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Introduction by Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI). Turning towards the Lord presents an historical and theological argument for the.
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From Christian antiquity, most churches had only one altar, and it was freestanding, meaning that the priest could walk completely around it during the celebration of the liturgy. This custom was retained in the Christian East by Orthodox and Catholics alike, but in the West the altar was gradually pushed back from the center of the sanctuary to the rear wall, in large measure to allow it to merge architecturally with the tabernacle. This change was later accompanied by adding additional altars to most churches, eventually yielding the custom of having three altars in each church.

Even before the Second Vatican Council, though, pastors and theologians began to argue for a return to our own tradition of having but one altar in each church and insisting that it once again be freestanding. This was, in part, the fruit of the Liturgical Movement of the 19th and 20th centuries which reminded the Church, among other things, that the altar is the preeminent symbol of Christ in the liturgy. But just as this was happening, a novelty was introduced and attached to the newly detached altar: the custom of the priest and people facing each other across the altar during the Eucharistic Prayer — an innovation about which the Second Vatican Council said not one word.

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So, there is no essential connection between the liturgy of Vatican II, the freestanding altar, and the priest facing the people at the altar. In fact, even now the rubrics in the modern Roman Missal are written with the assumption that the priest and people are together facing liturgical East during the Mass. Praying in a sacred direction is a feature common in many religions. Think, for example, of Muslims who pray facing Mecca — a practice instituted by Mohammed, who initially had his followers pray facing Jerusalem.

Turning Towards the Lord: Orientation in Liturgical Prayer - AD

Following similar customs in Judaism, the idea of a sacred direction has been a part of Christianity since the beginning. The first Christians expected the return of Christ in glory to occur at the Mount of Olives, from where He ascended to His Father, and so it was a common practice for them during prayer to turn towards the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. This practice later evolved into the general custom of preferring to face Jerusalem during prayer, and as the Church spread through the Mediterranean world, this notion further changed into a connection between the light of the rising sun and the glory of the returning Son.

The seeds of this idea are planted throughout Scripture e.

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Wisdom , Zechariah , Malachi , Matthew , Luke , and Revelation , and the early Church placed great emphasis on this point. Moreover, because the entire Eucharistic Prayer is addressed to God the Father and not to the congregation, the normal posture of the priest has always been to face the East with his congregation and offer the sacrifice of the Mass with and for them to the Father.

Turning Towards The Lord: Orientation In Liturgical Prayer

This is why in nearly every place and for almost all of Christian history, the priest has stood with his people on the same side of the altar so that, together facing the East of the sacred liturgy, they could offer the pleasing sacrifice of their lives cf. There can be a thoroughly living kind of development in which a seed at the origin of something ripens and bears fruit. We shall have to come back to this idea in a moment. But in our case, as we have said, what is at issue is not a romantic escape into antiquity, but a recovery of something essential, in which Christian liturgy expresses its permanent orientation.

Is that really the case?

Turning Towards the Lord, 2nd Edition: Orientation in Liturgical Prayer

Are we today really hopelessly huddled in our own little circle? Is it not important, precisely today, to find room for the dimension of the future, for hope in the Lord who is to come again, to recognize again, indeed to live, the dynamism of the new creation as an essential form of the liturgy? This important aspect of the living liturgy which starts with Christ and ends with Him, the Alpha and the Omega, cannot serve its intended purpose as the nourishment of living Faith.

Pope Benedict has this to say about the fact that there is One whom we should face together, including the priest:. This is not a case of something accidental, but of what is essential.

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