It finally became clear to me about ten years ago. I was singing in the choir in the loft for ordination. The organ pipes block the view for the choir and so if you want to see the goings on when you are not singing, you have to turn and look at a mirror positioned on the back wall. It is a long mirror horizontal with the floor. The view that it affords revealed what had caused my sense of tension with the building. You can experience what I did with the picture below. (It works much better in person but since you can’t all come here this will have to do.)
First, cover over the bottom half of the picture from about the height of a person down. Notice where the focus of the picture is. All the lines draw you to the back wall where the reredos is (and where the altar used to be.) Now, cover the opposite part of the picture from about the height of a person on up. Now notice where the focus is. It is about twenty-five yards forward where the new altar is. The use and the construction of the building are in contrast. It has an unsettling effect.
This happens in many church buildings because in many ways we are trying to look like one thing while in reality implementing another. At St. John’s, the top half of the picture suggests the symbolism of the mass in a much different way than the bottom half. What does the top half of the picture suggest? The people and the priest face (liturgical and in this case actual) east (toward the sun/Son) like Moses leading the people through the desert to the Promised Land. It is through Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit that we are led to the Father in heaven represented by the angles and the saints in the reredos.
The bottom half of the picture suggests the symbolism in a different way. The priest is not in a “leader of the procession” position but has turned and is in a “teacher” or confronting position. The action does not at first seem to lead beyond the particular group of people to something beyond however our theology of the mass (at least officially) has not changed. Every prayer is still being directed to the Father in heaven through the Son by the power of the Holy Spirit on behalf of the Body of Christ.
Now, my opinion on which way a priest should face and five dollars will get you a cup of coffee and a biscotti. However, I will say this: It is far more challenging to properly symbolize what is happening at the mass with the priest facing the people as opposed to facing the same way as the people and so it will take a great amount of care on the part of pastors and ministers and catechists and parents and even worshippers to instruct, understand, and (especially on the part of priests) to properly use bodily symbolism to get across the true aim and nature of the mass.
The biggest obstacle to overcome is the idea that, although the priest is facing the congregation, he by and large is not addressing them. Many priests make eye contact with the congregation as they pray the words in the Sacramentary. Tabernacles were moved out of our churches because we were told by liturgists that is was confusing for the people. This is far more confusing. For years as a younger person I thought that I was being addressed (video example) rather than having the understanding that this was my privileged overhearing of the prayers being offered to the Father, “On the night He was betrayed . . .” (Perhaps that plays a part in my ego.) Yet there are parts addressed to the Father, parts addressed to the Body of Christ and parts to Jesus. That was clearer formally. If you were being addressed the priest turned toward you, if God, toward the East. Now, by our use of our eyes, our voice, and the position of our bodies we need to convey the same thing. It is much more difficult but absolutely necessary.
And it is also dangerous for the priest to over emphasize celebrating so that “people can see what is going on.” Taking that effort to the extreme leads to glass chalices and ciboria in order to make it easier for “the people” to see. Do you know what there is to see? Nothing. When the bread and wine turn into the body and blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ, it will still look exactly the same. We are to look with the eyes of faith. We don’t need to see Him other than when we are afforded those short opportunities at the mass to give him worship and praise. To exaggerate “seeing,” is to divert attention away from what it is we are called to do and believe at the mass. This too is confusing. We walk by faith, not by sight and our symbols, actions, and gestures must reflect this.
Ah well – enjoy your coffee and biscotti.
IN OTHER NEWS:
If churches are to be “catechisms in stone,” great care must be used when messing with the symbolism during remolding. Below is an example. What is wrong with this shrine symbolically? The answer tomorrow.