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The Altar and the Direction of Liturgical Prayer
| Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
The following essay is Chapter Three of The
Spirit of the Liturgy by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, former prefect of
the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and now Pope Benedict XVI. Cardinal Ratzinger
summarizes the argument for the traditional celebration of the sacred liturgy
facing liturgical East ("ad orientem").
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. As a consequence, expression in space had
given to the properly Christian act of worship, the celebration of the Eucharist,
together with the ministry of the Word, which is ordered towards 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 towards 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.
The Orientation of Worship and Gods Omnipresence
Modern man has little understanding of this "orientation." Judaism
and Islam, now as in the past, take it for granted that we should pray towards
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 Christians 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 Churchs 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 bishops 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 St. Mary Major well into the ninth century. However, in
St. Peters, during the pontificate of St. Gregory the Great (590-604),
the altar was moved nearer to the bishops chair, probably for the
simple reason that he was supposed to stand as much as possible above the
tomb of St. 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 Christs
self-oblation; they are like the Churchs 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.
The ordering of St. Peters 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 St. Peters 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 towards the people. For whatever
reason it was done, one can also see this arrangement in a whole series
of church buildings within St. Peters 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 St. Peters 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 IIs 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 the Meaning of the Meal
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 a celebration facing the people must have been the
primitive one, and that especially of the last supper, has no other
foundation than a mistaken view of what a meal could be in antiquity,
Christian or not. In no meal of the early Christian era, did the president
of the banqueting assembly ever face the other participants. They were
all sitting, or reclining, on the convex side of a C-shaped table, or
of a table having approximately the shape of a horse shoe. The other
side was always left empty for the service. Nowhere in Christian antiquity,
could have arisen the idea of having to face the people
to preside at a meal. The communal character of a meal was emphasized
just by the opposite disposition: the fact that all the participants
were on the same side of the table (Liturgy and Architecture, pp. 53-54).
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 worship of God that is in harmony with logos.
Never and nowhere before [that is, before the sixteenth century]
have we any indication that any importance, or even attention, was given
to whether the priest should celebrate with the people before him or
behind him Professor Cyrille Vogel has recently demonstrated it, the
only thing ever insisted upon, or even mentioned, was that he should
say the eucharistic prayer, as all the other prayers, facing East .
. . Even when the orientation of the church enabled the celebrant to
pray turned toward the people, when at the altar, we must not forget
that it was not the priest alone who, then, turned East: it was the
whole congregation, together with him" (pp. 55-56).
Thus it came to pass that the synagogue liturgy of
the Word, renewed and deepened in a Christian way, merged with the remembrance
of Christs Death and Resurrection to become the "Eucharist,"
and precisely thus was fidelity to the command "Do this" fulfilled.
This new and all-encompassing 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:
Unprecedented Clericalism and the Self-Enclosed Circle
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
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 their own contribution." 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 turning of the priest towards 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 closed in on itself. The common turning towards
the East was not a "celebration towards 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 "towards the Lord." As one of
the Fathers of Vatican IIs 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 towards the Lord.
They did not close 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 internalizes what he has heard, takes it into himself,
and transforms it into prayer, so that it becomes a response.
Turning to the East Essential
On the other hand, a common turning to the East during the Eucharistic Prayer
remains essential. This is not a case of something accidental, but of what
is essential. 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.
Häussling has leveled several objections at these ideas of mine, which
I have presented before. The first I have just touched on. These ideas are
alleged to be a romanticism for the old ways, a misguided longing for the
past. It is said to be odd that I should speak only of Christian antiquity
and pass over the succeeding centuries. Coming as it does from a liturgical
scholar, this objection is quite remarkable. As I see it, the problem with
a large part of modern liturgiology is that it tends to recognize only antiquity
as a source, and therefore normative, and to regard everything developed
later, in the Middle Ages and through the Council of Trent, as decadent.
And so one ends up with dubious reconstructions of the most ancient practice,
fluctuating criteria, and never-ending suggestions for reform, which lead
ultimately to the disintegration of the liturgy that has evolved in a living
On the other hand, it is important and necessary to see that we cannot take
as our norm the ancient in itself and as such, nor must we automatically
write off later developments as alien to the original form of the liturgy.
There can be a thoroughly living kind of development in which a seed at
the origin of something ripens and bears fruit. We shall have to come back
to this idea in a moment. But in our case, as we have said, what is at issue
is not a romantic escape into antiquity, but a recovery of something essential,
in which Christian liturgy expresses its permanent orientation. Of course,
Häussling thinks that turning to the east, toward the rising sun, is
something that nowadays we just cannot bring into the liturgy. Is that really
the case? Are we today really hopelessly huddled in our own little circle?
Is it not important, precisely today, to find room for the dimension of
the future, for hope in the Lord who is to come again, to recognize again,
indeed to live, the dynamism of the new creation as an essential form of
Another objection is that we do not need to look towards 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
critic 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.
A more important objection is of the practical order. Ought we really to
be rearranging everything all over again? Nothing is more harmful to the
liturgy than a constant activism, even if it seems to be for the sake of
genuine renewal. I see a solution in a suggestion that comes from the insights
of Erik Peterson. Facing east, as we heard, was linked with the "sign
of the Son of Man," with the Cross, which announces the Lords
Second Coming. That is why very early on the east was linked with the sign
of the Cross. Where a direct common turning towards 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 the 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 the Second Coming and
guides our eyes towards it. For it is always the one Lord: Christ yesterday,
today, and forever (Heb 13:8).
We Worship? | Preface to The Organic Development of the Liturgy
by Alcuin Reid, O.S.B. | by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
U.M. Lang's Turning Towards the Lord: Orientation in Liturgical Prayer
| Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
To Heaven Backward | Interview with Father Jonathan Robinson of the
Rite and Liturgy
| Denis Crouan, STD
Lived: The Divinization of Man | Jean Corbon, OP
The Mass of Vatican
II | Fr. Joseph Fessio, S.J.
and Conversion | Barbara Morgan
The Hierarchy of Truths | Douglas Bushman, STL
Source and Summit of Christian Spirituality | Mark Brumley
Adoration: Reviving An Ancient Tradition | Valerie Schmalz
Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, was for over two decades
the Prefect for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith under Pope
John Paul II. He is a renowned theologian and author of numerous books.
A mini-bio and full listing of his books published by Ignatius Press are
available on his IgnatiusInsight.com
the Insight Scoop Blog and read the latest posts and comments by
IgnatiusInsight.com staff and readers about current events, controversies,
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