Ad Orientem and Music

By Mahrt, William | Sacred Music, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview
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Ad Orientem and Music


Mahrt, William, Sacred Music


In our discussion of the American bishops' document on music, Sing to the Lord, anthropocentric and theocentric emphases in liturgy were contrasted: anthropocentric, man-centered, focusing upon the congregation's actions; theocentric, God-centered, focusing upon God as the object of worship. It is not a question of an exclusive choice of one or the other, but a proper balance and priority between them. There is, however, a center which transcends the contrast--Christ: the liturgy is Christocentric; it is the action of Christ offering himself to the Father. As the action of the Body of Christ, the whole church offers it, it is in that sense anthropocentric; but, being offered to the Father, it is more importantly theocentric. The synthesis of the two poles is centered upon Christ, true man and true God.

As sacred liturgy, the Mass has a transcendent object--almighty God--and an ultimate goal--happiness with him. But since the liturgy takes place in the here and now, these aspects of transcendence must be expressed in human terms, using human means. Two of the means, space and time, give rise to two important aspects of liturgy--the stance of the priest at the altar and sacred music.

Traditionally churches were "oriented"; they faced East. The priest stood before the altar, facing East as well. This was because the rising sun in the East was seen as a symbol of Christ--the direction toward which he ascended and from which he will come again. This direction was East, no matter where in the world the church was located; thus, in contradistinction to Jerusalem or Mecca, which were geographic directions of prayer, the Christian direction was a transcendent one, not being focused upon any earthly focal point.

After the Second Vatican Council, priests often faced the people, thus facing West in such churches. It is true that documents prescribed that when new churches were constructed, altars should be placed so that it was possible to celebrate Mass facing the people; still, this was not required. Indeed, the language of the Roman Missal, even the edition of 2002, seems to assume the opposite as a norm, since at several points it directs the priest to turn around and address the people.

The posture facing the people has often been justified by the apparent precedent of the Roman basilicas, including St. Peter's, where the pope has always faced the people at Mass, even in the rite of Trent. However, this stance is not a precedent for facing the people elsewhere, but just another instance of facing East, for these basilicas followed classical Roman custom and faced West. Louis Bouyer, Klaus Gamber, and others have questioned this precedent, conceding that at prayer the priest did face the people, but contending that the people also faced East, turning away from the priest.

Pope Benedict, when he wrote as Cardinal Ratzinger, wrote about the posture ad orientem. He spoke about addressing the symbol of Christ, but he added another forceful rationale: Early Christian churches frequently had great apses with prominent mosaics of Christ upon their upper reaches. Thus, when the priest faced East, he also faced this monumental image of Christ, and even if the church did not face East, the orientation upon this image was truly Christocentric. Pope Benedict thus reasoned that when it was not practical to face East, a similar image of Christ could be faced when a crucifix was placed before the priest at the center of the altar. This "Benedictine order" is now what he consistently follows when he celebrates Mass. These days we have easy access to papal Masses, since they are frequently broadcast on EWTN, and there the Benedictine order can be observed; His Holiness can be seen intently looking at the cross as he celebrates Mass.

This is a striking alternative to the widespread practice of the priest engaging the attention of the congregation and cultivating his own personal presidential style, which often has the undesirable effect of focusing attention on the priest or on the interaction of priest and people, rather than focusing the attention of both priest and people upon Christ whose work is the principal action of the Mass.

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