Recently I took my copy of O`Connell`s Church Building and Furnishing (Burns &; Oates 1955) off my shelf to see if I could find if he had an explanation as to why there are always an odd number of lamps before the high altar or Blessed Sacrament. He does say that there are to be an uneven number but offers no explanation. But then I began browsing the rest of the book and came across his chapter on the altar with a section on Mass facing the people.
It reads as follows:
From the 4th century to the 6th century it was the practice in all greater churches to celebrate Mass facing the congregation. The choir (the clergy) was at the east end; the subdeacon stood behind the altar facing the celebrant. Even in private houses, or in chapels, or even in the catacombs, the celebrant faced the people, when this was physically possible ( sometimes e.g. in the catacombs the celebrant necessarily faced the arcosolium). It is certain that Mass was celebrated facing the people in a church where the Bishop`s throne was in the apse, or where there was a confessio ( the approach of this was from the the nave, at the back of the altar) or where the people were at the east end of the church, facnig West. The practice of celebrating with the celebrant`s back turned to the congregation gradually arose with the change in position of the people, desiring to face East at prayer, with the growth of the number of priests for missions and in monasteries and with the multiplication of Masses " for a private intention" and private Masses for the dead (these Masses were said in small chapels, not at the high altar). The practice of saying Mass back to the people, at side altars, gradually spread to the high altar. Yes both systems of orientation and both ways of facing at Mass existed together from the 6th to the 9th or 10th century; and then the eastern apse, and the celebrant facing it, became the prevailing usage. But the practice of celebrating Mass at the high altar facing the congregation has continued to this day (e.g. in the great Roman basilicas and in some of the catacomb chapels) and is now being restored in certain great churches (e.g. in the cathedral at Lisbon).
I wonder what was going on in Lisbon? Another book I`ve started is The Elusive Father Brown which is a life of Mgr John O`Connor (1870-1952, the inspiration for Chesterton`s Fr Brown. I found the following paragraph on p.145.
During the course of one of his Sunday sermons, Father O`Connor gave his view on the position of the altar, stating that to have it pushed to the far end of a long building with the priest turning his back on the people was an abuse which was 1,000 years old/ `Fancy, if all representations of the Last Supper made Our Lord turn his back to the Apostles!` e thought it unlikely that any reform would happen in his lifetime. He was right in that it was not until the reforms of the Second Vatican Council wre generally adopted that the priest no longer turned his back on the congregation. In Why Revive the Liturgy and How? which was probably written about 1928, his suggestions included many of the changes regarding vestments, language, the times and manner of communion, that would have to wait almost forty years to be implemented`
This is in the context of his building of First Martyrs` church in Bradford which opened in 1935. The church is circular with a free-standing altar.
Many of us who are keen on the Extraordinary Form have heard responses like Mgr O`Connor`s regarding orientation. At seminary we were given accounts like that of Fr O`Connell. It just struck me that there must have been a widespread expectation that Mass `facing the people` was the way to go to revive the liturgy and how this helped the transformation take place so quickly. Nowadays thanks to the writings of Mgr Gamber, Cardinal Ratzinger and Fr Uwe Lang we are more knowledgeable about the whole issue and how the intention to face East for prayer was much more important to early Christians than liturgy `facing the people`.