Facing together toward the Lord

The first thing that I did when Bishop Kemme assigned me as pastor of the Church of the Magdalen was memorize the parish mission statement.  Parish mission statements crystalize the story of a parish in a few salient lines.  As I pondered on our mission statement the goal of cultivating a family of stewards through public worship impressed strongly upon me.  Yes, public worship, better known as the Mass is a means for cultivating our parish as God's family of stewards.  The Mass tells us everything about our relationship with God, as stated by the Second Vatican Council, the Mass "contains much instruction for the the faith . . . the visible signs used by the liturgy to signify divine things have been chosen by Christ or the Church." I am convinced that including a Mass that features Ad Orientem, with the priest facing the cross along with the people, is another divine sign that teaches and forms us as we worship the Lord.

~ Fr. John Jirak

For a further reflection on Ad Orientem read Fr. Jirak's Holy Thursday homily here.

What does “Ad Orientem” Mean?

Ad Orientem  is a Latin phrase simply meaning “to the east,” but in a liturgical setting it takes on a greater significance. Offering Mass ad orientem entails the priest offering Mass facing east, or at least symbolically orienting himself toward the east.

The reason the priest, along with the congregation, faces Liturgical East is because within the sacrifice of the Mass we anticipate the coming of Christ and recall our journey together toward our Heavenly dwelling place. Both of these elements can be enhanced when we unite our physical orientation with our interior and spiritual orientation.

“Then he led me to the gate facing east, and there was the glory of the God of Israel coming from the east!” – Ezekiel 43:1-2

Why does East Matter?

Christian symbolism historically has connected the east with the coming of Christ. Certainly the image of the rising sun recalls the Resurrection occurring at dawn (Mt. 28:1; Mk 16:2, Lk 24:1, Jn 20:1) and Christ as the light shining in the darkness (John 1:5). Also Jesus says, “For just as lightning comes from the east and I seen as far as the west, so will the coming of the Son of Man be” (Mt 24:27).

Ancient baptism rites even required the candidate to renounce Satan and his former way of life facing the west and to then turn to the east and make the proclamation of the faith, thus symbolizing turning one’s back to evil and turning toward Christ. Additionally, we await the return to Paradise, to Eden which God planted in the east (Gen 2:8).

Liturgical East

Although the priest does not face geographical East when celebrating Mass ad orientem here at Blessed Sacrament, the priest and people worshipping together in the same direction still captures the intended symbolism of Christ’s second coming. It also assists us in elevating our hearts and minds to the One to whom we are offering the sacrifice, recalling the transcendence of God.

The Latin phrase lex orandi, lex credendi (the idea that the way we worship forms our belief) conveys the importance of properly expressed worship. First, when we offer the Mass, we are making present Christ’s own sacrifice, which He made to the Father on our behalf. Thus, the priest stands in place of Christ (in Persona Christi) as he offers the Mass to the Father.

The priest does not offer the Mass to the people, nor the people to the priest; rather, both priest and people together offer the sacrifice of Christ to the Father. When the priest and congregation physically orient themselves in the same direction, the reality of what is happening is more clearly expressed: the priest and congregation are not in dialogue but are together offering their prayers and Christ’s sacrifice to God the Father.

The Christian Pilgrimage

We understand ourselves as a pilgrim people, making our way home to God. We believe that as we move towards Heaven, Christ also comes to greet us. Thus our worship is meant to open us up to what lies ahead and above. Celebrating Mass ad orientem helps everyone recall that together we move towards God and God Himself comes to meet us.

“A common turning to the East during the Eucharistic Prayer remains essential. This is not a case of accidentals, but of essentials. 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 off towards the One who is to come.” – Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI), The Spirit of the Liturgy

Didn’t Vatican II require the priest to face the people?

Actually, no. The documents of Vatican II did not instruct the priest to change his orientation at Mass, and even though priests are allowed to face the people throughout Mass, the official rules or “rubrics” for Mass, which were last updated in 2011, still assume that the priest faces the people at certain times during Mass and not at other times.

For example: just before Communion, the priest says “Behold the Lamb of God” and the rubrics ay “While facing the people” (Order of Mass #132). Then he is directed to consume the Body of Christ while “facing the altar” (#133). This only makes sense if “facing the people” and “facing the altar” are different directions.

Some may interpret ad orientem as “the priest turning his back on the people.” However, the priest’s desire is to turn with the congregation to pray toward God. The vast majority of the prayers of the Liturgy of the Eucharist are directed to God the Father. Mass ad orientem symbolizes the reality of the priest leading all present in prayer vertically to the Father.

Sunday Mass Experience

It is in and through the sacrifice of the Mass that we offer God the worship due to Him and participate in our own sanctification. Worship of God should inspire in us a greater desire to return to Him and help us to anticipate His coming to us “from the East.”

Celebrating Mass ad orientem fosters and portrays these aspects of our liturgy in a unique manner. It is our hope that celebrating Mass ad orientem can enhance our Sunday worship.

Mass will be celebrated ad orientem at the Church of the Magdalen at a new Mass on Sunday evenings at 5:30pm that will begin on June 3rd, Corpus Christi Sunday. We will consider this new Mass a summer experiment intended to further serve the parish’s needs.