You might have seen recently that the Vatican’s “liturgy chief,” Cardinal Robert Sarah, has been urging priests to celebrate Mass ad orientem, Latin for “toward the east.” This may seem at first to be a strange or arbitrary command, so let’s delve a little deeper into this issue.
People, Look East:
A series on ad orientem worship
The best treatment of this topic comes from Spirit of the Liturgy, written by Cardinal Josef Ratzinger before he became Pope Benedict XVI. The quotations in this post come from this book.
Ratzinger tells us that
Despite all the variations in practice that have taken place far into the second millennium, one thing has remained clear for the whole of Christendom: praying towards the east is a tradition that goes back to the beginning.
Why the east?
This is one place where the Church’s reasoning is beautifully simple. You’ve probably guessed it by now: the sunrise.
Christians look toward the east, the rising sun. This is not a case of Christians worshipping the sun but of the cosmos speaking of Christ. The song of the sun in Psalm 19 is interpreted as a song about Christ when it says
“The sun comes forth like a bridegroom leaving its chamber . . . Its rising is from the end of the heavens and its circuit to the end of them.”
This psalm proceeds directly from applauding creation to praising the law. Christians interpret it in terms of Christ, who is … the true light of history, who came forth from the bridal chamber of the Virgin Mother and now pours out his light on all the world. The East supersedes the Jerusalem Temple as a symbol.
Card. Ratzinger goes on but the central message is clear: since the earliest days of Christianity, the sunrise has been regarded as a universal symbol for Jesus Christ. Light of the world, setting and rising again, beauty and power, etc. Don’t overthink it. It’s all there.
This connection signifies that nature
is praying with us. It, too, is waiting for redemption. It is precisely this cosmic dimension that is essential to Christian liturgy. It is never performed solely in the self-made world of man. It is always a cosmic liturgy. The theme of creation is embedded in Christian prayer. It loses its grandeur when it forgets this connection.
Wow! Isn’t that beautiful?
This has a few very practical ramifications for us today, and what the Mass should look like for us.
First, it means when we build new churches, we should want them to be pointed towards the east. This necessarily implies that the building must have a clear direction.
Second, it means — as Card. Sarah has suggested — that the priest and people must face east together. The priest, standing at the front of the church, leads his people. “Our praying is thus inserted into the procession of the nations to God.” Everyone in the church then faces (a) the rising sun, which symbolizes Christ, (b) the altar, which is Christ, and (c) the crucifix, which depicts Christ.
Obviously, Mass is not often celebrated in this way anymore, so many of us may be unfamiliar with what this looks like. Just to be clear, the Liturgy of the Word — the readings, the Gospel, the homily — is conducted among the people, as we’re used to. It is only during the Liturgy of the Eucharist — the Eucharistic Prayer, the Consecration, etc. — that the priest turns to face east along with his congregation.
More on these ideas in some upcoming posts.