine Service while facing the congregation (typically with a free-standing Altar).  Although the dichotomy is usually used in reference to the Consecration of the Blessed Sacrament, there are some pastors who have taken to praying toward the congregation as well.  

At this point, it should be noted that the Blessed Reformer himself argued that “the altar should not remain where it is, and the priest should always face the people as Christ doubtlessly did in the Last Supper.”   However, it is also true that Lutheran orthopraxy never adopted this liturgical suggestion.  One can find Lutheran Churches throughout the United States equipped with High Altars so ornate and stunning that they rival and surpass Papist altars.  Even country churches of an otherwise Pietistic bent are found to have traditional, against-the-wall, East-facing Altars.   

However, it will not be surprising to those familiar with contemporary Lutheran architecture and practice that freestanding Altars are commonplace.  This was a result of the liturgical “renewals” of the mid-20th Century, which - clinging to the coattails of the Second Vatican Council - saw a number of changes to traditional Lutheran practices.  Mimicking the papists, a three year lectionary was created for Lutheran use.  A new liturgical translation of the Mass was adopted.  And traditional and overly ornate church furnishings and iconography were stripped and replaced with more “modern” styles.

I for one can appreciate the theology behind Luther’s appeal for freestanding Altars.  His focus on the priest’s words being those of Christ to the people, highlighting the Sacramental nature of the Supper (as opposed to the abomination of the papist mass), make sense.   However, these salutary arguments do not seem to be the impetus behind the contemporary use of freestanding Altars.  Rather, the cause of these and other changes appears to be little more than a shameless mimicking of the papist liturgical innovators of the ‘60s and ‘70s.  I do not think this makes a good standard for Liturgical evolution in the Lutheran Church.  Aside from this, there are good, right, and salutary reasons for Consecrating the Blessed Sacrament Ad Orientem. 

Getting back to the St. Basil quote, facing toward the Altar is in no small part a reminder of our “old country.”  St. Basil references Eden, but understanding Eden as a type of the heavenly Paradise is fundamental.  It reminds us that we are in the world, but not of it.  Our kingdom is not an earthly one.  That Paradise to come is the New Jerusalem, also reminding us that we are God’s beloved people, the true and spiritual Israel.  The Old Testament speaks of the Israelites in captivity and foreign lands praying “toward their land which [God] gave to their fathers, the city which [He had] chosen, and toward the temple which [King Solomon] built for [God’s] name” (2 Chronicles 6:38).  We also pray toward the East in remembrance of the fact that the New Jerusalem is the land God has promised us, that Holy City which needs no earthly temple, for the Lord Himself is her Temple and Light.

When it comes to the Consecration of the Sacrament, it is important to remember that the Holy Supper is truly “Heaven on Earth,”  the moment in which Paradise becomes part of our temporal sphere.  It is a foretaste of the Wedding Feast of the Lamb, a precursor to the Parousia.  In the words of St. Paul, it is the way we “proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26).  Fr. Curtis at Gottesdienst Online has a great take on this:   “The case for facing ad orientem is chiefly that it highlights the eschatological nature of the Lord's Supper - ‘proclaiming His death until He comes.’ The whole congregation faces East - awaiting the Risen Lord's return, especially during that greatest miracle of His presence with us in the Supper. In this understanding, it would be very odd indeed for the celebrant to turn his back to liturgical East at just that moment when the drama of the Supper is highest and we want to express the unity of the presence of our Lord in the Supper with our longing for His coming again in power and glory from the direction of the rising sun.”

The fact of the matter is that the Church has faced Ad Orientem for the majority of her existence, as have those claiming the Lutheran moniker.  While an argument can be made for facing versus populum, as a matter of confession against Romanizing influences I think it is wiser and safer to follow the historic precedent of the Church Catholic in facing East toward our Risen Lord as we wait for Him to come again. 

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