Fr. Dwight Longenecker posted an entry about celebrating Holy Mass ad orientem.
It is longish, so you can read the whole thing there. Here is some of it with my emphases and comments:
Friday, October 29, 2010
Turning to the Lord
“Do you think that Jesus turned His back to His apostles when at the Last Supper, He gave thanks to His Father and broke the Bread??” asks a reader in the combox.
This is a very good question, because it raises several important issues about the celebration of the liturgy. First, let me answer the question in its most basic form. “Did Jesus turn his back to his apostles when at the Last Supper, He gave thanks to His Father and broke the Bread?” To answer this question we must try to visualize the seating arrangement for a ceremonial Jewish meal in the first century. Sometimes we think of the Last Supper taking place around a table rather like our idea of a family dinner with everyone facing inward and with one person at the head of the table.
Ceremonial meals in the first century were not like this. First of all they reclined at the table, they didn’t sit. Secondly, they all sat on the same side of the table. This was so the servants could access the table from the other side. Consequently, the participants in the meal would all be facing the same way. We see echoes of this in portrayals of the Last Supper like the one above. Many think the artists put them all on the same side of the table in order to show their faces better. It certainly is easier to see their faces that way, but the iconographer is also showing the manner in which the Last Supper was most likely celebrated.
The question therefore does not arise, “Did Jesus turn his back to the Apostles?” No he did not, but then, neither did he sit opposite them as Father would at family dinner, or as the priest does when he celebrates the Mass facing the people. [I can't resist: "What Would Jesus Do?" We don't know for sure, but this argument drives at the point that He wouldn't say Mass "facing the people", and neither should we.]
[...]However, the question of the position of the Lord at the Last Supper reveals other, more fundamental questions about the liturgy. Is every Mass a re-enactment of the Last Supper? No. The re-enactment of the Last Supper is the Maundy Thursday liturgy during Holy Week. The church teaches that every other celebration of Mass is not primarily a re-enactment of the Last Supper, but a re-presentation of the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross. [I think the words of consecration suggest that Mass is also memorial of the Last Supper. Father's "not primarily" get at that. It is both Sacrifice and Supper. It doesn't have to be one or the other. Liberals, however, downplay the sacrificial aspect and speak of the Supper aspect to the point that Sacrifice hardly every enters into their minds... or that of the congregation.]
This shift in emphasis away from viewing Mass as a sacrifice and instead viewing it as a re-enactment of the Last Supper, and therefore as a kind of ceremonial, family meal is the heart of our liturgical wars. [...]
The Holy Mass is a sacrifice–an unbloody re-presentation of the one, full, final sacrifice of Christ on the cross. At the consecration the priest does more than stand as a symbol of Jesus giving thanks to the Father and breaking bread. This fourfold action of ‘taking the bread, blessing it, giving thanks and giving it to the people’ is the act of consecration through which the bread is bread no more, but is now the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ–Son of God and Son of Mary. The priest is not simply standing in as an icon of Jesus at the Last Supper, [Here is the point:] but he is a sacrificing priest, offering the sacrifice of Christ to the Father with us and for us. [There is no priesthood without sacrifice. They are inseparable. Why do liberals and protestants stress the "presider" and the "meal"? They don't believe that what Christ commanded us to do should have a sacrificial character. This changes entirely the relationship of "minister" and "people". "Ministry" can mean anything. This has consequences for worship, of course. It also has consequences for doctrine, since there can be no authority without a clear line that goes back to something Christ established at the Last Supper: priesthood connected to Sacrifice, His saving act for our redemption.]
Furthermore, as the Jews away from Jerusalem would always worship towards the Holy City, so the documents show that when the Christians met for their celebration of Eucharist they faced the East–facing the rising sun as a symbol of the risen Lord and facing the direction from which he would come again. The priest faced the same way as the people – offering the sacrifice with them and for them as together they faced the Lord. This is the way the Church worshiped for two thousand years. Now we change it and we think we’re so smart? [Do I hear an "Amen!"?]
Allow me to make a few other observations which are personal, and not historical or scholarly at all. I can only say as a priest that when I celebrate facing the people I cannot get away from the fact that I am standing opposite them, that they are looking at me and I am looking at them. The focus of our worship therefore must be what stands between us. Christ is in our midst in the middle of our circle. While this is true, and reveals certain truths to us, I find it ultimately unsatisfactory. I want to look beyond myself and beyond the people opposite me.
[Here is a scary thought...] Why do so many Catholic parishes now take on the personality of their priest? Maybe because the priests are too much the center of attention. Why do so many priests seem to revel in all this attention? Maybe because every time they go to the altar they are the center attraction. Maybe this has also contributed to the narcissism and showy-ness of so many of our priests.When I pray the Mass in the same direction of the people it is amazing how I don’t have to worry about myself and what I look like and whether I’m putting enough ‘feeling’ into the words. [Latin will help with that. And a silent Canon even more.] Instead I merge into the people behind me who are praying with me. I feel caught up in a wave of their prayers as their prayers and mine are offered to the Lord who is up and beyond both of us. I feel no alienation at all in ‘turning my back to them.’ On the contrary, I feel closer to them and more one with them as we all pray in the same direction. I am no longer ‘up there’ with them all looking at me. Instead I am with them and one with them as together we turn toward the Lord.
A good explanation.