Priests Should Face the Altar

Anthony Zimmerman
Published in Homiletic and Pastoral Review
March 1982
Reproduced with Permission

The president now fittingly faces the altar with the people and assumes the proper role of priest about to offer sacrifice. All now wait for Christ to come down upon the altar. Like Joseph and Mary, we prefer to retire from the noisy inn and wait for his coming in the pregnant calm of the stable. With the shepherds we wait for the heavens to open, for the angel to announce the good news of great joy which is for all the people (cf. Luke 2: 10). We have already rehearsed the message, "Glory to God in the highest heaven, and peace on earth to those with whom he is pleased" (Luke 2:14). Now we wait to see it actually happen.

Christ makes peace

Bending over the bread the priest submerges his personality to make room for Christ; almost imperceptibly, he empties himself and then speaks in persona Christi. For the priest cannot make Christ present in the bread and wine if Christ is not first present in himself to speak the miraculous words with power. The community, the royal priesthood of the laity, cannot offer the sacrifice of Christ unless the ministerial priest capacitates them to do so; the community waits in silence, in solidarity with the ministerial priest, expecting the arrival of him of whom Peter said: "In all the world there is no one else whom God has given who can save us" (Acts 4:12).

The priest now bends low and says the hallowed words in obedience to Christ: "This is my body, which will be given up for you." He raises the host, soft bells tinkle, all bow in reverence. "This is the cup of my blood, the blood of the new and everlasting covenant ... Do this in memory of me." We are shepherds again, hearing the message: "This very day in David's town your Savior was born - Christ the Lord!" (Luke 2:11). With Mary and Joseph we kneel to adore. With Christ the entire universe becomes capitulated upon the altar; our Primate joins earth to heaven and makes peace.

A time for daring prayer

No longer does Christ feel the pain when he mystically commemorates the shedding of his blood. He does, however, commemorate his love, his victory, his obedience, his meriting of the Spirit for us. This is the time for daring prayer; for priest and people to ask for things they would never ask for under less favorable circumstances. Christ challenged us to break through the barriers of our timidity: "If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer" (Matt. 21:22). We are at the Last Supper again, when Christ exchanges little nothings with us which mean mainly love. We give him our sins, asking him to erase the writing that is against us, and to renew us from within. For Christ the sufferings are a memory, whereas his victory is present now: "I saw the Lord before me at all times; he is near me, and I will not be troubled. And so I am filled with gladness and my words are full of joy . . . You have shown me the paths that lead to life, and your presence will fill me with joy" (Acts 2:25;26;28). We offer our sufferings for the saving work of Christ: "And now I am happy about my sufferings for you, for by means of my physical sufferings I am helping to complete what still remains of Christ's sufferings on behalf of his body, the church" (Col. 1:24). Theologian Matthias Scheeben indicates brilliantly how Christ's glorification crowns his death and resurrection:

We must insist on the fact that His resurrection and ascension actually achieve in mystically real fashion what is symbolized in the sacrifice of animals by the burning of the victim's flesh. Christ's resurrection and glorification are often conceived merely as the fruit of His sacrifice on the cross. And such it is in all truth, but not that alone. In the idea of God and the Church, it is also a continuation and fulfillment of the first act. According to the Apostles' teaching, the carrying of the blood of the sacrificed animal into the holy of holies, whereby it was appropriated to God, was a type of the function of Christ in heaven, whereby He constantly appropriates His body and His blood and offers them to God. The resurrection and glorification were the very acts by which the Victim passed into the real and permanent possession of God. The fire of the Godhead which resuscitated the slain Lamb, and, after consuming its mortality, laid hold of it and transformed it, cause it to ascend to God in lovely fragrance as a holocaust, there to make it, as it were, dissolve and merge into God.

Consequently, in accord with God's plan, the entire life and existence of Christ were essentially devoted to His sublime sacrificial worship. By taking possession of His human nature He made His own the object He was to offer, and by uniting it to His person he invested it with an infinite value. By His Passion and death, which He had in mind during His whole earthly career, He accomplished its immolation. By His resurrection and glorification He made it a holocaust. Finally, by His ascension He transferred it to heaven, and placed it at the feet of His Father, that it might be His as the eternal pledge of perfect worship (The Mysteries of Christianity, pp. 436-437)

The priest is ordained by God and the Church to offer this sacrifice in the name of the People of God. He stands between society and God by this offering of the Sacrifice of the Mass, bringing to God the worship of the community, and transmitting from God to the community the fruit of the sacrifice. For this reason the priest himself must offer himself at least symbolically in his sacrifice (cf. Scheeben, p. 437). Herein lies the identity of the ministerial priest, who is appointed and ordained legitimately by God and the Church, and who, like Melchizedek, is marked, forever as one who is a priest and mediator between God and his People.

In the hands of the priest at Mass Christ gathers the universe to himself, and prepares it as an offering to the Father: "Through the Son, then, God decided to bring the whole universe back to himself. God made peace through his Son's sacrificial death on the cross and so brought back to himself all things, both on earth and in heaven" (Col. 1: 20). Here God brings to full term the plan which he had for the creation of the, universe; the purpose which Blessed John Duns Scotus described in lapidary sentences of majestic reasoning:

God first loves Himself; secondly, He loves Himself for others, and this is an ordered love; thirdly, He wishes to be loved by the One who can love Him in the highest way -- speaking of the love of someone who is extrinsic to Him; and fourthly, He foresees the union of that nature which must love Him with the greatest love even if no one had fallen (see Pancheri, Carol, p. 35).

In this view, the universe was created so that God's Son could become part of it and offer it back to God with the greatest love possible. The Big Bang hurtled matter into the expanding universe forming countless galaxies in ordered sequences but without knowledge and thanksgiving. Finally, when God planted a garden to the East and led Adam and Eve into it, their response was ambiguous. But when Christ came into the world made for himself, he assumed it all with his knowledge and power, then turned to the Father to plant on his cheek a kiss of thanks from the universe.

Commemorating his life once more on the altar in the hands of the priest, Christ relives his childhood, knowing again a loving Mother and a caring father. He admires once more the lilies of the field, the vault of stars at night, the drama of dawn when lions retire to their dens, birds trill to the rising sun, and humans emerge from rest to begin the daily activities. Christ inspires children to sing thanks, and the Church to intone the canticle:

Bless the Lord, all you works of the Lord. Praise and exalt him above all forever. Angels of the Lord, bless the Lord. You heavens, bless the Lord (Daniel 3:57).

We, at Mass, are caught up into the Church of the Ages, whose 2000 year history Christ lives once more, who prepares us to walk our part of the pilgrimage into the future. In our name Christ offers love to God in the highest way possible from the created source which is extrinsic to the Godhead. Love is now supreme, in possession, and the world is at peace.

Finally the priest completes the ritual of the Sacrifice: "Through him, with him, in him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory and honor is yours, almighty Father, for ever and ever." The spell of the Sacrifice is broken. He now fittingly invites the people to join him in the recitation of the Lord's Prayer, offers the peace of Christ, invites all to share this peace, and beckons them to the Lord's table. It is quite fitting that, after the sacrifice has been performed, he once more faces the people to participate with them in the fruits of the sacrifice.

Within a year after Constantine had crossed the Milvian Bridge on October 28, 312, he issued the Edict of Milan which tolerated Christianity throughout the Empire. Christians now increased greatly the activity of building and dedicating churches set apart exclusively for the worship of God. In doing so they had as models not only pagan temples, and Jewish temple and synagogues; the palaces of emperors and their ceremonies became models for sacred buildings and liturgical services. Soon the great basilicas were in place, in Rome, in Jerusalem, in Bethlehem, in Constantinople, in Tyre. The close face-to-face services of the crowded family house, with the people gathered around the table, gave way to worship of the vast body of faithful gathered in the spacious basilica. The priest now preached from an elevated pulpit, and offered the Sacrifice at a splendid altar on an elevated platform, his priestly identity enhanced by purple and gold vestments He now faced the altar with the people and offered the Sacrifice with ritualized word and action. This general setting for celebration of the Mass remained in place as the Church wound its way through the centuries, in East and West, in North and South; so it remained until shortly after Vatican II - until ideologues in strategic positions beguiled us to change.

I quote at length this passage " from Anne Roche Muggeridge, hoping that her words will help us to recover a precious heritage:

Nevertheless, something counter-revolutionary can be done at once to begin to move the Mass back towards being the complete expression of the Catholic world view it used to be. If an angel allowed me one suggestion as to what more than anything else would most quickly restore the sense of the sacred to the Mass it would be this - to do away with Mass facing the people. I am convinced that the position of the priest at the altar is the single most important liturgical "external" symbol, the one that carries the most doctrinal baggage. To put the priest back on our side of the altar, facing with us towards God, would at one stroke restore the Mass from an exercise of interpersonal relationships to the universal prayer of the Church to God our Father. This reversion to the correct symbol wouldn't even need new or corrective legislation. It may surprise even Catholics that the turning around of the altar (or rather, of the priest) was not legislated in any Vatican II document or in any document since. The only remarks pertaining to the versus populum(facing the people) mode of the altar and Mass are to be found in the Instruction on the Liturgy(October 16, 1964) issued hot off the mark by the radical Cardinal Lercaro, president of the new Commission for the Implementation of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, after the Constitutionhad been passed but before the end of the, Council: "It is proper that the main altar be constructed separately from the wall, so that one maygo around it with ease and so that celebration maytake place facing the people" V, 9 1: my italics). That's all. Ideology, not law, transplanted the priest. As in the Protestant revolution, the radical intent was to replace the idea of an altar of sacrifice with that of a table for a community meal. In Rome, Mass is still commonly said contra populum,facing away from the congregation. . . With the priest facing God once more as leader of the people, the importance of the microphone will diminish, and the priest can stop making faces at us. He and we can go back to thinking only about what is happening in the Mystery (The Desolate City, Harper and Row, 1990, pp. 176-177).

Are priests free, then, to decide about the matter? Insofar as Church legislation is concerned, yes, they are free to face the altar in the traditional manner, or to face the people according to the recent innovation. But pastoral considerations and preparations must be considered. I was happy to see (in 1989) that the Holy Father had re-arranged his private chapel to face the altar in the traditional manner. He also appointed Archbishop George Eder to the Metropolitan See of Salzburg; all to the contrary notwithstanding, Archbishop Eder continues to offer Mass facing in the traditional manner, convinced that this has profound meaning. I hope and pray that these actions of the Pope are a sign of things to come.