Thursday, May 24, 2012

Obama: preaching to the choir

Ad orientem and versus populum. Two Latin phrases that I would guess most people who are not Catholic would be unable to identify. Yet, these two phrases represent a key issue, with regard to the Church and the development of European civilization, both symbolically and literally.

In the earliest years of the Church, long before the Reformation, priests would face the congregation for Mass, as a means of leading their congregations in worship. During the 9th century, this tradition was changed. Priests began to celebrate Mass facing away from the congregation. Such a position--for the priest--is called ad orientem, meaning "to the East." There had been a time when--supposedly--Christians faced East to pray, so mnay Churches were built with that in mind, with the congregation oriented towards the East. Thus, the priest--to join in prayer--needed to turn his back on the congregation in order that he too would be facing East.

But, as often happens with phrases, this original meaning was discarded in favor of the non-literal result of the practice: face away from the congregation. By the seventeenth century, ad orientem began to fall out of favor, to eventually be replaced by the now almost universal (in Christianity) versus populum orientation, which means "towards the people."

Now, the truth of the matter is that an ad orientem orientation symbolically places the priest on the same level as the congregation; all face the altar, thus all are equally subservient before God, all worship God together. A versus populum orientation, in contrast, symbolically places the priest above the congregation; the priest directs the worshiping of God as a stand-in for God. However, these two different liturgical practices need to be considered within the historical context of their usage.

Prior to the Reformation (before the 16th century), there was a sense that Church services were primarily held for the Priests and monks, especially in the larger cathedrals, throughout much of Europe. Most of the typical service--if not all of it--was in Latin, unknown to the great majority of the populace. Rites were performed outside of their sight lines, given the way the cathedrals were designed. Thus, the congregation was mostly an observer rather than a participant in worship. Having the priests turn away from the congregation only heightened the sense of alienation, regardless of the symbolic background.

After the Reformation, the Catholic Church was forced to engage its members more directly, more extensively. Often, local priests lacked the education needed to simply explain the Bible to parishioners, much less engage them on issues of faith. The Counter-Reformation sought to address this and other failings. The Reformation, after all, was built on the backs of the growing democratization of European society and the new availability--thanks to the printing press--of Bibles written in the vernacular, thus symbolically arming the people with the means to challenge Church decrees and doctrine.

It is true that an ad orientem orientation was not a principal--or even significant--issue for Luther and his compatriots; they had much larger issues on their minds. And it also true that--up until 1969--the Catholic Church did not mandate or recommend a change to versus populum. But nonetheless, it is telling the the Protestant churches almost always practiced--and continue to do so--versus populum orientations. For them, it was a matter of simple expedience, for the preacher desired to engage the congregation directly, and this he could not do facing away from it.

Really, it was the preaching, the extolling of the congregation to follow the dictates of the Bible, to adhere to the message of Christ that gave fire to the Protestant movement. It was a far more personal relationship being sought, both with one's priest and with God. And of course, we preach outward, to those whose thoughts we would--if possible--impact, to those whose minds we might change.

With all of this in mind, consider the now-common expression "preaching to the choir." The sense of it is simple: the choir--usually positioned close to the priest or preacher--is composed of true believers; to preach to them is to waste one's breath. Thus, such preaching is supposedly pointless and a waste of time. But within the framework of the orientem/populum discussion, there is a slightly different connotation. Preaching to the choir is not so much preaching to the true believers as it is preaching away from the people. In other words, it's not so important who one is talking to, as it is who one is not talking to.

Which leads us to President Obama and his campaign for reelection. Despite his plaintive attempts to say otherwise, one thing is clear through the last 3+ years: Obama is not interested in talking to people who don't share his vision. He made that clear back in 2009 with his mocking of the Tea Party, with his attacks on private citizens (something his campaign has taken to new lows). And his campaign's recent "Julia" ad makes it clearer, still.

Obama preaches to the choir because he knows it will do as he says, because he knows his sycophants will carry his water and promulgate the ludicrous notion that Obama is interested in what the typical citizen thinks, what the typical citizen wants. He's not. Because he's certain he knows better. It's his podium after all, and we have no choice but to look to him and those he deems worthy enough to carry his message.

Cheers, all.


  1. Let me thank you from the bottom of my heart for your historical perspective. I have a new appreciation now. I was born in 61, you can do any math required. And for about my first 30 years I was rather ignorant of what it meant to be Lutheran, other than the fact that "I was one."

    We have four wonderful children, and we home school. That, and a rather "historical" Lutheran church which we have attended for about 10 years have had me increasingly reading scripture. God has been very good to me in this.

    This may seem a minor point to you in your well written argument, but when I preach ( I think a better word is "witness" because I can only relate my own story ) I do not do so to change your mind. Faith is a gift from the Almighty and is mine neither to give nor withhold.

    You can change your mind, not me. The most I can do is relate what I believe and how that has worked out for me.

    Now, between two believers, there we can have debate on major and minor points of doctrine. To which end, I am ever so glad that our Pastor faces the congregation when preaching, because he is teaching and encouraging and gauging our response all at once, and that physical arrangement suits the purpose quite well.

    As far as "ad orientem" - I wonder if this in some way is traced back, a very long way indeed, to Moses. As I read it, the people of Israel who followed Moses did not want to relate more directly to God for fear of coming to room temperature "before their time".

    Thanks, in any event, for another good read.

  2. Nicely done. I note that the choirs tall, especially on or near the misericord (a churchly jumpseat) had subversive art, art that the congregation rarely saw (probably never) like these:

    The choir, however, who would have been monastics, could see them.

  3. @Roy: Thanks for the comments and perspective, Roy.

    @Lisa: And ditto to you, Lisa. Especially the dirty pictures... ;)

    (I actually think I could have incorporated them into my argument, though that might have sent me towards tinfoil land, just slightly)

    As to the composition of the Choir, yes I thought they were monastics, by and large, but I think orphan boys were trained at some point. Didn't want to get my periods mixed up, so I didn't go down that road.