The Witness of the East

It is of considerable significance that the Eastern Church developed the custom of placing a screen (the ikonostasis) before the altar. The faithful are thus unable to see the priest during the most important moments of the Mass. The eminent liturgist, Father Joseph Jungmann, writes:

The different Oriental rites have never countenanced the practice of celebrating the liturgy in this position (versus populum). This is worthy of note because these rites have generally preserved the primitive, traditional practices of the Church most faithfully and because they have retained to this day a very active and close participation of the laity.

The existence of the ikonostasis manifests a belief that it is not simply unnecessary for the congregation to see every part of the liturgical action, but that there are certain parts which they should positively not be allowed to see. Sufficient stress has not been placed on the fact that almost all the principles which today's liturgical "experts" maintain are essential for a satisfactory celebration are a straightforward and offensive condemnation of the practice of Eastern Christians. In the churches of the East the mentality of the ancient Church is still maintained-----the Eucharistic celebration is an act of worship. St. Augustine's admonition conversi ad Dominum is timeless. Priest and people come together to turn towards the Lord, to offer Him a solemn sacrifice, to forget the things of earth and fix their gaze upon the heavenly Jerusalem. The call in the West today is to relate the Mass to everyday life, but the Mass is related not to everyday life, but to eternal life. This is something which the traditional, eastward celebration made clear. Father Jungmann describes the practice of the ancient Church as follows:

Now the priest is standing at the altar, generally built of stone, as the leader of his people; the people look up to him and to the altar at the same time, and together with the priest they face towards the East. Now the whole congregation is like a huge procession led by the priest and moving towards the sun, towards Christ the Lord.

Pastoral Advantages

The practice of celebrating Mass facing the people is alleged to have considerable pastoral advantages, the principal one being that the congregation can see what the priest is doing. Such eminent authorities as Professor Cyrille Vogel have demonstrated that there was never any question in the early Church of celebrating Mass in such a manner that the congregation could see the liturgical acts in order to play a more effective part in the celebration. This idea is a modern one. It is alien to the entire Catholic liturgical ethos in both East and West and confers no pastoral benefit whatsoever, even for children. On the contrary, far from deepening the attention of the congregation it is likely to diminish it. When the priest faces the people across the altar there is no variation to stimulate interest. He simply stands there talking at the people, and in the New Mass the number of visual gestures such as genuflection and signs of the Cross have been drastically curtailed. The traditional Mass was, as Msgr. Knox observed, a king of sacred dance with continual variation. The priest would turn to greet the congregation from time to time; he should turn to show them the Host in the ecce Agnus Dei, he would raise the Host and Chalice high and make his double genuflection. This was all combined with the contract between the silence of the Canon and the ringing of the bells. The Eastern Churches certainly show great pastoral insight in having the most sacred moments of the liturgy enacted behind the ikonostasis. When the priest re-emerges bringing God the Son, the dramatic impact is greatly enhanced. Added to this, of course, is the significance of the eastward orientation-----priest and people facing the heavenly Jerusalem to offer their solemn sacrifice. It is quite obvious that many clergy, the younger ones in particular, have been struck by the evident boredom and apathy on the faces of their congregations and have been prompted to arouse interest by providing the people with a dramatic performance. If they succeed in this it is not the liturgical actions which are stimulating interest but the antics of the celebrant, often of a most unedifying nature.

Emphasis in bold, that of the Web Master.

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