"Ascension and the East" homily
Fr. Dennis Kolinski, SJC
25 May 2006
St. John Cantius
Until recent years, the debate about which direction the priest should be facing when celebrating the Mass was usually about the difference between the Tridentine Mass and the Novus Ordo Mass. But more and more one is hearing this discussion even in reference to the post-Vatican II Mass. There is growing concern for a return to the sacred and a return to this traditional orientation in the Mass is a significant part of it. Our present Holy Father, Benedict XVI is among its notable proponents.
Many people talk of celebration of the Mass in the traditional manner as Mass celebrated facing the tabernacle or as Mass in which the priest's back is to the people to conceal the Sacred Mysteries. But neither of these descriptions gets to the core of why we celebrate Mass in this manner.
Mass in the traditional manner is called "ad orientem", which literally means "to the east", and from the very beginning of Christianity orientation of worship to the East held a profoundly mystical significance. It was the ancient and universal practice of all Christians. They didn't worship in that direction because of the tabernacle because it wasn't until the Middle Ages that the tabernacle was put at the back of the altar as it is now. Worship facing the east had a great cosmological significance because of the great event we commemorate today. Christians believed that when Christ ascended into heaven, He ascended toward the east and that when He would return in His Second Coming, He would come from that same direction. By always facing to that direction in worship, they were, therefore, always standing ready for the return of their Lord. The East represented the anticipated Second Coming of Christ, the King.
The first Christians were Jews and the orientation of prayer to the east was a concept that was not at all foreign to them because Jews believed that Eden was located to the East. (1) Christians worshiped to the east not because it pointed to the earthly paradise as the Jews did, but because it now pointed to the new paradise in Heaven to which Christ had arisen on Ascension Day.
Early Christian literature has many references to worship facing east. The Apostolic Constitutions state that a church should be built "with its head to the East". (2.) St. John Damascene wrote that while we wait for the coming of the Lord "we adore Him facing East" because it is a tradition that was passed down to us by the Apostles. St. Augustine wrote, "When we rise to pray, we turn East, where Heaven begins." (3.)
The rising sun in the east as an image of Christ the Light of the world was also a potent symbol for the early Christians. In the third century, Origen wrote that we ought to pray in the direction of the rising sun because it is an act which symbolizes the soul's gaze towards the rising of the true Light, Jesus Christ. The writings of other Church Fathers, such as Clement of Alexandria and St. Basil, confirm this practice.
This symbol of the sun as an image of the Divine Light is found throughout the Bible. In the Book of Psalms we read about "The sun, which comes forth like a bridegroom leaving his chamber". (5.) In the book of the prophet Malachi we read that the "sun of righteousness shall rise." (6.) In his mystical vision, Ezekiel saw "the glory of the God of Israel coming from the east" and it "entered the Temple by the gate facing east." (7.) And in the Transfiguration on Mount Tabor, Christ's face "shone like the sun." (8.)
The sun is a cosmic symbol of the light of the resurrected Christ, who dispels the darkness of sin and death. When the sun sets in the west, the world sinks into darkness, which we equate with death. That is what happens when a souls shuts out the Light of Christ. Darkness envelops the soul and leads to spiritual death. The east, on the other hand, brings the rising sun and its energy for a new day. So, by turning toward the rising sun when we worship, we turn toward Christ, whom it symbolizes.
The east is the same direction to which Christ ascended from the Mount of Olives on the day of the Ascension and is the direction from which He will return on the Last Day. (9.) In the book of Revelation we read that the east will be the direction from which the Angel of the Lord will come in the end time "ascending from the rising of the sun." (10.) And Christ Himself told us that "as the lightning comes from the east so will be the coming of the Son of man" (11.) and his face will be like "the sun shining in full strength." (12.)
The structures in which Christians traditionally worshipped were not just functional buildings as they often are today. The church building and everything in it reflected a very deep symbolism. We call the body of the church the "nave", which is a word derived from the Latin word for ship - navis. So, we can say that during our short time on earth, we are on a journey and the church building in which we worship is, so to speak, the ship by which we sail to the east to the port of our eternal rest in heaven. It is in this sacred space that the Christian body constantly voyages to the East (13.) to the Heavenly Paradise and to the Rising Sun.
The early Church believed that it was from the east that Christ would return in glory. For Christians the east has historically always been the direction of heaven, so that by facing east, Christians - both priest and layman alike - would be able to participate in the mystical liturgy of Heaven. Both priest and laity looked toward the East in unity as if in procession because it was the gateway to heaven, their destiny. The altar was the place where heaven is opened up, leading the Church into the "eternal liturgy." (15.)
1. Gamber, Msgr. Klaus, The Reform of the Roman Liturgy: Its problems and background (Una Voce Press, 1993, and Kocik, Father Thomas "Re(turn) to the East?", Adoremus, November 1999
2. Hassert, Maurice M. "History of the Christian Altar", Catholic Encyclopedia, 1999
3. Augustine "De sermone domini in monte" , p. 80
4. Kocik, "Return"
5. Psalm 19
6. Malachi 4:2
7. Ezekiel 43:4
8. Matthew 17:2
9. Acts 1:11
10. Revelation 7:2
11. Matthew 24:27
12. Revelation 1:16
13. Jungman, Joseph "The Mass of the Roman Rite", p. 180
14. Ratzinger, "Spirit of the Liturgy", 70-71
Excellent--Cathy (a reader of my blog) sent this to me after she read my earlier post on "ad orientem."