"Jesus and his disciples went into the region of Judea, where he spent some time with them baptizing. John was also baptizing in Aenon near Salim, because there was an abundance of water there, and people came to be baptized, for John had not yet been imprisoned. Now a dispute arose between the disciples of John and a Jew about ceremonial washings. So they came to John and said to him, 'Rabbi, the one who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you testified, here he is baptizing and everyone is coming to him.' John answered and said, 'No one can receive anything except what has been given from heaven. You yourselves can testify that I said that I am not the Christ, but that I was sent before him. The one who has the bride is the bridegroom; the best man, who stands and listens for him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom's voice. So this joy of mine has been made complete. He must increase; I must decrease.'"
Whenever I ask people, "Who is the patron of Quiapo Church?" the usual answer I get is "The Black Nazarene." That's wrong because the true patron (the titular) of the said church is St. John the Baptist. Not many people know this. In fact, many mistakenly think that January 9 is the Fiesta of Quiapo which is not really true because the fiesta of Quiapo is June 24, which is also known as Manila day. People go to Quiapo Church to visit the Nazareno and not really the Baptist. In a sense, what his disciples said to John at that time can be repeated to him about the pilgrims who go to Quiapo: EVERYONE IS COMING TO HIM!
When these words were first addressed to John by his disciples, it would probably have been in an alarmed tone. The concern was that the Lord Jesus was gaining a reputation at the expense of John. People were abandoning John in order to transfer to Jesus' side.
But John was not alarmed. After all, he knew who he was and where his place should be. John knew his place: "I am not the Christ...I was sent before him." The bride, God's people, was not his to claim. He was just the best man. Jesus is the Bridegroom! The role of the best man is to stand and listen for the Bridegroom. Hearing the Bridegroom's voice, he rejoices greatly because his arrival would mean that the wedding feast has begun. The best man never gets jealous of the attention showered on the Groom. After all, it is the Groom's wedding, not his. The best man does not attract attention to himself. He directs all the attention to the Bridegroom himself: "He must increase; I must decrease!"
The Priest: the Bridegroom's friend
So John the Baptist is the appropriate image of the priest at Mass. In the Holy Sacrifice, the priest is never to keep the attention of the people to himself. Rather, like John the Baptist, the priest's presence should not be an imposing one but rather, it should be a presence that should disappear when the Bridegroom arrives: He must increase; I must increase.
Unfortunately, this is not the case in most liturgies today. The Holy Father, when he was still Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, made this valid observation:
"In reality, what happened was that an unprecedented clericalization came on the scene. Now the priest - the 'presider', as they now prefer to call him - becomes the real point of reference for the whole liturgy. Everything depends on him. We have to see him, to respond to him, to be involved in what he is doing. His creativity sustains the whole thing. Not surprisingly, people try to reduce this newly created role by assigning all kinds of liturgical functions to different individuals and entrusting the 'creative' planning of the liturgy to groups of people who like, and are supposed to, 'make their own contribution'. Less and less is God in the picture. More and more important is what is done by the human beings who meet here and do not like to subject themselves to a 'pre-determined pattern.' The turning of the priest toward the people has turned the community into a self-enclosed circle. In its outward form, it no longer opens out on what lies ahead and above, but is closed in on itself." (J. Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy, 79-80.)
John the Baptist shows us the pattern that every priest must emulate at the celebration of the Mysteries. The Baptist was sent to prepare the way for the Lord's coming. This preparation is by preaching. Thus, he is the voice crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord! "The Liturgy of the Word is about speaking and responding, and so a face-to-face exchange between proclaimer and hearer does make sense." (Ibid., 81)
However, at the Liturgy of the Eucharist, the priest, like the Baptist, must disappear through the common turning of the priest and people to the same direction: to the Lord.
"...a common turning to the east during the Eucharistic Prayer remains essential. This is not a case of something accidental but of something essential. Looking at the priest has no importance. What matters is looking together at the Lord. It is not now a question of dialogue but of common worship, of setting toward the One who is to come. What corresponds with the reality of what is happening is not the closed circle but the common movement forward, expressed in a common direction of prayer." (Ibid.)
When the priest faces the Lord, he conveniently disappears into the background. Some liturgists mistakenly say that the only advantage in the eastward direction of liturgy is that the celebrant is able to concentrate more and is freed from distractions coming from the assembly. This shallow understanding fails to appreciate the fact that Liturgy is worship and not entertainment! Liturgy is a procession of God's people, led by its priest, towards the Lord. The priest has his back to the people because in worship, he is not talking to the people. He is addressing God. His face should be turned toward the Lord.
"It was much more a question of priest and people facing in the same direction, knowing that together they were in a procession toward the Lord. They did not close themselves into a circle; they did not gaze at one another; but as the pilgrim People of God they set off for the Oriens, for the Christ who comes to meet us." (Ibid., 80)
The liturgical reform which allowed the celebration of Mass versus populum (facing the people) involved more than just a rearrangement of sanctuary furniture. It has, unfortunately, changed the orientation of the liturgy. No matter how much the Congregation for Divine Worship tries to explain that the orientation of the liturgy remains to be "towards the Lord", the liturgy has become, at the very least, a "teaching session" (like a cooking class in which the audience is shown how the dish is made) and at its worse, "entertainment" ( a show that has to keep up with the demands of an MTV generation). The constant pressure for priests is to keep the Mass entertaining. The priest has forgotten that the liturgical act is first of all God's act, not his. He is just the best man who stands and listens for the Bridegroom's coming. He is simply there to pave the way for the encounter of Groom and Bride. The priest should not be an obstruction to this encounter. When the Bridegroom arrives, the best man should conveniently disappear. How is this done? When the priest turns towards the Lord, the people no longer see his face. The priest decreases and Christ increases!