By Paul Bradshaw
Those looking to the earliest Christians for a definitive answer to the question of which way the presider should face at the Eucharist – ad orientem or versus populum – are in for a disappointment.
The earliest Eucharist was a meal, and in accordance with the social customs of the time diners would have reclined around the room to eat, on couches in wealthy homes, on cushions on the floor otherwise. Contrary to the usual depictions of the Last Supper, there would not even have been a central dining table, but small low tables set within reach of each diner. So orientation at the Eucharist would not have entered the picture until Christians abandoned the meal and moved the celebration from evening to morning; and in spite of claims to the contrary by some, there is no firm evidence for that transition taking place until the third century, and even then none of the evidence says anything about the direction that the presider faced.
Of course, we do know that it was traditional among early Christians to face east to say their own prayers. Origen, for example, firmly rejects the argument that if a house has a fine view in a different direction, one should face that way rather than towards the east. And obviously, when a group of Christians got together to pray, they would all have turned towards the east.
But we don’t know if this would also have applied when they later came to stand at the Lord’s table for the Eucharist, so that everyone would have been on the one side and left the other three sides empty, or whether they would have stood on all sides. Even the strongest proponents of the ad orientem position for the presider today have to admit that this evidence is lacking.
Some might presume that the rule of praying towards the east would have prevailed even for the presider; others that a free-standing altar table such as we find in archeological evidence from the fourth century onwards would naturally have led to people surrounding it on all four sides. Both of these can be no more than presumptions, because in the absence of explicit evidence, history is unable to settle the matter.
But what we can learn from the early Church is that it was never a matter of the priest “turning his back to the people” nor on the other hand of him “facing the people.” Two fundamental Christian liturgical symbols are involved. One would express the union of the body of Christ, even when dispersed throughout the world, turning to the one Lord in prayer; the other would express the union of presider and people with the Lord gathered around his table. It is all a question of which of these is judged the more appropriate in any given situation.
However, it must be admitted neither arrangement has much symbolic force if priest and people still remain very many feet distant from each other!
Paul Bradshaw, priest of the Church of England, is a specialist in the early history of Christian liturgy who has taught at the University of Notre Dame since 1985. He has written or edited over twenty books and has contributed more than one hundred articles or essays. For eighteen years he was chief editor of the international journal, Studia Liturgica, and he is also a former President both of Societas Liturgica and of the North American Academy of Liturgy. His book, The Search for the Origins of Christian Liturgy, has become a standard textbook. It has gone through two editions (New York: Oxford University Press 1992, 2002), and has been translated into French, Italian, and Japanese, with Polish and Russian translations forthcoming.
Art piece: The Last Supper by Marcantonio Raimondi (after Raphael)