By Bryan Owen
When I was newly ordained, my bishop appointed me to serve in a parish with an altar against the wall. I was so disappointed. I could not believe I would begin my priesthood celebrating the Eucharist facing liturgical East!
But over the course of time, I developed an appreciation for it. I came to understand through experience that after facing the congregation for the opening dialogue and then turning around to lead the Eucharistic prayer, I was not turning my back on the people. On the contrary, by turning to face in the same direction as they were facing, I was aligning myself in solidarity with the congregation in order to lead prayer with them.
Getting myself as the celebrant “out of the way” by turning to face the altar with my congregation, I was striking a blow against clericalism and affirming the priesthood of all believers in one of the actions that makes the Church what it most truly is: the Great Thanksgiving in which the prayer of the entire gathered assembly remembers — makes newly present — the death and resurrection of our Lord.
After over four years of celebrating the Holy Eucharist facing liturgical East, it took awhile for me to get used to celebrating facing the congregation when I moved to my next parish. It initially felt awkward, like I was on a stage in the spotlight performing for a room full of people who were looking at me.
Perhaps the most difficult thing to adjust to was something I did not expect: what do I do with my eyes? Do I make eye contact with the people during the Eucharistic Prayer? If so, when? And why?
How such questions get answered in the act of presiding at the altar can shift attention away from prayer and reverence for God to the person of the celebrant. A focus on God in Christ can collapse into the cult of personality. “Hey, look at me and what I’m doing!”
When it comes to the priest’s gaze, I’ve noticed a number of different things happening with celebrating priests during my years in the Episcopal Church. I’ve seen some whose eyes stay glued to the missal throughout the Eucharistic Prayer, never looking out at the congregation. I remember one priest who always looked up and above the congregation’s heads, as though she were addressing someone near the ceiling in the back of the nave. Some make eye contact with the congregation only during certain parts of the Eucharistic Prayer. Why those particular parts? Others try to make as much eye contact with the congregation as possible throughout the Eucharistic Prayer, glancing down at the missal just long enough to soak in a few words before looking back up to recite them while scanning the faces of the gathered assembly. It strikes me that this approach increases the likelihood that the celebrant will make errors in the wording or even lose track of the prayer.
None of these things are an issue when the celebrant turns around to face the altar with the gathered assembly.
With respect to eye contact, my approach to celebrating while facing the people has changed slightly over the years. Initially, I would only look at the people in the congregation during the Words of Institution:
“Take, eat: This is my Body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”
“Drink this, all of you: This is my Blood of the new Covenant, which is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Whenever you drink it, do this for the remembrance of me.”
My rationale was that this is a place within the Eucharistic Prayer that can be construed as addressing the people rather than God.
Over time I stopped doing it that way. Instead, I keep my eyes focused on the bread and then on the chalice of wine as I elevate them during the recitation of the Words of Institution. I try to stay centered in the meaning of the words I’m reciting instead of focusing on making eye contact with worshipers.
While it’s true that I would not have initially chosen it, I am grateful for experiencing the advantages of facing liturgical East during the Eucharistic Prayer, first as a newly ordained priest, and now occasionally for smaller services in a chapel. I’m not against facing the people. But there are definite advantages to liturgical East that help shift the focus away from the priest to where it rightly belongs: the mystery of our faith in Christ who has died, who is risen, and who will come again.