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If our conversation about the Mass is going to “make any sense,” then we have to grasp this essential truth: At Mass, Christ joins us to Himself as He offers Himself in sacrifice to the Father for the world’s redemption. We can offer ourselves like this in Him, because we have become members of His Body by Baptism. We also want to remember that all of the faithful offer the Eucharistic Sacrifice as members of Christ’s Body. It’s incorrect to think that only the priest offers Mass. All the faithful share in the offering, even though the priest has a unique role. He stands “in the person of Christ,” the Head of the Mystical Body, so that at Mass, it is the whole body of Christ – Head and members together that make the offering. From ancient times, the position of the priest and the people reflected this understanding of the Mass, since the people prayed, standing or kneeling, in the place that visibly corresponded to Our Lord’s Body, while the priest at the altar stood at the head as Christ the Head. We formed the whole Christ – Head and members – both sacramentally by Baptism, and visibly by our position and posture. Just as importantly, everyone – celebrant and congregation – faced the same direction, since they were united with Christ in offering to the Father, Christ’s unique and acceptable sacrifice.
Pope and people in the Sistine Chapel together face toward the East, the direction of the Rising Sun, an expression of the interior “turning towards the Lord.”
Celebrating the Mass
“Ad Orientem” - Facing East
the worship taking place, making your own the prayers and sacrifice which is offered: God looks at the intentions of our hearts. This, of course, is wholly inclusive and open to everyone in the congregation, and does not require that the priest face the people. With respect to our understanding of what is going on, hopefully this matures with age, grace and study: the intellectual understanding of a seven year old is probably not as great as that of a bishop. Yet both are capable of “active participation” according to their state and their personal love of God. Moreover, we do not expect, in this life, to fully understand the Mass as it involves immense mysteries. An acceptance of Mystery, that not everything is fathomable by the human mind, is part and parcel of the fact that we are not God.
Mass celebrated “ad Orientem” - priest and people face the same way.
The expression “Ad Orientem” means “towards the East.” In terms of the Church’s worship of God, it has a particular meaning and symbolism for Christians, which this leaflet will briefly explore. Pope Benedict XVI, in one of his books on worship explains:
In the early Church there was a custom whereby the Bishop or the priest, after the homily, would cry out to the faithful: “Conversi ad Dominum!” – Turn towards the Lord!
“Where priest and people together face the same way, what we have is a cosmic orientation....” He also spoke of it as reflecting our hopeful expectation of the Second Coming of Christ “in which every Mass is an approach to the return of Christ.” * He also wrote more recently: “This is the point I tried to convey in the worship aid for my First Solemn Mass two years ago: "The Eucharistic Sacrifice will be offered in the manner traditional to the Roman Rite and to all liturgical rites of the Church: priest and faithful together facing the same way, in a common act of worship, symbolising our common pilgrimage toward the returning Lord, the Sun of Justice."
_______________ * Joseph Ratzinger, Feast of Faith, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986, pp. 140-41.
Fundamentally, this involved an interior event: conversion, the turning of our soul towards Jesus Christ and thus towards the living God, towards the true Light. Linked with this was the other exclamation that still today, before the Eucharistic Prayer, is addressed to the community of the faithful: “Sursum corda” – “Lift up your hearts”, high above all our misguided concerns, desires, anxieties and thoughtlessness – “Lift up your hearts, your inner selves!”
In both exclamations we are summoned, as it were, to a renewal of our Baptism: Conversi ad Dominum! – we must always turn away from false paths, onto which we stray so often in our thoughts and actions. We must turn ever anew towards Him who is the Way, the Truth and the Life. We must be converted ever anew, turning with our whole life towards the Lord. And ever anew we must withdraw our hearts from
assembly of the angels and saints in the heavenly city. Question: In what ways does "facing east" during the liturgy foster a dialogue with the Lord? The most basic principle of Christian worship is the dialogue between the People of God as a whole, including the priestcelebrant, and God, to whom their prayer is addressed. A common, eastward facing direction visibly expresses the fact that we are all together addressing God and directing our prayer to Him. Question: How did the practice of the priest “facing the people” come about at the end of the 1960’s? What was the basis for such a major reorientation of the liturgy? Two main arguments in favour of the celebrant's position facing the people were presented. First, it was said that this was the practice of the early Church, which should therefore be the norm for our age; however, a close study of the sources shows that this claim does not hold. Second, it is maintained that the "active participation" of the faithful, a principle that was introduced by Pope Pius X and which was central to the 1960’s reform of the Mass, demanded celebration toward the people. However, recent critical reflection on the concept of "active participation" has revealed some misunderstanding of this important principle. Everyone at Mass should be “actively participating” in so far as they are capable. However, this expression does not mean that everyone must be “doing something” or be able to see everything or even understand everything. Not everyone can have an official task or visible role. Rather, “active participation” primarily means a conscious, interior participation, an assent to
Those two quotes summarise quite well the theology of the ancient Christian practice of “turning towards the East” during worship. But how did this practice develop?
History of "Liturgical East"
Where does the notion come from of an Eastward-facing position for both priest and congregation? From early on, Christians adopted the Jewish practice of praying toward Eden, in the East (Gen. 2:8), the direction from which the prophet Ezekiel saw coming "the glory of the God of Israel" (Ezek 43:2,4), the direction in which Jesus ascended from the Mount of Olives and from where He will return (Acts 1:11), and the direction from where the Angel of the Lord will come at the end of time (Rev. 7:2). Early writers such as Tertullian (160-220 AD) inform us that Christian churches are "always" orientated "toward the light". Another early writer, Origen, (185-254 AD) asserts that the direction of the Rising Sun obviously indicates that we ought to pray inclining in that direction, an act which symbolises the soul looking toward the rising of the true Light, the Sun of Justice, Jesus Christ. Saint John Damascene (675-749) says that, while awaiting the coming of the Lord, "we adore Him facing East", for that is the tradition passed down to us from the Apostles. Other Church Fathers who confirm this usage are Clement of Alexandria, Saint Basil and Saint Augustine. To this day, the ancient Coptic Rite of Egypt retains in its Eucharistic liturgy (just before the “Lift up your hearts”) the age-old exhortation of the deacon: "Look towards the East!" The posture "ad orientem," or "facing east," is about having a common direction of liturgical prayer for both priest and people.
In most major religions, there is a “sacred direction” - which determines the position taken in prayer and the layout of holy places. For the Jews, the sacred direction is toward Jerusalem or, more precisely, toward the Presence of the Transcendent God — the "shekinah" — in the Holy of Holies of the Temple, as seen in Daniel 6:10. Even after the Temple was destroyed, the custom of turning toward Jerusalem was kept in synagogue worship. This is how the Jews have expressed their hope for the coming of the Messiah, the rebuilding of the Temple, and the gathering of God's scattered people. However, the early Christians no longer turned toward the earthly Jerusalem, but toward the new, heavenly Jerusalem - the true and everlasting home of God’s people, which would be revealed in glory at the end of time. It was their firm belief that when the Risen Christ would come again in glory, He would gather His faithful to make up this heavenly city. They saw in the Rising Sun a symbol of the Resurrection and of the Second Coming of Christ, and it was thus natural for them to pray facing this direction. There is strong evidence of eastward-facing prayer in most parts of the Christian world from the second century onward. In Matthew 24: 27-30, the sign in the heavens of the coming of the Son of Man with power and great glory, which appears as the lightning from the east and shines as far as the west, is the Cross. Among Christians, it became customary to mark the direction of prayer with a cross on the east wall of churches, as well as in private rooms, for example, of monks and solitaries. Toward the end of the first millennium AD, we find various theologians noting that prayer facing east is one of the practices distinguishing Christianity from the other religions of the Near East: Jews pray toward Jerusalem, Muslims
pray toward Mecca, but Christians pray toward the East, the direction of the rising sun. Question: does this mean the priest is celebrating "with his back to the people." What is really going on when the priest celebrates Mass "ad orientem"? That phrase misses the crucial point: that the Mass is a common act of worship in which priest and people together — representing the pilgrim Church — reach out for the Transcendent God. What is at issue here is not the celebration "toward the people" or "away from the people," but rather the common direction of liturgical prayer: the People of God united in orienting themselves towards the Lord. [This is maintained whether or not the altar is literally facing geographical east; in the West, many churches built since the 16th century are no longer "oriented" in the strict sense]. By facing the same direction as the faithful when he stands at the altar, the priest leads the people of God on their journey of faith. This movement toward the Lord is the goal of the assembly's earthly pilgrimage. This ‘looking out for the Lord’ keeps alive that dimension of our worship whereby we “await the blessed hope and the coming of our Saviour, Jesus Christ.’ It also reminds us that the celebration of Mass here on earth is a participation in the eternal worship of God in Heaven by Our Lady, the Angels and Saints, and is a pledge of our future glory in the presence of the living God. This gives the Mass its greatness, saving the individual community from closing in upon itself and opening it toward the