Heaven on earth: What is the Ad Orientem mass? What is it like to experience it?

Today I am attending mass at Father Steven LaBaire’s parish, Holy Family in Worcester. Father Steven sent out his weekly newsletter which announced that today’s mass would be celebrated “Ad Orientum.”

Just what is “Ad Orientum?” I will let Father Steven explain.

altar

  • Ad Orientem is the practice of the priest turned toward the altar and the crucifix at Mass whenever the priest is addressing God. Whenever, the priest addresses the people, he turns toward the people. This is the way that our liturgy was celebrated for over 1800 years. It is still the normal way of celebrating Mass in Eastern Catholic churches. Pope Benedict revived the practice. Pope Francis occasionally continues it. Bishop McManus has also celebrated Mass Ad Orientem recently at Saint Paul’s Cathedral. The practice is continued in numerous church and cathedrals all over the world.

preparing altar+ Does this mean the priest is celebrating the Mass with his back to us? Not really. He could only “have his back to us” if we were the center of his attention at Mass. But we aren’t. God is. So the priest simply faces the altar as the leader and representative before God and we are all united in the same direction and posture. Together we gaze upon the altar and cross—the symbols of Christ. Appropriately, when the priest addresses the people he faces the congregation.

+But this means I won’t see the priest’s face at some point during the Mass? That’s correct. But let’s remember that facing the same direction helps us focus our attention on God rather than on the priest.  Praying the Mass ad orientem makes the mass less about the personality of the priest and more about the mystery that he stands in the person of Christ the High Priest, with us and for us. The man who is the priest disappears within the vestments (that’s part of their purpose)and when we do not see his face, we are more free to concentrate on God before us.  Worship is about focusing on God.

Think of it this way: if someone points out a beautiful flower or a star in the night sky to you, do you look at him or what he’s pointing to? Just so with Ad orientem worship. The priest is pointing us to God. Look where he’s pointing, and less at the one pointing.

+Didn’t Vatican II change all this? This is a common point of confusion. While celebrating the entire Mass with the priest facing the people has become the primary way of celebrating Mass  since the Council, ad orientem remains an accepted and time honored way of celebrating the liturgy. Each practice highlights different theological values. The way we celebrate most commonly today highlights the altar and Christ at the center. Ad Orientem highlights our being pilgrims with the priest leading and  pointing toward Christ. Both practices attest to the richness of the liturgy.

consecrating the host and wine

  • Why are we celebrating Ad Orientem on this Sunday? The phrase Ad Orientem means ‘toward the east.” Christians for centuries prayed facing in a common direction toward the east. East signified Jerusalem and the breaking light of dawn. Of course, Christ is the light of the world. So, together, we look east to be reminded of the light of Christ. Churches were often constructed so that everyone faced east. When this was impossible, at very least everyone faced the altar and the cross, together. So on the final days of Advent, we will turn together toward Christ as we prepare to celebrate his coming.
Prescott Pym Kioloa Bay Sunrise, Flickr Creative Commons
Prescott Pym Kioloa Bay Sunrise, Flickr Creative Commons

Impressions

The mass was beautiful. It gave me a sense of transcending this world and capturing a glimpse of heaven. There were times when I could not sing the hymns because I was crying.

It was a wonderful way to bring the Advent season to a close and welcome the birth of our Lord on Christmas morning. In his homily, Father Steven mentioned that December 25 is the day that the sun is just a bit brighter and the day, a tad longer than the night. How appropriate as we meditate on the light of the world in Jesus Christ, here on earth, present in our hearts.

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