We don't do this because of any strong theological conviction about the matter. The ad orientem and versus populum people have been at each other's throats for decades, each convinced that their side alone possesses the secret truth which will make a Mass faithful to both God and the Great Tradition. Each side has a strong case, so strong that we find them balanced more or less equally. Being of the Lutheran persuasion, we simply can't get very excited about something so clearly adiaphoristic. In a pinch, we suppose that Christ might even agree to be present if the celebrant were to stick by the old Anglican rubrics, and face northward, turning his or her profile toward the assembly. Emphasis on "might."
Our practice, therefore, is to follow the local custom, especially as it is embodied in the architecture and furnishings. If we have a free-standing altar, we will face the people; if we do not, then we will not. (It pleased us no end when Fr. Hunwicke recently suggested something similar, although more detailed). The one thing we will not do, incidentally, is pretend that an east-facing altar is in fact free-standing, and turn around mid-consecration. We have visited one or two parishes where that was the custom, and sworn never to return, less for theological reasons than for aesthetic ones. (And, perhaps not incidentally, because the preaching was atrocious).
Of course, our seemingly sensible practice is undermined by congregations that mutilate their altars in an effort to be au courant. We once served a parish in which the altar had been pulled away from the wall -- but not very far. We could just barely squeeze ourself between the altar and the wall, with precious little room for elbows and none for a processional cross. And yet, because the front of the table had been drawn precisely level with the edge of the step below, the altar candlesticks were now so high that a normally constructed adolescent altar server had no realistic hope of lighting them.
More common, at least in our synod, is the addition of a new freestanding, while the old altar is left in place to serve as an overly-elegant credence table. This is often done in order to preserve an exceptional piece of furniture, which could not feasibly be replaced with anything as beautiful. We have served two such parishes, and understand why our predecessors made the choice. We cannot despise it, either. And yet it is not the choice would have made ourselves.
Anyway, we have no favorites, we're even-handed, blah-blah-blah. But all that said and done, we confess that we have been thinking a great deal lately about the ad orientem-ist argument, or at least aspects of it, and our thoughts are positive if not downright wistful.
Here's the gist: we cherish the idea that Christ is himself our East, the rising sun, the single point by which lost souls can orient themselves. This is a very old idea, rooted in passages like Luke 1:78 ("the dawn from on high shall break upon us"). It is well-excavated by the erstwhile Cardinal Ratzinger in his Spirit of the Liturgy, chapter 3. (A fine book, by the way, and if you haven't read it then by all means stop surfing the blessed Web and get busy). Our own feeling is that the image connects revelation to creation in a way that ought to please the eco-Christians while also satisfying Patristics-heads. This is a win for everybody.
Our ecclesiastical hero, John Donne, often talked about Christ this way, citing the Vulgate version of Zechariah 6:12 -- "his name is East." Donne knew perfectly well that this was a mistranslation, rectified already by Coverdale and in the English bibles he knew best (Geneva and the KJV). But one verse neither establishes nor tears down a tradition. Donne, of course, was also subject to the facing-north rubric, which must have chapped his bum severely -- but the very fact demonstrates that love for the image of Christ as the rising sun need not compel an eastward-facing celebration. That's just not the point here.
And yet. We are concerned that the wild success of celebration versus populum, and particularly the academic success of is zealous advocates, may have helped to undermine the image. Logically, a people which no longer faces eastward yearning to see Christ will no longer think much of Christ as the East.
We found some evidence for this recently, while picking hymns for Sunday. Preaching on various things that are lost and then found -- the nation of Israel, a sheep, a coin -- we planned to describe Jesus as our compass, our GPS beacon, our northstar. And, naturally, our east. Using Augsburg's Sundays and Seasons website, we ran a quick search for the word "east," and the results were not encouraging. Apparently, the word occurs principally in Christmas hymns, referring to the Star of Bethlehem. Other uses address the catholicity of the Church -- "A Multitude Comes from East and West" and "In Christ There is No East Nor West" -- but not the specificity of Christ.
Our evidence is by no means conclusive. The rising sun image is preserved in several fine hymns. Consider Wesley's "Christ Whose Glory Fills the Skies," or of course "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel." Or any musical setting of the Benedictus. The most popular is probably "Let Us Break Bread Together," a song that always made us chuckle in seminary, since the Presbyterians who invariably scheduled it for our chapel communion services never actually, you know, knelt. Less on-target, but useful, is "The King shall come when morning dawns," a song that upon reflection doesn't really belong in LBW's Christmas ghetto. There's also a tenable Marty Haugen number -- "Awake, Awake, and Greet the New Morn." But then you have to deal with Marty Haugen.
Still, our quick and unsystematic search suggests that the pickings are slim. The imagery is usually weak and easily-missed. Apart from the first few examples above, we can't think offhand of any hymn in current use that really makes the point, describing Jesus with this powerful language of dawn -- much less connecting it to his presence with us in Holy Communion.
Can readers offer any suggestions?