In an icon, the figures all face towards the viewer. If there are multiple figures, they don’t face each other, don’t look at each other, but relate directly to the person standing before them, ready to pray and venerate. Only minor figures are occasionally shown in profile, or figures of evil such as a devil tempting someone, or Judas among the apostles, because our faith is one of relationship, and it is not conducive of good relationship to turn away. When figures do turn towards each other in the image, they are shown in a 3/4 view, both eyes visible, and directed outward and not towards each other. They are leading us to prayer by relating to us personally, and inviting us with posture, gesture, and eye contact.
Perhaps this understanding has colored my perception of the ongoing discussion of whether it is best for the priest to face the tabernacle/crucifix/east, or the people, during the Mass. This, plus my memories of being a small child attending pre-Vatican II Masses with my parents on Sundays. The priest had his back to the congregation, facing the east, and the Mass was said in Latin then. Altar boys spoke the responses for us, while all around elderly men dozed, elderly woman said their rosaries, children read picture books of Bible stories or their illustrated missals. Adults remaining attentive did so by following along in their own missals, or said their private prayers. It is no surprise to me that even today, enough of this legacy persists to make Catholics notoriously lax in praying aloud, singing together, or responding with enthusiasm, compared to our Protestant brothers and sisters.
The atmosphere of the Mass was for me distant, obscure. The view of the backs of the priest and altar boys kept it remote and more of a performance to my child-eye view, a performance that neither interested nor involved me. It went on without me, indifferent to my presence.
Honestly, though, the language used at Mass is as important in these observations as the orientation is for me, probably more so. The use of Latin especially (a language that I do not know nor understand a single word of besides “Domini”) kept it intellectual and detached. No wonder people brought along something to read, or a rosary to say, or special intentions to pray for privately, while they waited for the Consecration and Communion.
But after Vatican II, wow. I was galvanized, mesmerized and following every second of the Mass, not with a missal & pictures, but directly feeling part of it all. It became my worship, my prayer, and I felt that I was an active and important part of the liturgy. I didn’t then, and still do not, feel that the reverence is lost from the Mass said facing the people, and in the vernacular. It is like sitting at the Last Supper with Jesus, solemn and reverent, watching Jesus’ hands move over the bread and the cup, hearing the words spoken, with wonder and awe. All of us, sitting together at the table, part of the mystery of salvation and redemption.
I love the simple elegance of our current Roman Mass, no matter what kind of music is played at our parish. Here, the sense of worship is never lost. The readings and homilies are listened to attentively. At the moment of Consecration, the entire place is absolutely still, absolutely engrossed, absolutely focussed. It is not just my parish that is that way: I would like to quote an excerpt from a recent post from the blog, New Things:
As the Holy Father was preparing for the Mass, the cameras panned over the crowds and you could hear occasional loud hoots and hollerings when the audience caught a glimpse of themselves on the screen. I was initially bothered by this, don’t they know that the Mass is being prepared and a solemn, beautiful thing is about to happen. I wondered aloud if they could all hear what is happening? The back of the crowd looks to be several blocks away from what is taking place on the altar.
A fb friend shared an aerial view of the phenomena, and I could see several large screens set up, and I’m sure there are speakers as well. As the Holy Father began the consecration, a beautiful, amazing thing happened. An estimated number of 3 million observers and participants went from a dull roar (with occasional loud bursts of hooting and hollering) to complete silence, as the prayer of the priest was performed, and Jesus was made present for us again in the Eucharist.
What a beautiful witness of unity.
I don’t know which way the Holy Father was facing, or if he spoke in Latin or the venacular, but I know that the essence of the Mass does inspire reverence and awe in people of faith. I am glad that in the long run, our church is big enough to celebrate both ways and touch the souls of worshippers in the most effective way for them.