Orientation: A Natural Instinct

The traditional manner of celebrating Mass did not involve any question of facing the people or not facing the people. It lay in the almost universal practice of "orientation" for worship. Orientation today has taken on the meaning of to face in a particular direction, any direction. It originated with a word meaning the east-----Orient. The word is derived from the Latin verb oriri, to rise; and because the sun rises in the east, the direction took its name from the action.

If a Christian is asked to name the most important event in the history of the world he should reply without hesitation: "The Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ". Truly, if Christ had not risen our faith would be in vain. From the very beginning of the Church, Christians looked upon the rising sun as a symbol of the Son of God rising from the dead. They offered Mass facing the east throughout centuries of persecution, and, when they were allowed to build churches, almost always did so with the apse containing the altar at the east end. The medieval churches and cathedrals of England are perhaps her greatest glory. Their towers and spires rise up over the greatest cities and smallest villages, a reminder of an epoch when religion was the predominating force in society, and life on earth was truly looked upon as a preparation for the life to come. Although, alas, the Mass has been banished from those churches since the Reformation, each morning the first rays of the rising sun bring to life images in the stained glass of the windows at the east end of the church, above the altar where, for centuries, humble priests began their day by offering Holy Mass for themselves and for their people.

Orientation, in its present sense of facing a particular direction, is a religious custom which long pre-dated Christianity. The Jews, wherever they lived in the world, turned to face the temple in Jerusalem when they prayed. So-called liturgical "experts" today often attempt to justify Mass facing the people by stating Our Lord did not turn His back upon His Apostles at the Last Supper. Of course He didn't, but neither did He face them across a table. They were all on the same side, facing the temple! It is thus nonsensical to claim that we are returning to a practice of the Last Supper by adopting the practice of a celebration facing the people. Similarly, it is equally nonsensical to claim that having Mass in the vernacular is a return to what took place at the Last Supper. A major part of the Jewish paschal liturgy was conducted in Hebrew, as it is today. Hebrew was no more comprehensible to an ordinary Jew at the time of Our Lord than Latin is to an ordinary Mexican today, even though Aramaic (the language then used in Palestine), was derived from Hebrew, just as Spanish is derived from Latin.

Facing a particular direction for worship seems to be a natural religious instinct. This also appears to be the case with conducting religious worship in a non-vernacular language. 5 Religions can be divided into two groups as regards the precise direction which must be adopted for worship. The first stipulates an orientation of a geographical nature: Muslims turn in the direction of the Kaaba of Mecca, Jews toward Jerusalem. Others practice an orientation of an astronomic or cosmic nature; these include most classical religions and Christianity. The Divine nature often ascribed to the sun made orientation per se, i.e., worshipping in the direction of the East, symbol of the rising sun, a very common phenomenon. It is probable that the adoption of the eastward direction for worship by the early Christians was influenced by the cultural milieu in which they found themselves, and so surprisingly, this caused some disquiet. St. Leo the Great warned that even the appearance of a parallel between Christianity and paganism must be avoided. There is a parallel here with the adoption of December 25 as the date for Christmas.   . . .

Emphasis in bold, that of the Web Master.

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