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.