At the beginning of the school year, this past week has just been one orientation after another. Important people you don’t know tell you important things you won’t remember. And, we hope, everyone sets off in the right direction.
The very word orientation has fundamentally to do with direction. Its Latin root—oriens—refers to the rising sun, and of course, the sun rises in the east. Hence an old word for the Far East is the Orient.
So after a week full of orientation at Baylor, maybe you seek out the chapel at St. Peter’s for some peace and quiet, something familiar, maybe just like home.
Only, you then notice that Father Daniel is celebrating the Mass—facing away from me? With his back to us?
You might feel a little disoriented, maybe even mildly offended. We even use the phrase ‘to turn your back on someone’ to describe betrayal. Plus, your priest at home probably doesn’t do it this way. Is that even Catholic?
It actually is. And the reason why has everything to do with orientation. When a priest celebrates Mass facing the same direction as the people, he is said to be saying the Mass ad orientem—toward the rising sun, towards the east.
This orientation is even written in the architecture of churches. Some churches, though not all, were built so that we all face east when at Mass. So it’s been for centuries. The beautiful gothic cathedral in Cologne, Germany, faces east, as does St. Patrick’s in Manhattan. And St. Stephen’s Cathedral, in the middle of Vienna, Austria, is actually lined up so that the sun rises exactly in front of it on the feast of its patron, St Stephen, on 26 December.
But architecture aside, still the question remains: why? Why face east? What does ad orientem actually mean?
It’s actually something early Christians learned from their Jewish elder brethren. Synagogues outside of Jerusalem were built so that worshippers faced the direction of the Temple in Jerusalem, the site of God’s presence on earth.
But when Christ came, he claimed to be the Temple himself. He is the Word made flesh, the incarnate presence of God on earth. (The place to look is John’s gospel, chapter 2.) With his advent, the long night of sin, death, and ignorance was over. The day that the prophets had long foretold had finally come, when God would dwell with his people in a new and decisive way.
Anyone looking for the dawn to come is inevitably going to be looking in one direction: east. As a result, the orientation towards East became associated with Christ himself.
What that means for us Catholic Christians is that the very direction we face at Mass symbolizes and expresses our hope in and love for God. Just as kneeling embodies humility, and genuflecting expresses respect and honor, even the very direction you face while standing is rich with significance. Even if your parish doesn’t technically ‘face east’, still the common orientation ad orientem of everyone at Mass—priests and laypeople alike—can be breathtaking to behold: a whole host of believers gathered, expectant, looking in the same direction, awaiting the coming Lord.
But maybe you find all this ad orientem stuff off-putting or strange just because it seems so impersonal. ‘With his back to the people!’ It’s true, it may look that way. But Father has no more turned his back on you than has everyone else who’s standing in front of you at Mass. The reality is, we’re all just facing the same direction.
At bottom, it’s about a common direction of prayer. Father actually will turn and face you from time to time—that’s when you know he’s talking to you. But most of the time when you’re all facing the same direction, that’s Father praying. That’s when we’re all praying. Ad orientem is about a common direction of prayer.
Prayer is a tough thing. If we’re honest, most of us would rather not do it. We’re comfortable with lecture halls, political rallies, and sporting events. We’re comfortable with what’s merely human.
But with prayer, we have to do with God, and Masses celebrated ad orientem remind us of that. We aren’t there to face a priest. We’re there to behold God. We share in the work of the Mass, but Christ is the reason we’re all there. He’s the one we’re waiting for.
Thousands of years ago, the Psalmist likened the tabernacle, the place of God’s presence, to the sun, which, “as a bridegroom coming out of his bride chamber, hath rejoiced as a giant to run the way” (Ps 18.6 [19.6]). Today we all turn to watch the bride walk down the aisle, but back then it was the opposite. It was the glory of the bridegroom to break forth like the dawn and stride towards his bride in marriage.
The Church Fathers saw in that verse the figure of Christ: he is the decisive presence of God with his people. The apostles say that when Christ comes again, it will be like a wedding. Christ the bridegroom will burst forth again like the dawn for his waiting bride. What direction will that bride be facing?