While scared, confused and discouraged, the Scottish soldiers waited with no real leadership before battle started in Stirling. Then, William Wallace on his horse, rode with his close friends onto the scene where the Scottish stood waiting in fear of war with the English. Knowing the Scottish needed some courage and uplifting words, he faced them and instructed what it meant to fight and why they should. Soon after, Wallace took on his role as their leader, turned his back to them, and led them into victory.
I do not know anyone who would call it “rude” to have their leader’s back to them while being led toward some objective or goal. Actually it is quite natural for any leader, while leading toward something, to have his back to his followers. In the movie Braveheart, you see it several times where Wallace leads his people into every battle or skirmish. And each time, he isn’t facing them. It’s not that he doesn’t care about his followers. On the contrary, it is because he wants them focused on the objective ahead and not on himself. So while it is technically true that Wallace turned his back on his people, it is more honest to say he turned to face his objective with his people.
Braveheart is just a movie, but it would be a ridiculous image in any scenario, fiction or not, if someone leads his people to a goal while facing them. Leaders face their people only when it makes sense to do so. Go back to the scene when Wallace was addressing his people in order to give them courage. He, naturally while addressing them, faced them. When addressing people, a face-to-face exchange is natural and logical. This includes greeting, talking, doing business, and even eating with another person; you naturally (and typically) face the other person. So does this apply during Liturgical worship?
Because the purpose of Mass is to give worship to God, then the direction the Priest should lead people should follow accordingly, i.e. towards God. Looking at the priest shouldn’t matter, because he is not the one we are worshiping while proclaiming words of glory. Nor is the Priest in a conversation with the people during the Eucharistic prayer. So what is happening then? Why doesn’t it make sense to face the people? In The Spirit of the Liturgy, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, at the time Cardinal Ratzinger, answers this question nicely saying “…a common turning to the East during the Eucharistic Prayer remains essential. This is not a case of something accidental, but of what is essential. Looking at the priest has no importance. What matters is looking together at the Lord”1. It becomes no surprise then, that from ancient times, the Priest always faced East during the majority of Mass. And while it is true that this tradition is ancient, Pope Emeritus Benedict does not argue that we should do this because of “romanticism and nostalgia” of the old days. Rather, he makes it clear, evidenced in the chapter he dedicates to this specific subject, that this gesture towards East has meaning that keeps our eyes fixed on God and is a “rediscovery of something essential”.
“Essential”, “Natural”, and “logical“ are all appropriate words to use to explain the direction the Priest should face during Mass. And while Vatican II allowed (not required) priests in the Latin Rite Church to face the people during Mass, this was never to be applied to Eastern Rite Churches, including the Chaldean Rite. In fact, official applications of Canon Law go out of their way to make that clear and explicitly state: “Such practice, threatened in numerous Eastern Catholic Churches by a new and recent Latin influence, is thus of profound value and should be safeguarded as truly coherent with the Eastern liturgical spirituality.”2 The modern mind may not see this as something of “profound value” or “truly coherent” with our spirituality. “God is everywhere” these opponents would say, “so what’s big deal”? To have this stance is to shun the authority and wisdom of the Church. Instead of ignoring the Church, one should ask questions like: “Why did the Church become so explicit about this issue? Why did she make it unlawful to disobey”? It is precisely because opponents intentionally (or out of ignorance) are the cause of the near-extinction of this beautiful gesture, that the Church deemed it necessary to put into Canon law in order to protect losing something beautiful within the Church universal. Clearly then, we aren’t just talking about Pope Emeritus Benedict’s scholarly analysis, but also the Church’s order to protect what she deems treasurable.
This tradition of facing the Cross is not something just natural, historical and lawful to do within the Chaldean Church, it is also blatantly and obviously scriptural. Saint John of Damascus (a Church Doctor) summarizes the scriptural evidence powerfully:
“Since, therefore, God is spiritual light (1 John 1:5), and Christ is called in the Scriptures Sun of Righteousness (Malachi 4:2) and Dayspring , the East is the direction that must be assigned to His worship….Moreover the Scripture also says, And God planted a garden eastward in Eden; and there He put the man whom He had formed (Genesis 2:8)…Moreover the tent of Moses (Leviticus 16:14) had its veil and mercy seat towards the East. Also the tribe of Judah as the most precious pitched their camp on the East. (Numbers 2:3) Also in the celebrated temple of Solomon the Gate of the Lord was placed eastward. Moreover Christ, when He hung on the Cross, had His face turned towards the West, and so we worship, striving after Him. And when He was received again into Heaven He was borne towards the East, and thus His apostles worship Him, and thus He will come again in the way in which they beheld Him going towards Heaven (Acts 1:11); as the Lord Himself said, As the lightning comes out of the East and shines even unto the West, so also shall the coming of the Son of Man be (Matthew 24:27).”3
While not an exhaustive list of scripture references, this is enough to give the reader an idea of the direction in which we should worship our God. To ignore the evidence given in the bible with regards to this issue would be tragic. Look at the last biblical reference Saint John gave above. This verse is directly linked to Jesus’ Second Coming: “As the lightning comes out of the East…” (Matthew 24:27). What did we lose in today’s mindset about worship that the early Christians were very much eager about? It is precisely His Second Coming, which we symbolize as coming from the East, like the dawning sun. So we pray to him, facing the East, worshipping him in the direction he left and will come. And even when the Church is not structured to face the East, Pope Emeritus explains the “cross can serve as an interior ‘east’” where it is a focus of the priest and the congregation. What a powerful and meaningful way to express our worship of God connected biblically and historically from Old & New Testament times up until today’s proper form of Liturgical worship.
To understand this importance is well beyond obedience to Church teaching. It isn’t just about following rules. Foot soldiers follow rules because they must, while warriors, on the other hand, follow rules because they believe in them. Thus to believe in this tremendous gem, it is critical to understand that the Liturgy, specifically the Liturgy of the Eucharist, is not a conversation between the priest and the people, but it is a dialogue between the Church and God. Let’s understand this, like Saint Augustine did, when after giving a homily to the people, he would say “Conversi ad Dominum Deum” (“Let us turn toward the Lord”)4. This symbolic gesture, among many other things Liturgical, translates to a more proper, natural, lawful, historical and scriptural way of worshiping our Lord and is thus something that our Church is called to protect and act upon. With this understanding, it becomes black and white as to what our Church should do. The Chaldean Liturgy requires their priests to face the cross, but look around and notice that this directive is being abused by nearly all Chaldean Dioceses. Whether it is due to a lack of historical study, scripture, ignorance to Church law, or something else, cannot be determined. It doesn’t matter. The fact is that there is an extraordinary amount of neglect and abuse for something so obvious, important and meaningful. So whatever the reason is, we need to pray that our Church begins to obey and believe in the very thing she has fought and bled for all these centuries, that is, our Liturgy.
1Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy (pg. 81).
2Section 107: APPLYING THE LITURGICAL PRESCRIPTIONS OF THE CODE OF CANONS OF THE EASTERN CHURCHES.
3Saint John Damascus, An Exposition of the Orthodox Faith (Book IV), Chapter 12.