Ad orientem worship in the Latin Rite is important just just because, practically, it helps to keep priests and bishops under control (i.e., Mass isn’t about them), it helps to create the necessary conditions for the apophatic experiences which facilitate an encounter with Mystery. This encounter prepares us for the Four Last Things, death, judgment, heaven and hell. We all face towards the symbolic liturgical East, because Christians perennially believed that Christ will return from the East, like the glory of the rising sun. The “eastward” arrangement, priest and people together, for the Eucharistic, sacrificial portion of Holy Mass, has eschatological force. Rather than being locked into a closed circle among ourselves, we are more manifestly opened to the Lord who is to come. Not only are we oriented toward the Lord who will come, but ad orientem worship also orients us back through the ranks and ranks of our forebears who worshiped in the same way for the same reasons. As we hope to connect with the Lord is His splendor, we hope to rejoin our predecessors in their joy.
First Things has made another contribution to the discussion of ad orientem worship, set in motion by the personal appeal made to priests by His Eminence Robert Card. Sarah – The Sarah Appeal™.
Let’s jump in toward the end…
WHO’S AFRAID OF AD ORIENTEM?
The real issue, I believe, is not restorationism (which, ironically, was one of the mistaken reasons for the introduction of versus populum in the mid-twentieth century) or clericalism (this layman finds his Christian dignity and equality affirmed by ad orientem worship, which makes visible the solidarity of clergy and congregation, as well as the self-effacement of ordained ministers before the Lord). The real issue is much deeper: the Church’s identity in time and eternity. That identity touches on history, Vatican II and its reception, ecclesiology, and eschatology.
Finally, ad orientem worship raises the issue of the Church’s relationship to its past, present, and future, to its identity across time. Despite Vatican II’s conviction that believers’ commitments as citizens of both the heavenly and earthly cities ought to be mutually reinforcing (e.g., Gaudium et spes, No. 43), we have witnessed a diminishment of the Church’s eschatological awareness. A minor, but telling, example is the title of Chapter VII of Lumen gentium. The Flannery translation, the most commonly used, renders that title as “The Pilgrim Church.” The Vatican website’s translation renders it, more faithfully, as “The Eschatological Nature of the Pilgrim Church and Its Union with the Church in Heaven.” The rejection or marginalization of ad orientem worship feeds this “presentism” and the concomitant eschatological deficit. I am convinced that a significant reason for opposition to ad orientem worship is the sense that it pulls believers away from each other and the “real world,” that it is “churchy” and self-referential. There are, however, few more visible means than ad orientem worship for connecting the Church to its past and future, bodily orienting it in solidarity to its Lord, and thereby contributing to a renewal of the Church’s mission in the world.
Turn towards the Lord.