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Further facing into the Eucharist: A friendly response to Bishop Martins

Last week, Bishop Dan Martins gave of us one of his typically winsome and provocative essays on the orientation of celebrating the Eucharist. I offered my own take on the question exactly one year before in a rather rambling essay, “The orientation of preparation” (which, honestly, was more about the orientation of liturgy in general). One of the main reasons that I commend Bishop Martins’s essay is that its tone remains so restrained in the midst of a contemporary conversation that is often marked by a complete lack of measure, especially in the Roman Catholic world. The recent lecture by Robert Cardinal Sarah, prefect for the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments, was met with many a sharp response, even (it seems) from the Holy Father himself (though, we should note, Pope Francis has celebrated Mass ad orientem).

What I appreciated most especially was the fact that Bishop Martins insisted that this question is tied to what the Eucharist is. I agree completely, and have written about this before on Covenant and elsewhere. Bishop Martins wrote:

All sacramental actions are sacralized versions of common actions — taking a bath, sharing a meal, embracing, therapeutic touching, and the like — though sacraments carry rich and polyvalent layers of meaning that transcend their common antecedents.

I grant his point, but I think it is potentially misleading and doesn’t apply easily to some actions, like ordination and unction. The sacraments come to us first as institutions of Christ, which is worth stating upfront.

When we come to naming the common action sacralized in the Eucharist, our differences of approach become starkly apparent. Bishop Martins said:

Sound sacramental theology requires us to make the connection between the common and the holy as clear and robust as we can. Baptism is more than a bath, but it is at least a bath. The Eucharist is more than a meal, but it is at least a meal. The phenomenon of liturgical practice — what the event looks like and feels like to a participant — must not obscure that connection.

A meal is an event where people gather around a table. That is its phenomenology. The Eucharist is a meal. So, a celebration of the Eucharist should somehow look like that and feel like that. Versus populum celebration — placing the celebrant and, quite often, assisting ministers, ordained and lay, across a table from the congregation — is the simplest and most direct way of maintaining this connection.

This is a refreshingly clear argument, but one that I believe to be misguided. The Eucharist is only a meal because it is first and most fundamentally a sacrifice.

The bishop notes in a response to some questions about his essay, “I should add that I have a quite Catholic view of the sacrifice of the Mass. But I don’t see how that relates either way to which side of the altar the celebrant is on.” I wish to suggest just the opposite: to argue that the Eucharist is primarily a meal might produce much fruit. But what it does not do is lead inevitably to the conclusion that the celebration of the Eucharist versus populum “is the simplest and most direct way of maintaining this” fact.

The argument strikes me as especially odd because he agrees with me that the Preparation Rites (the Acclamation through the Collect of the Day, in the 1979 BCP) “should take place ‘west’ of the altar and in the center.” The Preparation Rites are no less a solemn address to God than the Eucharistic Prayer. In fact, is there any more solemn and laudatory address to God the Father than the Eucharistic Prayer? So why is the nature of the Eucharist and the Eucharistic Prayer best maintained when the priest faces the people for this prayer?

“Because,” the reply goes, “the Eucharist is at its heart a meal.”

But is it?[1]

The “meal” portion of the eucharistic liturgy is really only seen in three actions: (a) in the Offertory, when the bread and wine are brought to the altar, (b) in the Fraction, when the consecrated Bread and Wine are prepared such that those Christians present can receive the elements once offered, and (c) in the distribution, when the people come forward to consume said Bread and Wine. Note these are three of Dix’s fourfold actions: taking, breaking, and distributing. The “blessing” takes place in the Eucharistic Prayer, of course. And it is exactly for this part of the eucharistic liturgy that Bishop Martins argues the priest should face the people in order to avoid obscuring its “meal” character.

The “blessing” of Dix’s fourfold action, the Eucharistic prayer, is precisely the place in the liturgy where it is most unlike a meal. No doubt, Christians give thanks to God before consuming their food, and a typical emphasis of 20th-century liturgical reform was to link the Eucharistic Prayer to Jewish blessings over meals: the Berakah. But what distinguishes the Eucharistic Prayer from typical table prayers of thanks is precisely what distinguishes the Eucharist from meals in general: the “thanks” of the Eucharistic Prayer (eucharistia) lies below the more fundamental reality and context of sacrifice. All biblical sacrifice, is, in some fashion, eucharistic: an expression of adoration and thanks to God for what God has first given. The Church expresses this by offering back to God the things that are his already but which he deigned in love to give us. “All things come of thee, O Lord, and of thine own have we given thee.”

Moreover, the “table” plays a minimal role in the Eucharist: no one sits, stands, or reclines there, save the priest, who is not standing at a table to eat, but at an altar to pray and to offer. The people do not consume the Sacrament at the table.

To view the Eucharist through the primary lens of “meal” is (permit me the image and the gross oversimplification) to play in the sandbox of Western eucharistic theology after the controversy of Berengar of Tours (999-1088). What do I mean by this? Simply that after Berengar, we see a tendency in Western eucharistic theology to overemphasize the transformation of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ — and more broadly, to emphasize what we get — such that the Eucharist’s doxological and thanksgiving character is muted.

The sacrificial character of the Mass (something Bishop Martins and I both affirm) also remained central in the West, but in a rather lopsided way. The rich and polyvalent character of sacrifice in the Ancient Near East all but receded into the background of history and was replaced by a narrow and even more wonky notion of sacrifice that focused in a misleading way upon death. As a result, there was a search for the location of Christ’s death in the sacrifice of the Mass.

A common answer, provided by Thomas Aquinas, is that the death can be seen “in the double consecration of bread and wine and hence in the mystical separation of Christ’s body from his blood, which signifies his death on the cross.”[2] René Girard took a similar “history of religions” approach to sacrifice as death, such that it is wrapped up in scapegoating and violence. Relying on Girard, the French theologian Louis-Marie Chauvet, whose exercises significant influence in contemporary Catholic sacramental theology, was so bold as to claim that the language of sacrifice “is in no way necessary to express the meaning of Jesus’ life and death” (Symbol and Sacrament, p. 301). There is no doubt that the self-offering of Jesus brings a new quality to “sacrifice” as it had been known before in Judaism. But Chauvet is highly influenced by a history-of-religions approach to sacrifice (i.e., that primitive religions develop away from violent animal sacrifice toward spiritualized internal worship) and reads this scheme onto the Old Testament (i.e., Judaism has a similar sort of development that comes to its apex in Jesus) – such that he believes the meaning of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection can only be connected to sacrifice if the very notion of sacrifice is turned inside out. But we must say that Chauvet is quite wrong: the work of Christ devoid of sacrifice is something less than the Christian gospel.

By his one oblation of himself once offered, a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world.

The Eucharist has aspects of a meal. It would be absurd to suggest otherwise. But the Eucharist is not a sacrament of a meal, nor is it a sacrament of the Last Supper.

For that reasons, we should take great care not to make leaps in our judgments: trying to imagine exactly how Jesus and the disciples were situated at the Last Supper, and assuming we can draw conclusions from this event, which will apply directly to the church’s eucharistic ceremonial practice (Bishop Martins is not doing this, by the way!). An extremely noteworthy development in early Christianity was precisely the separation of the Agape fellowship meal from the ritual Eucharistic one (a change one may not like but is nonetheless incontrovertible). As a recent article from Andrew McGowan highlights, “Lord’s Supper” (and thus the priority of the meal) “was not a name used for the sacred meals otherwise known as Eucharist in the first three centuries.”[3] Both this development and the lack of “meal” nomenclature for the Eucharist would seem to indicate that early Christians did not view “meal” as the primary lens through which to understand the Eucharist.

The Eucharist, I suggest, is a sacrament of the Paschal Mystery: the sacrifice of Christ that was vindicated by the Father’s resurrection of the Son and his ascension to the right hand of power, in which God placed everything under his feet, establishing him as the Great High Priest and Mediator of the Heavenly Temple. There his one oblation of himself is shown to be what it truly is: the eternal, inexhaustible, and most perfect singular act of worship and co-union with the Father ever enacted by a human being. This mystery comprehends also the sending of the Holy Spirit and the establishment of Christ’s ecclesial Body, the Church.

The 1979 BCP catechism sums it succinctly in answer to the question, Why is the Eucharist called a sacrifice?

“Because the Eucharist, the Church’s sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, is the way by which the sacrifice of Christ is made present, and in which he unites us to his one offering of himself” (1979 BCP, p. 859).

I recognize that I have not made an argument for ad orientem celebration, and simply claiming that the Eucharist is a sacrifice does not lead to the conclusion that one must say the Eucharistic prayer ad orientem. My question is this: What does the priest facing the people during the most solemn address to God communicate better than all facing God together? Cardinal Ratzinger famously suggested a via media solution in The Spirit of the Liturgy (Ignatius Press, 2014), an option that has become known in some places as the “Benedictine Arrangement.” Instead of trying to re-affix altars to the east wall, he writes, “nothing is more harmful to the liturgy than a constant activism, even if it seems to be for the sake of genuine renewal.” He continues:

I see a solution in a suggestion that comes from the insights of Erik Peterson. … Where a direct common turning toward the east is not possible, the cross can serve as the interior ‘east’ of faith. I should stand in the middle of the altar and be the common point of focus for both priest and praying community. In this way we obey the ancient call to pray: “Converte ad Dominum,” Turn toward the Lord! In this way we look together at the One whose death tore the veil of the Temple—the One who stands before the Father for us and encloses us in his arms in order to make us the new and living Temple. Moving the altar cross to the side to give an uninterrupted view of the priest is something I regard as one of the truly absurd phenomena of recent decades. Is the cross disruptive during Mass? Is the priest more important than the Lord? This mistake can be done without further rebuilding. The Lord is the point of reference. He is the rising sun of history. (pp. 83-84)

Fr. Matthew S. C. Olver is assistant professor of liturgics and pastoral theology at Nashotah House Theological Seminary and is writing his dissertation on the use of the Epistle to the Hebrews in the Roman Canon at Marquette University. He’s a father of two and has now been a priest and a husband for more than a decade. His other posts are here

The featured image comes via New Liturgical Movement.

[1] My hunch is that a more effective tack to argue that the priest should stand versus populum when celebrating the Divine Mysteries is either a) the “fully active and conscious” participation route that plays such a key role in the argument of Vatican II’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy: Sacrosanctum Concilium, or b) to emphasize that Christ is present in the priest, the Scriptural word, and the whole baptized assembly who are called to “become what they receive” (thanks to Neil Dhingra for reminding me of this). It is well worth noting that Henri de Lubac argued in Corpus Mysticum for a significant shift in language and thus understanding about the Eucharist in the West, where once the term “true Body” (verum corpus) referred to the Church and “mystical Body” (mystici corpus) to the Eucharistic species; but after Berengar the terms are reversed in their usage in order to emphasize Christ’s presence in the Sacraments.

[2] Uwe Michael Lang, “Augustine’s Conception of Sacrifice in City of God, Book X, and the Eucharistic Sacrifice,” Antiphon 19:1 (2015), p. 48. See Thomas Aquinas, ST, III, 74, a1, and III, 76, a2, ad1. Lang cites Garrigou-Lagrange’s summary of this position: “The essence of the Eucharistic sacrifice consists in the consecration, taken, not absolutely, but as sacramentally and mystically, separative of the blood from the body. On the cross the sacrifice consisted in the real and physical separation of Christ’s blood from His body. The action, therefore, which mystically and sacramentally separates that blood is the same sacrifice as that on the cross, differing therefrom only in its mode, which there was real and physical and here is sacramental.” See Réginald Garrigou-Lagrange, Reality: A Synthesis of Thomistic Thought, trans. Patrick Cummins (St. Louis: Herder, 1950), p. 254.

[3] See “The Myth of the ‘Lord’s Supper’: Paul’s Eucharistic Meal Terminology and Its Ancient Reception.” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 77, no. 3 (July 2015): 503–21).


  1. I am grateful to Fr Olver for this irenic and lucid response to my post from last week. I particularly appreciate the reminder of Ratzinger’s observation that, even in a versus populum celebration, the presider and the assembly are not facing one another, but are together facing God, fruitfully signified by a central altar cross–and, I might suggest, eventually by the consecrated elements themselves.

    I am aware that, were I to revise my original post, it would be in the direction of further emphasizing that it’s not a matter of one mode of celebration being definitively superior to the other, but that both have a solid claim to theological and historical coherence, and neither should be disparaged by partisan advocacy.

    That said, let me push back a bit. While I agree wholeheartedly with Fr Olver that the Eucharist is not the “sacrament of the Last Supper,” I’m not sure that “meal” and “sacrifice” can be sundered all that neatly. Even in the OT sacrificial system, there was human consumption of at least part of what had been offered. And while the Eucharist ought not to be too grossly identified with the Last Supper, neither can it plausibly be seen in isolation from it. And the Last Supper was a cultic *meal* (whether the Passover or, per Dix, a chaburah), which goes to my point about sacramental actions being much, much more than their ordinary referents, but never less than them. Indeed, if the Eucharist is the sacrament of the entire Paschal Mystery, which Fr Olver asserts and I very much agree, one cannot help but observe that the final biblical image for the consummation of God’s relentless redemptive project is … what? A meal, the Messianic Banquet (dramatically foreshadowed in Isaiah). It’s not that “meal” is the primary meaning or significance of the Eucharist. Rather, “meal” is what the Eucharist *is,* and therefore the gateway to perceiving what the Eucharist *means*(sacrifice, sign, sacrament, etc.).

    But even if I were to stipulate to Fr Olver’s contention that sacrifice, rather than meal, is the “res” of the Eucharist, he admittedly offers no argument for why “ad orientem” posture by the presider best conveys that reality. It is not difficult to find several images of sacrifice in a non-Eucharistic, non-Christian context that depict free-standing altars with people gathered *around.”

    There is probably more that I could say, but this is perhaps enough for now. Again, I appreciate the exchange.

  2. This post does a great job of recovering the sacrificial dimension of the eucharistic meal, and placing it at the center of our eucharistic practice. Having just written a doctoral dissertation (and, in 2017 a book) in which the eucharistic sacrifice plays a central conceptual role, this is a topic near and dear to my own heart.

    At the same time, I want to second Bishop Martins’s concern about the sundering of sacrifice and meal in the Eucharist. My reading of the evidence from the earliest centuries suggests that meal and sacrifice were inextricably linked, such that we can’t really ask whether “meal” or “sacrifice” was the primary “lens” for understanding the Eucharist. Both belonged together: meals were sacrificial, and sacrifices were eaten. (Throughout, “meal” should be read as “public meal.”)

    In fact, in sources such as the Didache, the Eucharist is referred to as a sacrifice, even without any association of that sacrifice with Christ’s death (or association of the eucharistic elements with his body and blood). Hence, even apart from associating the Eucharist with Christ’s sacrifice, it was still understood as sacrificial. I believe this is due to the sacrificial freight of meals in antiquity.

    Indeed, it is odd that Andrew McGowan is mustered as evidence. Full disclosure, I’ve not read the CBQ article that Fr. Olver cites, but I have read a good deal of Fr. McGowan’s other work. The Eucharist’s meal character is front and center in such works as Ascetic Eucharists and Ancient Christian Worship. Indeed, he demonstrates that the separation of “Agape” (actual meal) from “Eucharist” (token meal) occurred far later than earlier generations of scholars tended to assume. So the dearth of references to the “Lord’s Supper” in the early centuries (excepting the Corinthian correspondence, I assume), probably does not indicate a dearth of understandings of the sacrament as a meal.

    At the same time, McGowan acknowledges the sacrificial character of the Eucharist in these centuries. So it’s not as if he isn’t an allied voice for Fr. Olver’s concerns. (And, of course, it’s possible that the more recent CBQ article presents new evidence and modified positions from his earlier work; so I speak tentatively here).

    All this to say: meal and sacrifice are not two separate understandings of the Eucharist, but are united.

    That said, on the matter of Eastward facing eucharistic celebrations, I wonder if architecture ought to have a bearing upon this question. When the priest celebrates at a high altar, far away from the congregation, this can easily give the impression that he is facing away from them. On the other hand, when the altar is close to the people, it is far more obvious that the priest is facing in the same direction as them.

    I’m not suggesting that we abolish high altars, nor that we only celebrate ad orientum when the altar is closer to the congregation, but I do think that the debate tends to revolve more around what is perceived and communicated through ritual actions, and less around the actual intelligibility of the rites. So perhaps such concerns as the distance to the altar are more important to consider than they might first appear.

    • Thanks for both substantive response.

      A few things.

      First, I don’t think I sundered sacrifice from meal (In Gene’s phrase). I wrote: “The Eucharist is only a meal because it is first and most fundamentally a sacrifice.” I am simply asserting the primacy of sacrifice and placing meal within that orbit. I don’t mean to pit them in any sort of tension. In fact, sacrifice and cultic meals can’t be separated from each other. I completely agree–they are not and cannot be separated from each other. If I implied otherwise, the fault is definitely mine.

      Second, Bishop Martins notes that I don’t make an argument for why the priority of sacrifice necessitates ‘ad orientum’ celebrations. Exactly write. I wrote near the end: “I recognize that I have not made an argument for ‘ad orientem’ celebration, and simply claiming that the Eucharist is a sacrifice does not lead to the conclusion that one must say the Eucharistic prayer ad orientem.” This thing was already too long! My concern was both with prioritizing ‘meal’ and then with the argument that this priority is best seen through ‘versus populum’ celebrations. I guess I’m still wondering why “meal” leads this direction given that the period in the liturgy about which we’re discussing–the Eucharistic Prayer–isn’t a meal at all, but the act of worship. The “meal” aspect–the eating–follows the prayer.

      Third, Gene I like your thoughts about the distance of the altar. That is definitely worthy of more consideration.

      Fourth, I’m still interested in this question: “What does the priest facing the people during the most solemn address to God communicate better than all facing God together?”

    • Architecture is important. Despite my “preferential option” for versus populum celebration, I would rather celebrate ad orientem than move an altar out from the retable/reredos just barely far enough for someone to get behind it, but still separated from the nave by a long (and, in my experience, often empty) chancel. Better to bite the bullet and reconfigure the space to bring the altar closer to the people.

  3. What a fascinating article and equally fascinating replies. In my reply, I do not take a side on this issue because I am very agnostic about it. Currently, I serve in a parish in which I celebrate ad orientum but have also served in parishes where I celebrated versus populum. I will say that I completely disagree with Cardinal Sarah’s suggestion that this has anything to do with the decline in church attendance. We really need to move beyond seeing the liturgy as the culprit (or saviour) in that regard. The decline in church attendance is due to much greater socio-cultural shifts.

    If I may, I will add a couple of other interesting points to the conversation. In terms of the historicity of either approach, the archeological evidence suggests a mixed bag. For example, the remains of the house church at Dura Europos suggest a fixed altar against the wall. However, the altar at St. John Lateran, stretching back to the fourth century, is clearly a versus populum altar.

    Fr. Olver makes that argument that by facing ad orientum we are “facing God.” I think your argument would be strengthened though by nuancing it to suggest that we await the coming of our Lord by facing “East.” After all, God is present as much in our midst as God is present afar. However, to look East is to anticipate the Lord’s return.

    Much has already been said about the important connection between sacrifice and meal. I think we need to increase awareness around this important catechetical issue. I would add that Durkheim, citing Robertson Smith, also points to how communities that sacrifice most often eat a portion of the sacrifice. Durkheim makes the argument that this ritual act intensifies the social bonds of community through union with the deity to whom the sacrifice is offered, and he doesn’t even quote St. Augustine!

    Just adding a couple of my own cents,

    Fr. Shawn Strout

  4. A comment on a Facebook thread on this post prompts me to add something to the mix. One of the reasons I will continue to earnestly contend that Eucharist gets filed under the category of “meal” (even though, using contemporary cyber-taxonomical protocols, it might be *tagged* as “sacrifice”) is precisely so that, even as Eucharist evokes meal, so meal will evoke Eucharist. If there’s something about Eucharist that reminds me of coming to dinner, then coming to dinner will, in turn, also always remind me of coming to the Eucharist. Likewise, if there’s something about baptism that robustly evokes bathing, then every time I step into the shower it will remind me of my baptismal identity. These are spiritually quite salutary connections to make, and pastors are faithful to their duty to the people of God to the extent that they elucidate these connections.

  5. Fr Oliver,

    Could we say the Eucharist is a sacrifice contained within a meal?

    In answer to your question, “What does the priest facing the people during the most solemn address to God communicate better than all facing God together?” I realized that there is a specific context and history in this question that I do not share. It seems for you, facing forward (is it the Cross or the Altar or what?) constitutes “facing God.”

    On further reflection, I see why this contains a certain powerful symbolism. I clearly see it at the Confession and Absolution. The priest faces the same way as the congregation because they are one of us, and turn to face us representing God to pronounce forgiveness. But this isn’t something that registers with me on the same level during the Great Thanksgiving.

    I’m not really a good Evangelical, but what part of me that is Evangelical has an issue with how this whole discussion is structured. How can we have a discussion about the nature of the Eucharist without direct reference to Matt 26, Mark 14, Luke 22, John 13-17 (although that provides different sorts of data), not to mention Exodus 12 and 1 Cor 11?

    I *am* interesting in what the Tradition says, but when you say, “An extremely noteworthy development in early Christianity was precisely the separation of the Agape fellowship meal from the ritual Eucharistic one (a change one may not like but is nonetheless incontrovertible),” I respond, “no, I don’t like it” and “incontrovertible” is not “unchangeable.”

    Don’t misunderstand, the emphasis on sacrifice is correct. Paul say in 1 Cor 11:26, “For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” I will try not to make the same mistakes Berengar made by trying to specify how the mystery is accomplished, but “somehow” Jesus sacrifice is made present to us. So I think your #1 point is only reinforced by Scripture.

    But also enriched. You said this (which bears repeating and marking, learning and inwardly digesting):

    “The Eucharist, I suggest, is a sacrament of the Paschal Mystery: the sacrifice of Christ that was vindicated by the Father’s resurrection of the Son and his ascension to the right hand of power, in which God placed everything under his feet, establishing him as the Great High Priest and Mediator of the Heavenly Temple. There his one oblation of himself is shown to be what it truly is: the eternal, inexhaustible, and most perfect singular act of worship and co-union with the Father ever enacted by a human being. This mystery comprehends also the sending of the Holy Spirit and the establishment of Christ’s ecclesial Body, the Church.”

    Why do we call it a *Paschal* Mystery?

    • Charlie: I think my thoughts about your question, “Could we say the Eucharist is a sacrifice contained within a meal?” are addressed in my comment below.

      My argument that the Eucharist is a sacrifice is not only about how the Eucharist makes present the sacrifice of Christ. It is also a sacrifical rite i and of itself (though this can’t be separated from the fact that essential to its nature is that it is united to Christ’s eternal self-offering). This union to Christ’s sacrifice is one of the things that distinguishes it radically from OT sacrifice; those sacrifices only anticipated Christ’s sacrifice, and thus the Eucharist. But the Eucharist IS a sacrifical rite in that we offer back to God things that God has first given us as a ritual expression of our acceptance of all that God has given to us and also as an act of absolute adorations and thanksgiving for all that God has given to us and done for us, but (to quote the General Thanksgiving) “above all for [his] inestimable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ; for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory.”

      *Paschal Mystery* was a term that gained prominence in the 20th century, especially amongst Catholics (I think) but then broadened to other traditions. Pascha is related to Passover, of course, and is many (most?) languages the term for Easter is derived from the word for Passover, English being a big exception. Part of the impetus for the term was to correct what was seen as an over-emphasis in the Eucharist and more generally in Western theology on the death of Jesus and an under-emphasis on the resurrection, ascension, coming of the HS, and Christ’s future return (not to mention what the Great Litany reminds us–that the entirety of Jesus’s incarnate life is salvific; it just comes to its apex in the death, resurrection, ascension). Thus the term “Paschal Mystery” was a shorthand way to gather up the events that stand at the very heart of Christ’s saving work for us, those events into which we are brought sacramentally primarily in baptism and eucharist, and which are proclaimed in those sacraments.

      To my mind, it has maybe become a bit overused in certain circles.

      Thanks for your engagement, Charlie.

    • Thanks for your comments, Father Strout. About St John Lateran, I would just note that (like the issue of St Peter’s, Rome) the fact that there is a free-standing altar does not necessitate the conclusion that the priest faced the people. [You can see here a simplified discussion of the some of the history on this, but focused on the Roman rite: http://dappledthings.org/4123/light-from-the-east/%5D. The freestanding altar appears to have been more about a) the use of the basilical style architectually where a free-standing altar really only makes sense since the east wall is curved; b) the freedom to cense all the way around the altar; c) there is good evidence (Lang’s “Turning Toward the Lord” lays this out) that in places like St John Lateran and St Peter’s, the priest and people would have all faced east. Thus, at St Peter’s, the people would have turned to the door (which was at the East end) so that the priest was “behind” the people but all were facing east.

    • I would like to take up Bishop Daniel’s point about high altars separated from the congregation by long and often empty chancels. He proposes bringing the altar closer to the people, which is indeed the most common approach. But might it not be preferable, conversely, to bring the people to the altar?
      We are agreed, I take it, that the Christian Church is, according to Lumen Gentium ch. vii, a Pilgrim Church and that Christians are a pilgrim people on a life-long journey to the Kingdom of God. We are to be a people on the move. If, then, pilgrimage is so fundamental to Christian identity, a sense of journey should be integral to Christian worship and be incorporated within it. If Christians are called to reorder themselves and their lives in the way of Christ, is it not inappropriate for them to expect their buildings to bear the burden of change and alteration? Is this not an evasion of their own responsibility?
      Is it not remarkable, when the goal of the reforms in the wake of Vatican II has been the full, active participation of the whole People of God in the liturgical offering, that the one thing that has not changed has been the disposition of the congregation? Everything in the church may have changed around them, but the congregation’s seating habits have remained resolutely unaltered. They will remain in their places (and much the same places from week to week) like children in a Victorian schoolroom. Surely this encourages not active participation in but a passive observation of the liturgy.
      Rather than reordering their churches, congregations could consider reordering themselves to embody and enact their Christian journey within worship, journeying (for example) from the renewal of the baptismal covenant in the penitential rite at the font, to gathering around the liturgy of the Word in the nave, to the whole body journeying into the empty chancel as the Body of Christ for the liturgy of the Eucharist.
      Richard Giles is well known for advocating such an approach within a re-ordered liturgical space, but in many instances no re-ordering is required. This simply takes up what was the normal practice of the Church of England from the Reformation to the early nineteenth century of the congregation gathering around the triple-decker pulpit/ambo for the liturgy of the Word and their moving together with the priest into the chancel at the ‘draw near with faith’. When the whole liturgy is a journey toward the East, it also makes more sense of an oriented experience of the Eucharist as the Eschatological Banquet of the Kingdom, priest and people together facing the rising of the Sun of Righteousness with healing in his wings.

      • I am familiar with Giles’ work, and, while I think he goes astray in some ways, he makes some points that merit being taken seriously. However, I will observe that the scenario you envision presumes a relatively small euharistic assembly. It’s not indefinitely scalable.

  6. [I wrote this first over on FB in response to a fruitful comment from Bishop Martins: https://www.facebook.com/fr.jonathan.1/posts/10208418302669816?comment_id=10208418595197129&notif_t=mentions_comment&notif_id=1470187171273017%5D

    I think I was only really struck by the nature of your approach regarding *meal* in these few sentences. And it makes me wonder if we agree more than maybe it appears and that we’re talking past each other a bit. When you say “a meal is what the Eucharist *is*, my first thought is that there is so much of the eucharistic rite that is not a meal nor is really like a meal: all of the liturgy of the Word, the censings, the music, even the lengthy eucharistic prayer. The Eucharist, I want to say, is first *worship.* It is the things which Christian believe is the most doxological act in which we can engage to give glory to the Blessed Trinity. Our eating is a part of that, to be sure. It’s constitutive of it; for a eucharist where no one eat is something other than a Eucharist. The Eucharistic Prayer is not, at least as I think about it, most like a grace before a meal, but the verbal articulation of the whole current of actions that make up the entire rite of the Mass that come to their apex in the offering of bread and wine (as bread and wine, as symbols of our work joined to God’s give of creation, as symbols of all that God has given us, including all of creation), of our selves, and even of Jesus Christ (at least to the extent that he allows us by grace to be joined to Him in His self-offering to the Father). And in response to our being brought into this divine economy–which is a gift economy (i.e. everything has its source in God and only has value because of its source and because of the nature God’s gives each thing when he creates it), and not a value-based monetary economy–God responds and makes our offering God’s most gratuitous offering, namely Jesus Christ. And then we receive the same Christ sacramentally as the ecclesial Body of Christ. In this panoply, eating and characteristics of a meal cannot be extracted without doing untold violence to the nature of the Eucharist.

    I agree with you about all the levels of resonance that the Eucharist as “meal” properly has (e.g. the sacralizing of all eating and the ‘communion’ it engenders among all who share it; Jesus eating with sinners; the eschatological vision as a banquet, etc.). I want to take nothing away from these things. BUT…I have trouble seeing how “meal” make coherent sense of all that makes up the Eucharist. Maybe sacrifice is too confusing as an overriding concept (and my idea of sacrifice may be a very idiosyncratic one based on certain historical research that most people won’t really get – I acknowledge this!). But to me, *sacrifice* is able to gather up all the complex pieces of the eucharistic rite and weave them into a coherent hole, whereas *meal* seems to leave dangling so many of the parts of the rite. But I say all this to try and suggest that maybe I’m missing something huge in what we’re saying that that we may be unwittingly talking a little past each other.

    BTW, thanks for being such a gracious interlocutor on social media. It’s painfully rare, as we all know. Cheers.

  7. I agree that the refining effect of further dialogue will probably lead us closer to one another’s positions. Two quick points:

    1. While I think I see what you’re trying to do by situating “sacrifice” within the larger category of “worship,” this, in my experience as a musician and music planner, is a risky move. It exposes us to the Eucharist-as-flatbed-truck model–i.e. that on which we can load, and expect it to carry, all sorts of freight. This can happen among musicians of all tastes and styles. (It also happens politically–e.g. celebrating a “protest Mass” outside a prison where an execution is scheduled. So I would resist seeing the Eucharist as a sub-genre of “worship.” The Eucharist is it*self.* It has its own grammar and architecture and, if you will, “zen.” It has its own rules, to which those who are responsible for planning and execution must conform if they are not to abuse it.

    2. It’s been mentioned that the Eucharistic Prayer doesn’t bear any resemblance to a mean. To this I would reply, “Celebrant, look around you. What do you see? A table (altar). A tablecloth (fair linen), table decorations (candles, flowers), a place mat (corporal), a napkin (purificator), utensils for eating and drinking (paten and chalice). If it walks like a duck …

    • [Again, first over on FB and now here]

      Hmm. I don’t think I was trying to make the Eucharist a flat-bed truck. I think my attempts to articulate the “what” of the Eucharist have been pretty clear in that they exclude lots of other things (and I’ve written about how the nature of the Eucharist as worship necessarily means that other goods can’t be its purpose: https://covenant.livingchurch.org/2014/09/04/one-needful-thing/). Sacrifice IS worship, at least for Jews and Christians. It was different to varying degrees in other pagan religions, but sacrifice for Christians IS worship.

      I also don’t think I argued that the the Eucharistic Prayer doesn’t bear any resemblance to a meal. I wrote: “There is so much of the eucharistic rite that is not a meal nor is really like a meal” and I then went on and listed a lot of characteristics of the Eucharist that are meal-like.

      And I’m still interested in this question: “What does the priest facing the people during the most solemn address to God communicate better than all facing God together?”

      • Sorry. I wasn’t meaning to imply that *you* were using the Eucharist as a flatbed truck, but that categorizing it as “worship” exposes it to that danger. I said what I did in the spirit of a “friendly amendment.”

        Yes, there is plenty about the Eucharistic rite that does not pertain to meal-ness, just as there is much about a dinner party or banquet that has nothing to do with consuming food or drink–all without obviating what the thing itself is.

        As for your final question, How, in versus populum, is the gathered community not “facing God together”? I’m reminded of the Ghent Altarpiece (I posted on FB and tagged you), which depicts the heavenly hosts gathered on all sides of the Heavenly altar to offer their *sacrifice* of praise to the Lamb of God.


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