What is the difference between Catholics and Protestants on the Eucharist? Some think it is the presence of Christ–they suppose Catholics believe in a “real” presence and Protestants in a “symbolic” presence. Not at all. Lutherans and Calvinists both believe in a “real presence”–Calvinists stress the spiritual presence of Christ while Lutherans emphasize his bodily presence “in, with and under” the bread and wine. No, the real dividing line is on the matter of sacrifice. For Catholics, the mass is an unbloody sacrifice, offered by the priest–a “re-presentation” of the sacrifice of Calvary. Fr. John Zuhlsdorf comments on some remarks by Fr. Dwight Longenecker on this point–and its implications for worship. Many Catholics after the Second Vatican Council drifted in a Calvinistic direction; they turned around the altars, turned the priest into a “presider,” and emphasized the Eucharist as a communal meal. Because the priest does not, as in orthodox Protestantism, see himself as the servant of the Word, many priests (like unorthodox Protestants) turned the attention on themselves. Longenecker and Zuhlsdorf see a solution to this in reemphasizing the sacrifice, turning the altars back around (with priest and people facing the same direction), and saying the “Canon” of the mass (the Eucharistic Prayer) silently.
The direction of the altar was never an issue for Lutheranism. Many Lutheran churches retained an eastward facing altar. This was true at two of the three Lutheran churches I pastored. Lutheranism also retained a sense of worship as sacrificial, and thus, some aspects of the liturgy were traditionally said facing the altar.
But what Lutheran liturgists (like Reed) tended to do was make a distinction between those parts of the liturgy which are “sacrifice” and those which are “proclamation.” Prayer and confession are “sacrifice”–they are directed to God–and thus were traditionally said facing the altar. But the verba institutionem (the “Words of Institution”) were understood to be “proclamation,” and not “sacrifice,” and hence were said facing the people. For Luther, this is the heart of the Eucharist: “This is my Body, given for you … This is my Blood, shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins.” These words, together with the Bread and Wine, are the essence of the matter. They make the Eucharist a “visible word,” a visible proclamation of the Good News to us. Thus not only are they said to us (and not to the altar), they are proclaimed in a loud voice (he suggested chanting them in the Gospel tone), not whispered silently. God doesn’t need to hear them. The bread and wine don’t need to hear them. We need to hear them, and grasp with tooth and claw and heart and faith the promise they declare.
God doesn’t need to be placated. He doesn’t need us to offer him anything to cause him to be sympathetic to us (or to our loved ones). He is loving, and that is why he gave us his Son. The sacrifice is finished. Christ is at the right hand of the Father, triumphant. He pleads his blood before the Father as our one and ever-living High Priest. He doesn’t need us to offer anything–but he needs us to hear the proclamation of the Gospel.
*Note regarding the striked out part. After being questioned by Pr. Tibbetts about this, below, I vowed to look it up. My books are mainly in boxes, and it was awhile before I could get to this. I was conflating what I had read in Luther Reed (The Lutheran Liturgy) and Paul Z. Strodach (A Manual on Worship) about the distinction between sacrifice and proclamation/sacrament. What’s addressed to God is said facing the altar, and what’s said to men is said facing the congregation. Now, looking at the liturgical books where these distinctions are preserved, the rubrics are clear that the Words of Institution (CSB) or the Prayer of Thanksgiving (SBH) are said facing the altar. TLH is silent. 1927 Missiouri Synod Evangelical Lutheran Hymn-Book has the pastor face the altar for the Lord’s Prayer and apparently he still faces it for the Verba. So, I wonder now, where did I get this from? Well, here’s an essay documenting the fact that this is indeed an issue that Lutheran liturgists have spent time considering … but the idea of facing the people for the Verba from a eastward facing altar is agreed to be an innovation.