Why We Should All “Face East” During the Eucharistic Prayer


Israhel van Meckenem, “The Mass of Saint Gregory” (c. 1515-1520)

Cardinal Robert Sarah has made additional comments about the so-called “ad orientem” or eastward direction for the Eucharistic Prayer wherein priest and people all face one direction for the canon of the Mass.  As widely reported, he has expressed a desire for priest to teach on and implement the option by the first Sunday of Advent.

I have noted earlier my support for his view and my hope to further teach and implement this option on a more regular basis. As I continue to teach the faithful about the Eastward “orientation” of Mass I want to present some of what I have offered. Soon enough I want to put my reflection in a letter format to my congregation. What follows is a series of separate reflections I have made in verbal settings.

This is not a scholarly paper, just a pastor’s attempt to explain and encourage the faithful to lay hold of the vision of the eastward orientation, even if at first it puzzles them. At the end of these brief reflections there is also a concern I express.

Historical errors. Mass facing the people is a modern phenomenon. It was largely unknown in the ancient world. Back in the 1960s and 70s it was widely thought that the early Christians faced each other for the Mass. But these conclusions were based on dubious theories about Masses celebrated in the days of persecution in the so-called “house churches” where the faithful gathered in secrecy for Mass. The ancient Christians did not call these places “house churches” but rather, the Domus Dei (the house of God). The term “house church” conjures up informality and fueled an emphasis on the Mass as a simple meal. But such liturgies were anything but informal and meal-like.  The descriptions we have of them indicate a great deal of formality, and as ancient texts and recent archeological findings in places like Dura Europa show, the liturgy was directed eastward. I have written more on this here. Note the following excerpt from the Didiscalia written in 250 A.D.  and see the formality and Eastward direction.

Now, in your gatherings, in the holy Church, convene yourselves modestly in places of the brethren, as you will, in a manner pleasing and ordered with care. Let the place of the priests be separated in a part of the house that faces east. In the midst of them is placed the bishop’s chair, and with him let the priests be seated. Likewise, and in another section let the laymen be seated facing east. For thus it is proper: that the priests sit with the bishop in a part of the house to the east and after them the lay men and the lay women…Now, you ought to face east to pray, for, as you know, scripture has it, Give praise to God who ascends above the highest heavens to the east… And if there is one to be found who is not sitting in his place let the deacon who is within, rebuke him, and make him to rise and sit in his fitting place… Likewise, the deacon ought to see that there are none who whisper or sleep or laugh or nod off. For in the Church it is necessary to have discipline, sober vigilance, and attentive ear to the Word of the Lord.

So presumptions that the early Masses were informal meal-like experiences around tables do not seem to be born up by evidences such as this.

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