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This side of heaven

I’m asked from time to time about the significance or reason for “westward” celebrations of the Holy Eucharist.  That is: the priest stands facing the congregation behind the Altar or Lord’s Table rather than facing east and in front of it.  Although that’s a question that might require a much more thorough explanation than space here allows, I might attempt to describe my understanding at least in brief.

An “eastward celebration” is the traditional pattern of eucharistic worship in liturgical and sacramental Christian churches.  The symbolism is rich and meaningful.  The officiant facing eastward echoes the similar importance other religious traditions place on their Holy Land, the geographical roots and location of those happenings significant to their faith.  For Christians, the land over which Jesus once walked is reason to face eastward (at least liturgical east) when saying the Creed or other significant verbal elements of worship and, including the celebrating the Holy Eucharist.  Christians also recognize that when Jesus returns, it may well be in the East, and therefore in expectation we should be physically oriented in that way.  As it turns out, that understanding also influences how those who have died and are buried are traditionally physically oriented in the ground and grave.

An eastward celebration makes certain assumptions about what we believe. A more traditional Christian understanding is that we need to reach out to God who is somewhere “out there.”  In the Eucharist, the priest is a key representative of the people and voices the prayers of the community in the prayers of that liturgy, leads the confession of God’s people, pronounces forgiveness on God’s behalf (absolution), and in some way, at least for a time, carries the burden of the sin of the community.  The notion of the scapegoat may have its origin in Jewish belief and practice and, comes to mind as the priest intercedes between the God “out there” and the people of God who pray at the Eucharist. The priest walks before them.  When we feel the need to reach out for God we definitely see ourselves firmly on this side of heaven.

Westward celebrations (that is free-standing Altars or tables with the priest standing facing the people) symbolically make a subtitle different assumption about our belief.  The Eucharist celebrated in this way assumes that God is among us (not so much “out there”) and the community of the faithful gathers around the Table in celebration of that presence.  Eucharists with the priest looking into the eyes of fellow worshipers symbolically says that we in fact find and recognize the presence of God in one another through Jesus who dwells in us.  The point of Christian faith, it seems to me, is just that.  No longer do God’s people need to reach out for God, but rather gather to celebrate his presence among us and in us in Jesus.  Further symbolism is bread and wine consumed – Christ himself sacramentally taken into our very bodies.  The Body of Christ is in fact a community, the members of which are encouraged to look into the eyes of one another to see Christ among us.  When we recognize Christ in our midst, we experience Eucharist as a glimpse of heaven right here among us.

These slightly different understandings are evident in the very words we use for worship.  Those who use the Book of Alternative Services at the Eucharist often find it counter to its expressed understandings when the back of the priest is what they see during the eucharistic prayer or consecration.  On the other hand, the traditional words of the Book of Common Prayer are often used now with the leader facing those gathered rather than away.  In my opinion that brings, in several ways, a more christocentric (Jesus at the centre) understanding to the Lord’s Supper as embodied in those particular words of Holy Communion.

Which is “correct?”  Like so many aspects of our faith and belief, its not so much about what is right as it is about the nuances of our belief and whether or not the symbols speak accurately as an enchantment or expression of it or somehow rather contradict it.

I remember a parishioner, relatively new to the Anglican faith, after seeing many doing it, asking  whether or not they should make the sign of the cross at the time of absolution in worship.  My response was another question: “What does that mean to you?”  The answer was, “Absolutely nothing ... I don’t know what it means.”  My advice was, “Then for heaven’s sake don’t do it.  An empty symbol without meaning is far worse than no symbol at all!”

Whether we face to the east or to the west, which candle we light first, whether we bow our heads or our bodies at the words of Incarnation in the Creed all depends, I think, on what that means to us.  When our actions say something true about what we believe, that symbolism is meaningful, and I think helpful.  When it doesn’t, there is need to re-examine what we’re doing, and what those actions say about what we believe.

22 July 2011

The Ven. Geoffrey Hall is currently Executive Assistant to the Bishop of Fredericton, Secretary of the Synod and Diocesan Archdeacon.
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