A few weeks back, I wrote a brief response to an essay by Bishop Dan Martins, in which he argued that the celebration of the Eucharist versus populum (facing the people) “is the simplest and most direct way” of honoring the fact that the Eucharist is primarily a meal. My response was not an apologia for the priest and people all facing the same direction for the Eucharistic Prayer, known as ad orientem (i.e., “toward the sun/east”), but an exploration of how the Eucharist is a sacrifice, and how our liturgy reflects that fact.
The Roman Catholic liturgy blog PrayTell picked up on our discussion, and I will soon have a piece there that looks at how this issue of orientation is situated in the cultures of Anglicanism and the Roman Catholic Church in very different but noteworthy ways.
Here, I offer a few more comments, along with a fuller defense of my claim that the Eucharist is primarily a sacrifice, not a meal. The only reason the Eucharist is a meal, I claimed, is that it is first a sacrifice. So what do I mean by this?
Before I answer this, however, I think it is worth flagging a few other ways by which an argument can be made for versus populum celebrations of the Eucharist.
Active and conscious participation
I suggested in my earlier piece that a more effective argument for versus populum when celebrating the Divine Mysteries is the “fully active and conscious” participation route that plays such a key role in Vatican II’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy: Sacrosanctum Concilium. A real and worthy concern with the pre-conciliar Latin rite was that there was often a profound disconnect between priest and people: their actions were almost never in actual or spiritual unity with one another.
One practical way to right that ship, along with putting the liturgy in a language understood by the people, was to orient the priest such that he and the people could see each other. Just as the Eucharist is itself a singular participation in the “wonderful exchange” between the human and the divine (precisely as persons), so too the liturgical rite expresses this dialogical relationality in the repeated exchanges between priest and people.
Ad orientem liturgical arrangements do not lead necessarily to a disconnected eucharistic gathering and a form of sterile clericalism, nor do they necessarily diminish the dialogical relationality of the Eucharist (that is, the fact that the liturgy is both a “dialogue” between priest and people, as well as between the people/priest and God, in a way that is always interpersonal). As a priest who has served at one of the largest Episcopal churches in the country, and whose four traditional Sunday celebrations of the Eucharist and every weekday Mass were celebrated ad orientem, I can attest to a “fully active and conscious” participation in such services. This is, in part, because we taught and preached about the sacraments regularly, from the pulpit and in the classroom.
For many, ad orientem celebrations are spiritually fruitful precisely because they suppress clericalism, muting the individual identity of the priest. After exchanging the three-fold call-and-response at the beginning of the Eucharistic Prayer — the priest first facing the people as the rubrics indicate — the priest then, “facing the Holy Table,” proceeded to give voice to our Eucharistic sacrifice with one voice, one heart, all turned toward the Lord (1979 BCP, pp. 333, 340, 361, 367, 370, and 372). I should note that while the rubrics of the current prayer book in the Episcopal Church actually assume ad orientem celebrations (if they assume any posture), I don’t think this is enjoined on priests; nor is it some sort of rubrical or canonical obligation. And I don’t think that it is necessarily the best modus operandi in most parishes.
Christ’s presence in the gathered community
I also suggested that another avenue by which one could argue for a versus populum orientation during the Eucharistic prayer is that it can serve to emphasize that Christ is present not just in the eucharistic bread and wine, but also in the priest, the scriptural word, and the whole baptized assembly who are called to “become what they receive” (a theme in Augustine’s City of God, book 10, especially parts 6, 7, and 20). This reminder comes to us most persuasively via the great 20th-century theologian Henri de Lubac, who argued in Corpus Mysticum (1959) that a significant shift took place in theological language and thus in the meaning of the Eucharist in the West: The term “true Body” (verum corpus) once referred to the Church and “mystical Body” (mysticum corpus) to the eucharistic species; but after a particular eucharistic controversy involving Berengar of Tours (I discussed him briefly in my previous essay), the terms were reversed in their usage in order to emphasize Christ’s presence in the eucharistic bread and wine.
For Episcopalians, I have to wonder to what degree there is a problem in seeing Christ present in the assembly. If anything, we struggle more with an overemphasis on how everyone is a child of God, regardless of baptism, and sometimes conclude that, unless someone has no religious tradition, we should not try to bring them into the Christian faith. And further, we have to ask whether the priest and people facing each other as the priest prays the most solemn prayer of Christendom on our behalf may not fix a small problem by creating a much larger one: indicating the subject of this action is not God but us (this is one of the concerns Cardinal Ratzinger raises in The Spirit of the Liturgy).
I have been trying to argue that the only reason the Eucharist is a meal is that it is first a sacrifice. I now want to say a little more about this.
Sacrifice, we must recall, was a reality that permeated nearly every aspect of life in the Ancient Near East. Little, if any, meat was available in markets for purchase and consumption that had not first been involved in sacrifice. And sacrifices often concluded with a meal, the “consummation” of some of what had been sacrificed. But sacrifice as a concept for people at that time (Greek, Jew, Christian) also includes all the cultivation and preparation of that which is to be offered. The Jewish biblical scholar Jonathan Klawans has highlighted a great deal about this process that is rife with theological sweetness. Think, for instance, of the care that is required for the divine injunction against the sacrifice of a parent and a child lamb at the same time. One would have to know intimately one’s flock for such an observance to be even possible. And Klawans points out that such prohibitions are almost always near a description of the Lord as a shepherd who tends carefully to his flock Israel.
A commenter at PrayTell mentioned the scholarship of Robert Daly, SJ, which is praiseworthy in many ways. And I agree also with the quotation there from Kilmartin: the unity of the Church is not merely an effect of the Eucharist, but a presupposition for its true celebration.
But I wish to argue that the idea of “spiritualized” sacrifice, articulated by scholars such as Daly, often leads to an abstracted and non-material notion of sacrifice (despite Daly’s careful definition of “spiritualized” at the beginning of his magisterial Christian Sacrifice). A theory of “spiritualized” sacrifice — where primitive religion matures from animal sacrifices to inner, spiritual sacrifice — especially as it is read into the Old Testament and the history of Israel, is just simply not true. And the assumption that Christian sacrifice is “spiritual” leads to patently false claims that are even more confusing.
For example, the eminent patristic scholar Frances Young argues that the language of “sacrifice” in Didache 14 (drawn directly from Mal. 1:11) refers only to the prayers being offered, and not the self-offering of the gathered Christians or of the bread and wine. The text says no such thing! Andrew McGowan has offered one of the best coherent expositions of why we must reject such an approach if we are to read the sources without a presumption that we’ll find “spiritualization.” The very idea of “spiritual” sacrifice that is opposed to “material” sacrifice introduces a conceptual distinction that would have been foreign to most, outside of theologians like Philo. Sacrifice entailed all sorts of bodily actions; and the Old Testament is clear that sacrifices must be joined to a properly oriented heart (see the strange juxtaposition in Psalm 51: “you take no delight in burnt offerings … then you will be pleased with the appointed sacrifices”).
Sacrifice is, at its core, about offering back to God that which God has first given us. And this offering is an act of thanksgiving, of adoration, of love. It is also a ritual way of expressing that we have received all that God gives as a gift.
Luther was quite right when he thought that the Catholic Mass assumed that something was “added” to Christ’s one offering of himself. The problem was that he misconstrued the implication of this addition. The Church enacts the Eucharist in union with Christ’s eternal self-offering of himself to the Father in his perfect will. But it is enacted as something in addition to Christ’s self-offering. And as strange as this sounds, it adds something that Christ could never do. Only we (by grace!) can offer ourselves with Christ back to the Father. Only creatures can offer back to their Creator that which the Creator has first given them. God honors the sort of creatures that he has made.
We offer bread and wine as did Melchizedek. We offer in, with, and through the bread and wine “our selves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice” unto the Lord. We offer bread and wine as symbols of all that God has given us. And what has he given us? Everything. In this offering, we return the whole of creation, including ourselves, to the Father.
What Luther failed to grasp was that this “addition” to Christ’s self-offering is not salvific in the sense that it is the principal cause of our salvation. Rather, our offering of bread and wine along with “our selves, our souls and bodies” is an indicative response to God, who has already made us his children by adoption and grace, and to his command, “Do this.”
Our sacrifice indicates our love and thanksgiving (eucharistia), in which we express total faith along with St. Peter: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68). Our offering expresses outwardly what we inwardly confess in our hearts: that Jesus Christ is “the bread of eternal life; he who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst” (John 6:35). Our eucharistic sacrifice is the indication that we have seen the Son and believed in him, that we who have seen the Son have seen the Father (cf. John 6:40; 14:9).
Jesus told us to Do this because it is the most fitting response to the sacrifice of God in Christ. Sacrifice begets sacrifice; love begets more love. The consummation of our sacrifices comes when we take and eat, for by means of “these Holy Mysteries” our Lord has willed “that we may continually dwell in him, and he in us, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his Body, and our souls washed through his most precious Blood.”
 Briefly, see an excerpt here from his new monograph Ancient Christian Worship (2016); but for more detail, see his “Eucharist and Sacrifice — Cultic Tradition and Transformation in Early Christian Ritual Meals,” in Mahl und religiöse Identität im frühen Christentum, ed. by Matthias Klinghardt and Hal Taussig (Tübingen, 2012), pp. 1-45.