“Do you think that Jesus turned His back to His apostles when at the Last Supper, He gave thanks to His Father and broke the Bread??” asks a reader in the combox.

This is a very good question, because it raises several important issues about the celebration of the liturgy. First, let me answer the question in its most basic form. “Did Jesus turn his back to his apostles when at the Last Supper, He gave thanks to His Father and broke the Bread?” To answer this question we must try to visualize the seating arrangement for a ceremonial Jewish meal in the first century. Sometimes we think of the Last Supper taking place around a table rather like our idea of a family dinner with everyone facing inward and with one person at the head of the table.

Ceremonial meals in the first century were not like this. First of all they reclined at the table, they didn’t sit. Secondly, they all sat on the same side of the table. This was so the servants could access the table from the other side. Consequently, the participants in the meal would all be facing the same way. We see echoes of this in portrayals of the Last Supper like the one above. Many think the artists put them all on the same side of the table in order to show their faces better. It certainly is easier to see their faces that way, but the iconographer is also showing the manner in which the Last Supper was most likely celebrated.

The question therefore does not arise, “Did Jesus turn his back to the Apostles?” No he did not, but then, neither did he sit opposite them as Father would at family dinner, or as the priest does when he celebrates the Mass facing the people.

Although the apostles would have turned sideways to face the Lord, it is also true that they were all situated in such a way around the table that they would be facing the same direction. If either position for celebration of the Mass is most consistent with the Last Supper, then it would be the ad orientem position inasmuch as the priest and people are all facing in the same direction. Of course, for it to be even more like the Last Supper the priest would be at the back of the church or mid way down the nave in order to be both among the people and yet also facing the same direction as they do.

Of course, this would be most impractical since then nobody could see the action of the Mass and the conduct of the Mass and access for communion would be totally awkward.

However, the question of the position of the Lord at the Last Supper reveals other, more fundamental questions about the liturgy. Is every Mass a re-enactment of the Last Supper? No. The re-enactment of the Last Supper is the Maundy Thursday liturgy during Holy Week. The church teaches that every other celebration of Mass is not primarily a re-enactment of the Last Supper, but a re-presentation of the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross.

This shift in emphasis away from viewing Mass as a sacrifice and instead viewing it as a re-enactment of the Last Supper, and therefore as a kind of ceremonial, family meal is the heart of our liturgical wars. Other elements of this are evident in the question put in the combox. Notice that the person asking the question says, “When Jesus gave thanks to his Father and broke the bread.” It may be that the person asking the question therefore perceives the Mass essentially as a family meal in which Jesus ‘gives thanks to the Father and breaks bread.” While this is one element of the Mass, it is worrying if this is seen as the sole or primary focus of the Mass, for the Mass is more than a memorial of Jesus “giving thanks to the Father and breaking the bread.”

The Holy Mass is a sacrifice–an unbloody re-presentation of the one, full, final sacrifice of Christ on the cross. At the consecration the priest does more than stand as a symbol of Jesus giving thanks to the Father and breaking bread. This fourfold action of ‘taking the bread, blessing it, giving thanks and giving it to the people’ is the act of consecration through which the bread is bread no more, but is now the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ–Son of God and Son of Mary. The priest is not simply standing in as an icon of Jesus at the Last Supper, but he is a sacrificing priest, offering the sacrifice of Christ to the Father with us and for us.

If this is so, then celebrating Mass as if is merely the re-enactment of a ceremonial meal is hardly Catholic at all. Certainly this is a part of the fullness of the Mass, but should the Mass be reduced to this it is a denial of the true meaning of the Mass, and has more in common with the lowest of Protestant understandings of the Eucharist. However, it is obvious from the way Mass is celebrated in the vast majority of American Catholic parishes, that this is exactly what people now think of the Mass. The church is round and carpeted. The seats are arranged in a fan shape or circle around the altar. The family of God are gathered around the family table. All is decorated in a homely, sitting room, comfortable kind of style and they share together as the Father takes bread, gives thanks to the Father and breaks the bread and shares it. They share in a ‘ceremonial fellowship meal.’ No more.

Not only is this not fully Catholic, but it is also not what was celebrated by the early church. One of the fallacies of the modern liturgical movement is that this minimalist, down to earth, folksy, family meal was really the sort of Eucharist held by the early church. While the New Testament does say that the Apostles met for ‘the breaking of the bread’ and that the early church met in people’s houses, it is clear from all the scholarly studies on liturgy that liturgical forms and ceremonial rites developed very early. Indeed, the early Christian eucharist was undoubtedly based on already existing Jewish models of fellowship meals which were highly ceremonial and liturgical in their language and actions.

Furthermore, as the Jews away from Jerusalem would always worship towards the  Holy City, so the documents show that when the Christians met for their celebration of Eucharist they faced the East–facing the rising sun as a symbol of the risen Lord and facing the direction from which he would come again. The priest faced the same way as the people–offering the sacrifice with them and for them as together they faced the Lord. This is the way the Church worshiped for two thousand years. Now we change it and we think we’re so smart?

Allow me to make a few other observations which are personal, and not historical or scholarly at all. I can only say as a priest that when I celebrate facing the people I cannot get away from the fact that I am standing opposite them, that they are looking at me and I am looking at them. The focus of our worship therefore must be what stands between us. Christ is in our midst in the middle of our circle. While this is true, and reveals certain truths to us, I find it ultimately unsatisfactory. I want to look beyond myself and beyond the people opposite me.

I want to say to the congregation, “I love you very much, but I love Jesus more.” I want to therefore gaze on him and not you. Please don’t be offended.”

Finally, when everyone has to look at the priest all the time I am not surprised that so many of our church liturgies have become entertainment oriented and the priest is burdened to be the main entertainer. Why do so many Catholic parishes now take on the personality of their priest? Maybe because the priests are too much the center of attention. Why do so many priests seem to revel in all this attention? Maybe because every time they go to the altar they are the center attraction. Maybe this has also contributed to the narcissism and showy-ness of so many of our priests.

When I pray the Mass in the same direction of the people it is amazing how I don’t have to worry about myself and what I look like and whether I’m putting enough ‘feeling’ into the words. Instead I merge into the people behind me who are praying with me. I feel caught up in a wave of their prayers as their prayers and mine are offered to the Lord who is up and beyond both of us. I feel no alienation at all in ‘turning my back to them.’ On the contrary, I feel closer to them and more one with them as we all pray in the same direction. I am no longer ‘up there’ with them all looking at me. Instead I am with them and one with them as together we turn toward the Lord.