I would like to share an allocution which I was invited to give some months back in front of a theological group and a few lay persons ever at odds between the "ad orientem" and "versus populo" discussion in the context of the celebration in the Mozarabic Rite. I hope it makes sense once translated into English as one hopes it did in its original Spanish. The context, of course is the architecture of the extant churches of the kingdom of Toledo and later of Oviedo when and where the Gothispanic Rite was codified and from which the Mozarabic descends. The code in question is the collection of the canons enacted at the eponymous Councils, though they will not be quoted specifically. Some things were too obvious to codify and since this part of our own cultural patrimony is often overlooked or forgotten these days, even in the welcomed revival of Our rite, we think it is important to remember certain particularities. The erosion of tradition is disfiguring sometimes, and reconstruction can see reinterpretations of old things into... odd things. It baffles, but it can also be a window into deeper discussions. So we hope our bits can serve to fill some of the lost pieces of the puzzle, at least in our limited context without causing offense to anyone. Worthy too are the other traditions out there, but stewards we are of this one. Reflection... it is reflection that we aim for, always. So heavenwards and down: Dominus sit semper vobiscum!
Communion is not a magic potion or cure-all panacea; communion is the climax of state of Grace in fulfillment of the precepts set forth by Our Lord and proclaimed in the Gospels. The liturgical stages that precede the Eucharistic Meal are therefore, to be seen as integral parts of the said progression, of life itself: from being apart from God, to being near Him, with Him, and in Him. These stages were also most clearly seen in the architecture of our early churches and the diverse groups of people that were contained in each space there.
One entered the temple by the western door onto the narthex or portico. This is the covered space which is farthest from the altar at the east. There is a linear axis to walk from the left, where the sun sets and darkness is; where an absence of God, who is the light of the world, but a hope that he will rise again. It is here that our journey begins: in this portico where the catechumens stand and attend the liturgies - they are far from the representation of heaven on earth at the opposite end, but are directed to it, and with due instruction and profession of faith, once ready and baptized, they can proceed. It is here too that the penitents must remain, but kneeling. They have wronged in ways that exclude their conscience and spirit from partaking in the communion until they expiate their sins. Penance is, however, not what so many interpret as excommunication, which bars someone from heaven and their candle is snuffed and their souls damned on earth so that may also be in heaven as the spiteful Roman Rite developed it in the second millennium - a political recourse because they held both the golden and the silver key - but in Our Church, this westernmost space was the farthest a Christian was allowed from God: Always with the hope that one can return to the nearness of Him as the liturgy predicates. Those not in communions still look East, to the Lord, and the point is to be ushered back in to the fold when they have purified their souls. This is where the concept of Purgatory comes from, and not a separate reality or concept. The western portico is the earthly purgatory: only those who are baptized, and are in a state of grace may pass through to the next space, which is the nave.
Between the Western Portico or Narthex and the Nave, it is worthy to mention the figure of the Ostiarius, which is the verger, sexton, Swiss, or Usher depending on the region where one lives: this is the door keeper, for ostiarius means just this. As in the royal palaces, this is the person in charge of letting through those in the grace, and ban passage with his verge or rod of office to those who are not yet, or have fallen from, that grace. We may live, in democratic or communist or otherwise egalitarian societies, and find it strange, but Church is a place of hierarchy and contrasts. East and West, Good and Evil, Worthy is the Lamb, but wretched is the devil and his subjects. The nave is the place for the lambs and the earthly paradise where they may safely grace. It is here that the faithful attend to the teachings of the shepherds of God: the bishops with their crooked pastoral staves, and the presbyters delegated by them to teach and administer the sacraments where and when they can't be present. The person exorcised is made to look West (even at Baptism) and when blessed, made to look East. Those who live in darkness are encouraged to walk towards the light found in the east. The Priest walks from the east, to bless and address them, to meet them, us, who walk from the west into the light.
At the Eastern-most limit of the nave, there is to be an arch or rood-screen, we call it a triumphal arch. This is where the faithful come to receive communion, and also from where the readings and the lessons are sometimes performed for their instruction and benefit. That is why in German it is called the Lettner. It is only crossed in those moment when the Christian fulfills his or her covenant and sanctifies their life with the purpose and meaning set forth by the Church in the rites of passage we call the Sacraments. It is indeed a triumphal entry and a privilege to pass through this gate onto the choir to be baptized or confirmed, to receive the nuptial benediction, sacred orders, and indeed for the exequies when we die in grace. The liminal space demarcated by that triumphal arch is symbolic of the importance of crossing it, and the fact that it requires preparation, and mindfulness. It highlights the importance of the rites when we are to approach it and cross it, for when we do, it is in fulfillment of our destiny: when we are most holy, and closest to God. What is beyond this arch is the ritual space par excellence: the choir.
The choir is called so because those who attend here are placed facing "each other" instead of east. This may seem antithetical to the axial progression, but there is wisdom to be sought in the things we do not understand at once. The choir is the place where the faithful comes to stand, alone or in the case of the nuptial blessing with their spouse, and receive the benefit of song and blessing from the east, where the celebrant pronounces his benediction, and from behind them, where their families and community of friends and neighbors rejoice in their blessing, but from the north and the south choirs too. It is not in vain that the choir is commonly called "the crossing" and in cruciform churches this becomes most evident: the choir is at the heart of the cross, and is the point of interception between the sacred and the profane: the place where God is invoked to bless us at those pivotal times in the life and death of a Christian. It is a square space, as the earth was represented, and has four corners, as we understand that the world is divided into north, east, south, and west. The choir is like the New Jerusalem, but here on Earth, now. That's where we hallow God's name and fulfill the precepts and the will of God for us to be saved. "On earth, as it is in heaven" is part of our Daily prayer, and this is the place where those who devote their lives to the service of the Church seat: Some in the north, and some in the south. It is the natural space of the ordained. It is where the canonical hours are kept and the holy offices read. It is the space where all fall to their knees and sing Sanctus!Sanctus! Sanctus! as we know the angels incessantly do in heaven when at the mass The Presence is invoked, and kneel also when the Gospel is read, and when the Holy spirit descends during a benediction. This is the space for those who have devoted their lives to God, whether cleric or lay, to live on earth as witnesses of the promise of heaven. This is the place where they pray, and make sure the Word and message of God resonates to the four corners, and not just in the west-to-east axis of the Christian life. It reminds us that God is the God of ALL and to ALL four corners of the earth, and not just those in our community. The sacrifice of his Son was for the redemption of ALL. The heart of the crucifixion is not just to save ourselves, but the whole world.
Beyond the choir there is another arch, or a chancel, a templon or what in the east developed as the iconostasis and in Rome reduced to a ciborium or baldachin. It is the area of the altar. It is the space where the table upon which the Sacrifice of the Mass is commemorated and in our faith, the bread and wine are consecrated into the flesh and blood of Jesus. This easternmost spot is the culmen of the Christian's path. It is heaven on earth and the holy of holies. This is why, like in the temple of the old testament commanded by God, it is veiled with curtains. In the Oriental Churches they made them into holy and royal doors, and in the Occident, erased them from the canons of sacred architecture as theology has ... evolved? But the curtains are drawn open, for the whole of the mass even on the feriae, and from the vigil of a memory, feast or solemnity until the day's sunset. Heaven is not absent for those who come to celebrate the mysteries, but like all things sacred, we believe it must be veiled when not in use, to create contrast and context of the blessing to see it available in the celebration, but not through Lent and the feriae except for the mass proper.
In the Gothispanic Liturgy and Mozarabic Rite, as it was in the ancient Roman and still is in most Orthodox Churches, the chair of the presiding priest is to be placed against the eastern wall whether it is a rounded apse or a square space. This emphasizes the role of the priest as magistrate in the context of the Roman empire which was the milieu not only of early Christianity, but of Christ himself who was judged by Pontius Pilate, a Roman magistrate. There are many who argue that the altar should be against the wall and the mass be said "ad orientem" which it should, privately, or following the precepts of the Roman Rite after the schism of the early part of the second millennium when its doctrine was imbued with airs of infallibility in terms of cult and culture, but for public worship, as indeed the venerable ancient roman basilicas still stand as monument: face the people, in the name of God, and teach them the way. Theological exegesis that forgets context fails the Logos, well intentioned and devout as it may be. Private masses, votive masses, are well said in private oratories and small chapels ad orientem, but public masses were designed for the salvation of the world, so that those in the westernmost corner could hear the Word and be saved and see the promise of heaven and yearn for a closeness with God. We can't forget that everything was tied together, and all was imbued with reason at the beginning. When we forget why something is, it depreciates in time and becomes banal, vestigial, unimportant, and eventually left in oblivion and forgotten. We can't forget. There is beauty enough in the beginnings, for God was at the beginning of ALL. And what is designed in the perfection of God, needs not evolve. Ius sacra naturalis perfectaque constituta est. And it is to the priests to uphold it and teach it so it may be upheld, and understood, not to reorder and innovate. That's the domain of canon law, politics, worldly preferences and liberties when there are imperfect things to be mended; things to be fixed. The liturgy is mutable, but the magisterium of the Gospels mustn’t. Nor venerable traditions allowed to be corrupted by those outside of its logic.
The washing of the hands of the priest, in Our rite, is performed at the chair in the apse. It is the first act there after the Sacrificium (Offertory) has begun and the priest readies himself to ascend to the altar in front of him. That disposition of having the ara or mensa in front of the celebrant's seat recalls that of the table where the law codes and codicils of the Roman Magistrates sat when they occupied their place at the basilicae to render their duties. It too was covered in linen and had antependiae - it was not a long stretch to becoming the table of the Last Supper, but also where we place the Gospels on the feasts and solemnities, and also the other liturgical books aside from the chalice and paten. Early representations of the judgement in front of Pontius Pilate can help us see the link between the origin and the appropriation of the forms into the context of our liturgical patrimony. Speaking ex cathedra and indeed from the area of the altar in general, in the age before microphones, meant that the celebrant's voice would resonate and be heard even by those farthest west in that symbolic spatial axis described above: the ones that require listening the most, perhaps, were surely in mind. When we turn our backs to them, yes, we are teaching by example, it is true... but that is understood in the context of monks or devout members of a private chapel or oratory - what of the rest? Remember the rest. They need it most. Speak to them, and make sure that in that easternmost spot you occupy, they see God, they hear God, they can be attracted to Him. Never forget to use the two fingers for benediction, and the singular index to teach the way, to point to the right way. That is your job, and that of the Church. But of gestures, another day! Perhaps. Now, let us wash hands and proceed to the dinner in the room outside, shall we?