Last week, Bishop Dan Martins gave of us one of his typically winsome and provocative essays on the orientation of celebrating the Eucharist. I offered my own take on the question exactly one year before in a rather rambling essay, “The orientation of preparation” (which, honestly, was more about the orientation of liturgy in general). One of the main reasons that I commend Bishop Martins’s essay is that its tone remains so restrained in the midst of a contemporary conversation that is often marked by a complete lack of measure, especially in the Roman Catholic world. The recent lecture by Robert Cardinal Sarah, prefect for the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments, was met with many a sharp response, even (it seems) from the Holy Father himself (though, we should note, Pope Francis has celebrated Mass ad orientem).

What I appreciated most especially was the fact that Bishop Martins insisted that this question is tied to what the Eucharist is. I agree completely, and have written about this before on Covenant and elsewhere. Bishop Martins wrote:

All sacramental actions are sacralized versions of common actions — taking a bath, sharing a meal, embracing, therapeutic touching, and the like — though sacraments carry rich and polyvalent layers of meaning that transcend their common antecedents.

I grant his point, but I think it is potentially misleading and doesn’t apply easily to some actions, like ordination and unction. The sacraments come to us first as institutions of Christ, which is worth stating upfront.


When we come to naming the common action sacralized in the Eucharist, our differences of approach become starkly apparent. Bishop Martins said:

Sound sacramental theology requires us to make the connection between the common and the holy as clear and robust as we can. Baptism is more than a bath, but it is at least a bath. The Eucharist is more than a meal, but it is at least a meal. The phenomenon of liturgical practice — what the event looks like and feels like to a participant — must not obscure that connection.

A meal is an event where people gather around a table. That is its phenomenology. The Eucharist is a meal. So, a celebration of the Eucharist should somehow look like that and feel like that. Versus populum celebration — placing the celebrant and, quite often, assisting ministers, ordained and lay, across a table from the congregation — is the simplest and most direct way of maintaining this connection.

This is a refreshingly clear argument, but one that I believe to be misguided. The Eucharist is only a meal because it is first and most fundamentally a sacrifice.

The bishop notes in a response to some questions about his essay, “I should add that I have a quite Catholic view of the sacrifice of the Mass. But I don’t see how that relates either way to which side of the altar the celebrant is on.” I wish to suggest just the opposite: to argue that the Eucharist is primarily a meal might produce much fruit. But what it does not do is lead inevitably to the conclusion that the celebration of the Eucharist versus populum “is the simplest and most direct way of maintaining this” fact.

The argument strikes me as especially odd because he agrees with me that the Preparation Rites (the Acclamation through the Collect of the Day, in the 1979 BCP) “should take place ‘west’ of the altar and in the center.” The Preparation Rites are no less a solemn address to God than the Eucharistic Prayer. In fact, is there any more solemn and laudatory address to God the Father than the Eucharistic Prayer? So why is the nature of the Eucharist and the Eucharistic Prayer best maintained when the priest faces the people for this prayer?

“Because,” the reply goes, “the Eucharist is at its heart a meal.”

But is it?[1]

The “meal” portion of the eucharistic liturgy is really only seen in three actions: (a) in the Offertory, when the bread and wine are brought to the altar, (b) in the Fraction, when the consecrated Bread and Wine are prepared such that those Christians present can receive the elements once offered, and (c) in the distribution, when the people come forward to consume said Bread and Wine. Note these are three of Dix’s fourfold actions: taking, breaking, and distributing. The “blessing” takes place in the Eucharistic Prayer, of course. And it is exactly for this part of the eucharistic liturgy that Bishop Martins argues the priest should face the people in order to avoid obscuring its “meal” character.

The “blessing” of Dix’s fourfold action, the Eucharistic prayer, is precisely the place in the liturgy where it is most unlike a meal. No doubt, Christians give thanks to God before consuming their food, and a typical emphasis of 20th-century liturgical reform was to link the Eucharistic Prayer to Jewish blessings over meals: the Berakah. But what distinguishes the Eucharistic Prayer from typical table prayers of thanks is precisely what distinguishes the Eucharist from meals in general: the “thanks” of the Eucharistic Prayer (eucharistia) lies below the more fundamental reality and context of sacrifice. All biblical sacrifice, is, in some fashion, eucharistic: an expression of adoration and thanks to God for what God has first given. The Church expresses this by offering back to God the things that are his already but which he deigned in love to give us. “All things come of thee, O Lord, and of thine own have we given thee.”

Moreover, the “table” plays a minimal role in the Eucharist: no one sits, stands, or reclines there, save the priest, who is not standing at a table to eat, but at an altar to pray and to offer. The people do not consume the Sacrament at the table.

To view the Eucharist through the primary lens of “meal” is (permit me the image and the gross oversimplification) to play in the sandbox of Western eucharistic theology after the controversy of Berengar of Tours (999-1088). What do I mean by this? Simply that after Berengar, we see a tendency in Western eucharistic theology to overemphasize the transformation of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ — and more broadly, to emphasize what we get — such that the Eucharist’s doxological and thanksgiving character is muted.

The sacrificial character of the Mass (something Bishop Martins and I both affirm) also remained central in the West, but in a rather lopsided way. The rich and polyvalent character of sacrifice in the Ancient Near East all but receded into the background of history and was replaced by a narrow and even more wonky notion of sacrifice that focused in a misleading way upon death. As a result, there was a search for the location of Christ’s death in the sacrifice of the Mass.

A common answer, provided by Thomas Aquinas, is that the death can be seen “in the double consecration of bread and wine and hence in the mystical separation of Christ’s body from his blood, which signifies his death on the cross.”[2] René Girard took a similar “history of religions” approach to sacrifice as death, such that it is wrapped up in scapegoating and violence. Relying on Girard, the French theologian Louis-Marie Chauvet, whose exercises significant influence in contemporary Catholic sacramental theology, was so bold as to claim that the language of sacrifice “is in no way necessary to express the meaning of Jesus’ life and death” (Symbol and Sacrament, p. 301). There is no doubt that the self-offering of Jesus brings a new quality to “sacrifice” as it had been known before in Judaism. But Chauvet is highly influenced by a history-of-religions approach to sacrifice (i.e., that primitive religions develop away from violent animal sacrifice toward spiritualized internal worship) and reads this scheme onto the Old Testament (i.e., Judaism has a similar sort of development that comes to its apex in Jesus) – such that he believes the meaning of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection can only be connected to sacrifice if the very notion of sacrifice is turned inside out. But we must say that Chauvet is quite wrong: the work of Christ devoid of sacrifice is something less than the Christian gospel.

By his one oblation of himself once offered, a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world.

The Eucharist has aspects of a meal. It would be absurd to suggest otherwise. But the Eucharist is not a sacrament of a meal, nor is it a sacrament of the Last Supper.

For that reasons, we should take great care not to make leaps in our judgments: trying to imagine exactly how Jesus and the disciples were situated at the Last Supper, and assuming we can draw conclusions from this event, which will apply directly to the church’s eucharistic ceremonial practice (Bishop Martins is not doing this, by the way!). An extremely noteworthy development in early Christianity was precisely the separation of the Agape fellowship meal from the ritual Eucharistic one (a change one may not like but is nonetheless incontrovertible). As a recent article from Andrew McGowan highlights, “Lord’s Supper” (and thus the priority of the meal) “was not a name used for the sacred meals otherwise known as Eucharist in the first three centuries.”[3] Both this development and the lack of “meal” nomenclature for the Eucharist would seem to indicate that early Christians did not view “meal” as the primary lens through which to understand the Eucharist.

The Eucharist, I suggest, is a sacrament of the Paschal Mystery: the sacrifice of Christ that was vindicated by the Father’s resurrection of the Son and his ascension to the right hand of power, in which God placed everything under his feet, establishing him as the Great High Priest and Mediator of the Heavenly Temple. There his one oblation of himself is shown to be what it truly is: the eternal, inexhaustible, and most perfect singular act of worship and co-union with the Father ever enacted by a human being. This mystery comprehends also the sending of the Holy Spirit and the establishment of Christ’s ecclesial Body, the Church.

The 1979 BCP catechism sums it succinctly in answer to the question, Why is the Eucharist called a sacrifice?

“Because the Eucharist, the Church’s sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, is the way by which the sacrifice of Christ is made present, and in which he unites us to his one offering of himself” (1979 BCP, p. 859).

I recognize that I have not made an argument for ad orientem celebration, and simply claiming that the Eucharist is a sacrifice does not lead to the conclusion that one must say the Eucharistic prayer ad orientem. My question is this: What does the priest facing the people during the most solemn address to God communicate better than all facing God together? Cardinal Ratzinger famously suggested a via media solution in The Spirit of the Liturgy (Ignatius Press, 2014), an option that has become known in some places as the “Benedictine Arrangement.” Instead of trying to re-affix altars to the east wall, he writes, “nothing is more harmful to the liturgy than a constant activism, even if it seems to be for the sake of genuine renewal.” He continues:

I see a solution in a suggestion that comes from the insights of Erik Peterson. … Where a direct common turning toward the east is not possible, the cross can serve as the interior ‘east’ of faith. I 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 pray: “Converte 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. Moving the altar cross to the side to give an uninterrupted view of the priest is something I regard as one of the truly absurd phenomena of recent decades. Is the cross disruptive during Mass? Is the priest more important than the Lord? This mistake can be done without further rebuilding. The Lord is the point of reference. He is the rising sun of history. (pp. 83-84)

Fr. Matthew S. C. Olver is assistant professor of liturgics and pastoral theology at Nashotah House Theological Seminary and is writing his dissertation on the use of the Epistle to the Hebrews in the Roman Canon at Marquette University. He’s a father of two and has now been a priest and a husband for more than a decade. His other posts are here

The featured image comes via New Liturgical Movement.

[1] My hunch is that a more effective tack to argue that the priest should stand versus populum when celebrating the Divine Mysteries is either a) the “fully active and conscious” participation route that plays such a key role in the argument of Vatican II’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy: Sacrosanctum Concilium, or b) to emphasize that Christ is present in the priest, the Scriptural word, and the whole baptized assembly who are called to “become what they receive” (thanks to Neil Dhingra for reminding me of this). It is well worth noting that Henri de Lubac argued in Corpus Mysticum for a significant shift in language and thus understanding about the Eucharist in the West, where once the term “true Body” (verum corpus) referred to the Church and “mystical Body” (mystici corpus) to the Eucharistic species; but after Berengar the terms are reversed in their usage in order to emphasize Christ’s presence in the Sacraments.

[2] Uwe Michael Lang, “Augustine’s Conception of Sacrifice in City of God, Book X, and the Eucharistic Sacrifice,” Antiphon 19:1 (2015), p. 48. See Thomas Aquinas, ST, III, 74, a1, and III, 76, a2, ad1. Lang cites Garrigou-Lagrange’s summary of this position: “The essence of the Eucharistic sacrifice consists in the consecration, taken, not absolutely, but as sacramentally and mystically, separative of the blood from the body. On the cross the sacrifice consisted in the real and physical separation of Christ’s blood from His body. The action, therefore, which mystically and sacramentally separates that blood is the same sacrifice as that on the cross, differing therefrom only in its mode, which there was real and physical and here is sacramental.” See Réginald Garrigou-Lagrange, Reality: A Synthesis of Thomistic Thought, trans. Patrick Cummins (St. Louis: Herder, 1950), p. 254.

[3] See “The Myth of the ‘Lord’s Supper’: Paul’s Eucharistic Meal Terminology and Its Ancient Reception.” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 77, no. 3 (July 2015): 503–21).

About The Author

Fr. Matthew S.C. Olver (PhD, Marquette) is associate professor of liturgics and pastoral theology at Nashotah House Theological Seminary, the 2022–2023 Alan Richardson Fellow at Durham University, and a priest of the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas. Fr. Olver’s research interests include liturgical theology, the place of Scripture in early liturgical composition, ecclesiology, sacramental theology, and ecumenism.

Related Posts

Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

newest most voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
6 years ago

I am grateful to Fr Olver for this irenic and lucid response to my post from last week. I particularly appreciate the reminder of Ratzinger’s observation that, even in a versus populum celebration, the presider and the assembly are not facing one another, but are together facing God, fruitfully signified by a central altar cross–and, I might suggest, eventually by the consecrated elements themselves. I am aware that, were I to revise my original post, it would be in the direction of further emphasizing that it’s not a matter of one mode of celebration being definitively superior to the other,… Read more »

6 years ago

This post does a great job of recovering the sacrificial dimension of the eucharistic meal, and placing it at the center of our eucharistic practice. Having just written a doctoral dissertation (and, in 2017 a book) in which the eucharistic sacrifice plays a central conceptual role, this is a topic near and dear to my own heart. At the same time, I want to second Bishop Martins’s concern about the sundering of sacrifice and meal in the Eucharist. My reading of the evidence from the earliest centuries suggests that meal and sacrifice were inextricably linked, such that we can’t really… Read more »

6 years ago

Architecture is important. Despite my “preferential option” for versus populum celebration, I would rather celebrate ad orientem than move an altar out from the retable/reredos just barely far enough for someone to get behind it, but still separated from the nave by a long (and, in my experience, often empty) chancel. Better to bite the bullet and reconfigure the space to bring the altar closer to the people.

Peter Doll
6 years ago

I would like to take up Bishop Daniel’s point about high altars separated from the congregation by long and often empty chancels. He proposes bringing the altar closer to the people, which is indeed the most common approach. But might it not be preferable, conversely, to bring the people to the altar? We are agreed, I take it, that the Christian Church is, according to Lumen Gentium ch. vii, a Pilgrim Church and that Christians are a pilgrim people on a life-long journey to the Kingdom of God. We are to be a people on the move. If, then, pilgrimage… Read more »

6 years ago
Reply to  Peter Doll

I am familiar with Giles’ work, and, while I think he goes astray in some ways, he makes some points that merit being taken seriously. However, I will observe that the scenario you envision presumes a relatively small euharistic assembly. It’s not indefinitely scalable.

6 years ago

What a fascinating article and equally fascinating replies. In my reply, I do not take a side on this issue because I am very agnostic about it. Currently, I serve in a parish in which I celebrate ad orientum but have also served in parishes where I celebrated versus populum. I will say that I completely disagree with Cardinal Sarah’s suggestion that this has anything to do with the decline in church attendance. We really need to move beyond seeing the liturgy as the culprit (or saviour) in that regard. The decline in church attendance is due to much greater… Read more »

6 years ago

A comment on a Facebook thread on this post prompts me to add something to the mix. One of the reasons I will continue to earnestly contend that Eucharist gets filed under the category of “meal” (even though, using contemporary cyber-taxonomical protocols, it might be *tagged* as “sacrifice”) is precisely so that, even as Eucharist evokes meal, so meal will evoke Eucharist. If there’s something about Eucharist that reminds me of coming to dinner, then coming to dinner will, in turn, also always remind me of coming to the Eucharist. Likewise, if there’s something about baptism that robustly evokes bathing,… Read more »

6 years ago

Fr Oliver, Could we say the Eucharist is a sacrifice contained within a meal? In answer to your question, “What does the priest facing the people during the most solemn address to God communicate better than all facing God together?” I realized that there is a specific context and history in this question that I do not share. It seems for you, facing forward (is it the Cross or the Altar or what?) constitutes “facing God.” On further reflection, I see why this contains a certain powerful symbolism. I clearly see it at the Confession and Absolution. The priest faces… Read more »

6 years ago

I agree that the refining effect of further dialogue will probably lead us closer to one another’s positions. Two quick points: 1. While I think I see what you’re trying to do by situating “sacrifice” within the larger category of “worship,” this, in my experience as a musician and music planner, is a risky move. It exposes us to the Eucharist-as-flatbed-truck model–i.e. that on which we can load, and expect it to carry, all sorts of freight. This can happen among musicians of all tastes and styles. (It also happens politically–e.g. celebrating a “protest Mass” outside a prison where an… Read more »

6 years ago

Sorry. I wasn’t meaning to imply that *you* were using the Eucharist as a flatbed truck, but that categorizing it as “worship” exposes it to that danger. I said what I did in the spirit of a “friendly amendment.” Yes, there is plenty about the Eucharistic rite that does not pertain to meal-ness, just as there is much about a dinner party or banquet that has nothing to do with consuming food or drink–all without obviating what the thing itself is. As for your final question, How, in versus populum, is the gathered community not “facing God together”? I’m reminded… Read more »