By Larry Peterson
Long ago, in a Church somewhat different, I was an altar boy (it was pre Vatican II and we never used the term altar server). It was a time when the Mass was said in Latin and the priest always faced “ad orientem”. (This actually means “toward the east” but, since so many churches do not have their altars facing east, it also refers to the priest offering the Holy Sacrifice with his back to the people.
|Ad Orientem (Solemn High Latin Mass) http://southernorderspage|
The reason for this symbolism is profound and beautiful. The sun rises in the east and we are coming out of the darkness to see the sun. The priest, who will stand in the shoes of Christ during the Consecration, is facing the newly risen sun, ergo, God. At that moment, the priest, upon elevating the consecrated host toward the EAST, is actually Jesus saying to God, “This is MY body which will be given for you. Then the consecrated wine is also elevated to the Father.”
When offering Mass “ad orientem” the priest has no distractions that are facing him. The congregation behind him is, in effect, present at the Last Supper. The altar boy would ring the bells to bring attention to this miraculous moment taking place before our very eyes. The people have just witnessed the most profound mystery of our faith and it all took place in only a few minutes.
And there we kneel, the faithful, some watching and adoring the Body and Blood of Christ while many others are looking around, fidgeting, checking their watches, yawning, skimming through the church bulletin they should have read when they got home, not having a clue as to what is going on at the Mass they are attending. But that’s okay because at least they made it to Mass and are not home “sleeping in”. What has just happened is beyond description and the very answer to life itself. Yet it all presents to many as a grand paradox.
A friend of mine, his name is Jeff, was injured in an accident years ago. He has a pronounced limp and uses a cane. Every week he comes to Sunday Mass and sits in the exact same seat. Every Sunday, without fail, he gets up at the beginning of the Consecration and slowly limps off to the bathroom. He always comes back after the wine is consecrated. He receives Holy Communion and, at a slightly accelerated pace, leaves Church before communion is even finished being distributed. There are several others who, without fail, come every Sunday and miss the Consecration. They must not have a clue as to what is going on yet there they are, week after week.
Of course we all just had are influx of the C & E Catholics for Christmas. Although not “packed”, my church was definitely crowded. Interestingly, most every person at Mass received Holy Communion. Am I getting paradoxical yet? Is this why we have the phrase, “cafeteria Catholics” in our 21st century Catholic jargon?
Back in 1966, when Pope Benedict XVI was still Joseph Ratzinger, he said, “Is it actually that important to see the priest in the face or is it not truly healing to think that he is also another Christian like all the others and that he is turning with them towards God and to say with everyone ‘Our Father’?”
Pope Benedict XVI showed his love of ‘ad orientem’ 50 years ago. On October 12, 2016, (while meeting with Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, he reiterated his preferences in a reflection letter published in L'osservatore Romano: “In the liturgy’s orientation to the East, we see that Christians, together with the Lord, want to progress toward the salvation of creation in its entirety. Christ, the crucified and risen Lord, is at the same time also the “sun” that illumines the world. Faith is also always directed toward the totality of creation. Therefore, Patriarch Bartholomew fulfills an essential aspect of his priestly mission precisely with his commitment to creation.”