The Altar and the Direction of Liturgical Prayer(Ratzinger, J. (2000). The Spirit of the Liturgy (J. Saward, Trans.; pp. 74–75). Ignatius Press.)
THE RESHAPING so far described, of the Jewish synagogue for the purpose of Christian worship, clearly shows—as we have already said—how, even in architecture, there is both continuity and newness in the relationship of the Old Testament to the New. As a consequence, expression in space had to be given to the properly Christian act of worship, the celebration of the Eucharist, together with the ministry of the Word, which is ordered toward that celebration. Plainly, further developments became not only possible but necessary. A place set aside for Baptism had to be found. The Sacrament of Penance went through a long process of development, which resulted in changes to the form of the church building. Popular piety in its many different forms inevitably found expression in the place dedicated to divine worship. The question of sacred images had to be resolved. Church music had to be fitted into the spatial structure. We saw that the architectural canon for the liturgy of Word and sacrament is not a rigid one, though with every new development and reordering the question has to be posed: What is in harmony with the essence of the liturgy, and what detracts from it? In the very form of its places of divine worship, which we have just been considering, Christianity, speaking and thinking in a Semitic way, has laid down principles by which this question can be answered. Despite all the variations in practice that have taken place far into the second millennium, one thing has remained clear for the whole of Christendom: praying toward the east is a tradition that goes back to the beginning. Moreover, it is a fundamental expression of the Christian synthesis of cosmos and history, of being rooted in the once-for-all events of salvation history while going out to meet the Lord who is to come again. Here both the fidelity to the gift already bestowed and the dynamism of going forward are given equal expression.
- Ratzinger provides an important conclusion about church architecture in this first paragraph of Ch. 3: even if other aspects of the “architectural canon” are less strictly set, “praying toward the east” is constant. If in the name of flexibility or creativity – a “new evangelization” – we abandon certainty about obvious things, it should come as no surprise that we start to lose a sense of direction or purpose. Praying toward the east gives the Church (and the church) a sense of direction and purpose. It provides an alignment that is both physical and spiritual because its significance is both symbolic and real.
- Having the priest face the people (and vice versa) focuses the attention inward towards the community, whereas having the congregation and the priest face the east together produces the sense of moving forward together – transcending.