Before the Second Vatican Council, the Roman Catholic Church celebrated Mass with the priest facing ad orientem (“to the east,” since almost all altars faced to the east), with his back to the congregation or facing God along with the congregation, depending on your perspective. This, of course, was one of the practices that fueled the Protestant Reformation: priests muttered in Latin, facing away from the worshipers, which only exacerbated their ignorance of what was happening during the service.
(One of my favorite anecdotes from church history class is the source of the phrase “hocus pocus.” During the high part of the Mass, the priest would say, in Latin, “Hoc est corpus meum” [“This is my body.”] But the worshipers, who didn’t understand Latin and who couldn’t hear him anyway, took those words–which sounded like “hocus pocus”–as some magic incantation that changed the wine and bread into Jesus’ body and blood.)
Since the Reformation, and since the Second Vatican Council, Protestants and Catholics alike have been worshiping with priests and pastors facing toward the congregation. And in many ways, this has been an improvement. But as some Catholics have begun to recover the practice of ad orientem, I think we Protestants should recover the theological significance of ad orientem in our worship, too.
Too often, in Protestant worship services–especially “contemporary” worship services–the pastor is no longer the leader of the people in prayer, directing believers to offer themselves as living sacrifices (Romans 12:1). But too often the pastor becomes the star of the show, the performer of worship for the crowd’s enjoyment, the lecturer for the class in the pews, or, worst yet, the object of worship himself. This mistake is only accentuated when musicians are positioned facing the “crowd,” as though they are singing to the people instead of God.
In one of my seminary internships, the pastor would walk among the congregation to gather up prayer requests before the pastoral prayer (or “prayers of the people”). And then he would stand in the aisle, among the worshipers, and pray to the front of the sanctuary, on behalf of the people. And the symbolism–of who was praying to whom–was both powerful and unmistakable.
Although we may have differing opinions on how worship should look and sound, we Protestants should pay more close attention to who is actually in the spotlight and who is receiving our praise, our glory, and our worship.