People Look East

Wondering whether to celebrate the Eucharist ad orientem during Advent.”

Facebook reveals strange worries in the hearts of ministers, but this one caught my eye. There’s a poetic loveliness to this idea that you don’t always see in the logistics of worship planning. 

Ad orientem means to the east. People Look East and all that. The question of ad orientem is an old one and it refers to the minister’s position in relation to both the Communion table and the congregation. In our Presbyterian tradition, the minister usually stands behind the table and faces the congregation while celebrating the sacrament. Traditionally, churches were built so that the congregation naturally looks east, so for the minister to celebrate ad orientem, she would step out from behind the table and join her congregation, facing in the same direction, all looking towards the rising sun. Fitting for Advent as we spend our all-too-dark-all-too-short days waiting for the light to be born among us. 

Of course, there are problems here, too. When the minister stands ad orientem, it can look like she is blocking the way. Or standing like an intermediary between the people and Christ. Or that she’s first in line. It can layer up confusing meanings. Or it might just plant questions in our minds about point of view, meaning and change.

In some churches, to celebrate ad orientem might mean moving the Communion table instead of the minister. Or maybe the congregation would move. Up pews and change perspective and wouldn’t that be an interesting discussion to have? What might that kind of change mean, even just for a season?

Advent is a good time to reposition our heads and our hearts, too.

In Mark’s gospel this week, we have the image of the wonderfully strange John the Baptist, calling people out from the city to stand with him in the wilderness river. He is calling for confession, for repentance, and for roads to be made straight. He is calling for change. Change of heart, change of life. But there is humility in this calling, too. It isn’t that change is the answer. Change only prepares the way. John recognises that the water with which he baptises is only the beginning. When the Christ comes, the baptism will be stronger, and the people will know the Holy Spirit in their very hearts. That will be, quite literally, the crux of the matter. But for now, John calls for repentance and when we repent, we rethink. We reorient ourselves. We regret. We turn away from what has been. And in turning away, we turn towards the light.

There is another set of images, too, in this question of orientation. When the minister stands facing the congregation, there can be a profound sense of being together and at rest as the family of God. We are at home together, sharing the work and play of worship. That is necessary and beautiful. A friend of mine who works as a Biblical storyteller recently described how she loves to look into the faces of the members of her congregation as she tells them their own stories. Our faith stories, like every good story, should be told eye to eye, mind to mind and heart to heart.

But perhaps there might be a moment in worship when something different might be helpful, too. When the minister deliberately turns to the east, it might suggest a different way of looking. It might remind us that worship includes a turning towards as well as a turning inward together. What does it feel like if someone stands among us and speaks? Or stands behind us and sings out? What if someone stands before us and points? It might feel strange or disorienting, perhaps. Or it might evoke something. Something of a boat or a procession. Of Moses leading the people through the high walls of water. Of Christ surveying the waves from the front of the fishing boat and calling out for peace. A journey, perhaps. A roadmap. A way. Something to wonder about as we travel on through Advent. 

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About Katie Munnik

Katie Munnik is an Ottawa writer currently living in Cardiff with her Spouse and three growing children. Each Monday on the Messy Table, she writes about the practice of reading lectionary and the practical theology of parenting - from birthday cakes to broken hearts and everything in between. Katie also writes Kaleidoscopically, a monthly column in the print edition of the Presbyterian Record. You can also find Katie on twitter @messy_table Subscribe to this blog.