Mass, ad orientem

On the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ (Corpus Christi) this year, I decided to celebrate all the Sunday Masses ad orientem. We’ve done this once before at my parishes, on the Solemnity of All Souls. It was very well-received at the time, but there were only about 100 folks as All Souls landed on a weekday last year.

Before all of the Sunday Masses, I offered a brief explanation. The short version is that this is the way Vatican II envisioned and the Roman Missal yet presumes Mass will be celebrated. The Latin of this orientation means ‘to the east’ and in this turning together we all face the direction of the rising sun and offer our worship of the Risen Son. At the end of the explanation, I encouraged the congregation to take note of how the Mass was different, particularly during the Eucharistic prayer. How did this re-orientation change their prayer?

As a priest, I can summarize the change with one word: focus.

At Mass celebrated versus populum – facing the people – there is a nigh-unavoidable and ever-present element of showmanship. The priests facial expressions, posture, where he’s looking and of course, what he’s doing are all on display. For me, I’m always aware and trying to keep these from becoming distractions to the prayer of the Mass…..which is no small distraction to my own prayer. This is most apparent during the preparation of the altar and during the liturgy of the Eucharist.

At this Mass facing with the congregation towards the East, that pressure disappeared. I can’t overstate what a grand relief that was! It’s like a backache that you’ve forgotten you had – it’s absence is a joyful relief. Rather than simply presenting it for everyone else’s prayer, I suddenly found that I was praying the Mass with them. I hadn’t realized how much I missed that – and all of this was just as I was making my offertory prayers!

The preface of the Mass is where ad orientem really starts to set itself apart as something special. The priest greets the congregation with ‘The Lord be with you’, exhorts them to ‘Lift up your hearts’ and then invites them to prayer with ‘Let us give thanks to the Lord our God’. And then he turns towards the East and begins giving thanks with them to God. ‘It is truly right and just…..’

That turning towards God makes such a difference. With our words we have just said that we’re here to praise and thank God. With that one bodily turn, our actions reflect our words – the priest isn’t talking to the congregation, but rather he presents their worship to God!

And at the conclusion of the preface, we all join together glorifying God’s holiness before taking a knee in preparation for the Eucharistic prayer. Again, all facing together towards the Lord.

In the Roman Canon (Eucharistic Prayer I), there is an optional conclusion to each segment of the prayer. The priest draws his hands together and closes that section with the words ‘Through Christ our Lord. Amen.’ Naturally, the congregation joins in the ‘Amen’ each time. What was interesting to notice during Mass ad orientem was how folks had to more deliberately participate. Since we were facing the altar together, they couldn’t see my hands come together – they had to actively listen.

To the modern Catholic, ‘listening’ may seem counter to ‘active’. This has much to do with the attitude of stage performance that has weaseled its way into our liturgies, particularly in the music and the readings. Mass Ad orientem uses that simple turn to instill a genuine participation that is fuller due because it must be actively, consciously pursued.

I’m reminded of the Eucharistic hymn Tantum Ergo, whose first verse concludes ‘Præstet fides supplementum, sensuum defectui’ – Faith supplies for our defects, where our senses fail. Perhaps faith even grows when our senses are deprived!

The elevation of the Sacred Species is dramatically different as well. Since we’re all looking together, I couldn’t get away with just lifting the Precious Body and chalice of the Precious Blood a few inches above the altar. I had to extend my arms completely up, and as my body assumed the visible posture of offering I was struck by the enormity of what I was doing.

It all fell into place as I was standing before the tabernacle in the shadow of the crucifix; I was offering the sacrifice of Christ on the cross to God on behalf of all gathered. It is amazing what can be driven home by the physicality of what you’re doing.

Another stand-out aspect is the necessity of turning around to address the congregation after the Eucharistic prayer at the sign of peace. In having to turn to begin that dialogue (‘the peace of the Lord be with you….let us offer each other….’), there is a clear division between prayer set aside as worship and a brief moment for fraternity. 

Finally, there was the Agnus Dei (Lamb of God). Re-joining into a common orientation helped focus us again on the Eucharist….which made for a noticeably more reverent conclusion to the sign of peace! When the Agnus Dei concluded, I turned around with the host held over the chalice – and as I said the words ‘Behold the Lamb of God….’, it was a meaningful invitation. What was unseen just a moment before was now held up to be reverenced. Behold, in deed as well as word.

These and other details all drove home the greatest gift of Mass ad orientem – renewed focus on Christ. Though available to us in Mass versus populum, this focus is intrinsic in Mass ad orientem. Our bodies are re-oriented in such a way that we can’t help but be directed towards the Lord.

It is no wonder the Church is calling us to return to celebrations facing East! As I can attest, it’s well worth the effort.

Corpus Christi homily (May 29, 2016)

Holy Thursday, Last Supper (Isaac Jogues Missal)
The Last Supper

Happy Feast of Corpus Christi! Today is the celebration of the mystery of the Body & Blood of Christ.

Today’s celebration has a special place in my heart, as it is the anniversary of the first Mass I celebrated after my ordination – or as a friend coined the phrase my ‘liturgical anniversary’.

The feast of Corpus Christi is a wonderful opportunity to reflect on the meaning of Mass. In short: why do we come and celebrate Mass?

A quick answer might simply be ‘because I have to’! Sometimes our default motivation comes from the various shades of pressure, guilt or outside expectation to come to Mass. We may also be driven by our desire for fellowship, prayer, song and inspiration.

Though these are valuable aspects of our celebration, they’re not exclusive to the Mass, right? I mean, we could find fellowship at a BBQ, prayer at a football game, songs in our shower and inspiration from the bookshelf.

At its core, our celebration is about offering sacrifice.

The idea of sacrifice, reasonably, makes us uncomfortable. It calls to mind thoughts of having to give up or lose something, that we’ll be called upon to give our ‘pound of flesh’ as the saying goes.

…. sacrifice implies debt, something we owe to someone else. …. sacrifice is necessary because of sin. We often avoid the language and reality of sacrifice because we want to avoid the reality of sin – that I am a sinner, that you are a sinner, that we all are sinners.

“O happy fault that earned so great, so glorious a Redeemer!”

Do you remember this line? It is from the Exultet – the chant offered at the beginning of the Easter vigil Mass.

“O happy fault that earned so great, so glorious a Redeemer!”

With this one line, after having recounted much of the faults and failings of mankind, we are reminded of God’s great mercy, of His wondrous love for us – incarnate in the Person of Jesus Christ.

Yet we can not truly know our Redeemer without acknowledging that we need one.
Tomorrow we celebrate Memorial Day weekend. We honor those who have willingly sacrificed their lives in defense of our lives and freedom. We show our appreciation with a feast, often with a barbeque of some sort, music, fraternity and maybe even a patriotic song or reading.

At some point in the celebration, drinks are passed around – age appropriate, of course! – as someone calls for silence. Particular names of the fallen are shared, and then we raise our glasses in honor of them, and of their comrades. It is a fitting memorial to the brave men and women who offered so much out of love of our country.

In the Usus Antiquior or the Extraordinary Form of the Mass, there was a psalm that the priest quoted before receiving communion – a tradition received from the practice of our Jewish forbearers:

“How can I repay the Lord for all the great good done for me? I will raise the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord.”

Sound familiar? We won’t just do that tomorrow for our soldiers – we’ll do that in a few minutes here at this altar. ‘Do this in memory of Me’, He told us. And so we do, at every Mass.

We can’t possibly repay the debt we owe for the forgiveness of our sins – that cost is ever beyond our means. But we have been given a gift that we can worthily offer in our thanksgiving – the gift of Christ Himself, the gift of His perfect self-sacrifice on our behalf: His Body – broken on the battlefield of sin – and His Blood – shed for sin’s forgiveness.

If you find yourself not entirely understanding the Mass and the Eucharist, you’re in good company! It’s all a bit heady, and a lot to take in. Thankfully, complete understanding isn’t necessary to join in the celebration – by God’s grace that may come later. What is necessary, what is vital, is that we enter into this mystery, that we take this cup of salvation, that we offer it to the Lord in thanksgiving and that we receive it with gratitude. May it transform us, so that the sacrifice Jesus made for our us may not be in vain.