When I was a kindergarten student at Cooke Elementary School in Detroit many years ago, we would always start the day with the Pledge of Allegiance. There was a flagpole mounted in a bracket on the wall in the corner of the room so that as soon as attendance was taken, all of us, teacher and little pupils alike, would turn together toward the flag and recite the words in unison, “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America ….” Sometimes we sang “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” after the pledge. When I went to a parochial grade school, Our Lady Queen of Hope, we continued this patriotic practice in much the same way.
I never thought it at all unusual that we all faced the same direction and turned toward a symbol of the country that we were learning to respect and love.
I have been thinking about that in the context of my plan to use for this Advent season only the ancient posture of the Church in celebrating her holy Mass, with the priest and the people facing the crucifix on the sanctuary wall together during the Eucharistic prayer. In the jargon of the Church, this posture is sometimes known by the Latin phrases ad orientem [toward the east] or ad Deum [toward God]. On the parish blog information page I’ll write a little bit about the significance of orientation in an eastward direction. For now, I’d like to emphasize that we will symbolically be facing God the Father together. In the ancient posture of the Mass, the priest and the people face the same direction, much the same way our class faced the flag together in the Pledge. Just as teacher and pupils turn toward the symbol of their country to show reverence to it united together, priest and people turn toward God the Father together, uniting themselves in prayer to Him through Christ.
Much of what happens at the Mass is invisible and hidden. All of the priest’s ritual actions should remind us of the awe-inspiring miracle and mystery that occurs in each holy Mass: by the special power and grace given to him in the sacrament of holy orders, he is able to stand in the very person of Jesus Christ the High Priest and Head of the Body of Christ. He is not merely Fr. Smith or Fr. Jones there at the altar, but “another Christ,” making of Himself an offering to God the Father, an offering that saves mankind from his sins. The Mass is a real sharing and participation in the one sacrifice Jesus made of His own human Body and Blood at the Cross of Calvary. The sacrifice is not repeated but rather “re-presented” (made present again in the here and now) so that the whole Church and the world can receive the effects and fruits of that great act of redemption and love that Jesus makes to the Father.
But that is only part of the story. When we celebrate Mass, it is the whole Christ that celebrates – Christ the Body and Christ the Head. So all those worshiping who are baptized into Christ are joined with the priest by the power of the holy sacrament, together as Head and Body, offering themselves to God. When the priest offers the bread and wine, the instruments of the sacrifice, he is also lifting up to God the Father the lives of the people of God, all that we have and are, our hopes, fears, sufferings, struggles to avoid sinfulness, and much more.
At Mass, Christ is truly present – not merely as a symbol – veiled under the appearance of bread and wine. At the same time, the presence of the Father is invisible, so we turn to Him symbolically. The custom of displaying a crucifix on the wall of the sanctuary reminds of the great sacrifice in which we participate together: God the Son offering Himself to God the Father. As we do so, we marvel at Christ’s obedience to the Father, even to the point of death.
This posture of facing east has the added benefit of taking attention away from the particular priest who happens to be celebrating Mass that day and redirecting it to Christ. The priest should ideally “disappear into Christ” when at the altar so that those participating in the holy Mass do not think of it as “Fr. Jones’ Mass” or “Fr. Smith’s Mass” but instead as the Mass of Christ on earth, which is the gateway to the Heavenly Communion of the Saints with the Blessed Trinity.
Stay tuned to the parish bulletin and website for ongoing reflections on the Mass and the Advents season, or just stop me after Mass if you have any questions. As we gratefully celebrate the presence of Christ in mystery this Advent season and look forward with hope to His coming in glory, it is my prayer that our parishes may grow in devotion to and love for the incomparable gift of the Holy Mass.