Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Look to the East

Solemnity of Christ the King, Year B

Found this delightful poem as I was browsing through the internet the other day. It’s aptly entitled ‘The Updated Mass’, referring here to the liturgical changes, or some would call it the liturgical upheaval, that took place after the Second Vatican Council. Here are the first two stanzas:

Latin’s gone
Peace is too
Singin’ and shoutin’
From every pew.

Altar’s turned round
Priest is too
Commentator’s yellin’
“Page Twenty-two!”

As the second stanza candidly notes, one of the most apparent changes was the ‘turning around’ or the re-orientation of the priest to face the people. For many, orientation could simply refer to the introductory briefing or training to acquaint a person new to the job, project, organisation or to a particular lifestyle (campus) ensuring that they are moving in the same direction (thus orientation) as the rest. Another popular notion of orientation today has to do with sexual preferences, namely one’s sexual orientation.

So, what is the significance of orientation to Christians? Few people know that the etymology of the word comes from Christians. The word “orientation” itself means facing East (Latin ‘oriens’). Church buildings, traditionally, have been oriented ie. traditionally built to face the rising sun, thus literally ‘facing East.’  The Christians were not the first to have a specific orientation. Synagogue worship was oriented toward Jerusalem, the place of the Temple. Christians, however, chose to face East (thus Ad Orientem).  The choice of direction was not merely a matter of preference for a particular compass point. Christians imagine themselves looking toward Christ, whose future coming in glory is aptly symbolised by the brilliance of the rising sun. According to Tertullian the Christians of his time were often mistaken as worshippers of the sun as it was their practice to turn to the east when praying. According to St. Gregory of Nyssa, the Orient contained man's original home, the earthly paradise. St. Thomas Aquinas, speaking for the Middle Ages, adds that Our Lord lived His earthly life in the East, and that from the East He shall come to judge mankind.

The profound symbolism of direction is lost to most of us today. The reason for this lost of sacral orientation among Catholics was the result of certain changes made to the liturgy since Vatican II. The priest, who was humorously described as having his back to the congregation whilst facing the wall, experienced a 180 degree re-orientation with new changes introduced to the liturgy. As opposed to Ad Orientem (facing East) or Ad Deum (facing God), his normative position (by convention rather than by legislation) had become Versus Populum, or facing the people. I’m not going to go into a discussion on whether this radical re-orientation was actually sanctioned by the Second Vatican Council or even by the liturgical documents. Suffice to say, that this new orientation of facing people had various effects on both the priest and the congregation and their understanding of the Mass, some of which were adverse.

One of the reasons cited for the change of orientation was to remove or least reduce the distance between the priest and the congregation. Facing the wall, it was argued, exuded aloofness. To the critics of Ad Orientem, the priest by ‘turning his back on the people’ was simply ignoring them. Turning to the people restored his humanity and solidarity with the rest of the hoi poloi. Affability, accessibility, and approachability became key pointers in accessing the performance of the clergy. The recovery of his humanity led to a certain kind of democratisation of the liturgy; where everyone was now seen as celebrants. Politically correct terms, which were more reflective of the socio-political world, replaced sacred roles – the priest was no longer a celebrant, but president. The priest was thus reduced to that of a presiding functionary of a communal meal. What this seem to have done is to throw off balance the entire understanding of sacred liturgy. The primary characteristic of the Mass in both Latin and Eastern liturgical traditions have always been the Sacrifice of Christ on the Cross. The essential link between the Sacrifice of the Cross and the Sacrifice of the Mass was eventually forgotten, as the celebration took on exclusively the character of a ritualised meal.

Thus, the shift has had a number of unforeseen and largely negative effects. What is wrong in all this, and that which leads to this skewed vision, is the core understanding of the focus of the liturgy has come to rest on man and not upon God. Liturgical anthropology replaced liturgical theology as the point of reference. The priests had to rely on a charismatic personality to entertain the audience, liturgies had to be subjected to creative innovations to avoid boredom, communion rails had to be removed to close the distance between the nave and the apse, sacred music and ancient Gregorian chants were replaced by folksy ditties and catchy pop tunes with banal lyrics. Eventually the mass gave the appearance that the priest and the people were engaged in a conversation about God, rather than the worship of God.

In today’s great Solemnity of Christ the King, which marks the end of the Liturgical Year and also symbolically points to the climax and conclusion of human history, we are reminded once again of man’s ultimate purpose – man’s chief end is to glorify God and to acclaim him as Lord and King. Thus this celebration provides the needed orientation, not just for today but everyday. We are asked to turn our hearts and minds to the East, to Christ our King, who is the central figure of history – He is “the Alpha and the Omega”. It is according to this sense that we are invited to turn our hearts to the Lord during the celebration of the Mass, as the introductory dialogue to the Preface reminds us. Sursum corda “Lift up your hearts,” exhorts the priest, and all respond: Habemus ad Dominum “We lift them up unto the Lord.” We note how our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI constantly reminds us that in worship we are meant to focus on God, to give God the glory, not to glorify ourselves. He criticised a self-centred over-emphasis on ourselves that has damaged the quality of worship. “The turning of the priest toward the people,” according to him”, 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 locked into itself.” When the liturgical community turns in on itself, it ends up worshiping itself.

Our parish of Our Lady of Lourdes, has within the short period of a week, been transformed into a Mecca of a sort. The allegedly miraculous images that first appeared on two window panels of the Sime Darby Medical Centre, now relocated in the Chapel at the back of the Church, seems to be drawing in pilgrims. As much as this may be a sign of growing piety and devotion among the faithful, no one could possibly deny that Our Blessed Mother would never intend to take the limelight away from her Son. Her Son remains the King of the Universe and the focus of our attention, our worship and certainly our orientation. She tells us as she did in Cana, “Do whatever he asks you to do”. She lived her life for her Son and never wavered in this orientation, even at the moment of crucifixion. In that sense, Mary becomes the perfect model for the correct orientation in life as well as in worship. She never allowed herself to be consumed by her sorrow and self-pity. Even when she was invited by Jesus to establish the new family of the Church together with the Beloved Disciple, she was not trapped by the self-enclosed circle of this new bonding, forgetting that her Son was its very foundation. At all times, her orientation was fixed on Jesus, and that was her salvation. It would be no surprise that she calls Christians throughout the ages to imitate her and do likewise. She points them to her Son.

Today, we encounter her Son most perfectly in the liturgy. Our Pope invites us to see the glory of Christ Priest and Victim in the liturgy. The Pope proposes to direct us away from ourselves and back to God by focusing on the altar, the great sign of Christ among us. In two of his books dedicated to his theological insights on the liturgy, ‘Feast of Faith’ and ‘The Spirit of the Liturgy,’ he argued that the altar is not a setting to display a man, namely the Pope, the bishop or the priest. Rather, during the action of the liturgy, the altar itself should draw us around Jesus Christ crucified and risen. One of the ways in which we can sufficiently visualise this new orientation is not by changing the position of the altar or the celebrant. The Pope recognises the psychological upheaval and damage this would have on many. The Pope, however, proposed placing a crucifix at the centre of the Altar. “Where a direct common turning toward the east is not possible, the cross can serve as the interior ‘east’ of faith,” he writes.  The central placement of the Crucifix is deliberate so that all may concretely face and look upon Lord, in such a way as to orient also their prayer and hearts.

Critics of this new practice have often argued that the crucifix eclipses the celebrant and forms a barrier or obstruction. In answer to this allegation, the Pope clarifies: “Let it not be said, moreover, that the image of our Lord crucified obstructs the sight of the faithful from that of the priest, for they are not to look to the celebrant at that point in the liturgy! They are to turn their gaze towards the Lord! In like manner, the presider of the celebration should also be able to turn towards the Lord. The crucifix does not obstruct our view; rather it expands our horizon to see the world of God; the crucifix brings us to meditate on the mystery; it introduces us to the heavens from where the only light capable of making sense of life on this earth comes. Our sight, in truth, would be blinded and obstructed were our eyes to remain fixed on those things that display only man and his works.”

So as we come to the end of this Liturgical Year and on the eve of the new one, let us orientate our hearts and minds to Him. We look for the first rays of light piercing the veil of darkness, sin and destruction. In the words of Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings, “at dawn look to the East.” Let us behold the beauty of our King, our Lord, and our Saviour, revealed and not concealed by the cross. Thus an additional last stanza to the poem would be fitting.

No turning of altars
Priest need not too
But the Beauty of the Cross
Will reveal what is True.

Post note

We have already begun a project to restore our sanctuary to its original beauty and glory. Thus, you would be seeing me celebrating mass on a mobile altar with a wooden panel as a backdrop for the next three weeks. I believe that many of you are excited to cast your eyes on the new altar, the reredos and the tabernacle. Some may be questioning our actions and the parish priorities. You see, part of the making of this visible orientation to Christ the King in an external manner which matches the interior disposition, is to restore beauty to the liturgy through music and art. In divine worship, we see the glory that the apostles beheld in Jesus Christ. According to Our Pope, “Beauty, then is not mere decoration, but rather an essential element of the liturgical action, since it is an attribute of God himself and his revelation.”
He calls us by his word and example to set aside the banal. To use what is beautiful, be it old or new: the best vessels, fine vestments, good design and architecture, gracious ceremonial, excellent music. This is not mere aestheticism because is derived from the God who is Beauty personified.

By contrast, as anyone can see, a feature of the hermeneutic of discontinuity or rupture is a tendency towards ugliness, or at least promoting a modernist aesthetic, often dull, cold or minimalist - ugly churches, vestments, vessels etc, and all bereft of mystery. Functionality dictates! But the God we worship and praise is beautiful, to be worshiped in the beauty of holiness, worshiped “in spirit and in truth”. As Fyodor Dostoyevsky once claimed, “Beauty will save the world.” That is why Catholic liturgy in all its forms, simple or solemn, Eastern or Western, captures something of the glory and beauty of God. And it is the beauty of the Divine Liturgy, the source and summit of Christian life, which will save the world!

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