I was having a pleasant discussion with cantor on Cantate Deo about it this past weekend. It’s been a topic here before on Catholic Sensibility.
I think those who advocate it was the “best” or “only” proper orientation have a harder case to prove than they think.
First, it is probably not the oldest orientation for Christians. Jesus celebrated a Passover meal at the Last Supper, and Leonardo not withstanding, they probably sat around on the floor or at a table.
It would be surprising to me to learn the early house churches adopted a universal posture of facing east, though if memory serves, I do think they were aware of a liturgical east during the vigils kept before Sunday. At any rate, we know too little about the common practices of the Eucharist in Christian homes of the first three centuries.
Christians adopted Roman public buildings to accommodate their growing numbers in the 4th century and these buildings also provided the natural acoustics for a bishop to preach to hundreds of worshippers.
Vatican II promoted intelligibility. I can see why visually-oriented westerners might prefer a better glimpse of the altar and the Eucharistic species. I can see how the affective aspect of intimate home Masses, on floors, in small chapels, in homey surroundings, might have a certain appeal to some people. There’s not so much an impulse to irreverence as much as a yearning for immediacy and intimacy in liturgical celebrations outside of churches.
I’d submit that Catholic priests were already seen as performers before the Second Vatican Council. “Turning the priest around” was more about visibility, immediacy, and understanding than it was about a liberal cadre of Jack Paar wannabes taking over the Mass. In the worst of liturgical situations, the Mass has always been about the words the priest says anyway. That’s what got the Tridentine observance into trouble: that we had too many minimalists concerned about saying the right words. Other aspects: music, art, architecture, and even the presence and sanctification of the faithful became irrelevant.
Facing liturgical east meant something when churches were built to actually face east. Churches today are aligned in all sorts of directions. Pretending that a particular direction is east just because the reredo is aligned on a short wall is a deception, in my opinion. More than that, it potentially demonstrates a god-like arrogance on the part of liturgical leaders. “We didn’t bother to build our church facing east, so we’ll just reorder the universe to accommodate the way we’re pointing.
I do believe that ad orientem reflects the view of a priest leading the faithful on a pilgrimage. That’s an image we surely don’t want to lose. But not every Christian act of worship–not every Mass–is exclusively an expression of pilgrimage. Pilgrims break from their journey to share a meal, to rest, to reflect on where they are and where they are going. A church building that surrounds its worshippers with the images of saints, a foretelling of the heavenly banquet, is an equally powerful image. It would not be wrong to have many churches built to image that, assuing the zoning board didn’t think to point the church east.
But as an aside, I do wonder what would happen to ad orientem worship on a planet in which the sun did not rise in the east. Would they adapt, or would they reorder the universe to accommodate?