Monday, August 30, 2010

About face?

The new poll at right asks our pastoral readers (or our lay readers can report on their pastor's celebration in their congregation) which direction they face while consecrating the Lord's Supper. The traditional manner is called ad orientem - to the East. After the liturgical reforms coming out of Rome from 1960-70 many Lutherans imitated the move to a free-standing altar and facing the people - this is called versus populum. I have also seen some Lutherans with a traditional altar turn around to face the people during the consecration.

The case for a versus populum consecration, as I have heard it expounded by its proponents, is that it is more evangelical: the Words of Institution are Gospel and should be proclaimed to the people. Thus, the proper direction to face during the consecration is toward the people, as with other "sacramental" portions of the liturgy.

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.

In fact, as Roger Pittelko is found of noting, the Words of Institution in the Divine Service are neither "sacrificial" nor "sacramental" language in the sense in which those terms are used in the liturgical rule of thumb "face the people for sacramental language and face God for sacrificial language." The Words are consecratory - what the celebrant properly faces at the time of the consecration are the elements. In the same way, the pastor faces the baby when he baptizes and he faces the penitent when he absolves; and when dedicating a new stained glass window, he faces the window. How odd it would be for the pastor to make eye contact with the congregation while baptizing someone at the font!

Thus, if a versus populum celebration is used, the celebrant should still be sure to direct his attention, his eyesight, and the Words to the elements, and not to the people. Our own Fr. Petersen celebrates the Supper in this way and published McClean's update of Piepkorn'sConduct of the Services to give directions for a reverent versus populum celebration

What really drives me nut, though, is when a versus populum position is taken during any of the prayers. Surely, when praying the celebrant should face the same direction as the people are facing: liturgical East, toward, you know, the One to Whom we are praying.

This brings on another problem with the versus populum celebration. When do you perform the walk around back of the altar? In the Common Service, it would make an odd break right after the Lord's Prayer - because you don't want to be back behind there for the Prayer, do you? Facing the people? Shouldn't you be praying the Lord's Prayer facing the Lord with the people instead of versus populum?

The newer LSB rites present this problem even more starkly as they are Eucharistic quasi-prayers (an Amen was tossed in before the Words of Institution to alleviate some Lutheran sensibility or other, even though many on the LSB Committee wanted to simply leave it as a Eucharistic prayer, as in the Synod's Culto Cristiano).

I was ordained in a church with a free standing altar and served there until I was called to my current parishes which have traditional altars. I always felt it odd to go around back of the altar for the prayers and was surprised at just how relieved I was when I came down here to these traditional altars.

So, if you are going to use a versus populum celebration, don't forget that you are consecrating at that point in the liturgy, not preaching to the people. Your eyes should be on the elements, not the people. Likewise with the prayers. The most awkward moment in my seminary career (and that's saying something) was when one of my classmates was performing his "practice mass" during Worship 101 at the free-standing altar in the studio chapel in the basement of Becker Hall. According to the directions given to us, he went behind the altar just before the prayers. During the prayers he was making eye contact with all of us in the "congregation." No, that's not strong enough. He was doing that American-Evangelical making love with your eyes thing. Creepy.



  1. For the sake of clarity, the newer eucharistic rites in LSB (Settings One and Two) are not fairly described as "quasi-prayers." Nor was an "Amen" tossed in, but deliberately included with precedent and with the considered intent of almost everyone involved at the time it was proposed.

  2. Rick,

    Thanks for the correction on the inside story. I was in class with Kent during those deliberations, and it seemed to me that he was for going in the direction of a Eucharistic prayer and was hopeful that others on the committee were amenable. But it seems that minds were changed as that process went along.

    I guess I show my biases as seeing the Amen at the end of that prayer as "thrown in" - going back to Lutheran Worship DS Setting II. It just seems. . . well, as you say: "deliberate." It's there just so that this whole rite - which obviously has the shape and elements of a Eucharistic prayer in the Western tradition - will not be a Eucharistic prayer that includes the Words of Institution. I understand the aversion to that in some Lutheran circles - but then why have this thing that is one Amen away from being a Eucharistic Prayer? The result, while certainly a nice order, seems to me to end up being neither fish nor fowl.


  3. Why would Lutherans ever embrace the whole post Vatican II novos ordo mess anyway? Truly an elephant in the room.

  4. Paul,

    My sympathies certainly lie with your question. I think that many Lutherans got excited about Vatican II seeing it, as at least one wag in the Roman Communion put, as "Luther finally got his council."

    The positive benefit of Vatican II for Lutherans was that it did help awaken interest in actually thinking about the liturgy. The downside, in my opinion, are that many of the changes that Vatican II ushered in ("and also with you," versus populum celebration, the three year lectionary) are less than desirable.

    And this is to say nothing of the truly catastrophic theology of Lumen Gentium when it comes to the salvation of those who deny the name of Christ - which extreme ecumenism was another case of the pope catching cold and many of the Lutherans sneezing.


  5. The 4 choices don't cover what I do. I use the common service with the Apostolic Tradition Eucharistic Prayer on Feast Days. For those times I face the altar the whole time except at the Pax Domini, at which time I turn to the congregation but keep my eyes on the elevated elements.
    But for most Sundays (straight out of LSB3), I face the cong. only during the Verba and Pax Domini. But for both I keep my eyes on the elements. And after both the consecration of both the host and the cup I turn back to the altar and genuflect.

    Anyway, as long - as you point out - as our eyes are on Jesus we won't sink into the sea of irreverence.

  6. Does the Altar have a Crucifix on it?

    The traditional configuration is to have a traditional ad orientem Altar with the Crucifix on the gradine behind it. The Crucifix is important in the Lutheran Church because it is an artistic representation of the One Sacrifice accomplished in time (which cannot be repeated, contra Rome). It is also beneficial to place this crucifix on or near the Altar, to indicate that at this Altar we are not offering up a new sacrifice, but Christ is giving us the Sacrifice (that is, His Body and Blood) which He offered up once for all. The Crucifix on the Altar indicates that the salvific work is complete.

    What do you do if you have a versus populum altar?

    Perhaps you have no crucifix at all. This isn't good for various reasons that have been explained before.

    Perhaps you put the crucifix on the back wall, but then the celebrant's face covers up the crucifix at the consecration. Is the celebrant more important than the crucifix?

    Perhaps you put the crucifix on the freestanding altar, so that it's in front of the celebrant's face. The celebrant is then behind the altar, farther "up" the central axis of the sanctuary, which indicates higher priority. Is the celebrant's face of higher priority than the image of the Crucified Christ or the Elements?

    It seems to me that the best ordering is:

    Representation of the Father, who sends Christ.
    Representation of the Crucified Christ.
    The actual Body and Blood of the Crucified Christ Himself.
    The celebrant, who serves Christ.
    The faithful, who receive Christ.

  7. Fr. Lovett,

    In the poll, I'm just asking which direction you face for the Verba. Since you do both. . . I guess pick the one you do most often :)

    I'd love to see that Eucharistic Prayer you use on Feast Days. Could you email it to me? pastorcurtis AT gmail DOT com.


  8. Phil,

    Very good points on the crucifix. Many of our older Lutheran Churches in this area of the county, even if they don't have altar crucifixes, have altar statues or paintings of Jesus in blessing. How very odd indeed for the pastor to turn his back to Him at this point in the liturgy!


  9. Phil,

    My favorite papists on EWTN have a crucifix with dual corpus action for "Daily Mass." It might look a bit like Janus, but its an interesting idea. For use with a freestanding altar, where do you put the corpus? Easy! Both sides!

  10. I follow the Fr. Petersen's practice as it is outlined in Piepkorn/McClean. This congregation swapped out their ad orientem altar for a versus populum style when they had a charismatic and pietistic pastor. I'm avoiding upsetting that apple cart being only recently ordained. My overtures to push the altar back were not well received by the elders.

    I have managed to relocate the stack of common cups to the side on the corporal so the elements can be clearly seen (and my actions.) That said, I suffer with the versus populum for the Prayer of the Church. I focus with posture on the elements during the Verba, followed by genuflection.

    I hope that some day we'll manage to move the altar against the wall and add a crucifix on the gradine. For the time being, I'll suffer with no crucifix and versus populum.

  11. Not sure if by "lay readers" you mean laymen who read your blog, or laymen who are lectors in the church. Either way, I don't think this category applies to me. Nor, of course, am I a pastor. However, I will be bold, and presume that it is okay to throw in my two cents' worth.

    Mass is celebrated at our church facing east. By historical felicity, the liturgical east and the natural east, at St. Stephen's, Milwaukee, are identical. In those churches where there are not, I hope no one keeps with the latter out of some well-intentioned desire for proper directionality. Your church was built wrongly; live with it. (The only case I can imagine in which it would be appropriate to face east in a church with a westward facing altar would be in the basilicas of the Constantinian era, and that's probably not any of the readers of this blog.)

    The altar symbolizes Christ our Sacrifice, the dawn of salvation, and so it befits the church to celebrate the liturgy facing that altar, for we worship not only with our voices, but also with our bodies, and our minds.

    I appreciate the argument that the celebrant's direction, whether oriented or occidented, should be determined by whether the altar is free standing or against the reredos. However, I profoundly disagree with this argument, and respectfully suggest that it is wrongheaded. The only walking around the free standing altar I could see would be for the purpose of doing a complete incensing of the altar at high mass. Having space behind the altar is no reason to break with the tradition of the church regarding the manner of celebrating Mass. At Kramer Chapel in Fort Wayne, at least when I lived in that town, the celebrant stands on a grate right behind the altar. One day a wind will come up from that back stairway, and blow up the celebrant's chasuble, perhaps on Pentecost.

    I have also seen one pastor, whom I highly respect, consecrate the elements in an aquilone manner. I think he did this because the bread and wine happened to be set up on the north end of the altar, and he probably wanted to sing the consecration in such a way as to be facing both the altar and the people, as it were. Respectfully, however, I do suggest that the center of the altar is where the chalice and paten belong. For the eucharist, rather than a book, is what is the true center and focus of the Mass.

    One more thought: I think it gives a bit too much credit to the westward mode of celebration to say that at least their eyes are focussed on the sacred species. It is probably almost always the case that the celebrant's eyes are focussed on the elements. Nevertheless, it is best if we are not made to watch his eyes being focussed on the elements. Rather, it helps and aids the devotion of those in the pew to not see the priest's face at all at that moment. Much better to see the cross shaped orphrey on his back, to drive home the reality that Christ Himself is celebrating His Holy Supper among us. If the priest speaks up, and says those words loudly and distinctly and reverently, then there is no practical reason for him to face west.

  12. To be sure, I condemn no man for the decisions he makes for pastoral reasons. Some feel "stuck" for the present with a certain practice. I have simply not been convicned, however, by claims that it somehow makes sense to practice the liturgy in a way unheard of in the church, apart from extraordinary pastoral situations.

  13. While Vatican II certainly restored and popularized the free standing altar, to say that it came from Vatican II is simply incorrect. For example, the Church of Sts. Peter and Paul, Gerasa, Palestine (circa 540 AD) had one. The Church in Horvat Hesheq and Church of Reohovat both in Galilee as well (around the same time period as Gerasa). Even St. Mary's Church of the German Knights (12th century) almost certainly had a free standing altar. All of these early eastern churches that have been excavated had a table-like altar in the bema (area right in front of the apse). The tomb-like east wall altars developed later. They are the more modern placement of the altar. Both my parishes have had free standing, and, while I don't mind celebrating at an ad orientem placed altar, I prefer the free standing.

  14. Pastor Anderson,

    There are much earlier churches that have what could be called a "free-standing altar" to which Dcn. Gaba alluded above. However, a "free-standing altar" does not necessarily imply versus populum celebration, as has been pointed out by Klaus Gamber and Uwe Lang. What rite was in use at those locations and at that time? Does it indicate a versus populum celebration?

  15. Rev. Deacon,

    I use lay readers in the only sense one ever hopes to see it :)

    And if the practice of the first generation of Evangelicals is any indication, there is no doubt but that you are not a layman!

    Your last paragraph about it being helpful to not see the celebrant's face at that moment in the liturgy is especially apt.


  16. Fr. Gillespie,

    I have a friend whose parish is likewise emotionally attached to the versus populum celebration. I think you are doing the right thing - focusing on celebrating the Supper reverently in accord with local custom.

    Perhaps at some future date you could try out facing East for the whole service. There's no need to move furniture to celebrate ad orientem - and you may find that your elders' objections stem from all the trouble they went to move that piece of furniture way back when!


  17. Reverend Fathers and Brothers:

    The debate between Eastward and Westward orientation is rooted in history. When Christianity was "legalized" many of the civil basilicas were converted to churches. These buildings were laid our with the doors at the east end so that the light of the rising sun would illuminate the bench at the west end of the building. This was the focus point for the day's business.

    If you are familiar with any of the Eastern liturgies, you will know that the Deacon ofter proclaims "Look to the East." Especially at the time of the consecration. With the altar at the west end, the priest and people would all turn to the east. Therefore the priest would consecrate the Sacrament while the congregation had their backs toward the priest. Still, if you will, facing versus populum. Simili modem versus populum et ad orientem. (Forgive my Latin, please.)

    At a parish with which Fr. Gillespie is quite familiar, There was a joint service with two other congregations. One of the visiting pastors, when viewing the configuration of the sanctuary, stated that it would be easy to have a free-standing altar here. With apologies,humor and, perhaps confession, I commented "Over your dead body." Absolution was immediately granted when he looked at me and laughed.

  18. My parish is totally versus populum. I face the people from behind the altar from the Kyrie through the Benediction. (I try to follow the McClean rubrics for the Divine Service facing the people.)

    One reason for that practice is custom from my predecessor. The more important reason comes from the shape of the sanctuary and the arrangement of the chancel---something that combined with my parish's primary use of the Novus Ordo would likely drive +HRC completely nuts. (You can see an image of my chancel adorned for Easter in the picture to the left.)

    My guess is that I'm one of the few in the LCMS with such a practice. But what do you expect from us East Coast Lutherans......?

  19. Fr. Zimmerman,

    If I had that huge, beautiful crucifix, maybe it wouldn't drive me that nuts :)


  20. Pr. Zimmerman has drawn me out of lurking, since my home congregation in Ridley Park, PA is about two hours east of his Calvary, Mechanicsburg. When Holy Communion is celebrated, we use only the Common Service and our pastor celebrates at our traditional altar ad orientem, although the altar (dedicated in the late 1960s) does not have a gradine. So we're even closer to the saltwater than he but kept TLH p. 15 until LSB DS III arrived.

    Architecture and the pastor's practice are only part of the equation in this matter, I think, though, as Pr. Zimmerman's congregation receives the Body and Blood with a reverence far greater than the drive-thru style I've seen in Roman Novus Ordo Masses. Not so bad for the East, which also brought you Luther Reed when we Missourians were wearing black gowns.

  21. When I first became a Lutheran, the church had a rather modernistic (1950s) look, and yet the altar was not freestanding.

    The pastors, however, would remove the elements one at a time from the altar, turn ad populam, starting with the paten and bread, hold them in the left hand, speak the verba, and cross them with the right hand. Then came the "tray" (there was no chalice). The pastor would fetch the tray, face the people again, and repeat the consecration of the wine in this way, tray in left hand, crossing with the right hand.

    They held the elements in their hands instead of leaving them on the altar.

    It always struck me as a lot of unnecessary movement, and terribly risky. A pastor should not have to be able to balance a tray like an IHOP waitress to consecrate.

    One thing we Lutherans are good at is making the simple and practical terribly complex, risky, and without theological or historical foundation.

    If it ain't broke...

  22. A few issues back in "Pondering the Holy Liturgy", turning at the Pax was discussed. It might be good to reproduce that here. I found it helpful.

  23. Fr. Hollywood:
    I love your imagery of the waitress. Perhaps, to take this concept a bit further, we'll one day have churches where the Body and Blood of Christ are served with albed girls on roller skates. After seeing, via the internet, certain aspects of the Masses in Houston and New Orleans this summer, it would hardly surprise or shock.

  24. Dear Deacon Gaba:

    I believe that may have been how roller derby got started.

    It's easy to overlook just how practical traditional rubrics are. They aren't in order to "put on a good show," but rather for good reason.

    I'm thinking specifically about a congregation that had a pastor, a vicar, and an acolyte all handling the sacred elements in order to get them from the altar to the tabernacle after the distribution. All I could see was two unnecessary opportunities to fumble the exchange and drop the Lord's body and blood on the floor. The fewer "handoffs" the better. There is no reason for the pastor not to simply walk over and do it himself.

    Maybe having grown up watching the Cleveland Browns makes one sensitive to how rubrics help to prevent fumbles. Sadly, I think traditionalists have a reputation of making things more complicated - when the opposite is true. The well-worn and familiar procedures have existed for centuries for a good reason: they work and are practical.

    There is a reason good etiquette insists on not slouching at the table and keeping one's mouth over the plate.

    Consecrating the elements in the hand when there is a perfectly good and solid place to put them instead just strikes me as impractical and begging for a disaster to happen.

  25. In fact, as Roger Pittelko is found of noting, the Words of Institution in the Divine Service are neither "sacrificial" nor "sacramental" language in the sense in which those terms are used in the liturgical rule of thumb "face the people for sacramental language and face God for sacrificial language."

    Of course, in Catholic Theology, the Verba, contained as they are in the Eucharistic Anaphora, are BOTH sacrificial and sacramental. To speak of the consecratory effect as something different from both these liturgical categories is a bit strange.

  26. (which cannot be repeated, contra Rome).

    The Sacrifice is not "repeated" -- it is "re-presented", or, "made present."

    There's a difference.


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