A Pray Tell Reader sends this in (lightly edited below) and wonders what you think. – Ed.
Bishop Paphnutius and the Cathedral parish have purchased a new altar crucifix and a new set of altar candlesticks to be placed on the altar in what is referred to as the “Benedictine altar arrangement” in imitation of the altar arrangement used by Pope Benedict XVI. Our Holy Father has written extensively on the celebration of the liturgy. He writes that there is a need in the modern liturgy for a “rediscovery of something essential” that has been lost, namely, the concept of “orientation” in our prayer during the sacred liturgy.
In the history of the major religions of the world, it is common for the position at prayer and the layout of the holy places to be determined by a “sacred direction.” The Christian idea of a “sacred direction” or “orientation” in prayer developed out of our Jewish roots. For example, the Jews in the Diaspora prayed towards Jerusalem, towards the presence of God in the Holy of Holies in the Temple in Jerusalem, which opened toward the east. For Christians, the practice developed of praying, not toward earthly Jerusalem, but toward the heavenly Jerusalem, which is toward the rising sun from where the Son of Man will come again at this second coming in glory (Matt. 24-27,30). Thus, in praying toward the east, there is the notion of “going out to meet the Lord who is to come again.”
The orientation of Christians praying toward the east goes back to the beginning of Christendom. During the Eucharistic Prayer there was a common direction of both priest and people praying toward the east, that is, of praying “toward the Lord.” Our Holy Father says that a common orientation of “turning to the east” in prayer during the Eucharistic Prayer is something “essential” to the Liturgy. Where one looks at the priest or not is not essential, rather “what matters is looking together at the Lord” in “common worship.”
For the early Church Fathers, the sign of the coming of the Son of Man with power and great glory from the east is the Cross. From very early on, the east was linked with the sign of the Cross. Our Holy Father says, “Where a direct common turning toward the east is not possible, the cross can serve as the interior ‘east’ of faith. It should stand in the middle of the altar and be the common point of focus for both priest and praying community. In this way we obey the ancient call to prayer: ‘Conversi ad Dominum’, Turn toward the Lord! In this way we look together at the One whose death tore the veil of the Temple – the One who stands before the Father for us and encloses us in his arms in order to make us the new and living Temple.” Thus, Pope Benedict believes that placing the cross on the altar, helps restore the essential orientation of the Liturgy of praying toward the Lord, symbolized by the cross on the altar.
For further reading on this topic, see The Spirit of the Liturgy by then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, or also Turning Towards the Lord by U.M. Lang, with a forward by then Cardinal Ratzinger. Both books are published by Ignatius Press, San Francisco and can be ordered through the Cathedral Bookstore.