Ad Orientum

Celebrating the Eucharist facing East or  ad orientum .

Celebrating the Eucharist facing East or ad orientum.

A couple of you have asked why the altar at St. Michael's is now "against the wall." It's a good question, and while I may not answer it satisfactorily, let me at least offer some thoughts. In liturgical language, this posture is referred to as ad orientum or "towards the East." A celebration of the Eucharist where the priest stands behind the altar, facing the congregation is known as versus populum, or "having turned towards the people."

Celebrating ad orientum is an ancient Christian practice, as St. Augustine references, "When we rise to pray, we turn East, where heaven begins. And we do this not because God is there, as if He had moved away from the other directions on earth..., but rather to help us remember to turn our mind towards a higher order, that is, to God." Since the sun rises in the East, that direction has long been associated with the resurrection; in CS Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia, it is the direction in which Aslan's Country lies. When celebrants of the Eucharist face the the altar, they are also facing the same direction as the congregation, and doing so does enhance the notion that they are praying with the congregation as opposed to praying at them.

Versus populum also has its benefits. When the church is oriented that way, we are given a lovely image of the People of God gathered around the Table of God, but it is worth noting that this way of thinking implies a shift in theology about the nature of the altar itself. That's a lengthy subject best left to another article of its own. There is something moving about priest and congregation being able to see one another's faces during the celebration, but at the same time, doing so can lead us to believe that the priest is saying those words to the congregation rather than to God, on the people's behalf. I often see clergy deliberating making eye contact with the congregation during the Words of Institution, and I'm always reminded that at that moment they're supposed to be speaking for me, not to me. By the way, it seems versus populum came into being sometime during the sixteenth century, so while certainly not new, it was not part of the early Church's practice.

So why are we doing it as St. Michael's right now? We generally orient our liturgy this way during Holy Week, as one way of setting that time apart from the rest of the year. This year I've found the experience of celebrating ad orientum so profoundly moving that I haven't yet been able to bring myself to change back. There is a moment during the Words of Institution when I lift the chalice up over my head. At that moment, if i look at the chalice, in the curved surface of the cup, I can see the entire congregation, choir, acolytes, and Eucharistic Ministers reflected in its surface; that has come to be one of the most powerful moments of Sunday morning for me, as it gives me a glimpse of all of us, in St. Augustine's language, remembering to turn our minds toward God.

I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts and experiences of our Eucharistic celebration facing East. Please share them with me.